The Invincible Ironclad

  • By Philip Gerard
  • Photography by Corey Cradle

One man builds a warship that seems unsinkable, and his sworn enemy vows to destroy it. (Volume 3, Part 12)

CSS Albemarle Replica

War is the province of audacity.

For two young men, each the sworn enemy of the other, audacity leads to a desperate midnight encounter at the wharf of a small river town in eastern North Carolina. Both are ironclad men: One believes he can build a modern warship in a cornfield; the other believes he can destroy it with a handful of men and a dash of derring-do.

It is a strange fact of this war that navies are both irrelevant to major combat and crucial in deciding the fate of the Confederacy. The Confederacy never sails a deep-water navy to fight it out with the blockading U.S. Navy fleet, yet by its ingenious innovations, it changes the very nature of seaborne battle.

First, the Confederacy spurs the development of the fastest steamships on the oceans, mostly built in Scotland on the banks of the River Clyde.

Second, in February 1864, the C.S.S. Hunley, named for one of its developers, pioneers submarine warfare. Never again can a warship assume safety just because the horizon is clear of enemy vessels.

Third, to protect its rivers, Confederate engineers rig elaborate lines of defense underwater: mines and torpedoes strung across vital channels.

But the real naval arms race is the building of ironclads. The Confederates armor the captured hull of the U.S.S. Merrimack and rechristen it the C.S.S. Virginia. The New York Times paints a word-portrait that does no justice to the ship’s lethal firepower — and ability to withstand shot and shell, steaming “. . . like a submerged house, with the roof only above water.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy develops a flat-topped ironclad with a rotating turret, the U.S.S. Monitor. On March 8, 1862, the Virginia runs rampant in Hampton Roads, sinking the U.S.S. Cumberland and running the U.S.S. Congress onto a sandbar. More than 240 U.S. sailors are killed when the ship burns. The deep-draft frigate U.S.S. Minnesota, maneuvering to get out of range, also runs aground, an easy target when the ironclad returns.

The following day, the Monitor arrives on the scene, and the two ironclads slug it out for more than four hours in a torrent of iron shot. Neither can vanquish the other, and they fight to a draw, both vessels heavily damaged. But it is clear to all observers that the ironclad is the warship of the future.

The shipbuilder

Gilbert Elliott is born on a river, the Pasquotank, to a shipbuilding family. His father dies when Elliott is just 7 years of age. As a young man, he reads law at the Elizabeth City office of Col. William Francis Martin. Martin also builds ships. When the colonel is captured with his regiment at Fort Hatteras in August 1861, Elliott assumes management of his shipbuilding enterprise.

Elliott is mature beyond his years. His audacity lies in having the confidence to take on daunting challenges with a cool head and a steady hand.

The shipyard needs a government contract to remain solvent. Martin’s older brother, James, is adjutant general for North Carolina. On Elliott’s behalf, he approaches the government in Richmond, and in October 1861, Elliott is awarded a contract: “The length of keel of said boat is to be one hundred and thirty feet, the breadth twenty-five feet, the depth of hold seven feet. . .” Elliott would be paid “the sum of fifty dollars per ton of Carpenters Measurement.” The vessel will turn out to be considerably larger — 152 feet long and 45 feet wide, her topsides planked with four-inch-thick yellow pine, sheathed in an additional four inches of armor plate. Her ram will protrude 18 feet. Two 6.4-inch Brooke rifled cannons can be shifted between six gunports as needed.

The design is provided by John Luke Porter, the architect of the C.S.S. Virginia, under construction at Portsmouth, Virginia.

Thus, at the age of 19, Elliott begins constructing an armored ram for the Confederacy at the Martin Shipyard in Elizabeth City: the C.S.S. Albemarle.

Like her sister ship, the Albemarle will be slow and ungainly, but her massive armor should render her invulnerable to the shallow-draft Union gunboats. She will be the perfect river battleship, an immovable object standing in the way of Union control of the water.

Elliott has scarcely begun assembling men and materials when the city is threatened with capture. By February 1862, Elliott has moved all his equipment and workers to a site at Norfolk, Virginia, some 50 miles away. The Martin Shipyard is burned.

