In April 2005, viewers of The History Channel will be able to learn more about the famed ironclad CSS Albemarle and its eventual destruction by Lt. William B. Cushing in one of the more daring exploits of the Civil War. A film crew was in Plymouth for two weekends in August filming and recreating Cushing’s raid – a raid which led to the sinking of the Albemarle. The documentary will be a balanced program on the history of the “Confederate monster” from its construction to its sinking in October 1864.
It will also offer insight into the life of the young Lt. Cushing. In order to tell the whole story, crews also used locations at: CSS Neuse State Historic Site in Kinston, NC; Lake Champlain at Vergennes, VT; National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, GA; the USS Cairo site in Vicksburg, MS; and the USS Constellation in Baltimore, MD. The story behind the sinking of the Albemarle has gone down as one of the most daring raids of the four-year conflict and is one of the most fascinating stories of the Civil War.
The CSS Albemarle had proven to be a menace to federal interests along the Roanoke River since its arrival in April 1864. Floating down the river from the Halifax Navy Yard, the Albemarle had assisted General Robert F. Hoke’s Confederate forces in recapturing the town of Plymouth on April 19, 1864. She rammed two ships, the USS Southfield and the USS Miami, sending the remaining vessels steaming downriver in retreat. Two weeks later, the Albemarle fought seven Federal vessels to a draw at the mouth of the Roanoke River during the Battle of Albemarle Sound.
Federal forces knew that as long as the Albemarle were moored at Plymouth and controlled the Roanoke River, the Confederates were a threat to their naval supremacy in the region. It was determined that the Albemarle had to be destroyed. The task of destroying the ironclad was given to Lt. William B. Cushing, a twenty-one year old officer whose exploits in North Carolina had brought him minor fame in federal military circles.
Cushing, with a group of volunteers, began steaming up the river on the night of October 26, 1864 in a thirty-foot steam launch. His primary goal was to capture the ram and avenge the death of his friend and former commander, Charles Flusser, a victim of the Albemarle’s engagement with the USS Miami. Unfortunately, as Cushing and his men approached Plymouth, a barking dog alerted Confederate forces to the arrival of the launch. Cushing was then forced to rely on his backup plan – to ram the Albemarle, using a spar-mounted torpedo.
Cushing forced his launch to the north side of the river in order to turn around and gain enough steam to pass over the log boom encircling the Albemarle.
Despite opposing gunfire taking out the back of his jacket and another the sole of his shoe, Cushing was able to fire a bow-mounted howitzer just before hitting the log boom; however, the launch became stranded on the boom. Fortunately, it was close enough to lower the torpedo spar under the hull of the Albemarle. Just as the Albemarle fired its 6.4 inch Brooke rifled cannon at the launch, Cushing pulled the last line removing the pin and detonating the torpedo.
Immediately, the Confederate ram began to sink with a “hole in her bottom big enough to drive a wagon.” The blast threw up so much water upon the launch that it appeared to “flatten out like a pasteboard box on the logs.” With his mission complete and his own vessel destroyed, Cushing and his men dived into the river. Two of his men drowned, but Cushing was able to swim downstream a long distance. He was eventually able to steal a Confederate skiff that he rowed toward the mouth of the river, eventually making his way to the Federal picket vessel, Valley City.
With the Albemarle destroyed, Federal forces were able to recapture Plymouth on October 31, once again claiming naval superiority in the region. Six months later, the war would come to an end.
To learn more about this daring raid, check out the documentary on the History Channel, tentatively scheduled to air in April 2005. The story of the Albemarle will also play a prominent role in the new Museum of the Albemarle in telling the story of the Civil War in the region.