Career of the Confederate Ram Albemarle
III. The Destruction of the Albemarle
From an Unpublished Manuscript by
W. B. Cushing, Commander, U.S.N.
(From The Century, Volume 36, Issue 3, July 1888, pp433-440.)
In September, 1864, the Government was laboring under much anxiety in regard to the condition of affairs in the sounds of North Carolina. Some months previous (April 19th) a rebel iron-clad had made her appearance, attacking Plymouth, beating our fleet, sinking the Southfield, and killing the gallant Captain Flusser, who commanded the flotilla. General Wessell’s brigade had been forced to surrender, and all that section of country and the line of the Roanoke River had fallen again into rebel hands. Little Washington and the Tar River were thus outflanked and lost to us. Some time after (May 5th), this iron-clad, the Albemarle, had steamed out into the open sound and engaged seven of our steamers, doing much damage and suffering little. The Sassacus had attempted to run her down, but had failed, and had had her boiler exploded by one of the 100-pound shells fired from the Confederate.
The Government had no iron-clad
that could cross Hatteras bar and enter the sounds,(1)
and it seemed likely that our wooden ships would be defeated, leaving
New Berne, Roanoke Island, and other points endangered. At all events,
it was impossible for any number of our vessels to injure her at
Plymouth, and the expense of our squadron kept to watch her was very
Lieutenant William B. Cushing
At this stage of affairs Admiral S. P. Lee spoke to me of the case, when I proposed a plan for her capture or destruction. I submitted in writing two plans, either of which I was willing to undertake.
The first was based upon the fact that through a thick swamp the iron-clad might be approached to within a few hundred yards, when India-rubber boats, to be inflated, and carried upon men’s backs, might transport a boarding party of a hundred men; in the second plan the offensive force was to be conveyed in two low-pressure and very small steamers, each armed with a torpedo and a howitzer.
In this last named plan (which had my preference), I intended that one boat should dash in, while the other stood by to throw canister and renew the attempt if the first should fail. It would useful to pick up our men if the attacking boat were disabled. Admiral Lee believed that the plan was a good one, and ordered me to Washington to submit it to the Secretary of the Navy. Mr. Fox, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, doubted the merit of the project, but concluded to order me to New York to “purchase suitable vessels.”
Finding some boats building for picket duty, I selected two, and proceeded to fit them out. 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, connecting with a pin, which held a grape-shot over a nipple and cap. The torpedo was the invention of Engineer Lay of the Navy, and was introduced by Chief Engineer Wood.(2)
Everything being completed, we started to the southward, taking the boats through the canals to Chesapeake Bay, and losing one in going down to Norfolk. This was a great misfortune, and I have never understood how it occurred. I forget the name of the volunteer ensign to whose care it was entrusted; he was taken prisoner with his crew.
My best boat being thus lost, I proceeded with one alone to make my way through the Chesapeake and Albemarle canals into the sounds.
Half-way through, the canal was filled up, but finding a small creek that emptied into it below the obstruction, I endeavored to feel my way through. Encountering a mill-dam, we waited for high water, and ran the launch over it; below she grounded, but I got a flat-boat, and, taking out gun and coal, succeeded in two days in getting her through. Passing with but seven men through the canal, where for thirty miles there was no guard or Union inhabitant, I reached the sound, and ran before a gale of wind to Roanoke Island. Here I pretended that we were going to Beaufort, and engaged to take two passengers along. The deception became necessary, in consequence of the close proximity of the rebel forces. If any person had known our destination, the news would have reached Plymouth long before we arrived to confirm it.
So, in the middle of the night, I steamed off into the darkness, and in the morning was out of sight. Fifty miles up the sound, I found the fleet anchored off the mouth of the river, and awaiting the ram’s appearance. Here, for the first time, I disclosed to my officers and men our object, and told them that they were at liberty to go or not, as they pleased. These, seven in number, all volunteered. One of them, Mr. Howarth of the Monticello, had been with me repeatedly in expeditions of peril. Eight were added to my original force, among whom were Assistant Paymaster Francis H. Swan, who came to me as we were about to start and urged that he might go, as he had never been in a fight. Disregarding my remark that “it was a bad time for initiation,” he still made the request, and joined us. He found an eventful night of it, being wounded, and spending his next four months in Libby Prison.
