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Volume 36, No. 4 – April 2023

The President’s Message:

The Round Table has received two series of books.  Thank you to Linda Franke for this generous donation in memory of Round Table member Bob Franke.

The first group is the Collector’s Library of the Civil War Time-Life series.  Each book is a reprint of an original work written after the war.  They were reprinted in 1982.  The twenty books are leather bound and in pristine condition.

The second group is The Virginia Regimental Histories Series.  In 1974 Harold Howard determined to publish a history of every Virginia Regiment that served in the Civil War.  The first book was published in 1982 and the last in 2004.  Each book contains a unit history and annotated muster roll including every soldier known to serve with the unit.  Each book is hard bound in gray cloth with the seal of the Virginia Commonwealth and in mint condition.  Many of them are out of print and no longer available.

If you have any interest in purchasing these sets of books please contact me,

Gerridine LaRovere

April 12, 2023 Program:

Janell Bloodworth will be presenting a two-part program.  Through the years the name Mudd has been denigrated and always has a negative connotation.  Janell will tell us the actual facts of Dr. Samuel Mudd’s encounter with John Wilkes Booth.  The second part of the program answers the “burning” questions about General Ambrose Burnside’s spy girl friend.  Did he know that she was a secret agent?  Did the general follow his rule of a death sentence to anyone spying?

March 8, 2023 Program:

CushingRobert introduced his talk with a brief description of a few of the prominent players both North and South, the naval vessels in use, and the geography of eastern Virginia and North Carolina.  With a nod to the size of this article I will mention just three people here and develop more as the story develops.  The most senior person who plays a part in this drama is Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles.  Without his intervention at various points in time, this story would never have happened.  The Confederate Secretary of the Navy was Stephen Russell Mallory.  Robert mentioned John L. Porter who was responsible for the construction of ironclads.

William Cushing was born in Delafield, WI on November 4, 1842.  He was the central player in this talk and, as you will come to learn, a giant character in the history of the American Navy.  Will, as he was known, was the tenth of eleven children of Milton and Mary Cushing.  Four of the Cushing boys served in the Civil War.  With the help of a family member Will enters the Naval Academy in 1857 as the youngest member of the Class of 1861.  This class had some well-known members, like George Dewey and Alfred Thayer Mahan, but our boy Will will not graduate with this class as he was removed from it just three months before graduation.  Discipline, attitude, and poor academics were to be his downfall.  His attitude, he was very arrogant, which will actually serve him well as this tale unwinds.  Thus, he leaves Annapolis

Cushing tried to fight this dismissal by enlisting the help of a cousin who happened to be good friends with Gideon Welles.  Although William could not be reinstated at Annapolis, he did get back into the Navy as that branch needed experienced personnel after Fort Sumter is bombarded on April 12th.  Once again, Will uses connections to get a naval commission. 

He contacts a gunnery instructor, Charles Flusser, who knew him from the Academy.  Flusser knows MG Benjamin Butler then in command of Army forces in Annapolis.  Butler speaks to his former college roommate Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavus Fox, who work for Gideon Welles.  Do you see how this works?  His appointment is backdated to April 1, 1861 and Cushing is assigned as acting masters mate on USS Minnesota.  He was very lucky as there were only 42 operational warships in the Navy and only 3 were available for service on the Atlantic Coast.  That number will swell to 240 vessels by the end of the year and to 650 ships by the end of the Civil War.

Aboard Minnesota, Will is serving the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron.  If a ship is taken by the Union warships, a crew will be assigned to take the captured vessel to a major port.  Flag Officer Commander Silas Stringham assigned William Cushing to take the prize of war, the schooner Delaware Farmer, to the Admiralty Court in Philadelphia. 

While at the Naval Academy it was pointed out that Cushing had "talent for buffoonery."  This did not end with his dismissal as he was always getting into scuffles.  Shortly after his return from sailing prizes to the ports of the Admiralty Court, Will was at it again.  On September 13th he clashed with a superior officer aboard Minnesota.  While this did not result in any serious charges being leveled at him, Cushing submits his resignation from the Navy.

After resigning he lobbies to be reinstated in his academy class.  The decision goes back to Welles who seeks the opinion of George Blake.  Blake was the Commandant at the time of Cushing’s dismissal.  After reviewing actual performance aboard Minnesota he is warranted a USNA midshipman with a reinstatement date of June 1, 1861.  His class rank is 21 out of 26 members of the Class of 1861, but he is not considered a graduate of the academy.

