Lieutenant Cushing And The Ram Albemarle





God give us peace! Not such as lulls to sleep,

But sword on thigh, and brow with purpose knit!

And let our Ship of State to harbor sweep,

Her ports all up, her battle-lanterns lit,

And her leashed thunders gathering for their leap!

--Lowell.





The great Civil War was remarkable in many ways, but in no way more

remarkable than for the extraordinary mixture of inventive mechanical

genius and of resolute daring shown by the combatants. After the first

year, when the contestants had settled down to real fighting, and

the preliminary mob work was over, the battles were marked by their

extraordinary obstinacy and heavy loss. In no European conflict since

the close of the Napoleonic wars has the fighting been anything like

as obstinate and as bloody as was the fighting in our own Civil War.

In addition to this fierce and dogged courage, this splendid fighting

capacity, the contest also brought out the skilled inventive power of

engineer and mechanician in a way that few other contests have ever

done.



This was especially true of the navy. The fighting under and against

Farragut and his fellow-admirals revolutionized naval warfare. The

Civil War marks the break between the old style and the new. Terrible

encounters took place when the terrible new engines of war were brought

into action for the first time; and one of these encounters has given

an example which, for heroic daring combined with cool intelligence, is

unsurpassed in all time.



The Confederates showed the same skill and energy in building their

great ironclad rams as the men of the Union did in building the monitors

which were so often pitted against them. Both sides, but especially

the Confederates, also used stationary torpedoes, and, on a number of

occasions, torpedo-boats likewise. These torpedo-boats were sometimes

built to go under the water. One such, after repeated failures, was

employed by the Confederates, with equal gallantry and success, in

sinking a Union sloop of war off Charleston harbor, the torpedo-boat

itself going down to the bottom with its victim, all on board being

drowned. The other type of torpedo-boat was simply a swift, ordinary

steam-launch, operated above water.



It was this last type of boat which Lieutenant W. B. Cushing brought

down to Albemarle Sound to use against the great Confederate ram

Albemarle. The ram had been built for the purpose of destroying the

Union blockading forces. Steaming down river, she had twice attacked the

Federal gunboats, and in each case had sunk or disabled one or more of

them, with little injury to herself. She had retired up the river again

to lie at her wharf and refit. The gunboats had suffered so severely as

to make it a certainty that when she came out again, thoroughly fitted

to renew the attack, the wooden vessels would be destroyed; and while

she was in existence, the Union vessels could not reduce the forts and

coast towns. Just at this time Cushing came down from the North with

his swift little torpedo-boat, an open launch, with a spar-rigged out

in front, the torpedo being placed at the end. The crew of the launch

consisted of fifteen men, Cushing being in command. He not only guided

his craft, but himself handled the torpedo by means of two small ropes,

one of which put it in place, while the other exploded it. The action

of the torpedo was complicated, and it could not have been operated in

a time of tremendous excitement save by a man of the utmost nerve

and self-command; but Cushing had both. He possessed precisely that

combination of reckless courage, presence of mind, and high mental

capacity necessary to the man who leads a forlorn hope under peculiarly

difficult circumstances.



On the night of October 27, 1864, Cushing slipped away from the

blockading fleet, and steamed up river toward the wharf, a dozen miles

distant, where the great ram lay. The Confederates were watchful to

guard against surprise, for they feared lest their foes should try to

destroy the ram before she got a chance to come down and attack them

again in the Sound. She lay under the guns of a fort, with a regiment

of troops ready at a moment's notice to turn out and defend her. Her own

guns were kept always clear for action, and she was protected by a

great boom of logs thrown out roundabout; of which last defense the

Northerners knew nothing.



Cushing went up-stream with the utmost caution, and by good luck passed,

unnoticed, a Confederate lookout below the ram.



About midnight he made his assault. Steaming quietly on through the

black water, and feeling his way cautiously toward where he knew the

town to be, he finally made out the loom of the Albemarle through the

night, and at once drove at her. He was almost upon her before he was

discovered; then the crew and the soldiers on the wharf opened fire,

and, at the same moment, he was brought-to by the boom, the existence

of which he had not known. The rifle balls were singing round him as

he stood erect, guiding his launch, and he heard the bustle of the men

aboard the ram, and the noise of the great guns as they were got ready.

Backing off, he again went all steam ahead, and actually surged over the

slippery logs of the boom. Meanwhile, on the Albemarle the sailors were

running to quarters, and the soldiers were swarming down to aid in her

defense; and the droning bullets came always thicker through the dark

night. Cushing still stood upright in his little craft, guiding and

controlling her by voice and signal, while in his hands he kept the

ropes which led to the torpedo. As the boat slid forward over the boom,

he brought the torpedo full against the somber side of the huge ram, and

instantly exploded it, almost at the same time that the pivot-gun of the

ram, loaded with grape, was fired point-blank at him not ten yards off.



At once the ram settled, the launch sinking at the same moment, while

Cushing and his men swam for their lives. Most of them sank or were

captured, but Cushing reached mid-stream. Hearing something splashing in

the darkness, he swam toward it, and found that it was one of his crew.

He went to his rescue, and they kept together for some time, but the

sailor's strength gave out, and he finally sank. In the pitch darkness

Cushing could form no idea where he was; and when, chilled through, and

too exhausted to rise to his feet, he finally reached shore, shortly

before dawn, he found that he had swum back and landed but a few

hundred feet below the sunken ram. All that day he remained within easy

musket-shot of where his foes were swarming about the fort and the great

drowned ironclad. He hardly dared move, and until the afternoon he lay

without food, and without protection from the heat or venomous insects.

Then he managed to slip unobserved into the dense swamp, and began to

make his way to the fleet. Toward evening he came out on a small stream,

near a camp of Confederate soldiers. They had moored to the bank a

skiff, and, with equal stealth and daring, he managed to steal this and

to paddle down-stream. Hour after hour he paddled on through the fading

light, and then through the darkness. At last, utterly worn out, he

found the squadron, and was picked up. At once the ships weighed; and

they speedily captured every coast town and fort, for their dreaded

enemy was no longer in the way. The fame of Cushing's deed went all over

the North, and his name will stand forever among the brightest on the

honor-roll of the American navy.





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