On the weekend of April 25-27, Plymouth marks the 150th anniversary of the town’s Civil War battle. The Confederate characters from the campaign, Robert F. Hoke, Gilbert Elliott, and the ram Albemarle, are fairly well-known. The Union commander, Henry Walton Wessells, much less so.
Born in 1809, Wessells grew up in Litchfield, Conn. He graduated in the bottom half of the West Point Class of 1833. During the Mexican-American War, Wessells earned a battlefield commendation for his actions at the Battle of Contreras outside Mexico City.
Wessells’s finest hour during the Civil War occurred during the Peninsula Campaign in 1862. Just days after receiving his appointment as a brigadier-general of volunteers, Wessells and his troops came under heavy attack from Confederate forces near the small crossroads of Seven Pines, Va.
Despite suffering a severe wound to his shoulder, Wessells stayed with his command, buying enough time for the main Federal force to counterattack. Although he received praise for his actions, Union General George B. McCellan rewarded Wessells by sending him to the relative backwater of coastal North Carolina.
In his new position as commander of the District of the Albemarle, Wessells controlled all 3,000 Union soldiers on or near the Albemarle Sound. His headquarters lay at Plymouth, a small port on the Roanoke River. Although he ordered occasional raids of Confederate territory further up the Roanoke and Chowan Rivers, Wessells and his men spent a majority of their time on garrison duty in Plymouth.
Things heated up in early 1864. Wessells heard reports from escaped slaves and white Unionists about a large contingent of Confederate forces moving into coastal North Carolina from Virginia. A worried Wessells requested 5,000 reinforcements from his superior officer, Benjamin F. Butler. Unfortunately, Butler had no troops to spare.
On April 17, 1864, Robert F. Hoke’s Confederate army launched a massive assault on Plymouth’s Union garrison. Although outnumbered by more than 2 to 1, Wessells and his men maintained hope as long as the Union navy controlled the river, allowing for resupply. Sadly for them, the ram Albemarle arrived on April 19, sank the gunboat Southfield, and drove off the Union naval squadron.
Despite the odds, Wessells still managed to hold out a total of four days. On April 20, 1864 he surrendered his sword and the Union garrison to Robert F. Hoke. At the surrender ceremony, Wessells reportedly told Hoke, “General, this is the saddest day of my life.” “General, this is the proudest day of mine!,” Hoke retorted.
Wessells never commanded another army in the field.
Wessells spent the next four months as a prisoner of the Confederacy. Detained at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, the Confederates later used Wessells and his fellow prisoners as human shields during the Union bombardment of Charleston. Released in an August 1864 prisoner exchange, he served in the Federal army’s bureaucracy until the war ended.
After his army retirement in 1871, Wessells returned to his Connecticut hometown. He died in 1889 at the age of 80.