Union David Sinks Rebel Goliath

In the summer and early fall of 1864 a Confederate iron clad ram, the CSS Albemarle, prowled the outlet of the Roanoak River at Plymouth NC, wreaking havoc on the wooden steamers and gunboats of the U.S. Navy. After attacking, the Albemarle would quickly return to its heavily defended port to avoid capture or sinking by its pursuers. Union Naval commanders were evaluating several plans to penetrate the harbor defenses of Plymouth and destroy the Albemarle. Young Lt. William Cushing devised and proposed a daring plan to sink the ironclad ram. It was bold, it was risky, it was dangerous. The commanders accepted the plan. In the wee hours of the morning of October 28, 1864, Lt. Cushing and 13 volunteers in a light steam launch with a small howitzer and a “torpedo” fastened at the end of a 14 foot spar, silently approached the Albemarle. Slipping past outposts along the river, the Albemarle loomed closer and closer, protected by a ring of floating logs and armed sentries. Ordering the pilot of the skiff to apply full steam to generate enough speed to propel them over the logs, Cushing crawled forward to pull the cord that would detonated the torpedo beneath the hull of the Albemarle. The sentries began to fire upon Cushing, shredding his uniform coat and shooting off his boot, but a blast from the howitzer sent them scattering. Cushing’s launch went up and over the log barrier, he lowered the boom and detonated the charge beneath the ram. At exactly the same moment, the ram fired on the skiff. The twin explosions sent Cushing and all of his men into the water. Two of Cushing’s men drowned trying to swim to shore, 11 men were fished out of the water and captured, Cushing miraculously was unscathed and managed to avoid capture. The Albemarle sank. With the loss of the Albemarle, the Confederates had to relinquish control of the sea and rivers around Plymouth. Cushing received the Thanks of Congress for his daring accomplishment. Today, 28 October 2020, is the 156th Anniversary of the sinking of the Albemarle.

Lt. William B. Cushing, United States Navy
At the Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia, after salvage, circa 1865. Two ladies are standing on her deck, near a section of displaced casemate armor. Courtesy of Mr. J.C. Hanscom. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.
Operational, scaled down replica of C.S.S. Albermarle on display at Port O’ Plymouth Museum in Plymouth, North Carolina.

William Cushing’s brother, Alonzo, received the Medal of Honor for his leadership and skill directing the efforts of his artillery battery at the Battle of Gettysburg in July of 1863. Alonzo Cushing’s battery was located next to the Copse of Trees that served as the target of Pickett’s Charge on 3 July 1863. Suffering from several serious wounds, Cushing refused to relinquish command of his battery. As Pickett’s men swarmed over the wall in front of his battery, Cushing himself fired a cannon at point blank range into the Rebels. Alonzo Cushing was shot in the face and killed.

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