An All-But-Forgotten American Hero

October 28 marks the 150th anniversary of what may well be the greatest individual feat of arms in American history.
10/28/2014 11:48 am ET Updated Dec 28, 2014

The following post is excerpted from the forthcoming book Commander Will Cushing, Daredevil Hero of the Civil War (W.W. Norton, 2014).

October 28 marks the 150th anniversary of what may well be the greatest individual feat of arms in American history. The author of that and many other remarkable exploits, naval Lieutenant William Barker Cushing was, but today he is all but forgotten. Setting out in an open boat late on the 27th, Cushing led a group of raiders eight miles up the Roanoke River. A few hours later, they met their objective: the CSS Albemarle, an ironclad Confederate ram., moored by the town of Plymouth. What happened then is a David vs. Goliath story made real.

The Albemarle was a fearsome beast. Constructed by enterprising engineers in a cornfield northwest of Plymouth, the ship had in six short months wreaked havoc on federal ships, rolled back union advances, and turned the military balance in North Carolina. In one battle, she was confronted by two union gunboats; the Albemarle sank one and tore up the other. She then teamed with confederate regiments to force the union garrison at Plymouth to surrender. Two weeks later, the ironclad was ambushed by seven federal ships. The Albemarle was hit by hundreds of shells, then rammed by one of the federal vessels. Still she fought them to a draw, and from then on, the union ships avoided her. The Roanoke River was returned to confederate control, and blockade runners rejoiced. Those smugglers, the Confederacy's lifeline, had always appreciated North Carolina's irregular coastline and many hiding spots, as a perfect place to begin and end their trading runs to the Bahamas. The Albemarle created the possibility that more of the state would open up, and as long as the blockade runners were in business, the rebellion could be sustained.

The union navy's dismal conclusion was that someone would have to go up the Roanoke and try to sink the ship. The consensus was that this would be a suicide mission. Various officers were approached, men with irreproachable reputations for bravery under fire. All declined.

Then someone thought to ask Will Cushing. Born in Delafield WI, raised in Fredonia NY, the creative, fearless, rebellious, prankish Cushing was tossed out of the Naval Academy just weeks before his graduation; an Academy official said that Cushing `had a talent for buffoonery.' When the confederacy opened fire on Fort Sumter, Cushing was reinstated. He was still hard to control; one superior said that ``His original and speculative turn of mind makes him unfit for the naval service''

But Cushing adjusted. Soon he showed not just proved an aptitude for battle, but that he was a real prodigy in behind-the-lines combat. He was something like a forerunner of today's Navy SEALS. He led raids on coastal towns, sank blockade runners, liberated slaves, captured stores, and gathered intelligence. He developed a reputation for audacity, for pulling off high risk missions that left men on both sides nodding in admiration. When offered the mission, Cushing accepted.

After acquiring two small, fast open boats to take him up river, he visited Fredonia. Family and friends at first found him in high spirits, but soon a somberness emerged. This wasn't surprising; he had experienced a lot of fighting, and had lost not only his close friend and mentor, but also his brother Alonzo. (Killed at Gettysburg, Alonzo was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor last August.) One morning, he and his mother went for a carriage ride. Along the way, he told her about the Albemarle, and his upcoming work. ``I don't see why it has to be you,'' she said.

``Because there's no one else,'' Cushing replied.

A month later, the mission was underway. The torpedo Cushing was carrying -- we would call it a mine -- was an unreliable weapon, and had tested poorly. Cushing was unconcerned; his plan was to storm the Albemarle, overpower the guards, and steal the ship. But the moment Cushing glimpsed the Albemarle through the darkness, he was spotted, ``Who's there?'' a sentry called. A bonfire erupted onshore, and the rebels started shooting.

That killed the idea of capturing the ship. Cushing ordered his second boat to go back and protect his rear, then headed for the Albemarle, aiming to use the torpedo. As he sped towards the ship, he could see that the rebels had installed a ring of logs around the ship to foil a torpedo attack.

Cushing was undaunted. He swung around, then headed for the log boom at full speed. He hoped that his momentum would carry him over the obstruction, but he got caught, and instead he hung there, stuck in between, mere yards from the Albemarle. With supernal calm, Cushing lowered his torpedo into the water, and waited for the current to take the bomb towards the Albemarle, where rebel gunners were frantically lowering the muzzle of the giant cannon, intending to blow the attackers away. On the shore, soldiers kept firing. One bullet grazed Cushing's sleeve, and another shot off the heel of his boot. A load of buckshot tore off the back of his coat. Still he stood there, patiently waiting for the torpedo to float into position. He could hear the gunners yelling ``Lower! Lower! Lower!''

Finally the torpedo dipped under the ship. Cushing pulled a lanyard to detonate it just as the rebel captain yelled fire. The hot confederate shot flew inches over the heads of Cushing and his men just as the torpedo exploded. "Save yourselves," Cushing shouted, and dived into the river. Within five minutes, the Albemarle touched bottom.

That was about two AM; twenty hours later, an exhausted Cushing, having completed a thrilling escape, was back with the federal fleet. Another of his men got away; two were killed and the rest were captured. No confederates were killed. A day later, union forces attacked Plymouth; unprotected by the Albemarle, the town soon fell. Cushing received the Thanks of Congress, a promotion, and a large bounty. The glory he attained, however, did not last long. At age 32 he died of rheumatism of the hip, untold triumphs yet before him.