Terror of the North Carolina Sounds
The control of Plymouth, North Carolina had been lost on April 19, 1864 the day a newly commissioned Confederate Ironclad steamed out upon the Roanoke River sinking USS Southfield and scattered USS Miami along with a pair of gunboats. Her name was CSS Albemarle, the pride of the Confederate Navy and shipbuilder Gilbert Elliott; who built her with twin engines and twin guns forward and aft.
Again in early May, the CSS Albemarle sailed down the North Carolina Sounds attacking the USS Sassacus, USS Wyalusing and USS Mattabesett, formerly known as the USS Commodore Hull. She had made a name for herself as a nuisance, enjoying far more success at attacking the federal fleet than the CSS Virginia had done two years before, and the Federal Navy had to devise some sort of plan to rid them of her once and for all.
That opportunity came to the Commander of the North Atlantic Squadron, Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, six months later when on October 17th, he ordered Lieutenant William B. Cushing out on a mission with picket launch No. 1 to sink the Albemarle. He launched his attack ten days later after having been hailed by Union pickets up river that his original choice of watercraft had engines that could be heard as far as five miles down river.
The night of October 27, 1864 Cushing and thirteen hand picked officers and men had eight miles to cover between the mouth of the Roanoke River and his target. Picket boat No. 1 amazingly enough got up river without being hailed by Confederate pickets or Navy alike. In tow had been a borrowed cutter from the USS Shamrock, added insurance for such an event that Cushing intended to cast off on her should his primary vessel be spotted and attacked accordingly.
Sailing through the dark they managed to slip by the wreck of the USS Southfield, another victim that succumbed to the exploits of Albemarle, last spring. Several Confederate schooners had lay at anchor surrounding her, but none challenged the silent picket boat as it proceeded on its mission. Leaving nothing to chance, the commander of the expedition cast off the boat in tow and dispatched it to take out the pickets that were guarding the sunken vessel.
Picket Boat No. 1 had sailed eight miles up river having not been hailed by any until it approached its target. The silhouette from the campfires provided enough light for the sailors to notice the shape of the monster as they approached under full steam. The Confederate gunboat was making steam for the wharf, a pen of logs surrounding her from all angles. Cushing circled the boat in a study of where to effectively hit her; coming across her on the port bow and lowering the torpedo boom with great haste.
A terrific exchange of fire had commenced between Cushing's vessel and the pickets ashore, his boat firing canister in their direction and doing a good job of keeping their heads lowered. The torpedo was driven just below the ships over hang and exploded simultaneously as Albemarle fired a shot at such close range the round crashing through the ship causing it to take on water at great speed.
With the ship disabled, the Confederates called on Cushing twice to give up and surrender; but twice he refused them calling on his crew to save themselves. The picket boat was abandoned with the crew swimming to the center of the river. Many of his crew were rounded up and captured; others drowned trying to save themselves. Cushing made his way into the swamps the following morning hiding from Confederates that passed in conversation along the way. Judging by the sound of it, Lieutenant Cushing felt safe that the Albemarle was lying at the bottom of the Sound.
Ensign Thomas S. Gay, had been one officer who partook of that fateful mission. Assigned to the USS Otsego at the time and volunteered for the excitement. He managed to save the life of one of his fellow officers by providing the only life preserver he had and elected to swim back to the sinking vessels to obtain another when rounded up by the Confederate pickets. Incarcerated initially at Salisbury, North Carolina, he made his way north to Danville, Virginia and finally onto Richmond's Libby Prison where parole occurred for him in February of 1865.
Rear Admiral David D. Porter on the 11th of November reported to the Navy Department that Lieutenant Cushing's attack was a complete surprise and the sinking of the CSS Albemarle expedient and immediate. The evidence was plain enough, a copy of the commanding officer's report to the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, the honorable Stephen Mallory was sufficient enough.
With the CSS Albemarle gone, the officers of the United States Navy could breathe a sigh of relief that control of the Sounds had been re-established once more. Her sinking was a tremendous loss to the Confederates having acquired and enjoyed a piece of naval superiority, if but for a short time. With no more concern of naval resistance, the blockade re-established its line; and with it, came the bitter disappointment that continued to choke the very life out of the idea of Confederate independence.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at email@example.com