Firebrand of the Union Navy

Second Lieutenant Zachary Schwartz, U.S. Marine Corps

Cushing was not one to take refusal lightly. His response was devoid of diplomacy, declaring that if he did “not see General Burriel . . . and if any more prisoners are executed, I shall open fire on the Governor’s palace.” 2 While reading that threat, Burriel could have looked out on the harbor and seen the Wyoming being brought to battle stations, training her six heavy cannon in his direction. Whether that actually occurred is unknown, but Burriel clearly was quick to realize the implication of Cushing’s words; he invited the pugnacious commander ashore. The pair met on the harbor pier. Burriel advanced with hand extended in greeting. The blue-eyed Yankee responded with a cold stare, keeping his hands clasped behind his back.

Not bothering with formalities, Cushing immediately demanded to know if more prisoners would be shot. Taken aback at Cushing’s abruptness, Burriel uncomfortably replied that authorization to suspend the punishments would have to come from Havana. “In that case, sir,” Cushing declared, “I must request that all the women and children be removed from the city.” 3 His implication was unmistakable: He intended to shell Santiago de Cuba. The self-assured commander’s declaration and demeanor had the desired effect, and Burriel agreed at once to halt the executions.

Though the Navy Department subsequently praised Cushing’s intervention, his unbridled disdain for diplomacy made his superiors nervous. He soon fed their worst fears, openly predicting “Spain will be driven from the West Indies. The shots which killed the passengers and crew of the Virginius have sounded the death knell of Spanish power in the Western Hemisphere.” 4 That was a step too far, and Secretary of the Navy George Robeson dispatched Commander Daniel Braine to conclude the Virginius affair. Robeson’s anxiety that Cushing might yet ignite a war was evident in his plea to Braine: “For God’s sake hurry. . . . We are afraid that Cushing will do something.” 5

An Undeniable Maverick

Of all the naval heroes to make a name in the American Civil War, Commander William B. Cushing was the undeniable maverick of the era. His career, which spanned 18 years (from age 14 to his death at 32) was defined by a string of daring raids, cunning reconnaissance missions, and narrow escapes. Cushing is unquestionably remarkable in the naval history of the 19th century. But to understand him and the time in which he lived, it is necessary to look beyond his heroics. Behind the hero was a deeply conflicted individual.

In many ways, Cushing exemplified the ideal warrior and naval officer of the 1800s. The characteristics that made him unique were merely a more extreme example of traits that were common and even cultivated within the officer corps of the era. Those exaggerated traits not only propelled Cushing into fame, they also often brought him under the scrutiny of his superiors. Among his panoply of hyperbolic qualities Cushing counted manly virtue, fervent nationalism, reckless daring, and a maniacal defense of personal honor. From the height of wartime renown to the drifting doldrums of peace, Cushing’s career was defined by those behaviors. Placing him within the context of his times, the man behind the legend comes into focus, and William B. Cushing offers a fascinating porthole into the martial culture that dominated a heroic yet stormy life. 6

One of the first virtues young Cushing learned as he grew up in Fredonia, New York, was manliness, which included a defiance of authority. His place as the youngest of four boys undoubtedly influenced this early lesson. The tendency would be put to the test on his enrollment at the U.S. Naval Academy in September 1857. Previously the undisputed leader among his peers and subject only to rules he chose to follow, Cushing had a rude awakening at Annapolis. Among his mentors and professors, he found several role models who exemplified his belief in rugged masculinity—and a number who did not.

He disdained those who did not live up to his personal code of virility. Foremost on that list was Professor Edward Roget, with whom he had a running feud. Roget, who taught Spanish, was well respected among his fellow scholars, but his dapper dress and mannerisms drew the ridicule of some midshipmen. They derisively referred to Roget as “the Don” and considered him an “effeminate dandy.” 7 Roget’s apparent foppishness was more than the manly Cushing could endure; it was made worse, perhaps, as he struggled through the Spanish recitation course under the Don’s authority.

