Students of the American Civil are generally familiar with Lt. Alonzo Cushing, the heroic 22-year-old Wisconsin native who died commanding Battery B, 4th US Artillery at Gettysburg. I remember visiting the Gettysburg Battlefield a number of years ago and standing at the very place Cushing and his men made their stand stemming what would historians would call Confederate High Tide. In 2010 Alonzo Cushing received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Gettysburg, a medal 147 years over do.
What many people do not know is the story of the other Cushing, the less famous one who had an interesting and heroic career in the Union Navy during the Civil War.
I was reminded of William Cushing as I read his story in John Lehman’s Seas of Glory.
To get our minds around William Cushing’s contributions to the Union cause during the Civil War we must first grasp the role of the Union Navy during the conflict. As most people familiar with the American Civil War know most of the fighting in the Civil War was between land armies commanded by well-known names such as Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on the Confederate side and U.S. Grant and W.T. Sherman on the Union side.
Yet the US Navy, played a key strategic role in winning the war.
The industrial North inherited the bulk of the US Navy and quickly built it’s strength in order to strangle the southern economy by blockading the entire southern coastline as well as occupying key cities and ports along that coastline. It took about 3 years to make the blockade truly effective but the US Navy did it with the help of Army whose troops they transported up and down the coasts and rivers. (See Anaconda Plan for more details on Winfield Scott’s strategic plan.)
It was along the coastline and within the rivers that William Cushing would make his name.
But Cushing’s naval career did not start out well.
Cushing was born in 1842, one of seven children, in Delafield, Wisconsin, not far from where I live. His father, a doctor, died when he was only four. He entered the Naval Academy in 1857 and promptly earned enough demerits that he got kicked out just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.
Cushing’s family was well-connected and then as now, that could mean something. Some strings were pulled and the nation needed Naval officers for the rapidly expanding US Navy. Cushing was appointed an acting Master’s Mate on the USS Minnesota, a steam frigate of 47 guns.
Cushing might not have impressed his instructors at the Naval Academy but he had all the qualities of a fighting and derring-do sailor, a trait the Union Navy would need in the coming years if the Anaconda Plan was to have a chance of strangling the southern economy.
Cushing distinguished himself during his time on the USS Minnesota and was reappointed a midshipman in the US Navy. He then became the executive officer on a Commodore class gunboat, named the Commodore Perry. He became the gunboat’s Lieutenant nine months later.
The lowly gunboat would become a key element in implementing the Anaconda Plan. Gunboats were heavily armed vessels of shallow draft, perfect to go far inland in the rivers and creeks of the Confederate coast. It was dangerous work and the Confederates (infantry and artillery) would often ambush gunboats as they patrolled. During one such patrol the Rebs did just that.
Gunboats often had a small 12lb howitzer aboard. Unlike a fixed cannon, a small howitzer could be wheeled about the deck to fire in any direction, a rather useful feature when you are stuck in a river and could be attacked from any angle.
The Commodore Perry ran aground, a common occurrence in the narrow rivers and creeks. A large detachment of Confederate infantry seeking to take advantage of the stuck gunboat charged. Cushing and seven volunteers took one of the howitzers, wheeled it into position and let loose a round of canister (used in close range at infantry canister was like a huge blast from a shotgun). The Confederates were driven off, the gunboat saved and the mission accomplished. Cushing was cited for gallantry and given his own gunboat, the Ellis.
Cushing again and again distinguished himself in the river wars along the Confederate coast and was again cited for bravery by Gideon Welles himself.
Eventually, Cushing was given command of the Monticello, a seagoing vessel that was supposed to run down blockade runners or fight it out with Confederate schooners of similar size.
But, as Lehman says, “Cushing was destined for a run-in with a far more formidable vessel.”
The more formidable vessel was the CSS Albemarle, an armored ram, which was more than a match for any of the unarmored Union gunboats the ram was designed to take on. The Confederates had plans to build five rams just like the Albemarle and had they done so the Union Navy would have had a much harder time than they did. As it was the Confederates only finished the Albemarle.
As it was, the Albemarle was a terror in its own right successfully sinking or damaging many Union vessels in Albemarle Sound. The Union Navy in the area was stymied by the Albmarle. Gideon Welles wanted to bring down a monitor to slug it out with the Albemarle (like the Monitor and the Merrimac on Hampton Roads a few years before) but it was decided it was not feasible.
It was decided that a naval commando raid might do the trick even though a previous raid had failed but had come very close to destroying the Albemarle.
William Cushing was chosen for the next raid which many thought suicidal.
“A plan developed using thirty-two foot steam launches with spar torpedoes. A spar torpedo was a warhead on the end of a twenty-foot pole, which was to be extended out in front of the boat that carried it, to be detonated next to the target ship by pulling a lanyard.” (Seas of Glory. John Lehman, pg. 171)
One of the launches selected for the task was captured by the Confederates during a storm so a cutter manned by fifteen volunteers was substituted.
How they hoped to achieve surprise is a bit of mystery since it only took a barking dog to alarm the Confederate pickets (sentries along the river). Cushing was undeterred. He cut the cutter loose and ordered full speed ahead.
The Confederates lit their alarm bonfire and the fire revealed a log boom deployed in front of the Albemarle to thwart a torpedo attack. The launch crashed into the boom and got partway over the obstacle coming to within ten feet of the Albemarle. With bullets whipping all around him Cushing yanked the lanyard on the torpedo and the Albemarle sunk at her mooring.
The explosion pitched Cushing and all his sailors into the river. Two were drowned, ten were captured, but Cushing and one other sailor managed to swim back to Union lines.
This ended the short-lived Confederate mastery of the river.
Cushing was a national hero. He was promoted to Lieutenant Commander which was not too bad for a naval academy drop out. Unlike his brother Alonzo, William T. never received the Medal of Honor, but five US Navy ships have had his name including DD-985, a Spruance Class Destroyer and the last of its class to go into mothball in 2005.
DD-985 was a successor to an earlier USS Cushing, a Mahan Class Destroyer built in 1936. Note this from the Naval Historical Center’s Online Library:
A few weeks later, on 13 November 1942, Cushing was at the head of the U.S. line during the first night action of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. In an intense gun and torpedo action, she bravely engaged several Japanese ships, among them the battleship Hiei. With their ship battered by shellfire and burning badly, the destroyer’s surviving crewmen were forced over the side into the water, from which they were rescued the following morning. Cushing’s hulk remained afloat until the late afternoon of 13 November, but then suffered a magazine explosion and sank. However, she had helped thwart an enemy bombardment of U.S. positions ashore on Guadalcanal, and thus played a vital role in the successful fight to retain that vital island.
The destroyer would have been Cushing’s type of ship.