In March 1862, Union forces captured nearby New Bern. Just before that battle, the bridge over the Pamlico River in Washington was partly burned so Confederate forces could not get to New Bern. After the fall of New Bern, Washington --and many other surrounding towns-- would be occupied by Union troops for two years.
When Confederate forces won the nearby Battle of Plymouth in April 1864, Union forces were ordered to leave Washington, but before they did, they struck the town with a devastating blow. For three days, Union troops plundered the town, breaking into stores, houses and stables. They took all the goods they could carry and destroyed the rest.
On the morning of April 30, 1864, the day the troops left, a fire started in Washington. It burned from the Pamlico River through the northern limits of the town, consuming one-third of the town. Soon thereafter, another fire burned from present-day Market Street eastward. Much of the town was reduced to ashes and its 3500 residents had dwindled to only 500 after the fires. Washington resident Charles Warren wrote in an 1898 article: "No town gave more freely of its men and means, and no town suffered more for the cause of the Confederacy."
By the early 20th century, Washington was growing and prosperous again. Businesses increased, the Atlantic Coastline Railroad was built, and the town became a wholesale distribution center. There were 10 wholesale grocery stores, one wholesale produce store and one store that distributed hardware and dry goods.
During this period, the James Adams Floating Theatre, the model for Edna Ferber's novel and the musical Showboat, was built. In 1925, Ferber spent four days in Washington and the surrounding area to gather information for the book. Though the novel is set in Mississippi, it is patterned after her experiences in Washington.
That was not the town's only brush with fame. Washington was also the boyhood home of great Hollywood producer Cecil B. DeMille. There is a DeMille family cemetery plot in town.
After the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration — part of FDR's New Deal — brought new opportunities to Washington. The WPA set up a library and a bookmobile, taught residents to plant oysters in the Sound, added lunchrooms to the schools and even taught midwifery.
During WWII, Washington residents learned to ration. Drives to collect metal and rubber for the war effort were held regularly. War bonds were sold and residents were encouraged to give their best to support the war effort. In the local newspaper, Mayor Ralph Hodges warned that anyone caught hording gasoline could go to jail.