Only a couple of months later, when Norfolk, too, comes under threat, Elliott must disband his workers, crate his equipment, and head back to North Carolina. He briefly enlists in the 17th Regiment of North Carolina Infantry under his old boss, William Martin. But his talents lie elsewhere. Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory plucks him from the ranks and gives him a two-year furlough to resume the building of the Albemarle — this time at Edward’s Ferry Shipyard, above Plymouth on the Roanoke River.

Edward’s Ferry Shipyard turns out to be just a cornfield with no facilities. But Elliott is determined and resourceful. His crews scavenge the countryside for tools and parts. Iron is hard to come by — most of it is hoarded by the railroads. He badgers officials, pleading relentlessly with the government.

In 1863, Gov. Zebulon Vance authorizes 400 tons of North Carolina Railroad iron to be used for construction of ironclads, but more than a year passes before the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond can transform it into armor plates.

At last, on April 17, 1864, the ironclad is formally commissioned and launched. She immediately begins the slow journey downriver toward battle under the command of James W. Cooke, a North Carolina native who oversaw the fitting out. Determined to see his project through to the finish, Gilbert Elliott serves as his volunteer aide.

Much work is left to be done. Blacksmith’s forges are set up on her flat fore and aft decks. Mechanics swarm over the hull, still fitting and hammering iron plates. Twenty veteran sailors come aboard to swell her crew to 150 as she drifts downriver.

At Williamston, hundreds of spectators turn out in carriages and small boats to watch the leviathan pass. By suppertime, she is a blur sliding downriver. At 10 o’clock, the drive shaft comes unseated and progress halts for major repairs.

Farther on, it is reported that sunken ships block the way downriver. Commander Cooke and Elliott investigate and find a channel 10 feet deep — more than sufficient for passage. The great ram slides through in the dead of night, and at dawn goes into ferocious action against the enemy flotilla at Plymouth.

Blocking the Albemarle’s way are two gunboats, the U.S.S. Southfield and the U.S.S. Miami, chained together in the channel, commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Charles W. Flusser. The Albemarle charges toward them and rams the Southfield, which sinks quickly — still impaled by the ironclad’s ram. On board the Miami, gun crews fire at point-blank range. Commander Flusser yanks the lanyard of a 9-inch gun. His shot ricochets off the Albemarle’s sloping armor, careens back, and explodes above Flusser’s gun, killing him and several crewmen. The U.S. squadron retreats downriver and the Confederates stream into Plymouth, their victory assured by the invincible ironclad.

The daredevil

William Barker Cushing — Will to his friends — is restless almost from the day he is born in Wisconsin. His father, a physician, dies of pneumonia when Cushing is just 5 years old. His widowed mother moves the family to Fredonia, New York, where they reside on the bottom rung of the social ladder, dependent on the largesse of uncles. Cushing is egotistical and hot-tempered, headstrong and quick to take offense at any casual insult, with an almost pathological craving for danger. He is also insanely brave. Friends speculate that the loss of his father drives him to prove himself.

Appointed to U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis by his uncle Francis, a congressman, he shares classes with the likes of George Dewey and Alfred Thayer Mahan.

But he is impatient with his teachers, and he chafes at the necessity of sitting still indoors. Midway through his plebe year, he has already racked up 147 demerits. When he fails his Spanish exam, his professor reports: “Deficient in Spanish. Aptitude for Study: good. Habits of study: irregular. General conduct: bad. Aptitude for Naval Service: not good.”

Cushing is summarily dismissed from the Academy — only to be reinstated in the Navy when war begins. He is insubordinate to officers he considers too timid. But the very traits that sabotage his career as a scholar and a subordinate make him a daring and unconventional warrior.

After leading several bold raids in Virginia and North Carolina, he is denied by his commanding officer permission to land and take the battery at Smith’s Island thereby pinching off one entrance into the Cape Fear River. So Cushing conceives another plan: “My object was to take the commanding general from his bed, in the midst of his men, and to take him out of the harbor in one of his own steamers.”

