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.
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.”
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.