During the winter of 1861‑62, following up the successes at Hatteras and Pamlico Sound, the North had taken measures to gain control of Albemarle Sound. This step was necessary for several reasons: the Confederates found this sound a refuge from which to prey upon coast‑wise commerce; the North needed harbors in Southern territory for repair shops and coaling stations; numerous rivers penetrating the heart of the Confederacy flow into this sound, and on their banks are many important towns; two railroads and four canals formed excellent means of communication, and, most important of all, Norfolk might be severed from her main sources of supply in the rear, and troops might thus co‑operate in the attacks on this important city. Furthermore, the control of Albemarle Sound threatened the Norfolk Navy yard, and made imminent the cutting off Norfolk from Richmond and the severing of railroad communication between these cities and the States farther south. The South, after the loss of Pamlico Sound, made strenuous efforts to fortify Roanoke Island, commanding the entrance to Albemarle Sound, but the scant forces under General Wise and the small fleet of Captain Lynch proved inadequate.
Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds
Early in January, 1862, 12,000 troops under General Burnside, and a large but nondescript naval force, consisting mainly of river steamers, ferry-boats, and tugboats, under Flag-Officer Goldsborough and Commander Rowan, sailed for Albemarle Sound. The army and navy, co‑operating most harmoniously, captured the Confederate p349 forts and garrisons on Roanoke Island, February 8. They next took possession of Elizabeth City and the Pasquotank River, which commanded the approach to the Dismal Swamp Canal to Norfolk. Having gained control of the sound, the Union forces steamed up the Neuse River, and, in spite of the fact that New Berne was protected by forts and barricades of sunken vessels and iron-pointed piles, p350 captured the town, at that time the second commercial city in North Carolina. This was on March 14; and when, a month and a half later, Union forces had taken Fort Macon, Federal control of the sounds and the adjacent rivers was virtually complete.
The Confederates, feeling keenly the loss of their power on the sounds, made two abortive attempts, on March 14, 1863, and on January 30, 1864, to recapture New Berne. Moreover, the attempts made by the Southern Government to build ironclads on the rivers emptying into the sound kept the Union forces busy in making incursions up the streams to the towns of Washington, Plymouth, and Hamilton. Notwithstanding the Northern fleet and army in these waters, Captain Cooke and Gilbert Elliott, early in 1863, managed to lay, at Edward's Ferry on the Roanoke River, the keel of a ram, the Albemarle. Cooke, who by reason of his zeal, gained the name "ironmonger captain," ransacked the adjacent country for iron, and by the spring of 1864 launched and armed a vessel that threatened for a time to destroy the wooden Union fleet, and restore the sounds to Southern control.
The Albemarle was •122 feet in length, with a beam of •forty-five feet and a draft of •eight feet. She was built of massive pine timbers, dovetailed, and covered with •four‑inch planking. On her deck was an octagonal shield, or casemate, •sixty feet long, with faces sloping so as to make projectiles glance off. This casemate was also of very heavy timber covered with planking, and was sheathed in two layers of •two‑inch iron. The ram of the Albemarle was of solid oak, plated with heavy iron, and tapering to an edge. The ironclad had two engines, each of 200 horsepower, to drive her twin screws. Her armament p351 consisted of two •100‑pound Armstrong guns, mounted one in the bow and the other in the stern; and the casemate was so pierced that these guns on pivots could be used on either broadside, or as quarter guns.
