A prodigy of behind-the-lines warfare, Cushing fought with distinction at the Battle of Fort Fisher and led numerous audacious raids into Confederate-held territory, where he sank ships, freed slaves, and gathered intelligence. In his most famous exploit, a David-versus-Goliath tale made real in October 1864, the young lieutenant stood in an open boat directly under the guns of the Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle and, while exposed to a withering fire, detonated a torpedo under the lip of the ship’s armor, sinking the fearsome vessel. He then eluded Rebel posses and escaped eight miles to Union lines. Already the youngest man to be made lieutenant in the history of the Navy, Cushing was immediately promoted and became its youngest lieutenant commander; eventually he would become its youngest commander. His premature death in 1874 ended a career that had recognized no limits.
A 'Talent for Buffoonery'
While William Cushing’s heroic feats as a young Union Navy officer are part of the historical record, the traditional account of why he was kicked out of the U.S. Naval Academy on the eve of the Civil War is pure fiction.At the start of 1861, William B. Cushing, just turned 18, was in his senior year at the U.S. Naval Academy. Though obviously intelligent, Cushing was a classic underachiever, a young man who had seldom been motivated to earn more than average grades, or to attain a high score in anything other than demerits accrued. He was popular among his fellow students for his cunning pranks and imaginative spirit, but no one who knew him would have predicted that during the next four years Cushing would perform acts of daring that would rank him among the Navy’s greatest heroes.
By Jamie Malanowski