Lieutenant William B. Cushing’s Raid on Smithville, North Carolina February 29th, 1864
Lieutenant William B. Cushing, USN, was the 19th century equivalent of a modern day commando or special operations fighter. Although Cushing commanded ships in the Union Navy blockade of the Confederate coastline, he was not one for just sitting around waiting for a blockade runner to try and get in or out of a southern port. Cushing was a man of action, and undertook daring raids along the North Carolina and Virginia coasts, such as his November 1862 attack on Jacksonville, North Carolina and his most famous exploit, the October 1864 mission that destroyed the ironclad CSS Albemarle.
In February 1864, Cushing was in command of the three gun steamer USS Monticello as part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Wilmington, North Carolina. On the night of February 29th, Cushing and 20 sailors quietly rowed up the Cape Fear River, past Fort Caswell at the mouth of the river, and up to the small town of Smithville. Cushing’s objective, he later wrote, “was to take the commanding general from his bed, in the midst of his own men, and take him out of the harbor in one of his own steamers”. He was referring to Brigadier General Louis Hebert, the commander of the heavy artillery in the Cape Fear defenses, who had a house in Smithville.
Cushing and his party made it to Smithville and hid their boats. They also captured two slaves who were working at a salt works; they told Cushing where Confederate forces were located in the area. Taking a slave as a guide, Cushing and three others headed for Hebert’s house, which happened to be located across the street from a Confederate barracks housing 1200 men. Undaunted, Cushing placed his men around the house as he went in the front door. Once inside, Cushing looked around on the first floor and then upstairs in search of Hebert. A crashing sound on the first floor brought Cushing back downstairs. HIs movements had woken Hebert’s adjutant general W. D. Harden. Harden looked out his open window and as Cushing wrote “the first sight met his eye was the muzzle of a navy revolver about two inches from his nose” being held by Acting Master’s Mate William L. Howorth. Harden slammed the window shut and made his escape out the backdoor.
Meanwhile, Cushing opened a door and found a man holding a chair and ready to hit him with it. “Dashing in at once I had him on his back in an instant with the muzzle of a revolver at his
temple and my hand on his throat” ending the man’s resistance. Cushing was sure he had captured Hebert, but it turned out that the general was spending the night in Wilmington on business. Instead, Cushing had netted Captain Patrick Kelly, Hebert’s chief engineer.
With Harden gone and presumably sounding the alarm, Cushing had to move quickly. He grabbed Kelly and the group headed for the waterfront. There were no Confederate steamers at the waterfront, so the Federals, Kelly, and the two slaves had to row their way out. With the Confederates in town in confusion, Cushing and the others rowed away in the darkness, down the Cape Fear River, and out to sea and the Monticello. Cushing was back in his quarters by 1 a.m.
Cushing submitted this after action report to Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron:
U. S. S. MONTICELLO,
Off Wilmington, N. C., March 5, 1864.
SIR: I have the honor to report that I passed the forts at the entrance to this harbor with two boats and 20 men on the night of the 29th of February, and proceeded up the river to Smithville. My object was to land at that town and capture the commanding general, and to board any vessels that might be found at anchor.
I succeeded in landing directly in front of the hotel, hid my men under the bank, captured some negroes at work in a salt works, and thus gained such information as desired. Then, leaving most of the men to guard the boats, I proceeded with Acting Ensign J. E. Jones and Acting Master’s Mate W. L. Howorth and one seaman to General Hébert’s headquarters (situated across the street from the barracks, containing about 1,000 men). I effected an entry and captured the chief engineer of these defenses, but found that the general had gone to Wilmington the same day. The adjutant-general escaped from the door after severely wounding his hand, but thinking that a mutiny was in progress, took to the woods with a great scarcity of clothing, and neglected to turn out the garrison. My boat was about 50 yards from the Smithville fort, and not so far from the sentinel on the wharf, but I succeeded in bringing my prisoner off so quietly that they did not discover me. The signal lights were made so tardily that I was abreast of Fort Caswell before they knew that boats were in the harbor, and they did not get a shot at us. The papers captured were unimportant. The Scotia ran out just before I reached the anchorage, so I did not have the pleasure of calling on her captain. I send Captain Kelly, C. S. Army, to you, deeply regretting that the general was not in when I called.
I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
W. B. CUSHING,
Acting Rear-Admiral S. P. LEE,
Comdg. North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Hampton Roads.
I brought off the negroes captured.
The Civil War in North Carolina by John G. Barrett
Cushing: Civil War SEAL by Robert J. Schneller
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion Series I, Volume 9.
“Outline Story of the War Experiences of the War Experiences of William B. Cushing As Told by Himself”. United States Naval Institute Proceedings 38, September 1912.
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