The Roanoke River is a stream averaging 150 yards in width, and quite deep. Eight miles from the mouth was the town of Plymouth, where the ram was moored. Several thousand soldiers occupied the town and forts, and held both banks of the stream. A mile below the ram was the wreck of the Southfield, with hurricane deck above water, and on this a guard was stationed, to give notice of anything suspicious, and to send up fire-rockets in case of an attack. Thus it seemed impossible to surprise them, or to attack, with hope of success.
Impossibilities are for the timid: we determined to overcome all obstacles. On the night of the 27th of October (3) we entered the river, taking in tow a small cutter with a few men, the duty of whom was to dash aboard the [wreck of the] Southfield at the first hail, and prevent any rocket from being ignited.
Fortune was with our little boat, and we actually passed within thirty feet of the pickets without discovery and neared the wharf, where the rebels all lay unconscious. 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 near by; 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 iron-clad, 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 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; but I was there to accomplish an important object, and to die, if needs be, was but a duty. As I turned, the whole back of my coat was torn out 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 some comical answers, and mine was a dose of canister, which I sent among them from the howitzer, buzzing and singing against the iron ribs and into the mass of men standing by the fire upon the shore. In another instant we had struck the logs and were over, with headway nearly gone, slowly forging up under the enemy’s quarter-port. Ten feet from us the muzzle of a 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.(4)
The explosion took place at the same instant that 10 pounds of grape, at 10 feet range, crashed in our midst, and the dense mass of water thrown out by the torpedo came down with choking weight upon us.
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 rebel hands. Death was better than surrender. I swam for the opposite shore, but as I neared it a man,(5) one of my crew, gave a great gurgling yell and went down.
The rebels were out in boats,
picking up my men; and one of these, 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 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 and in whose peril I
might in turn partake.
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. Nearing the swimmer, it 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 arm to sustain him, and ordered him to strike out. For ten minutes at least, I think, he managed to keep afloat, when, his presence of mind and physical force being completely gone, he gave a yell and sunk like a stone, fortunately not seizing upon me as he went down.
Again alone upon the water, I directed my course towards 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 a choking persistence into my mouth every time that 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 brain in a whirl, but with one thing strong in me—the fixed determination to escape. The prospect of drowning, starvation, death in the swamps—all seemed lesser evils than that of surrender.
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 our 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 had set all these figures moving (in a manner quite as interesting a the best of theatricals), but as I had no desire of being discovered by any of the rebs who were so plentiful around me, I did not long remain a spectator. 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 the sentinel who walked the parapet.
Watching until he turned for a moment, I made a dash to cross the space, but was only half-way over when he 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 in with the earth; at all events the soldier continued his tramp for some time, while I, flat on my back, awaited another chance for action. Soon a party of four men came down the path at my right, two of them being officers, and passed so close to me as to almost tread upon my arm. They were conversing upon the events of the previous night, and were wondering how it was done,” entirely unconscious 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, towards it. For five hours them, 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. The cypress swamp was a network of thorns and briers, that cut into the flesh at every step like knives, and frequently, when the soft mire would not bear my weight, I was forced to throw my body upon it at length, and haul it along by the arms. Hands and feet were raw when I reached the clearing, and yet my difficulties were but commenced. 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 the old fellow), 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 any 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 2 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 abound there, and right opposite to the only road in the vicinity. It seemed providential that I should come just there, for, thirty yards above or below, I never should have seen the road, and might have struggled on until worn out and starved—found a never-to-be-discovered grave. As it was, my fortune had led me to where a picket party of seven soldieries were posted, having a little flat-bottomed, square-ended skiff toggled to the root of a cypress tree that squirmed like a snake into 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 quietly cast loose the boat and floated behind it some thirty yards around the first bend, where I got in and paddled away as only a man could where 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 a moment in the ordinary sea there, but it 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 the boat, and awaited results. I had paddled every minute for ten successive hours, and for four my body had been “asleep,” with the exception of my two arms and brain. The picket vessel Valley City—for it was she—upon hearing the hail at once slipped her cable and got underway, at the same time lowering boats and taking precautions 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 flag-ship, commanded by Commander Macomb.
As soon as it became known that I had returned, rockets were thrown up and all hands 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 again well in every way, with the exception of hands and feet, and had the pleasure of exchanging shots with the batteries that I had inspected on the day previous.
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.
I again received the congratulations of the Navy Department, and the thanks of Congress, and was also promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander.