On the morning of April 18, 1864, the Albemarle started down the Roanoke to co‑operate with General Hoke, who had on the previous day begun an assault on Plymouth. As the ram could not be steered in the swift current, she proceeded down stream stern foremost, with chains dragging from the bow. Forges and sledge hammers were still at work completing the armor of the casemate. "The never-failing Cooke had started his voyage in a floating workshop. . . . On the turtleback numerous stages were suspended, thronged with sailors wielding sledge hammers. Upon the pilot house stood Captain Cooke, giving directions. Some of the crew were being exercised at one of the big guns. 'Drive in spike number ten!' sang out the commander. 'On nut below and screw up! Serve vent and sponge! Load with cartridge!' was the next command. 'Drive in number eleven, port side — so! On nut and screw up hard! Load with shell — Prime!' And in this seeming babel of words the floating monster glided by on her trial trip and into action."1
The ram made her way safely over the obstructions of old sunken vessels, piles, and torpedoes placed in the river near Warren's Neck to prevent her co‑operation in an attack on Plymouth. Early on the morning of the 19th, Captain Cooke saw, farther down the stream, two Union gunboats, the Miami and the Southfield, coming up to intercept him. These vessels, under the command of Lieutenant Flusser, had been lashed together, by means of long spars and chains festooned between them, with the p352 object of seizing the ram as in a vise and then pounding her to pieces by means of their heavy 9‑inch guns and rifled 100‑pounders. But Cooke was on his guard; he hugged the shore until nearly abreast of the Union vessels, then turning suddenly toward mid‑stream, with throttles wide open he passed the bow of the Miami, and plunged the heavy ram into the Southfield's starboard side, sinking her instantly. The ram's sharp beak was held and her bow submerged by the Southfield. As the water poured into the Albemarle's ports, it looked for a moment as if she, too, were doomed. But when the Union vessel rolled heavily on her side in the shallow water, she released her hold of Cooke's ironclad, which was rapidly filling from the forward ports.
Lieutenant Flusser on the Miami at once opened with his heavy guns, and he himself fired a shell with a ten‑second fuse, which, on rebounding from the ram's sides, exploded and killed him. The Miami's crew, seeing that their projectiles were glancing off harmlessly like so many pebbles, now attempted to board, but the Albemarle's deck was quickly crowded with men ready to thwart this attempt. Hereupon the Union vessel, a fast side-wheeler, without receiving a blow, made good her escape. The Albemarle kept up a steady fire the rest of the day into the forts defending Plymouth, and on April 20, General Wessells, with 1500 Union soldiers, surrendered to the Confederates under General Hoke.
On May 5, the Albemarle, accompanied by the Bombshell, captured at Plymouth, and the transport Cotton Plant, emerged from the Roanoke River to attack Captain Melancton Smith's "pasteboard fleet," consisting of the double-enders Mattabesett, Sassacus, Wyalusing, and Miami, the ferryboat Commodore Hull, and the gunboats Whitehead and Ceres. The Union commander had been preparing for the inevitable conflict as best he could. He p353 had equipped the Miami with a torpedo, and a strong net with which to foul the ram's propellers. His plan of attack was to take advantage of the double-enders' quick maneuvering qualities, approach the enemy as near as possible without endangering the side-wheels, discharge his powerful guns, and then quickly return for a similar circuit.
The Albemarle opened the battle at long range with a well-aimed shot at the Mattabesett, which cut away her rails and spars and wounded six men at the guns. But as the Albemarle then attempted to ram, the Union ship skilfully avoided her. Like a pack of wolves attacking a stag, Captain Smith's fleet surrounded the ironclad. The firing from the Union vessels was rapid, but had no effect on the ram's iron sides; even the 100‑pound shot from the pivot-rifles glanced harmlessly off. All attempts, also, to send shot through the ports of the ram, or to find vulnerable spots on her, proved futile. At this juncture Captain Roe's ship, the Sassacus, whose prow had a three‑ton bronze beak, backed slowly; then, with waste and oil thrown on her fires, the Union vessel sprang at the iron monster. "All hands lie down," was the order as the frail vessel crashed into the ram, careening the ironclad and hurling her crew off their feet. At the same moment a shell from Albemarle tore through the Sassacus. A second shot exploded the double-ender's boiler. Mingled with the cries of agony from the scalded and frantic men was heard the rattle of small arms as the crew of the Sassacus, with pistols, muskets, and hand-grenades, repelled the boarders. During this time the other vessels, except the Miami, could not or did not make any attempt to come to close quarters, owing partly to a signal, given by mistake, that the Wyalusing was sinking. An attempt of the Miami to use her torpedo, owing to her poor maneuvering, failed. In the gathering p354 darkness, the Albemarle retreated up the river; the muzzle of one of her guns was cracked, her tiller disabled, and her smokestack riddled.