The rift between pupil and teacher widened irreparably when Roget was bitten by a cart horse outside the academy. Not long after, his shoulder bandaged, Roget entered class to find a knot of giggling midshipmen clustered around Cushing’s desk. To the professor’s dismay, the young men were laughing at a crude cartoon Cushing had scrawled on his textbook flyleaf. It depicted Roget biting a horse proclaiming: “The poor Don, he bit the hoss!” 8 The furious professor snatched the book, insisting that the horse had bitten him, thus driving the midshipmen into even more laughter. To Roget, that was the last straw. He took Cushing’s cartoon directly to the Naval Academy superintendent, Captain George Blake.

Though Blake was not amused at Cushing’s antics, a caricature was not reason enough to expel a midshipman just months from graduation. Roget got his revenge, however, when Cushing failed his Spanish midterm exam and subsequently was forwarded for separation on academic grounds. Though it was “unusual proceeding to dismiss a first classman, standing high in his class, for being unsatisfactory in Spanish,” when the academic shortcoming was added to Cushing’s lengthy string of earlier infractions it tipped the scales. He was ordered to resign on 23 March 1861. 9

Unabashed Patriot

In addition to championing manly virtue, while at Annapolis Cushing acquired a powerful sense of patriotism. With the prospects of civil war rising, 18-year-old Will, as his companions called him, realized the Naval Academy sat astride the growing rift in America. In a letter to cousin Mary Edwards, he lamented that “Matters cannot be improved except by a miracle, and unless that miracle happens, the ‘Ship of State’ . . . must go down.” 10 Though the outlook was dark, he resolved that he would “shed the last drop of my blood for the State of New York” proclaiming “Long live the Union! And forever live New York!” 11

As a civilian Cushing maintained his Navy friendships and contacts. When war did come he wasted no time in cajoling his way back into the service, this time as an acting master’s mate; in less than two months he advanced to midshipman—just what he would have been had he graduated from the Naval Academy.

In wartime, Cushing’s patriotism evolved into passionate nationalism. The former was usually well placed against the enemy during the conflict. However, when dealing with foreign vessels, his muscular nationalism and natural aggression caused more than a few headaches for the Department of the Navy.

On 1 July 1864, Cushing, now a lieutenant, was commanding the gunboat Monticello on patrol off Wilmington, North Carolina. Lookouts spotted a small brig attempting to violate the Union blockade, and the Monticello maneuvered to overhaul her. She was the Hound , a British merchant ship, and she ignored the blockader’s initial attempt to hail her. Instead of following procedure and firing a blank round to signal the fleeing brig, Cushing ordered his crew to fire a volley of live musket shots across her bow.

This quickly brought the Hound to heel, but her crew proved less amicable. The sailors on deck hailed the Monticello in what Cushing described as “the most insulting manner” as he sent an inspection party over to the Hound . 12 According to Cushing’s report, when the boarding officer, Acting Ensign Joseph Hadfield, checked the Hound ’s papers, the Englishmen greeted him with “language and manner . . . in the last degree improper both on deck . . . and below in the cabin.” 13 The merchantman’s papers were in order, and the boarding party returned to their launch followed by insulting language from the Hound ’s crew. When the flustered ensign returned to the Monticello and reported events, Cushing became enraged at the British captain’s behavior, immediately ordering the Monticello to renew pursuit.

The crew of the Hound must not have known what to think when the Yankee boarding party again came alongside. This time Cushing ordered the sailors to bring the Hound ’s skipper and papers to the Monticello for inspection. Cushing later explained that it was his policy “to bring captain and papers on board in all cases where a spirit of malice is perceived.” 14 Under the Monticello ’s battery of heavy guns, the Hound ’s captain was brought face to face with the 21-year-old lieutenant. Cushing snatched the man’s papers, saying he would inspect them at his leisure and that the captain was free to remain or return to the Hound . When the skipper elected to remain, Cushing grilled him on his conduct during the initial boarding. According to Cushing, the Englishman replied with “lame excuses and final retraction.” 15 Cushing demanded that the captain apologize to Hadfield, and finding the papers were in order sent the Hound on her way, insisting in his report that “a national ship must be treated with respect.” 16