It is hard to believe that after all this he is given an assignment aboard Cambridge, a gunboat.  It seems that the blockading squadron has need of such officers like him.  The larger ships cannot get into the shallow waters of eastern Virginia and North Carolina.  Boats like Cambridge work well in rivers and bays found in this area.  There he will be witness and part of naval history.

Cushing is assigned to work the mouth of the Rappahannock River.  There he meets a group of slaves who tell of a schooner loaded with wheat and wood anchored about five miles upstream.  He left Cambridge, found the schooner, and burned the sailing vessel.  While in the area in November, he bombarded the town of Urbana destroying a storehouse of ammunition.  Going up and down the Rappahannock Will located and noted many batteries.  While on patrol Cambridge brought 400 slaves to safety at Fort Monroe.  In the waters off the Virginia capes, he is intercepting small crafts.  The weather is very cold and it begins to take a toll on his health.

On March 8, 1862 he watches the ironclad, renamed the Virginia, sink a number of wooden blockade ships.  Cushing towed the ship St. Lawrence away from the action.  While doing this a shell from Virginia wounded his hand.  On the next day he watched the battle of the ironclads Monitor and Virginia.

Will’s next assignment will be to serve under his old friend, Charles Flusser on Commodore Perry, a sidewheeler steamer which has been converted to a gunboat.  By the summer of 1862 the whole coast from Cape Fear, NC to the Virginia line was under Union control.  Only Wilmington was in Confederate hands as it was the premier base for blockade runners.  The Commodore Perry has been assigned to a joint Army-Navy operation against Franklin, VA along the Blackwater River.  Cushing demonstrates bravery by firing field pieces at the enemy. 

Through his action Will is given his first command the captured Confederate vessel, Ellis.  Cushing takes his crew down the coast to New Topsail Inlet, NC, just north of Wilmington.  There he spots the schooner Adelaide, loaded with turpentine, cotton, and tobacco headed out for Nassau, Bahamas.  Since the schooner draws too much water she is aground.  Will takes this opportunity to torch the ship.  In October he finds a saltworks inland from New Topsail Inlet and burns it to the ground. 

The last mission of Ellis is on the New River Inlet.  They discover a vessel loaded with cotton and turpentine; however, the Confederates decide to burn their own ship.  Way out in the channel they are attacked by enemy artillery.  Will and his crew burn the Ellis, row a small boat, and board a schooner and make good their escape.

With the loss of Ellis, Will takes charge of Commodore Barney, a ship five times the size of his last boat.  In April 1863 Rebel forces under the command of James Longstreet advance on Suffolk, VA.  Union forces, including Commodore Barney, are sent to delay Longstreet.  The Union boats are ambushed and casualties occur but the fighting delays Longstreet’s departure until May 4th.  Thus, his corps is too late to take part in the battle in Chancellorsville.

Robert presented more stories, but we now need to move to the part of the tale where our hero, Lieutenant Cushing, writes his name in US naval history.  This is the story of the sinking of CSS Albemarle.  All of the work Will has done to date is nothing more than a preview of coming attractions.  In the spring of 1864 a mighty ironclad, second only to the CSS Virginia in the amount of damage done to the US Navy, posed a threat to all of eastern North Carolina.  Based in Plymouth, NC, CSS Albemarle, was a target of opportunity to any Union commander who could devise a plan of attack. 

You can easily see what a problem this would be.  The blockading fleet had no ironclads with which to attack this monster directly as the USS Monitor did.  Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephan Mallory wanted to build a large fleet of ironclads in order to break the northern blockade.  However, only 35 were actually built and only one third of that number actually entered into combat.  CSS Albemarle, was one of the best.  It was 158 feet long but only drew 8 feet.  This made it ideal for operations on the river and on out into Albemarle Sound.

This ship is in Plymouth because she attacked the town and captured it.  She scooped up Union soldiers, artillery pieces, and two hundred tons of coal.  Along the way Albemarle destroys a number of wooden vessels.  Once in town, she remained a threat to the blockading squadron stationed in Albemarle Sound.  It was of great concern to the Navy chiefs in Washington, DC.  How to handle the growing threat was the problem for Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, the commander of the North Atlantic Blockade Squadron.  Lee was a member of the famous Lee family of Virginia and a cousin of Robert E. Lee.  Naturally, Navy high command was concerned about Samuel’s loyalties.  When questioned about it, sailor Lee replied “When I find the word Virginia in my commission I will join the Confederacy.”

