The town of Plymouth became the first incorporated town in Washington County in 1787 when Arthur Rhodes divided 100 acres of his Brick House Plantation along the Roanoke River into lots. In its heyday, it was the fifth-largest port in North Carolina and the eight-largest town, and citizens thrived for a time before the Civil War.
Named for Plymouth, Massachusetts, when it was founded, Plymouth is nonetheless best known for the role it played in a war that took place 240 years after the Pilgrims stepped ashore. The Civil War came to the Roanoke River Valley with a vengeance, and Plymouth was the center of a land and sea campaign that wreaked havoc on the town and countryside for two years.
Plymouth was vital to the Confederates due to its strategic location at the mouth of the Roanoke River, a transportation link to Lee's Army in Virginia. To regain control of the river after it fell into Union hands in 1862, the Confederates built the ironclad CSS Albemarle, which promptly cleared the river of wooden Union ships and recaptured the town. The victory was short-lived, however, when a Union Lieutenant came up with a daring plan that would go down in the annals of naval warfare.
Lieutenant William Cushing loaded a small boat with explosives, and under cover of night, headed up the river under heavy Confederate gunfire. He managed to guide the boat up to the Albemarle and drop the explosives beneath the hull of the ironclad, which promptly exploded, sending the Albemarle to the bottom and Cushing into the river. He swam to safety, and two days later, Plymouth was once again in Union hands.