U.S. Navy officer William B. Cushing is perhaps best known for his daring October 1864 raid that destroyed the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle at Plymouth, North Carolina, but he had a number of additional adventures along the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina in the Civil War. Though the terminology didn’t exist at the time of the Civil War, Cushing’s hazardous missions were the 19th century equivalent of those undertaken by today’s Special Operations forces. Cushing never seemed to get enough of these missions, both volunteering for them as well as planning his own operations and pitching his ideas to his superiors in the Navy. One such mission was Cushing’s November 1862 attack on Jacksonville, North Carolina.
On November 23rd, the 20 year old Cushing steamed up the New River Inlet on the USS Ellis, a small sidewheeler armed with two cannon. According to his after action report, Cushing’s ambitious objective was “to sweep the river, capture any vessels there, capture the town of Jacksonville, or Onslow Court House, take the Wilmington mail, and destroy any salt woks that I might find on the banks. I expected to surprise the enemy going up, and then to fight my way out.”
The Ellis had steamed about five miles up the inlet when it met a Confederate vessel loaded with cotton and turpentine headed out. The crew set the ship on fire to prevent it from being captured. The Ellis continued on up river for the remaining 30 or so miles reaching Jacksonville about 1 P.M.
Cushing deployed his men and set about his business. The raid netted 25 stands of arms, the mail (from which Cushing hoped to extract useful intelligence on enemy positions and movements) and two schooners. Cushing’s team did not have a lot of time, as several Rebels had escaped and headed to Wilmington to sound the alarm.
The raiders departed Jacksonville at about 2:30 and steamed down river. About 5 P.M. a Confederate camp was spotted on the riverbank “which I thoroughly shelled” Cushing reported. Further up river, Rebels opened up on the Ellis with rifle fire, but the riflemen were “soon silenced by our guns”. The pilots on board told Cushing that with night falling and the tide out, they would not be able to steam out to sea that evening. Cushing anchored the Ellis a few miles from the mouth of the river and prepared a defense of his ship.
The Ellis started out again at daybreak. As the vessel once again made its way down river, two Confederate cannon opened fire. Cushing returned fire, eventually driving the artillerymen away. Everything had been going Cushing’s way on the expedition, but the Ellis still had about a mile and half to go before reaching the ocean when the pilots accidently ran the ship aground on a shoal. Despite the best efforts of the crew to free the vessel, the Ellis was firmly stuck. After dark, Cushing had everything except the pivot gun cannon, ammunition and small arms, and two tons of coal moved to one of the captured schooners. Though lightened considerably, the Ellis remained aground.
Cushing asked for and got six volunteers to remain on the Ellis with him and fight an anticipated Confederate. The other crewmen were sent to the schooner and ordered down river to wait for the end of the battle, and “if we were destroyed, to proceed to sea”.
The next morning, the Confederates attacked with “very destructive” fire from rifled cannon at four points. Cushing and his men fought back but the Ellis was soon heavily damaged, and the Lieutenant later wrote that “the only alternatives left were surrender or a pull of one and a half miles under their fire in my small boat”. For Cushing, surrender “was not, of course, to be thought of” so he set fire to the Ellis, boarded the lifeboat with his men and rowed the mile and a half to the schooner. They reached the schooner and headed out to sea just as Confederate cavalry closed in on shore. Meanwhile, the flames on the Ellis reached the ship’s magazine and exploded, destroying the vessel.
Despite all the fighting, Cushing did not lose a single sailor on this mission. Since he did lose his ship, Cushing requested a court of inquiry. Commander H.K. Davenport, Cushing’s commanding officer, forwarded the Lieutenant’s report up the chain of command and commented that “I think the course of this young officer should meet with the commendation of his superiors”. Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, forwarded the report with “the expression of my admiration of Lieutenant Cushing’s coolness, courage, and conduct”.
Needless to say, no court of inquiry was convened. After some well deserved leave, Cushing was soon back to work plotting more adventures.
The Civil War in North Carolina
by John G. Barrett. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1963.
Cushing: Civil War SEAL (Military Profiles)
by Robert J. Schneller, Jr. Washington, DC: Brassey’s, Inc. 2004.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I Volume 8. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1894-1922.