Lt. William B. Cushing, USN, made a name for himself in the Civil War by taking on tough, dangerous assignments that were adventures in themselves. These included such actions as his November 1862 raid on Jacksonville, North Carolina, and his most famous mission, the destruction of the ironclad Albemarle in October 1864. On Christmas Day, 1864, Admiral David Porter had a dangerous task that needed to be done, and Cushing was just the man to do it.
The Navy was in the process of shelling Fort Fisher, North Carolina, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River near Wilmington before launching a ground assault. Porter wanted to run some shallow draft gunships up the river and shell the fort from behind. However, Porter’s charts were inaccurate. Wilmington was an important port city for blockade runners, and after three and a half years of war, many of these vessels had been sunk in the ship channel. This caused debris and sand to collect in the old channel, rendering it too shallow for the navy ships. Porter needed a new channel marked, and any mines (called “torpedoes” at that time) that might be present marked as well.
Never one to turn down an opportunity for a difficult mission, Cushing stepped forward to lead a flotilla of small boats equipped with sounding equipment and buoys. The boats headed out early in the afternoon of Christmas Day.
As if to call attention to himself, Cushing’s boat flew a blue and white pennant emblematic of a commanding officer and Cushing himself was in full uniform with all the trappings of his rank. The party began taking soundings and marking torpedoes with buoys as the Confederates onshore watched in shocked amazement. After a few minutes, the Rebel gunners composed themselves and began shelling the Yankee boats.
Despite the shelling, Cushing had the sailors row his boat in close to shore so he could get a good look at the fort’s defenses. Although one boat in the expedition was sunk and one sailor killed, Cushing stayed out for six hours marking the channel. He somehow managed to come through it all without getting a scratch.
Unfortunately, Cushing’s Christmas under fire was all for naught. “A very narrow and crooked channel was partly made out and buoyed, but running so close to the upper forts that boats could not work there” Porter wrote in his report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles the next day. “I was in hopes I should have been able to present to the nation Fort Fisher and surrounding works as a Christmas offering, but I am sorry to say it has not been taken yet”. This first attempt to capture Fort Fisher had been a failure, but the fort would fall to Union forces on January 15th, 1865.
Cushing: Civil War SEAL (Military Profiles)
by Robert J. Schneller, Jr.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 11. U.S. War Department
The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope (Battles and Campaigns of the Carolinas)
by Chris E. Fonvielle, Jr.