The captain of the Hound did not let Cushing’s insolence go unreported. He filed a complaint through Sir Richard Lyons, the British envoy to the United States, and Lyons confronted Secretary of State William Seward about Cushing’s conduct. The pro-British Seward, ever ready to harass rival Gideon Welles, the secretary of the Navy, demanded an explanation from the Navy Department. Embarrassed and frustrated, Welles wrote to Cushing for a full report on the incident. Welles found “little in it to justify his conduct” and dashed off a condemnatory letter to the young lieutenant. 17

The secretary fumed that there was no excuse for the use of live musket rounds and that the British captain “was brought on board the Monticello , unlawfully and unnecessarily detained.” 18 On top of that, Cushing had “inflicted injury on the owners of the vessel” when he waylaid her a second time to merely “correct a discourtesy on the part of the master of the brig.” 19 Welles warned that a repeat performance would “not fail to bring upon you the serious displeasure of your Government and result to your regret and injury.” 20 Cushing, never tolerant of authority to begin with, no doubt chafed at the dressing-down.

An Audacious Warrior

The trait for which William Cushing is remembered above all others is his physical daring. His bravery was incontestable, and the Civil War offered numerous opportunities for him to prove his mettle. From expeditions to burn blockade-runners to sounding channels under fire, Cushing’s list of audacious missions runs from his early days as a master’s mate in the screw frigate Minnesota to the attack on Fort Fisher in 1865, when he was a lieutenant commander. Among his fellow officers, he was hailed as a champion “whose name should be passed down to posterity and take equal rank with all those naval heroes whose lives are perpetuated in the pages of history.” 21 To the men he led, Cushing was a strict disciplinarian, and yet “the sailors fairly worshipped him,” some even offering a month’s pay for a chance to take part in one of his famed exploits. 22 At the time of Cushing’s death, Secretary Welles (even after all the chiding he had delivered to the restless officer) remarked that “while no navy had braver or better officers than ours, young Cushing was the hero of the War.” 23

Cushing’s greatest exploit, the one that confirmed his penchant for physical daring, occurred in the autumn of 1864. At that time, the CSS Albemarle was the unrivaled queen of the Roanoke River. Built in a cornfield 60 miles upriver from Plymouth, North Carolina, the Albemarle was a 152-foot ironclad capable of five knots under the powerof two steam-driven propellers. Her construction, begun in 1862, had been supervised by 19-year-old Confederate Army Lieutenant Gilbert Elliot. In the shallow waters of the Roanoke, her 8-foot draft and bulky 376 tons made the Albemarle difficult to maneuver. But what she lacked in speed and maneuverability, she made up for with offensive power. Her armament included two 6.4-inch double-banded Brooke rifles and an iron-shod ram of solid oak. The two guns could be shifted to fire from any of her six cannon ports. At its thickest, the Albemarle ’s armor was an impressive 4 inches. The iron shell was in turn supported by 16 inches of wood backing.

Early on the morning of 19 April, the Albemarle , under the command of Captain James Cooke, emerged from the river mists around Plymouth to face the Union blockade there. She met the double-ender gunboats Miami and Southfield , under the command of Cushing’s former instructor and commander Lieutenant Commander Charles Flusser. The Yankee ships opened the engagement with a barrage of cannon fire, but the ironclad steamed steadily closer. With a crash, the Albemarle rammed her sharp prow into the starboard bow of the Southfield , a crippling blow that flooded the struggling gunboat, whose guns still blazed desperately. For a moment it looked as if the Albemarle was heading to the bottom as well. Her ram had lodged in the Southfield , and it was only through an immediate command of all engines “back full” that she was saved. 24 After a ricocheting Union shell killed Flusser, the Miami retreated downriver, leaving control of the Roanoke firmly in the Albemarle ’s hands.