Lee’s logic with respect to CSS Albemarle was as follows.  First, Union Monitors drew too much water to get over the bar into Albemarle Sound.  Second, he did not want to risk any more wooden ships fighting an ironclad.  A small boat raid seemed like the best option, but… Who best to head up such a daunting operation?  William Cushing was Lee’s solution.

A number of alternatives were considered for the raid.  But it all came down to a small boat fitted with a torpedo.  On July 28, 1864 Cushing receives orders from Secretary Wells to report to New York.  Once there, the final plan involved a wooden screw fitted steam cutter about 30 feet long.  It was fitted with a 12-pound howitzer and, central to the plan, a torpedo fitted to the end of a long spar.  Although dangerous, floating torpedoes could be controlled.  In this plan the spar placed the explosive where it could do the most damage.  When set, the device was set free from the spar with one line; another line detonated the charge.  Before heading south Cushing practiced the attack in the Hudson River.

LaunchTime has passed.  It is now 3:00 AM early on October 27th.  The weather is rainy with the air temperature of 65° and the water is 55°.  Will, along with an all-volunteer crew have brought their small craft within viewing distance of their prey.  The weather, along with muffled engines, have gotten them this far undetected, however, pickets on a sunken Union ship spot the Yankees.

Flickering lights on Albemarle illuminate the target, while the totally dark cutter is hard to spot.  As Cushing nears the ironclad, he sees a ring of logs meant to protect it from such an attack.  Flying in at full speed the attacking ship smashes into the logs as Will hopes that slime on the logs will act as a lubricant.  He makes it only halfway in.  Captain A. F. Warley yells out “what boat is that?”  “We’ll soon let you know,” replied Cushing as he yanked the lanyard on the grape filled howitzer.  While grape shop did nothing to the ironclad it certainly cleared the deck. 

In running into the logs, the cutter managed to get over the barrier, but the cutter was now trapped in the encirclement.  It was in good position to position the torpedo.  As they were trained to do, the crew lowered the weapon into the water and under the victim.  This took time such that Warley had his crew load a parrot gun from inside the casement and prepared to blow Will to kingdom come.  Small arms fire hit Cushing and his men.  Will loses the heal of one shoe, parts of his sleeve, and the back of his coat.  He does not flinch.  Warley has problems of his own.  They are having trouble depressing the gun.  Will could hear him shout “lower, lower, lower…” 

Finally, the torpedo is in good position under the water near the bow of Albemarle.  Now!  Just as Will pulled the torpedo’s firing lanyard, he hears Warley scream “fire.”  Then all was lost in sensation, a huge roar, hot wind, floorboards vanish, a wave of water, and all went quiet.  Will and his men are thrown out of the boat and into the water.  The torpedo’s explosion, while not perfectly placed, was good enough to hole Albemarle.  Because she did not have steam up, the ironclad’s crew could not keep up with the rising water and so the ship went down.

The beast of the Roanoke River, the Confederate’s most effective ironclad, fell to a man standing in an open boat.  All of Cushing’s men had been thrown into the river.  Of the 15 men on the cutter, Will and one other crewman make good their escape.  Two men drown and the other 11 are captured.  Cushing swims to the mouth of the river and is taken aboard a Union picket vessel.  He is taken to Hampton Roads where he reports to Admiral David Dixon Porter. 

This adventure made William Cushing a hero in the media of the time.  Gideon Wells sent him a letter of commendation from the Navy Department.  Lincoln recommended Cushing for a vote of thanks.  Congress passed that vote on December 20th.  In those days this vote was a higher honor than the Medal of Honor.  He also was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, the youngest of that rank in the Navy, age 21.  Robert gave a brief summary of Cushing’s Civil War wrap up, followed by his post war naval career.  By 1874 his health declines and he dies on December 17, 1874.

William Barker Cushing was one of the most daring men in American naval history.  Like men of today’s Navy SEALs he excelled at raids behind enemy lines, missions that today are called special operations, and he was better at it than any of his contemporaries Union or Confederate.  During the Civil War he always seemed to be planning, executing, or recovering from raids.  He destroyed vessels, burned facilities, and gathered intelligence.  During these missions he fought all manner of rebel forces, from regular infantry, artillery, and cavalry to guerillas.  By the end of the war, he had amassed four commendations from the Navy, the thanks of Congress, and the thanks from President Lincoln.  All this by a man who was only 22 years old when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.

Cushing is more than image, in virtually single handedly sinking the Confederate ironclad Albemarle.  This was done with a torpedo mounted on an open boat which is perhaps the greatest single feat of arms in American history.  We may not know it, but he is in a great many respects more a hero fit for our times than he was for his.


Last changed: 03/28/23