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Washington County (1799)

Named in honor of the first president of the United States, George Washington, the coastal county of Washington was established in 1799. It was formed from parts of Tyrrell County, and the Albermarle Sound graces the northern border of the county. Washington has many other tributaries and bodies of water within its region including the East Dismal Swamp, both the Roanoke and Scuppernong Rivers, and two prominent lakes, Pungo and Phelps Lakes.

The county seat of Washington County is the town of Plymouth. Established in 1807, Plymouth was named in recognition of the Pilgrim colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Cherry, Pleasant Grove, Hinson, Scuppernong, and Roper are other communities within Washington County.

Once one of the most prosperous plantations in North Carolina, Somerset Place encompassed more than 100,000 acres in Washington County and the agricultural products of the region included wheat, corn, lumber, and rice. Operated for 80 years from 1785 until 1865, Somerset housed over 800 slaves who worked the plantation fields. The N.C. Office of Archives and History successfully advocated for Somerset’s restoration in the 1950s. Today, Somerset remains a reunion place for the slaves’ descendants.

Other important historic sites and natural attractions are located in Washington County. Buncombe Hall (1768) was home to Colonel Edward Buncombe, and it once served as conference center for the likes of John Harvey and Samuel Johnston after the War of Regulation. Buncombe served in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, but he was captured at the Battle of Germantown. Buncombe died while on parole, and his plantation remained until 1874. Westover and Homestead Farms were built in the mid-1800s while Garrett’s Island Home was constructed in the 1700s in Washington County. In addition, the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge extends into the coastal county.

During the Civil War, a decisive Confederate victory occurred at the Battle of Plymouth on April 17-20, 1864. Ground forces led by General Robert F. Hoke along with naval support by the ironclad, CSS Albemarle, successfully defeated the Union garrison throughout Washington County. Only fifty Confederate soldiers were wounded or killed during the offensive, and Hoke’s victory did much to increase the sagging morale of the Confederacy in North Carolina. However, after the Union destroyed the Albemarle in October 1864, the North again reoccupied the town of Plymouth and they remained in Washington County until the end of the Civil War.

A well-renowned playwright, Augustin Daly (1838-1899) was born in 1838 in Plymouth, Washington. Shortly after he was born, Daly’s mother moved the family to New York City, and it was in the northern metropolis where Daly developed his drama skills and expertise. As a theater critic, producer, and playwright, Daly opened several theaters in New York in the 1860s and 1870s, and his most famous included “Leah, the Forsaken” (1862), “The Foresters” (1891), and “Under the Gaslight” (1867). Many historians of drama refer to Daly as the founder of modern American theater.

One of the founders of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Charles Pettigrew (1743-1807) resided in North Carolina during the American Revolution. He was ordered to serve in the war against his will, but he escaped from combat at the Battle of Camden. After the war, Pettigrew helped organized the Episcopalian Diocese of North Carolina in Tarboro in 1794. Pettigrew donated funds for the construction of St. David’s Church in Washington County in 1803, and he lived in the county until his death in 1807. Pettigrew’s grandson, James Johnston Pettigrew (1828-1863), served the Confederacy during the Civil War, and he led the charge of Gettsyburg in 1863. During the Battle of Seven Pines in 1862, James Pettigrew was shot in the throat, shoulder, and arm and bayoneted in the leg during the battle, only to be captured by Union forces. Pettigrew was later released, and during the Battle of Gettysburg he led the fatal Pettigrew-Pickett Charge.
Several cultural institutions can be found throughout Washington.

The Washington County Arts Council and the Port O’ Plymouth Roanoke River Museum are the most prevalent cultural attractions in the county. Some events held in Washington include the Civil War Living History Weekend, Riverfest, Indian Heritage Week, and the Somerset Homecoming.

The economy of Washington County revolves around agriculture and manufacturing. Tobacco, corn, sage, and livestock are agricultural products of the county whereas several factories produce paper products, plywood and lumber, and clothing.


“Washington County; Somerset Place; Battle of Plymouth.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).

“Buncombe Hall; Somerset Place; Augustin Daly; James J. Pettigrew; Charles Pettigrew.” North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program website. A Division of the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources. (accessed November 30, 2011).

By Jonathan Martin, North Carolina History Project

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Related Categories: Counties
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Related Commentary: Toward an Inclusive History of the Civil War: Society and the Home Front, Edward Bonekemper on the Cowardice of General McClellan, Freedmen’s Bank Served Blacks in Post-Civil War Economy, N.C. Played Crucial Role At Civil War’s End
Related Lesson Plans: Discussion of the Lunsford Lane Narrative, Civil War in North Carolina
Region: Coastal Plain

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