Word quickly spread of the disaster. Without naval support, Plymouth’s garrison, under Brigadier General Henry Wessells, was overwhelmed by Confederate Brigadier General Robert Hoke’s division. As Confederate troops pummeled Union forces by land, the Albemarle shelled the Northerners from the river. “The ram has possession of the river,” lamented Union Commander Henry Davenport, senior commander of naval forces on the North Carolina sounds, as he begged for reinforcements from Rear Admiral Samuel Lee. 25 Lee, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, responded that “mere wooden gunboats would not be effective” and suggested the employment of torpedoes. 26 Before his idea could be acted on, the Albemarle made an attempt to break from the river. On 5 May she challenged four Union gunboats while escorting a troop ship into Bachelor’s Bay. In a pitched battle, the Albemarle managed to drive off or severely damage all her foes and, with minimal damage to herself, steamed back to Plymouth.

In Washington, a congressional investigation charged to determine “why the construction of said ram was not prevented” had been authorized earlier; now the quest for answers blazed ever hotter. 27 To top matters off, Navy frustration with the ram was beginning to smack of cowardice as high-ranking officers insisted any attempt “to attack the ram in the Roanoke River . . . would be attended with serious disaster.” 28 The Navy needed a man who would take action—William Cushing.

Mission Against the Albemarle

Cushing had taken a special interest in the Albemarle when Flusser was killed; he was more than willing to have a go at sinking her when Admiral Lee offered him the mission on 5 July 1864. After considering several plans, Cushing determined to dispatch the Albemarle with two howitzer- and torpedo-equipped launches. He hoped to capture the Rebel ram, but would destroy her should that prove impossible. Lee wrote that Cushing was “entirely willing to make an attempt to destroy the ram, and I have great confidence in his gallantry”; nonetheless, the admiral sent Cushing to present the plan to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox in person for approval. 29

Fox supported Cushing, and the young lieutenant embarked immediately for New York to fit out torpedoes and boats. Cushing acquired two 45-foot steam launches in a shipyard and began experimenting with a spar torpedo. While his preparations were being completed, Cushing visited home in Fredonia for what he thought could be the last time. As he set out south to meet his fate, he could not keep his mission secret from his mother, and he icily warned her that failure in his next expedition meant she would “have no Will Cushing.” 30

Even after a series of delays and setbacks (including the loss of one of the launches, Picket Boat No. 2), Cushing found no shortage of volunteers once he reached the squadron. After a false start on 26 October, he and 14 sailors set out from the gunboat Otsego at 2300 on the 27th in Picket Boat No. 1 with a cutter of 12 additional volunteers in tow. The night was obscured by a spitting rain and clammy mist as their launch chugged up the Roanoke. Every man on board was silent; the steam plant had been muffled. All hands undoubtedly felt the press of fear as they passed the half-submerged remains of the Southfield . A Confederate picket on the waterlogged wreck remained blissfully ignorant of the Yankee raiding party. Near 0300 on the 28th, Cushing made out the massive bulk of the Albemarle moored to a pier at Plymouth. The minutes and seconds ticked by as Picket Boat No. 1 pulled closer to the sleeping giant. Suddenly a call rang out from the ram: “Who goes there?” Wakened sentries kindled bonfires. “We’ll soon let you know!” Cushing replied. “The rebels sprung their rattle,” he later wrote, “and commenced firing . . . seeming much confused.” Cushing ordered his launch to full steam. 31

Realizing that the opportunity to capture the Albemarle was gone, Cushing detached the cutter to deal with the Rebel picket on the Southfield . Then, standing high in the vessel’s prow, he swung his boat’s spar torpedo into position. Bullets tore his clothing as Rebel fire intensified. Only at the last minute did Cushing see that a defensive barrier—a log boom—surrounded the Albemarle . He ordered his launch to turn around so it could build up more steam to vault the slippery obstacle. On the second approach, Picket Boat No. 1 mustered just enough momentum to skid over the boom. With Rebel fire raining around him, Cushing coolly began to work the complicated mechanism of his torpedo, keenly aware that the ram’s Brooke rifles had been manned. He stared directly down the barrel of one of them. As he fiddled with the torpedo’s release line, Cushing could plainly hear a gun crew preparing to fire.

