Monday, July 4, 2011

July 4th history lesson

Covert operations, while recently famous due to the hunt for Bin Ladin, have been an integral part of militaries since the dawn of time. The technology changes, but the people don't. Out of many remarkable ones, probably the most successful operation of this type (in my opinion) was the British commandos who knowingly went on the one-way Operation Chariot (which is rarely mentioned in schoolbooks today).

But, since it's July 4th, I'm going to write about an American most of you have probably never heard of. Although he certainly wasn't the first American to carry out a dangerous mission, he did what many thought was impossible.

During the American Civil War the new technology of iron warships was being repeatedly put to the combat test- with stalemate results. Although metal ships could easily destroy wooden ones, clashes between ironclads typically resulted in a lot of smoke and noise, but both opponents survived. Sinking a solid ironclad remained a challenge.

In 1864 a single, dangerous, Confederate warship, the Albemarle, was guarding the North Carolina Sounds from Union forces. She was small by today's standards, and had been built in a cornfield because of a lack of shipyards. But in her iron hull she had 2 powerful cannons, and had proven herself in combat. Her existence was a thorn in the side for Union forces, who didn't have an available ironclad that could travel far enough to reach her. Her location, and potential to get out and cause trouble, prevented more extensive military plans from being carried out.

Even when young, William Barker Cushing was a chronically ill man, with recurrent respiratory infections and headaches. He was, nevetheless, admitted to the U.S. Naval Academy- only to be expelled in his 2nd year for pranks. But when the Civil War started 3 weeks later officers were needed, and he was reinstated. In spite of his multiple health problems he proved himself to be a relentless warrior, and at age 19 was given command of 2 ships that had been taken as prizes.

He excelled in daring missions, leading a raid into a confederate harbor to burn ships, and later several missions behind enemy lines to destroy military supplies. He was promoted rapidly, and was even brought to meet President Lincoln to give him a personal appraisal of the war. A few weeks later Cushing's brother was killed in the fighting at Gettysburg.

In 1864 he led a covert raid to capture a Confederate general, Louis Hebert. The raid was almost successful- but Hebert had traveled to Wilmington on business the day before. Cushing took other prisoners, and left a signed note on Hebert's desk saying "I deeply regret that you were not here when I called."

Cushing thought about the Albemarle hiding upriver, and how to stop the seemingly invincible ironclad. He finally came up with the idea of a surprise attack using a small boat and explosives.

It seemed like a suicide mission, and hadn't been done before. But the Albemarle was a problem that had to be dealt with, and Cushing had shown a remarkable ability to do the impossible. His commanding officer recorded that he personally felt Cushing's idea was "a forlorn hope... I have no great confidence in his success" but, since a failed mission would cost the Union only 2 boats and a small group of men, was willing to proceed.

Cushing went from ship-to-ship in the blockading Union squadron, asking for volunteers. He told them of the dangers: traveling up the Roanoke river, trying to slip by confederate outposts and sentries, and sinking an ironclad.

On October 27 he and his handpicked crew had a champagne dinner to celebrate the coming success of their mission (or their last meal) before leaving. They sailed at 11:00 p.m. on a small wooden steam-powered boat, with an explosive charge mounted on a long pole in front.

It was a dark night, with rain. Cushing and his men managed to slip past several Confederate stations before the Albemarle's night watch saw him and rang the alarm He was too close at that point for the ironclad's cannons to be used, but her crew, and shore troops, opened up a withering fire.

Cushing continued on, only to discover the Albemarle was surrounded by a floating log boom, linked by heavy ropes. It was too far away from the ship for his explosive to work. By this time one of Cushing's men had been wounded by enemy fire, and Cushing himself, while unharmed, had his clothes shot through in 3 places.

He turned his boat away - and for a few minutes the Confederates thought he'd been driven off. But Cushing just wanted to build up speed. After traveling 100 yards downriver he turned around, and throttled to full speed. He and his men knew there was no way to get back over the boom once they crossed it.

The heavy fire continued. Cushing was shot in the left hand, and the back of his jacket and sole of one shoe had been shot off. But he didn't flinch. His boat struck the logs and went over, driving the explosive charge into the Albemarle. The force of the blast "blew a hole you could drive a wagon through" and the ironclad rapidly settled into the mud as her crew jumped to shore.

Their boat trapped, Cushing and his crew abandoned it. Only Cushing would return to safety, the others all surrendering or drowning. But they had done what no ship had been able to: sink an ironclad.

Cushing swam downriver that night, and spent the next day evading Confederate patrols in a swamp. That evening he stole a rowboat and paddled back out to the waiting Union fleet. With the news of the Albemarle's loss the Union forces moved rapidly, and successfully, upriver.

Cushing's star was bright, but brief. After the Civil War he began having debilitating attacks of hip pain, and his headaches and respiratory problems worsened. He married and had children. In spite of his health issues he tried to remain in active service. At age 30 he became the youngest man in U.S. history (up to that time) to become a Commander.

His pain worsened, and spread. The medical science at the time didn't find a cause for his worsening (now suspected to be either Tuberculosisis or metastatic cancer). On Thanksgiving 1874 it was incapacitating, and he became delirious. He died 3 weeks later, and was buried at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery.

He was 32.


Nite Nurse said...

I love your history lessons. I always learn something.

Happy Independence Day.

Chrysalis said...

What a spirit. Guts!

Love the history posts, Dr. Grumpy.

RehabRN said...

Having lived in a shipbuilding town, I can really appreciate that ironclad building story.

Those Civil War characters were really that! (A war hero despite being thrown out of Annapolis for pranks).

pAula said...

Quite the story, thank you.

Anonymous said...

For being "sickly" he was a tough little guy.

Rick said...

When you're a Plebe, you have to write a story based on one of the gravesites. A kid in my class did this one, very cool story.

Single Female Doc said...

Brilliant. Enjoyed that. :-)

Sarah Glenn said...

Great story. Love your history posts.

ndenunz said...

Living in northeastern North Carolina, I appreciate the history lesson that is "close to home".

Thatgirl said...

Even being from the south, I'm impressed ;-)

Anonymous said...

Them's some balls. Maybe he knew he was not due to live long so he just went for it.

Anonymous said...

awesome vignette from a complex time. the confederate ironclads were a very real strategic threat to the anaconda union blockade. but a navy cannot be built in a cornfield. this cushing was a true hero, but i would not want him as a co. as batsump crazy as any gold bar.

Anonymous said...

Balls of steel, and he was cute, too. They don't make 'em like that any more.

Daniel said...

Thanks for this. Much appreciated.

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