The ram's object in thus giving battle to the Union fleet in order to co‑operate with the Confederate land forces in an attack on New Berne had failed. On May 24, the Albemarle again appeared, this time at the mouth of the Roanoke to drag for torpedoes laid there for her destruction. From this date until October 27 she lay in "inglorious inactivity" at Plymouth. Meanwhile Captain Cooke, by reason of illness, was superseded by Lieutenant Warley. The existence of the ram continued, in spite of her inaction, to be a grave menace to the Union fleet and consequently to the control of the sounds.
In this crisis Lieutenant William B. Cushing, then only twenty‑one years old, made a suggestion to the Navy Department to destroy the Albemarle by torpedoes. This young man had on several previous occasions been remarkably successful in dare-devil adventures. In November, 1862, he made a successful raid in the Ellis up New River Inlet, N. C. The following January, with twenty-five men, he captured an earthwork at Little River. In February, 1864, in the Cape Fear River, Cushing boldly entered the Confederate lines and captured one of General Hebert's staff officers. In a cutter, with fifteen men, the following June, he made a reconnoissance near Wilmington, N. C., preliminary to destroying the ironclad Raleigh, captured the mail from the fort orderly, and ascertained that the Raleigh, retreating up Cape Fear River after an attack on a Union fleet, had "broken her back" on a bar. Thereupon Cushing, with remarkable skill, having eluded a large force of guard boats, returned safely to his vessel p355 without the loss of a man. To such a youngster the Department readily entrusted the destruction of the Albemarle.
Cushing was sent to New York to select suitable vessels for his "torpedo-boats" and chose two boats built for picket duty. "They were open launches, •about thirty feet in length, with small engines, and propelled by a screw. A 12‑pounder howitzer was fitted to the bow of each, and a boom was rigged out •some fourteen feet in length, swinging by a goose-neck hinge to the bluff of the bow. A topping lift, carried to a stanchion inboard, raised or lowered it, and the torpedo was fitted into an iron slide at the end. This was intended to be detached from the boom by means of a heel-jigger leading inboard, and to be exploded by another line, connected with a pin which held a grape shot over a nipple and cap."2
Various forms of early torpedoes or submarine mines had been invented by Bushnell during the Revolution, and by Robert Fulton during the War of 1812, but the first successful mechanisms for submarine explosion came into use during the Civil War, in the course of which about twenty-eight vessels were either sunk or seriously injured by such devices. The ingenious machines included such classes as frame torpedoes, floating or buoyant torpedoes, electric torpedoes, spar torpedoes made fast to the early forms of torpedo-boats, and submarines or "Davids," as the Goliath slayers were called. Under the general term of torpedoes were included even such infernal machines as the coal torpedoes, irregular cast-iron shells filled with powder, painted to resemble coal, and surreptitiously hidden in coal heaps intended for p356 Union vessels; another form was a clockwork device with a harmless-looking exterior intended to be carried aboard ship and exploded at the time set. Numerous forms of mines were planted in rivers and bays to destroy vessels, which frequently provided themselves with nets and guard boats to fend these off.
The Confederates were the first to adopt the new weapon. In spite of considerable opposition even in the South to what was regarded as an inhuman mode of warfare, the Southern Government established in October, 1862, a torpedo bureau in its Navy Department. In 1863 one of its "cigar-shaped torpedo boats" made an attack off Charleston on the New Ironsides, and failed only because of the Union vessel's great thickness of iron and timber. Another form of these "Davids," on February 17, 1864, sank in four minutes the heavily armed steam sloop of war Housatonic, also off Charleston. This torpedo-boat had been a submarine, but after suffocating three crews in attempts at submersion, it made its final and only successful attack on the surface, when its crew perished with the Housatonic.