The Wreck of the Albemarle
Editor’s note on subsequent actions:
Lieutenant Cushing reached the Valley City about midnight on the night of October 28-29, and announced the destruction of the Albemarle. On the next day, the 29th, at 11.15a.m., Commander Macomb got under way, and his fleet proceeded up the Roanoke River in the following order: Commodore Hull, Shamrock (flagship), Chicopee, Otsego, Wyalusing, and Tacony; the Valley City being sent at the same time up Middle River, which joined the Roanoke above Plymouth, to intercept any vessels coming out with stores. Upon the arrival of the fleet at the wreck of the Southfield, after exchanging shots with the lower batteries, it was found that the enemy had effectually obstructed the channel by sinking schooners alongside of the wreck, and the expedition was therefore compelled to return. The Valley City hearing the firing cease, concluded that Plymouth had been captured, and continuing her course up Middle River reached the Roanoke; but on approaching the enemy’s works ad learning her mistake she withdrew as she had come. It was upon her course up Middle River, shortly after noon, that the Valley City picked up Houghton, the only member of the picket boat, beside Cushing, who escaped death or capture. He had swum across the river, and had remained hidden for thirty-six hours in the swamp that separates the two streams.
On the next day, Commander Macomb, having ascertained from the experience of the Valley City that Middle River offered a clear passage, determined to approach Plymouth by that route. The fleet was preceded by the tug Bazley, with Pilot Alfred Everett, of the Wyalusing, on board. Following the Bazley were the Shamrock, Wyalusing, Tacony, and Commodore Hull. The Valley City had been detailed to take Lieutenant Cushing to Hampton Roads, and the Chicopee had gone to New Berne for repairs. The expedition threaded successfully the channel, shelling Plymouth across the woods on the intervening neck of land on its way up, until it reached the head of Middle River and passed into the Roanoke, where it lay all night.
At 9.30 on the morning of the 31st of October the line was formed, the Commodore Hull being placed in advance, as her ferry-boat construction enabled her to fire ahead. The Whitehead, which had arrived with stores just before the attack, was lashed to the Tacony, and the tugs Bazley and Belle to the Shamrock and Otsego, to afford motive power in case of accident to the machinery. Signal was made to “Go ahead fast,” and soon after eleven the fleet was hotly engaged with the batteries on shore, which were supported by musketry from rifle-pits and houses. After a spirited action of an hour at short range, receiving and returning a sharp fire of shell, grape, and canister, the Shamrock planted a shell in the enemy’s magazine, which blew up, and the Confederates hastily abandoned their works. A landing party was at once sent ashore and occupied the batteries, capturing the last of the retreating garrison. In a short time Plymouth was entirely in possession of the Union forces. Twenty-two cannon were captured, with a large quantity of small arms, stores, and ammunition. The casualties on the Union side were six killed and nine wounded.
The vessels engaged were as follows: DOUBLE-ENDERS: Shamrock, Commander W.H. Macomb, commanding division, Lieutenant Rufus K. Duer, executive officer; Otsego, Lieutenant-Commander H.N.T. Arnold; Wyalusing, Lieutenant-Commander Earl English; Tacony, Lieutenant Commander W.T. Truxton. FERRY-BOAT: Commodore Hull, Acting Master Frabcis Josselyn. GUN-BOAT: Whitehead, Acting Master G.W. Barrett. TUGS: Belle, Acting Master James G. Green; Bazley, Acting Master Mark D. Ames. The Chicopee, Commander A.D. Harrell, and Valley City, Acting Master J.A.J. Brooks, as already stated, were not present at the second and final demonstration.—J.R. Soley.
How Cushing's Torpedo Worked
A long spar (A) was pivoted by means of a universal joint on its inboard side end into the bracket (B), the bracket being securely fastened to the outside of the boat. The spar was raised or lowered by means of a halyard (e), which passed through a block at the head of the stanchion (C), and thence down to the drum of a small windlass (D), situated in the bottom of the boat, directly abaft the stanchion. On the outboard end of the spar was a socket, or head, which carried the shell. The shell was held in place only by a small pin (g), which passed through a lug (h), protruding from the lower side of the shell, and thence through an inclined plane (i), which was attached to the socket. To detach the shell the pin (g) was pulled, which forced the shell gently out of the socket. This was accomplished by a lanyard (j), which led from the boat to the head of the socket, passing back of the head of the shell through the lugs (aa), so that when the lanyard was tautened it would force the shell out. A smaller lanyard (l), leading to the pin (g), was spliced to the lanyard (j) in such a manner that when the lanyard (j) was pulled, first the pin and then the shell would come out.
