Before there were the Navy’s UDT, SEAL or SWCC units, there was Lieutenant William B. Cushing. Only a few days before his 22nd birthday, Cushing led 15 men in a daring raid behind Confederate lines against the ironclad CSS Albemarle. The Albemarle had been built by the Confederate Navy in a cornfield astride the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina. Shortly after her launch in April 1864, the Albemarle sortied down the Roanoke River in a combined operation with General Robert F. Hoke’s infantry brigade. Hoke’s brigade retook the town of Plymouth, North Carolina while Albemarle sank the USS Southfield and drove the remaining US Navy forces downriver.
The re-capture of Plymouth and the presence of Albemarle on the Roanoke River threatened Union dominance of the North Carolina coast. A successful sally by the ironclad could break the blockade then strangling the economic lifeblood of the dying Confederacy. Desperate to destroy the threat of the Albemarle, Union commanders entertained a unique proposal by young Lt. Cushing. Cushing proposed piloting a small picket boat up the Roanoke River and destroying the Albemarle with a spar torpedo. Spar torpedoes, the forerunners of modern self-propelled torpedoes, were a new innovation consisting of crude explosive devices mounted to a long wooden pole that were detonated either manually or on impact.
On the night of October 27, 1864, Cushing and his men silently steamed up the Roanoke River. Protecting the Albemarle was a barrier of chained logs and several sentries. Cushing maneuvered his boat to strike the Albemarle and opened the throttle to full speed. As the launch struck the log boom and rode up over it, Cushing detonated the spar torpedo and blew a massive hole in the Albemarle’s hull. Two of Cushing’s men perished in the attack, 11 were captured and Cushing and another escaped. The Albemarle settled on the river bottom and, unable to raise her, the Confederates quickly lost control of the Roanoke River and were forced to cede back to the Yankees. The Albemarle was raised by the Union and later sold for scrap in 1867.
Cushing continued his exploits with the capture of 3 blockade runners after the fall of Fort Fisher in January of 1865. The blockade runners, unaware Fort Fisher had fallen, were lured into Cushing’s trap when he continued to operate the fort’s signal lights as if it were still in Confederate hands.