Of the spar torpedo there were various forms that had been successfully used in the war. The type adopted by Cushing was the invention of Engineer Lay of the navy. It consisted of a copper cylinder at the bottom of which was a cone containing a fulminate cap. Within the cylinder was a tube running the whole length, in the end of which a grape shot, held up by a trigger pin, was so arranged that by a slight pull the pin with withdrawn and the grape fell on the cap in the cone and exploded a charge of •from fifty to seventy pounds of powder in the space between the outer cylinder and the tube. In the upper part of the apparatus was an air chamber that enabled the torpedo, when detached from the spar, to float in an upright position. In handling such a complex p357 mechanism the most delicate touch was required. The torpedo-boat had to stop just at the right place to give free play for lowering the spar under the overhang of the vessel. Cushing, as he used the torpedo against the Albemarle, had attached to his person four lines: the detaching lanyard, the trigger line, and two cords running respectively to the engineer's wrist and ankle to direct the movements of the launch.3
From Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, by permission
Cushing's Launch and Torpedo
A, Spar. B, Torpedo. C, Stanchion. D, Windlass. E, Topping Lift. F, Heel-Jigger. G, Trigger Line. a, Powder Chamber. b, Air Chamber. c, Pin holding Grape Shot in place and attached to Trigger Line G. d, Grape Shot.
On the way southward, through the canals to Chesapeake Bay and thence to Norfolk, Cushing had lost one of his picket boats. With the other, after many adventures in passing through hostile country, he finally reached the Union fleet anchored off the mouth of Roanoke River. p358 The young officer then disclosed his plan to his crew, and gave them the chance to avoid the hazardous undertaking, but they volunteered to a man.
The Albemarle, protected by several thousand soldiers deployed in the surrounding country, was moored at Plymouth, •eight miles from the mouth of the river. •A mile below the town was the wreck of the Southfield, on whose hurricane deck a guard was stationed to give warning of the approach of danger. The ram, according to her commander, Captain Warley, had a crew of only sixty, — "too small to keep an armed watch on deck at night and do picketing besides."
On the dark and slightly rainy night of October 27, 1864, Cushing started up the river and passed the wreck of the Southfield unobserved. His own very interesting account of his adventures that night and the next day is in part as follows:
"We passed within •thirty feet of the pickets without discovery, and neared the vessel. I now thought that it might be better to board her, and 'take her alive,' having in the two boats twenty men well armed with revolvers, cutlasses, and hand-grenades. To be sure, there were ten times our number on the ship, and thousands nearby; but a surprise is everything, and I thought if her fasts were cut at the instant of boarding, we might overcome those on board, take her into the stream, and use her iron sides to protect us afterward from the forts. Knowing the town, I concluded to land at the lower wharf, creep around, and suddenly dash aboard from the bank; but just as I was sheering in close to the wharf a hail came, sharp and quick, from the ironclad, and in an instant was repeated. I at once directed the cutter to cast off, and go down to capture the guard left in our rear, and, ordering all steam, went at the dark mountain of iron in front of us. A heavy fire was at once opened upon us, not only p359 from the ship, but from men stationed on the shore. This did not disable us, and we neared them rapidly. A large fire now blazed upon the bank, and by its light I discovered the unfortunate fact that there was a circle of logs around the Albemarle, boomed well out from her side, with the very intention of preventing the action of torpedoes. To examine them more closely, I ran alongside until amidships, received the enemy's fire, and sheered off for the purpose of turning, a hundred yards away, and going at the booms squarely, at right angles, trusting to their having been long enough in the water to have become slimy — in which case my boat, under full headway, would bump up against them and slip over into the pen with the ram. This was my only chance of success, and once over the obstruction my boat would never get out again. As I turned, the whole back of my coat was torn off by buckshot, and the sole of my shoe was carried away. The fire was very severe.
"In a lull of the firing, the captain hailed us, again demanding what boat it was. All my men gave comical answers, and mine was a dose of canister from the howitzer. In another instant we had struck the logs and were over, with the headway nearly gone, slowly forging up under the enemy's quarter port. •Ten feet from us the muzzle of a rifle gun looked into our faces, and every word of command on board was distinctly heard.
