The third cousin of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was not happy. Rear Adm. Samuel Philips Lee, the commander of the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was responsible for preventing merchant ships from reaching ports in Virginia and North Carolina. It was one of the Union’s most important naval commands in the Civil War. But in less than four weeks in the spring of 1864, the rear admiral’s success in stopping blockade runners was literally being blown out of the water by the most dangerous ship in the Confederate fleet, the ironclad ram Albemarle. In two separate actions, she had sunk the steamer USS Southfield, severely damaged several other wooden-hulled ships, and aided in the Confederate capture of the Union outpost at Plymouth, N.C. If these actions continued, the rebels would succeed in regaining control of the North Carolina Sounds.
It was imperative for the Union cause that this not happen. But the naval battle of Albemarle Sound on May 5, 1864, in which the Union fleet tried to sink the Albemarle, failed. Cmdr. Francis Asbury Roe, captain of the USS Sassacus, which was heavily damaged in that engagement, reported, “[The Albemarle is] more formidable than the Atlanta or the Merrimac. … She is too strong for us.”
Too strong, indeed. The Albemarle was an ironclad monster literally created in the cornfields of North Carolina. Gilbert Elliott, a 19-year-old shipbuilder and engineer, was her contractor. The ship’s designer and construction supervisor was John L. Porter and later Cmdr. James W. Cooke. Because of shortages of every kind, construction that began in 1862 was not completed until 1864. Though built out of odds and ends and scrap metal, it was a formidable warship. The Albemarle was 152 feet long, with a beam of 45 feet and a draft of 8 feet. A sturdy 8-foot-by-10-foot yellow pine dovetailed frame was covered by 4-inch-thick yellow pine planks. She had an octagonal shield that was 60 feet long and covered by two layers of iron plating, each layer 2 inches thick. The ram on the 18-foot oak prow also had two inches of iron plating and was tapered to a sharp edge. Her armament consisted of two 6.4-inch Brooke rifles, mounted at the bow and stern. She was powered by two 200-horsepower engines.
A fleet attack on the Albemarle, docked at Plymouth, N.C., was out of the question. Wooden-hulled ships would be destroyed, and the water was too shallow for Union ironclads. The only option was to launch a small-boat raid designed to capture or destroy the ship. It was regarded as a suicide mission. A list of officers to command it was drawn up. The man first on the list, Cmdr. Stephen Clegg Rowan, declined. He said the plan would not work.
Rear Adm. Samuel Philips Lee then turned to his aide and said, “Get Lt. Cushing, the young officer in command of the Monticello. I’ve got some work for him.” Lee was well acquainted with the high-spirited Lt. William Barker Cushing. In November 1862, Lee had commended Cushing for his “coolness, courage, and conduct” commanding the USS Ellis in action on the New River. In 1863, Lee again commended Cushing, this time in a letter to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells, calling Cushing a “zealous and able young officer” for his command of the Shokokan during his duty with the blockading squadron at Wilmington, N.C.
Two other exploits cemented Cushing’s reputation. The first was a daring raid on Feb. 29, 1864, where he captured Confederate Capt. Patrick Kelly, the chief engineer of the Lower Cape Fear defenses. This earned him the compliments of the U.S. Navy Department for his “gallantry and success.” A second, and more spectacular, raid up the Cape Fear River in June again earned Cushing the thanks of the Navy Department. It was Cushing’s report of that three-day raid that prompted Lee to call for Cushing.
Five days after the order, Cushing arrived at Lee’s flagship, the USS Minnesota, and was briefed about the proposed mission. Lee’s plan called for a torpedo [mine] attack to be made using either an India-rubber boat carried through the swamp and launched near the ram’s berth at Plymouth or a “light draft, rifle-proof, swift steam barge, fitted with a torpedo.” Lee requested that Cushing write down his “mature views” on it and present them within two days.
Cushing did not disappoint. In his letter, he stated that the destruction of the Albemarle was possible. His knowledge of Albemarle Sound and the Roanoke River qualified him for the attempt. He said he would need 80 men and was willing to lead either expedition.
After getting formal approval for the raid from the Navy Department in July, Cushing traveled to the Brooklyn Navy Yard to select his boats. Unable to find suitable India-rubber boats, he chose two “open launches about thirty feet in length with small engines and propelled by a screw.” Cushing also tested the complex torpedo device, composed of a waterproof explosive charge attached to a long mechanized boom and control ropes, and ignited by a delicate trigger device attached to a lanyard. Of this contraption, Cushing would later write that it “had many defects and I would not again attempt its use.”
The two ships were ordered to North Carolina, but only one arrived. The other was destroyed in a storm. When Cushing arrived in North Carolina, he discovered that Lee had been re-assigned and that Rear Adm. David Dixon Porter was now the commander. Porter was no fan of Cushing’s, believing him to be a daredevil possessing more luck than skill. Even so, Porter ordered that Cushing be given all possible assistance on the mission, even though he had “no great confidence in [Cushing’s] success.”
To volunteers assembled before him, Cushing briefly explained the purpose of his mission. He concluded by saying, “Not only must you not expect, but you must not hope to return. I can promise you nothing but glory, death or, possibly, promotion. We will have the satisfaction of getting in a good lick at the rebels.”
On the night of Oct. 27, Cushing led a launch and a cutter, containing a total of 28 men, on the mission to sink the Albemarle. Soon after they began steaming up the Roanoke River, a cold rain began to fall, drenching the men. Mile after mile, the two ships slowly made their way upriver without being spotted. But, as they began to near their objective, a barking dog alerted sentries on shore who challenged the shadowy shapes on the river. Cushing then discovered a barrier of logs that had been positioned in a semi-circle around the Albemarle as protection against torpedo attack.
