Lt. William B. Cushing and the Destruction of the C.S.S. Albemarle
In an earlier post, I discussed Lt. Alonzo Cushing of the 4th U.S. Artillery, who died at Gettysburg during Pickett’s Charge July 3rd, 1863, and after years of lobbying by supporters, has been awarded the Medal of Honor.
Alonzo had two brothers who served during the war.
The oldest was Howard B. Cushing, who was born in Milwaukee in 1838. Howard was working as a printer in Chicago when the war broke out. He enlisted in Company B of the 1st Illinois Artillery in March of 1862. Upon Alonzo’s death, Howard asked for, and was granted a transfer to his brother’s old unit. Howard stayed in the army after the Civil War ended, and was eventually sent to Arizona Territory. Howard was killed in action in 1871 fighting an Apache war party led by the legendary Chief Cochise.
Alonzo’s younger brother was William B. Cushing.
William was born in Delafield, Wisconsin on November 4th, 1842. He enrolled in the U. S. Naval Academy in 1857. William was a practical joker and hell raiser who accumulated so many demerits that he left the Academy in March 1861, probably leaving voluntarily before being thrown out. But when war broke out, William Cushing was back in the Navy.
William served with distinction aboard several vessels, and his courage and daring earned him promotions and accolades. But if there is one event for which he is most remembered, it is for his successful mission to destroy the Confederate ironclad ram C.S.S Albemarle.
In the spring of 1864, Plymouth, North Carolina was an important Union Army supply depot for Federal forces operating in eastern North Carolina. Plymouth is situated on the south side of the Roanoke River, about eight miles from where the river empties into Albemarle Sound. In April, Confederate army forces under the command of Brigadier General Robert Hoke captured the town. Assisting in the operation was the brand new 152 foot ironclad ram C.S.S. Albemarle, which sank one Union vessel. On May 5th, C.S.S Albemarle steamed in to Albemarle Sound and engaged the Union squadron there, heavily damaging another ship.
If the Federal forces were going to recapture Plymouth, they would have to do something about the Albemarle. Lieutenant William B. Cushing had a plan for doing just that. He proposed a plan using two small steam powered boats against the ironclad. Each was to be armed with a 12 pounder howitzer and a torpedo mounted on a 14 foot spar and detonated using a complicated lanyard system. One boat would place it’s torpedo on the Albemarle, while the other provided cover fire and acted as a backup if the first boat failed in its mission. The plan was approved. Cushing obtained some suitable boats, and set off on his mission.
One boat sank on the way to North Carolina, but Cushing pressed on. “Impossibilities are for the timid, we determined to overcome all obstacles” he wrote. The small steamer, named Picket Boat Number 1 entered the Roanoke River on the night of October 27th and headed towards Plymouth. Cushing had a crew of 14 with him, all of whom volunteered for the hazardous mission. The steamer’s engine was muffled as Cushing tried to sneak in to the town’s harbor. If they could make it in undetected, Cushing planned on capturing the ironclad instead of destroying it. However, as they were approaching the Albemarle, which was tied up at the wharf, guards on board the ironclad spotted Picket Boat Number 1.
Cushing sprang into action as the guards on the ship and more on shore opened fire. Cushing steamed towards Albemarle, but then noticed a barrier of logs circling around the ironclad. Cushing steamed ahead to get a good view of the barrier, then turned, circled around, and headed back at top speed hoping to blast over the logs so he could get close enough to place and detonate the explosive. The Confederate fire was intense, and Cushing responded with the boat’s howitzer and later wrote that “a dose of canister at short range served to moderate their zeal and disturb their aim”. The steamer smashed into, and up and over the log barrier and the torpedo was placed. Cushing detonated it, just as the Albemarle’s cannon fired . “The explosion took place at the same instant that 100 pounds of grape[shot], at 10 feet range, crashed among us” Cushing remembered.
There was no way Picket Boat Number 1 could escape. The Confederates ordered the raiders to surrender. Cushing told the men not to surrender and to save themselves, and they jumped into the water.
Of the 15 on board, two men drowned, and 11 were captured. Only William Cushing and one other man escaped, though they were separated. Cushing hid out in the swamps, and captured a small boat that some Confederate pickets had used to reach their post. Cushing paddled the boat as hard and as fast as he could, down the Roanoke to Albemarle Sound, where he finally found the Union fleet. “I have the honor to report that the rebel ironclad Albemarle is at the bottom of the Roanoke River” Cushing wrote in his after action report.
This adventure made Lt. William Cushing a hero in the media of the time. His picture and story were on the cover of the November 19, 1864 issue of Harper’s Weekly. He also was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in the Navy. And with the C.S.S. Albemarle out of the way, Plymouth fell back into Union hands on October 31st.
William Cushing had some other adventures, like his involvement in the capture of Fort Fisher, near Wilmington, NC. I’ll write about that in a future post.
- Barrett, John G. The Civil War in North Carolina. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 1963.
- Cushing, W.B. “The Destruction of the Albemarle” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. IV. 1887-88. Reprint. Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle.
- Harper’s Weekly, November 19, 1864
- Klement, Frank L. Wisconsin in the Civil War. Madison, Wisconsin: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1997
- U.S. War Department. The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1895-1929.