"My clothing was perforated with bullets as I stood in the bow, the heel-jigger in my right hand and the exploding line in the left. We were near enough then, and I ordered the boom lowered until the forward motion of the launch carried the torpedo under the ram's overhang. A strong pull of the detaching-line, a moment's waiting for the torpedo to rise under the hull, and I hauled in the left hand just cut by a bullet.
"The explosion took place at the same instant that p360 •100 pounds of grape, at •ten feet range, crashed among us, and the dense mass of water thrown out by the torpedo came down with choking weight upon us.4
"Twice refusing to surrender, I commanded the men to save themselves; and throwing off sword, revolver, shoes, and coat, struck out from my disabled and sinking boat into the river. It was cold, long after the frosts, and the water chilled the blood, while the whole surface of the stream was plowed up by grape and musketry, and my nearest friends, the fleet, were •twelve miles away; but anything was better than to fall into the enemy's hands, so I swam for the opposite shore. As I neared it a man [Samuel Higgins, fireman], one of my crew, gave a great gurgling yell and went down.
"The Confederates were out in boats, picking up my men; and one of the boats, attracted by the sound, pulled in my direction. I heard my own name mentioned, but was not seen. I now 'struck out' down the stream, and was soon far enough away again to attempt landing. This time, as I struggled to reach the bank, I heard a groan in the river behind me, and, although very much exhausted, concluded to turn and give all the aid in my power to the officer or seaman who had bravely shared the danger with me.
"Swimming in the night, with eye at the level of the water, one can have no idea of distance, and labors, as I did, under the discouraging thought that no headway is made. But if I were to drown that night, I had at least an opportunity of dying while struggling to aid another. p361 The swimmer proved to be Acting Master's Mate Woodman, who said that he could swim no longer. Knocking his cap from his head, I used my right arms to sustain him, and ordered him to strike out. For ten minutes at least, I think, he managed to keep afloat, when his physical force being completely gone, he sank like a stone.
"Again alone upon the water, I directed my course toward the town side of the river, not making much headway, as my strokes were now very feeble, my clothes being soaked and heavy, and little chop-seas splashing with choking persistence into my mouth every time I gasped for breath. Still there was a determination not to sink, a will not to give up, and I kept up a sort of mechanical motion long after my bodily force was in fact expended. At last, and not a moment too soon, I touched the soft mud, and in the excitement of the first shock I half raised my body and made one step forward; then fell, and remained half in the mud and half in the water until daylight, unable even to crawl on hands and knees, nearly frozen, with my brain in a whirl, but with one thing strong in me — the fixed determination to escape.
"As day dawned I found myself in a point of swamp that enters the suburbs of Plymouth, and not forty yards from one of the forts. The sun came out bright and warm, proving a most cheering visitant, and giving me back a good portion of the strength of which I had been deprived before. Its light showed me the town swarming with soldiers and sailors, who moved about excitedly, as if angry at some sudden shock. It was a source of satisfaction to me to know that I had pulled the wire that set all these figures moving, but as I had no desire of being discovered, my first object was to get into a dry fringe of rushes that edged the swamp; but to do this required me to pass over •thirty or forty feet of open ground, right under the eye of a sentinel who walked the parapet.
p362 "Watching until he turned for a moment, I made a dash across the space, but was only half way over when he again turned, and forced me to drop down right between two paths, and almost entirely unshielded. Perhaps I was unobserved because of the mud that covered me and made me blend with the earth; at all events the soldier continued his tramp for some time, while I, flat on my back, lay awaiting another chance for action. Soon a party of four men came down the path on my right, two of them being officers, and passed so close to me as almost to tread upon my arm. They were conversing upon the events of the previous night, and were wondering 'how it was done,' entirely unaware of the presence of one who could give them the information. This proved to me the necessity of regaining the swamp, which I did by sinking my heels and elbows into the earth and forcing my body, inch by inch, toward it. For five hours then, with bare feet, head, and hands, I made my way where I venture to say none ever did before, until I came at last to a clear place, where I might rest upon solid ground. . . . A working-party of soldiers was in the opening, engaged in sinking some schooners in the river to obstruct the channel. I passed twenty yards in their rear through a corn furrow, and gained some woods below. Here I encountered a negro, and after serving out to him twenty dollars in greenbacks and some texts of Scripture (two powerful arguments with an old darkey), I had confidence enough in his fidelity to send him into town for news of the ram.
