The time was spring of 1864. Union forces had occupied Washington for over two years. During that period, they were successful in holding off two attempts by Confederates to retake the town. Washington at the time was very different from bustling Washington prior to the war. It had established itself as a major sea and river port serving as the hub for the exchange of crops grown on the farms and plantations lining the Tar River and the goods manufactured in the Northeast U.S. as well as the sugar and molasses produced on the islands in the Caribbean. But after two years of occupation, commerce was suffering and many of the white population had fled town. The 1860 census showed the number of occupants in Washington to be around 1,600 with roughly 45% listed as white, 45% listed as slaves, and 10% listed as free men of color. But by 1864, the number of white occupants had dwindled to less than 500. However, as a result of a large number of Union troops and the influx of former slaves seeking refuge, the overall population had swelled.
On April 20, 1864, Confederate forces under General Robert F. Hoke, with aid from the Confederate ram “Albemarle,” defeated the Union forces occupying the nearby town of Plymouth and looked to push the remaining Federals out of eastern North Carolina. Fearing that the Rebel forces would now turn south and focus on “Little Washington,” Union commanders ordered the evacuation of the town.
Orders were given on April 26th to evacuate Washington as speedily and as secretly as possible. Guns from the surrounding forts were removed and sent by boat to New Bern and other nearby Union territories. General Harland, who commanded the Union troops in Washington, was given instructions not to abandon the refugees in town, both black and white, and to allow them sufficient time to flee. The First North Carolina (Union) Volunteers, local men who had served as garrison troops for the Federals, were commanded to proceed at once along with their families to New Bern for fear of Confederate retaliation. But specific orders were given forbidding the destruction of private property.
Washington resident Martha Matilda Fowle wrote to her sister describing what happened next, “Thursday and Friday, the panic increased as the soldiers grew disorderly. Our situation was truly alarming…in some parts of town houses were broken open. The soldiers stole everything they could.” But on Saturday, April 30th, the situation became decidedly worse. Martha continues, “The soldiers had set fire to some stables on William DeMille’s wharf. It was not done by orders … (but) no attempt made to stop it.” In addition, the bridge crossing the river was fired, the result of which led to several houses and warehouses being set ablaze. Because much of the town’s fire fighting equipment had been vandalized during the previous three days of looting and the lack of able-bodied men, the blaze spread rapidly north up Bridge Street, east along Main Street and west toward the Grist Plantation. Most of the area bounded by Washington Street on the west, Fifth Street on the north, and Respess Street on the east were left in ruin. Few buildings were left standing. Among those fortunate enough to escape the destruction and still in use today include the Fowle and Havens warehouses, the Fowle and Havens houses, and the Bank of Washington building. Four churches burned to the ground: the Methodist Episcopal (First United Methodist), the Catholic (St. John the Evangelist), the Presbyterian (First Presbyterian) and the African Methodist Episcopal.
Unfortunately, on May 9th, a little over two weeks following the Federal troops’ departure; a second fire of unknown origin broke out in the old Lafayette Hotel on the northeast corner of Main and Market Streets. Without the necessary fire fighting equipment, the conflagration spread rapidly north up Market Street and east down Main Street devastating much of the town not already destroyed by the previous fire. The courthouse survived but a fourth church, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, was burned to the ground.
A board of investigation was later assembled by the Union Army, which issued a statement of condemnation for the pillaging, but did not find fault with the burning of the town. Restitution was not offered for the loss of property, but three of the four churches eventually received compensation in 1910 for their losses through the Federal “Court of Claims.”
For the last year of the war and because of two devastating fires, Washington lay in ruin, with commerce dead and farming almost nonexistent. Much like the rest of North Carolina and the South, Washington was to suffer through the turmoil and social upheaval of the Reconstruction Era. But eventually, toward the end of the 19th Century, Washington managed to rise from the ashes and rebuild its economy. The shipping industry returned, agriculture recovered and a flourishing lumber trade was established.