Just as he pulled the detonating lanyard on the torpedo, the cannon discharged with an ear-shattering crash. The launch was saved by the fact she sat so low in the water; the rifle’s 100-pound charge of canister whistled over the eads of Cushing’s crew. Almost simultaneously, his torpedo exploded with a muffled thud, sending up a towering geyser. With his launch swamped by successive concussions and trapped inside the log barrier, Cushing ordered his men to save themselves, then discarded his coat and dived into the churning water.

Only Cushing and one Union sailor managed to escape. Two of the others were killed; the rest were captured. Cushing evaded capture by hiding in the fetid swamp outside Plymouth and stealing a small fishing skiff. He then paddled more than eight miles back to the squadron, but only after confirming that he had sunk the Albemarle . Sure enough, the torpedo had put a hole in the ram that settled her in the deep river mud with no hope of easy salvage by her furious crew. Around midnight on the 28th, Cushing, exhausted and dehydrated, was hoisted aboard the Union steamer Valley City , where he had a chance to recuperate.

The entire blockading squadron celebrated his victory with fireworks and frolic. Rear Admiral David D. Porter, the squadron’s new commander, had a general order read on every ship applauding Cushing’s “heroic enterprise” and his “absolute disregard of death or danger.” 32 The once-shamed midshipman became the hero of the Navy almost overnight. President Abraham Lincoln called for a vote of thanks from Congress. It obliged without hesitation, promoting Cushing to lieutenant commander and awarding the Medal of Honor to every sailor who participated in the attack. Cushing was then sent on an East Coast victory tour. Though he was received by enthusiastic crowds in every city he visited, he was particularly touched by the citizens of Fredonia, who greeted his return with “a standing ovation and round after round of cheering” at the local concert hall. 33

At war’s end Cushing was posted to the Pacific Squadron, winding up his service there patrolling the waters of the China Sea in command of the steam gunboat Maumee .

Violent Retribution

Leaving the Maumee in November 1869, Cushing returned to Fredonia to marry Katherine Forbes. While the newlyweds were honeymooning in March 1870, the editor of the Jamestown (New York) Journal published an article contemptuous of Cushing, describing him as

the most ineffable, idiotic young snob that ever trod leather. . . . For a little upstart like him, who by an act of insubordination in the navy blundered into notoriety, to pompously order older and better men than himself to address him as “Lt. Com. Cushing, Sir,” is disgusting. 34

The editor, Coleman Bishop, made sure copies were sent to the Navy Department as well as to select Fredonians who knew Cushing. It is hard to imagine what possessed the editor to write such a scathing article. Had he known anything about his subject, he should have realized the article put him at great physical risk.

Cushing’s delicate ego could not ignore such a blatant insult. On 21 April he and his father-in-law, “Colonel” David Forbes, strode into the Jamestown Journal ’s building. The two men entered Bishop’s office, and Colonel Forbes introduced his son-in-law. Before the editor could say a word, Cushing pulled out a horsewhip and attacked the newspaperman. Colonel Forbes barred the door to prevent escape (or rescue) as Cushing pursued Bishop up and down the room, lashing him. It took a half-dozen office workers to finally run the two men out of the building. Cushing and Forbes dusted themselves off and proceeded to the Jamestown House tavern for dinner and a drink. A police officer soon arrived to serve the men warrants. Meanwhile, a curious crowd had gathered to cheer the belligerent war hero. Cushing thanked them for their support and finished his meal.

The matter was eventually settled out of court, but Cushing had again demonstrated the extremes to which he carried the generally accepted mores of personal honor. He had shown himself to be unnervingly similar to U.S. Representative Preston Brooks, the South Carolinian who in 1856 had ferociously beaten Senator Charles Sumner with a cane in the U.S. Senate. Of course, Brooks had been a member of the Southern aristocracy that Cushing had mocked freely during the war. Now, however, Cushing exercised nearly identical behavior for similar reasons: his own ideals. Surely, the image of an honorobsessed patrician was more akin to Southern plantations than the hamlets of western New York in the 19th century. Yet the support of the crowd indicated that he remained close enough to contemporary notions of personal honor to remain a popular hero.