But Brigadier Gen. Louis Hébert, commandant of Fort Caswell, is not at home when the raiders arrive, so Cushing carries off Capt. Patrick Kelly, Hébert’s chief engineer.

In April 1864, Adm. Samuel Phillips Lee, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, awards Cushing a “roving commission” to capture or destroy prizes on his own initiative. Cushing is 21 years old.

By May 1864, Cushing has set his sights on the ironclad ram C.S.S. Albemarle. He intends to strike far up the Roanoke River and destroy it. Charles Flusser was one of his oldest friends. Will Cushing vows, “I shall never rest until I have avenged his death.”

He acquires two small wooden picket boats. Cushing’s plan is simple and bold: “I intended that one boat should dash in while the other stood by to throw canister and renew the attempt if the first failed.”

But one of his boats is lost due the carelessness of its crew. His remaining boat, christened simply Picket Boat No. 1, is just 35 feet long with a small engine, a screw propeller, and a 12-pound howitzer at the bow. The real weapon is a spar torpedo rigged to a 14-foot boom, ready to unleash against an enemy ship through a complicated system of pulleys, lines, and pins — then detonate by a percussion cap.

The picket boat is manned by 14 volunteers, chosen from among dozens of eager men. One of them, Assistant Acting Paymaster Francis Swan, describes his commander as he prepares to engage the ironclad: “He was a young man about twenty-one years of age, tall, very erect, with light brown hair flowing down to his shoulders . . . His exploits on the coast of North Carolina had preceded him, and he was fully up in style and manner to the picture we had drawn of him.”

Just before midnight on October 27, 1864, shielded by clouds and rain, Cushing’s force — the picket boat escorted by a cutter — enters the mouth of the Roanoke. Picket Boat No. 1 steams upriver quietly, engine muffled by a tarpaulin, hugging the south bank and taking advantage of the cover of overhanging trees.

The stealth tactics work. By 3 a.m., Cushing has reached his target unobserved. But almost immediately, guards on the moored Albemarle spy the picket boat and open fire. Cushing’s coat is shredded by buckshot and he laughs out loud in the melee. He maneuvers his boat nose-to-nose with the ironclad, and amid all the shooting, his crew manages to lower the torpedo boom to the Albemarle’s waterline.

Cushing haughtily demands the surrender of the ram — and the crew of the ironclad replies with their own demand of surrender.

Meanwhile, inside the Albemarle, the gun crew is frantically loading a round. Like some figure out of an adventure romance, Cushing stands upright in the bow of the picket boat, right hand clutching the release line of the torpedo, left hand holding the trigger pin.

At the same moment the ironclad’s cannon fires, Cushing detonates the torpedo, and all hell breaks loose. A geyser of water and fire erupts between the boats. Men fly out of the picket boat. Cushing dives underwater.

The Albemarle is fatally wounded, a six-foot hole blown in her underbelly.

In the ensuing chaos and gunfire, two of Cushing’s volunteers drown. Eleven are captured, and just one escapes. Cushing swims to the swamp downriver, steals a skiff, and eventually is rescued at the mouth of the river by sailors of the picket boat Valley City.

Will Cushing is a hero of the Union, enjoying the thanks of both Congress and President Lincoln. His hometown, Fredonia, throws a gala for him at the concert hall and welcomes him with a standing ovation. He tours Northern cities, famous and fortunate, but in January 1865 rejoins the fleet for its second assault on Fort Fisher. He will lead a detachment of sailors across the beach in a desperate and doomed frontal charge.

After the war, Gilbert Elliott resumes his profession of attorney and resides for periods in Norfolk, St. Louis, and New York City, where he dies suddenly at the age of 51.

The Albemarle is raised and towed to Norfolk, where she is auctioned off to the highest bidder, who pays $2,500 for her iron.

Port O’ Plymouth Museum
302 East Water Street
Plymouth, N.C. 27962
(252) 793-1377
Explore displays of Civil War artifacts and see a replica of the C.S.S. Albemarle at the museum.

Philip Gerard is an author and chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

To view all stories from Our State’s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

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