October 28, 1864 – A young Federal officer led a daring raid to destroy the most dangerous Confederate vessel in North Carolina.
The Confederate ironclad ram C.S.S. Albemarle had protected the Roanoke River and Plymouth from Federals throughout the summer. During that time, Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, developed a plan to destroy the Albemarle and take back control of the Roanoke. The plan was entrusted to 21-year-old Lieutenant William B. Cushing.
Cushing planned to fit two steam launches with a 12-pound howitzer in each bow, along with a lanyard-controlled torpedo tied to a 14-foot spar. The launches would boldly steam up to the Albemarle and sink her by detonating the torpedoes. One of the launches was lost at sea, but Cushing intended to execute his plan with his remaining launch.
A bold reconnaissance revealed that the Albemarle was moored at Plymouth, giving Cushing the information he needed to proceed. However, the U.S.S. Southfield, which had been destroyed by the Albemarle and then converted into a Confederate patrol vessel, needed to be bypassed first. Cushing tied a cutter to his launch, and the force aboard the cutter “was to dash aboard the Southfield at the first hail and prevent any rocket from being ignited.”
Cushing and 14 men left the Federal blockading squadron on the night of the 26th, but their launch ran aground upon reaching the Roanoke River. The crew spent the night freeing the vessel, forcing Cushing to postpone the attack until the following evening.
The launch moved eight miles up the Roanoke in the darkness of the 27th and 28th. The crew had placed a tarpaulin over the vessel’s engine to muffle the sound. The Federals advanced close to the riverbank, undetected by Confederate pickets. They passed the Southfield unnoticed, but a guard aboard the Albemarle spotted the launch and called out to it. Cushing reported:
“Just as I was sheering in close to the wharf a hail came sharp and quick from the ironclad, in an instant repeated. I at once directed the cutter to cast off and go down to capture the guard left in our rear (i.e., the Southfield), and ordering all steam, sent the launch at the dark mountain of iron in front of us. A heavy fire at once opened upon us, not only from the ship, but from the men stationed on the shore, but this did not disable us and we neared them rapidly.”
The Confederates onshore started a fire to reveal the launch. The fire also revealed to Cushing that the Albemarle was surrounded by protective logs. Undaunted, Cushing approached the ironclad at full speed, firing the howitzer as he advanced. He directed the launch up over the slimy logs, thrust the spar below the Albemarle, and jerked the lanyard. This detonated the torpedo and sank the ship.
The blast also sank the launch, forcing the Federals to abandon ship and swim for it. Two men drowned and 11 were captured; only Cushing and one other man escaped. Cushing separated from the other man and hid on the riverbank until morning. He then stole a Confederate boat, rowed back down the Roanoke, and was rescued by the U.S.S. Valley City. The Federals fired celebratory rockets from their ships as news spread of the Albemarle’s demise. In his official report, Cushing wrote:
“The most of our party were captured, some were drowned, and only one escaped besides myself, and he in another direction… Completely exhausted, I managed to reach the shore… While hiding a few feet from the path, two of the Albemarle’s officers passed, and I judged from their conversation that the ship was destroyed.”
This was one of the most daring exploits of the war. Cushing was later promoted to lieutenant commander and given the thanks of Congress. The destruction of the Albemarle enabled Federal naval forces to once again try to regain control of the Roanoke and the important city of Plymouth.
The day after the Albemarle was destroyed, Commander William H. Macomb assembled a squadron of seven Federal vessels to recapture Plymouth. Six ships went up the Roanoke, while the Valley City went up the Middle River to reach a point upstream from Plymouth. The ships on the Roanoke were stopped by obstructions that Confederates had placed in the water near the Southfield. They backed down the river and instead followed the Valley City up the Middle.
After negotiating the sharp bends in the Middle throughout the 30th, Macomb’s squadron approached Plymouth the next day. The Confederates defending the town were not only without the Albemarle, but their garrison had been stripped when Major General Robert F. Hoke’s division was transferred to Petersburg. Both sides exchanged artillery fire (the U.S.S. Commodore Hull was seriously damaged) until a magazine exploded, forcing the Confederates to abandon the town.
Federals from the U.S.S. Wyalusing seized Fort Williams, taking 37 prisoners and 22 guns. Two Federal vessels moved upstream and destroyed two Confederate ironclads under construction. Both Navy Secretary Gideon Welles and Rear Admiral David D. Porter, the new commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, expressed gratitude for Macomb’s actions. The destruction of the Albemarle enabled Federals to regain control of Plymouth, the Roanoke River, and Albemarle Sound.
Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 97; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 199-200; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 476, 479-82; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 12470-80; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 514-16; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 589-91; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 185; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83