But Cushing was not to be denied. Having gotten this close, he was determined to successfully finish the mission. Cushing ordered the launch to go to full speed. The accelerating launch circled down the river to gain momentum and then raced for the ram. Cushing’s plan was for the launch to smash over the barrier. Even though it would then be impossible for the craft to later break free, Cushing calculated that the launch would get him close enough to place the torpedo under the Albemarle and trigger it.
As the launch surged toward its quarry, Confederate guards began shooting. Cushing patiently crouched on the bow, holding the torpedo’s ropes and lanyard. A buckshot blast ripped open the back of his coat. A rifle bullet tore away the sole of his left shoe. Suddenly, there was a grinding lurch as the launch hit and slid over the logs. Cushing, holding the torpedo’s control ropes and trigger lanyard, watched the mechanized boom holding the torpedo descend below the waterline. Cushing was only 10 feet away from the muzzle of one of the ram’s cannons and could hear the voices of the Albemarle’s crew. Cushing learned he had 20 seconds to detonate the torpedo before the cannon would fire. Despite the imminent danger, and the bullets that tore at his clothing, he carefully pulled the delicate trigger. The cannon fired at almost the same instant that the torpedo exploded. Fortunately for Cushing, because the cannon could not be depressed low enough, the shell landed harmlessly in the river.
In the momentary silence that followed, Cushing heard cries ordering him to surrender. Cushing defiantly replied, “Never! I’ll be damned first!” He then pulled off his sword, revolver, tattered coat, and what remained of his shoes, called for his men to save themselves, then dived into the cold water of the Roanoke and headed for the opposite bank. A strong swimmer, Cushing was soon able to get beyond the circle of light cast by a large bonfire nearby. Cushing narrowly escaped detection by a search party on a boat, but his plight was far from over.
Meanwhile, on the ram, Confederate captain A. F. Warley of the Albemarle later wrote, “I heard a report as of an unshotted gun, and a piece of wood fell at my feet. Calling the carpenter, I told him a torpedo had been exploded, and ordered him to examine and report to me. … He soon reported ‘a hole in her bottom big enough to drive a wagon in.’” Warley turned his efforts to the Union sailors from the launch. His men “brought back all those who had been in the launch except the gallant captain and three of her crew.” By this time, the Albemarle was resting on the bottom of the Roanoke, submerged in 8 feet of water. Warley observed in admiration of Cushing and his mission, “a more gallant thing was not done during the war.”
As Confederate troops continued their search, an exhausted Cushing eventually reached shore. He later said he was so fatigued that he was “unable even to crawl on hands and knees, nearly frozen, with my brain in a whirl.” But as tired as he was, he was firmly resolved to effect his escape. He fell asleep on the muddy bank. When he awoke, he discovered that he had lost his bearings during the night and his “refuge” was a section of swamp on the Plymouth side of the river bank and near the town’s outskirts. Cushing retreated into the swamp. That afternoon he discovered a flat-bottomed, square-ended skiff tied to a cypress root and carelessly left unguarded by lunching Confederate pickets that were using it for patrol. Cushing later said, “I quietly cast loose the boat and floated behind it some 30 yards around the first bend, where I got in and paddled away as only a man could whose liberty was at stake.”
Aided by the current, Cushing made his way down the Roanoke and into Albemarle Sound. By that time night had fallen. Using stars to guide him, he paddled to where he thought the Union blockade fleet was anchored. Finally, he saw the silhouette of a ship and hailed it. It was the gunboat Valley City. When the now thoroughly exhausted and barely conscious Cushing was brought aboard, the astonished captain of the gunboat, Acting Master J.A.J. Brooks, gasped, “My God, Cushing, is that you?” Cushing smiled and weakly acknowledged that it was.
“Is it done?”
“It is done.”
Within the hour, Cushing was heading to the flagship of Cmdr. W. H. Macomb, blockade squadron commander. When news of Cushing’s return and success reached other ships in the fleet, Cushing later said, “[R]ockets were thrown up and all hands were called to cheer ship.”
On Oct. 30, the Valley City transported Cushing to Hampton Roads so he could deliver a personal report to Porter. Earlier, Porter had received the news and transmitted it to Washington, where newspapers trumpeted the action with banner headlines. On Nov. 9, Navy Secretary Wells wrote Cushing a long letter of praise that said in part, “The department has presented your name to the president for a vote of thanks, that you may be promoted one grade, and your comrades also receive recognition.” Additionally, in December, Cushing received the Thanks of Congress, which at the time was more esteemed than the Medal of Honor. Additional honors poured in from across the nation. “Albemarle Cushing,” as he was now known, made speeches and, in every town he visited, gala events were held in his honor. Cushing was promoted two grades to lieutenant commander, as of Oct. 27, 1864, the date of his attack on the Albemarle. He was the youngest of that rank in the Navy. When Plymouth was recaptured, the Albemarle was refloated and sold as a prize of war. In keeping with the custom of the period, Cushing was awarded a portion of the prize money. His share ultimately reached $56,000.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, the Navy Department would render Cushing its thanks five times. Of all the naval officers, Cushing would be second only to Rear Adm. David Glasgow Farragut, best known for the capture of New Orleans, in fame and acclaim. Even Rear Adm. David Porter acknowledged that Cushing “would undertake the most desperate adventures, where it seemed impossible for him to escape death or capture, yet he always managed to get off with credit to himself and loss to the enemy.”
The man who much later would be called “Lincoln’s commando” died at the young age of 32 on Dec. 17, 1874. He was buried in the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery, the school from which he had been ejected 13 years earlier. His obituary in The New York Times said that, “All through the war [he] distinguished himself by signal acts of perilous adventure. He combined coolness and sound judgment with a courage unsurpassed, and on all occasions proved himself a valuable officer.”
This article was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2005 Edition.