The shell contained an air chamber (X) and a powder chamber (Z). The result of this arrangement was that when the shell was detached it assumed a vertical position, with the air chamber uppermost, and, being lighter than its volume of water, it floated gradually towards the surface. At the top of its central shaft or tube was a grape-shot, held in place by a pin (p), to which was attached the lanyard (s). The pin was a trigger, and the lanyard was known as the trigger-line. Upon pulling the lanyard the pin came out, the shot fell by its own weight upon the nipple (n), which was covered by a percussion cap and connected directly with the powder chamber, and the torpedo exploded.
When the spar was not in use it was swung around by means of a stern line, bringing the head of the spar to the stern of the boat. To use the apparatus, the shell was put in place and the spar was swung around head forward; it was then lowered by means of the halyard (e) to the required depth; the lanyard (j) was pulled, withdrawing the pin (g), and forcing out the shell; finally, when the floating shell had risen to its place, the trigger-line (s) was pulled and the torpedo fired.
 Several light-draught monitors were in course of construction at this time, but were not yet employed.—Editor.
Engineer in Chief William W.W. Wood, of the United States Navy, in describing
the construction and fitting out of the launch with which Captain Cushing blew
up the Albemarle, says:
was on duty in New York in connection with the construction of the iron-clad
fleet and other vessels, I was also engaged in devising means to remove the
harbor obstructions improvised by the Southerners to prevent access of our
vessels to the harbors and approaches in Southern waters.
time experiment had developed the feasibility of using torpedoes from the bows
of ordinary steam-launches, and there had already been two such launches
constructed, which were then lying at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, N.Y., having
torpedoes fitted to them.
While sitting at my desk at the iron-clad
office in Canal street, New York (the office of Rear-Admiral F.H. Gregory, the
general superintendent), a young man (a mere youth) came in and made himself
known as Lieutenant W.B. Cushing, United States Navy.
He stated tome, in strict confidence, that he
was North on a secret mission, under the sanction of the Honorable Secretary of
the navy, the object being to cut out or destroy the rebel iron-clad ram Albemarle,
then lying at Plymouth, N.C., and he had been looking for small and swift
low-pressure tug-boats for the purpose of throwing a force on board, capturing,
and cutting her out, and that, should he fail in this object, to destroy her;
that so far he had been unable to find just such vessels as he required; and,
further, he had been at the Navy Yard and there saw a steam-launch being fitted
with a torpedo, and had called on me
to make inquiry as to what was designed to be accomplished by its use, etc.
I gave him all the particulars and urged him to avail himself of the opportunity presented, which he without hesitation did. He sat down at my desk and wrote to the Secretary, stating that he had found what he desired for his purpose, and requested an order from the Department to be furnished with two of the torpedo boats or launches; and in going out said: “I will visit my mother at Fredonia, N.Y., and when they are ready inform me, and I will come down and learn how to use this thing.” The first attempt was made on the previous night, but after proceeding a short distance the launch grounded, and the time lost in getting her off made it too late to carry out the purpose of the expedition.--Editor
In considering the merits of Cushing’s success with this exceedingly complex
instrument, it must be remembered that nothing short of the utmost care in
preparation could keep its mechanism in working order; that in making ready to
use it, it was necessary to keep the end of the spar elevated until the boat had
surmounted the boom of logs, and to judge accurately the distance in order to
stop the boat’s headway at the right point; that the spar must then be lowered
with the same precision of judgment; that the detaching lanyard must then be
pulled firmly, but without a jerk; that, finally, the position of the torpedo
under the knuckle of the ram must be calculated to a nicety, and that by the
very gentle strain on a line some twenty-five or thirty feet long the
trigger-pin must be withdrawn. When it is reflected that Cushing had attached to
his person four separate lines, viz., the detaching lanyard, the trigger-line,
and two lines to direct the movements of the boat, one of which was fastened to
the wrist and the other to the ankle of the engineer; that he was also directing
the adjustment of the spar by the halyard; that the management of all these
lines, requiring as much exactness and delicacy of touch as surgical operation,
where a single error in their employment, even a pull too much or too little,
would render the whole expedition abortive, was carried out under a fire of
musketry so hot that several bullets passed through his clothing and directly in
front of the muzzle of a 100-pounder rifle, and carried out with perfect
success, it is safe to say that the naval history of the world affords no other
example of such marvelous coolness and professional skill as that shown by
Cushing in the destruction of the Albemarle.—J.R.
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