A Damaged Legacy

Nonetheless, Cushing’s light faded in the postwar Navy—though that didn’t keep him from doing battle where he could; his prickly honor demanded it. Like an old lion, whose pride was still keen and whose claws could still rend the unwary, Commander Cushing in 1873 challenged General Burriel on the dock at Santiago de Cuba. In one last moment of glory, he mustered the full arsenal of hisnationalism, masculinity, daring, and honor to strike a final blow, not just for the country he loved, but for himself.

Ever since his escape after sinking the Albemarle , Cushing had experienced periodic bouts of severe pain in his hip. While never specifically diagnosed, over time the condition took its toll. When he returned home in the spring of 1874, he was somewhat frail and appeared much older than his years. Thereafter his health failed precipitously; in December 1874 he died in the presence of his wife in Washington, D.C. He was 32 years old.

In retrospect, Cushing’s final bold act in command yproved a fitting close to his life. More analogous to a Norse berserker than a naval officer, he was a gladiator in need of enemies and combat. His overwrought concept of manly virtue, his nationalism, physical daring, and sense of honor made him the Navy’s premier storm petrel of the 19th century. Like the legendary sea bird regarded as an omen of bad weather, Cushing’s presence often foretold trouble. While it is easy to ask on the one hand why Cushing is not remembered in the manner of a John Paul Jones or Stephen Decatur, it is equally easy to see that the answer lies in the volatility and exaggeration that marked his character—oddly the very confluence of qualities that brought him success and renown. His delicate balance of those characteristics reached its zenith on the misty morning when he sent the Albemarle to the bottom of the Roanoke River.

No one could diminish that triumph or the honors that ensued, but it is clear that in the end, those very traits that brought him brief glory resulted in—perhaps with some predictability—a tarnish on “Albemarle” Cushing’s legacy.



1. CDR William B. Cushing to GEN Juan Burriel, 16 November 1873, Department of State, “Message of the President Relating to the Steamer Virginius ” (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1874), Miscellaneous Correspondence: No. 158.

2. William B. Cushing, The Sea Eagle , ed. Alden R. Carter, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 75.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 34; Kenneth Greenberg, Honor & Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996), 62.

7. Cushing, The Sea Eagle , 22.

8. Ibid., 16.

9. Ralph J. Roske and Charles Van Doren, Lincoln’s Commando (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1957), 88.

10. Cushing to Mary Edwards, 12 December 1860, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

11. Ibid., 1 March 1861, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

12. Cushing to Welles, 2 September 1864, U.S. Department of the Navy, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies , hereafter ORN , (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1894–1922), series I, vol. 10: 417.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Cushing to Welles, 2 September 1864, ORN , series I, vol. 10: 418.

17. Welles to Seward, 12 September 1864, ORN , series I, vol. 10: 461.

18. Welles to Cushing, 10 September 1864, ORN , series I, vol. 10: 452.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. John Grattan, Under the Blue Pennant , ed. Robert Schneller (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999), 118.

22. Grattan, Under the Blue Pennant , 143.

23. Roske and Van Doren, Lincoln’s Commando , 303.

24. Robert Elliot, Ironclad of the Roanoke (Shippensburg, PA: White Mane Publishing, 1994), 179.

25. Davenport to Truxtun, 20 April 1864, ORN , Series I, vol. 9: 665.

26. Ibid.

27. Lloyd to Congress, 9 May 1864, ORN , series I, vol. 9: 715.

28. Smith to Lee, 1 June 1864, ORN , series I, vol. 9: 763.

29. Lee to Welles, 9 July 1864, ORN , series I, vol. 10: 248.

30. Robert Schneller, Cushing: Civil War SEAL (Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, 2004), 76.

31. Cushing to Porter, 30 October 1864, ORN , series I, vol. 10: 611.

32. Porter: General Order 34, 5 November 1864, ORN , series I, vol. 10: 618.

33. Schneller, Civil War SEAL , 85.

34. Roske and Van Doren, Lincoln’s Commando , 280.

 

 
 

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