William B. Cushing was one of the Civil War’s more colorful characters and daring heroes. He was born in Delafield, Wisconsin, in 1842, but spent most of his young life in Fredonia, New York. From a young age he displayed an adventurous and daring spirit that would prove to be a defining characteristic through much of his life.
At the age of 15, Cushing received an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. While at the Naval Academy, Cushing was a leader amongst his peers and an instigator of countless pranks. Cushing’s wild personality, lack of respect for authority, and a poor academic record did not bode well for him and he was expelled from the Naval Academy just before the Civil War broke-out. Through family ties and political influence, however, he was reinstated and went on to have a distinguished naval career.
During the Civil War, Cushing developed a reputation for conducting daring raids in the coastal and inland waters of North Carolina. For this reason, he was recruited to conduct a commando-style raid on the C.S.S. Albemarle, a Confederate ironclad moored in Plymouth on the Roanoke River.
In April of 1864, the C.S.S Albemarle aided Confederate land forces in recapturing the fortified town of Plymouth and drove the Union Navy from the Roanoke River. Furthermore, the Confederate ironclad had single-handedly engaged a Union naval flotilla in the Albemarle Sound. The Albemarle presented a challenge to Union dominance in eastern North Carolina and had to be destroyed in order for the Union Navy to retake the town. A conventional naval attack was not feasible so it was determined that a raid involving small torpedo boats would be undertaken.
Seeing his opportunity for adventure, fame, and honor, Cushing accepted the mission. Before the raid could take place, two out of three of the boats designated for the mission were lost. Furthermore, the mission’s details were leaked to the New York press and were widely published. Naval leaders suggested that the mission should be abandoned given the breach in secrecy, however, Cushing was determined to sink the Albemarle.
On the night of October 27, 1864, Cushing with a small crew took a small, steam-powered boat up the Roanoke River to Plymouth. Upon reaching the Albemarle, Cushing placed a spar mounted torpedo beneath the Albemarle’s waterline and detonated the explosive. Cushing and his men leapt into the Roanoke River to swim away. Cushing was the only one to make it to safety. He spent the next day hiding in the swamps around Plymouth until he had determined that the Albemarle had been sunk. He then stole a small boat and rowed down Conaby Creek to make his escape. When Cushing reached Union naval forces in the Albemarle Sound he collapsed with exhaustion.
Cushing’s successful raid was trumpeted throughout the United States and he became an instant celebrity. His life, however, was short-lived. After the war, Cushing’s health rapidly deteriorated. At the age of 32, he succumbed to illness and died. His body was buried at the U.S. Naval Academy where it remains today.