"When he returned, and there was no longer doubt that she had gone down, I went on again, and plunged into a swamp so thick that I had only the sun for a guide and could not see •ten feet in advance. About two o'clock in the afternoon I came out from the dense mass of reeds upon the bank of one of the deep, narrow streams that p363 abound there, and right opposite to the only road in the vicinity. It seemed providential, for, thirty yards above or below, I never should have seen the road, and might have struggled on, until, worn out and starved, I should find a never-to‑be discovered grave. As it was, my fortune had led me to where a picket party of seven soldiers were posted, having a little flat-bottomed, square-ended skiff toggled to the root of a cypress tree that squirmed like a snake in the inky water. Watching them until they went back a few yards to eat, I crept into the stream and swam over, keeping the big tree between myself and them, and making for the skiff. Gaining the bank, I quickly cast loose the boat and floated behind it some thirty yards around the first bend, where I got in and pulled away as only a man could when his liberty was at stake.
"Hour after hour I paddled, never ceasing for a moment, first on one side, then on the other, while sunshine passed into twilight, and that was swallowed up in thick darkness only relieved by the few faint star rays that penetrated the heavy swamp curtain on either side. At last I reached the mouth of the Roanoke, and found the open sound before me. My frail boat could not have lived in the ordinary sea there, but chanced to be very calm, leaving only a slight swell, which was, however, sufficient to influence my boat, so that I was forced to paddle all upon one side to keep her on the intended course.
"After steering by a star for perhaps two hours for where I thought the fleet might be, I at length discovered one of the vessels, and after a long time got within hail. My 'Ship ahoy!' was given with the last of my strength, and I fell powerless, with a splash, into the water in the bottom of my boat, and waited results. I had pulled every minute for ten successive hours, and for four my body had been 'asleep,' with the exception of my arms and brain. The picket-vessel, Valley City, upon her p364 the hail, at once got under way, at the same time lowering boats and taking precaution against torpedoes. It was some time before they would pick me up, being convinced that I was the rebel conductor of an infernal machine, and that Lieutenant Cushing had died the night before. At last I was on board, had imbibed a little brandy and water, and was on my way to the flagship.
"As soon as it became known that I had returned, rockets were thrown up and all hands were called to cheer ship; and when I announced success, all the commanding officers were summoned on board to deliberate upon a plan of attack. In the morning I was well again in every way, with the exception of hands and feet, and had the pleasure of exchanging shots with the batteries that I had inspected the day before. I was sent in the Valley City to report to Admiral Porter at Hampton Roads, and soon after Plymouth and the whole district of the Albemarle, deprived of the ironclad's protection, fell an easy prey to Commander Macomb and our fleet."5
The Albemarle had sunk instantly at her moorings. Of Cushing's crew, he himself and Houghton escaped, Higgins and Woodman were drowned, and the remaining eleven men were captured.
For his brave deed, than which, as Captain Warley said, "a more gallant thing was not done during the war," Cushing received substantial recognition. He was given a vote of thanks by Congress, and although not yet twenty‑two was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-commander.
1 Quoted in Maclay, History of the United States Navy, II, 525.
2 Cushing, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, IV, 634.
3 Submarine Warfare, by Lieut.-Commander J. S. Barnes, U. S. N., gives a brief but excellent history of early forms of torpedoes.
4 Captain Warley, of the Albemarle, states that the launch was at this time "so close that the gun could not be depressed enough to reach her." Battles and Leaders, IV, 642.
5 Battles and Leaders, IV, 634, ff.
a An equally interesting and detailed account, from a Southern perspective and with six illustrations, at least one of which is a photograph, is given by J. G. de Roulhac Hamilton in History of North Carolina, III.21‑29.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A Short History
of the U. S. Navy
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 18 Mar 13