William Barker Cushing (4 November 1842 – 17 December 1874) was an officer in the United States Navy, best known for sinking the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle during a daring nighttime raid on October 27, 1864, a feat for which he received the Thanks of Congress.
Early life and career
Cushing was born in Delafield, Wisconsin, and was raised in Fredonia, New York. He was expelled from the United States Naval Academy for pranks and poor scholarship. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, however, he pled his case to United States Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles himself, was reinstated and went on to acquire a distinguished record, frequently volunteering for the most hazardous missions. His heroism, good luck and coolness under fire were legendary.
Several biographers have referred to Lieutenant William B. Cushing as "Lincoln's commando" (though the Boer War-era term was not known in his time). He also saw action during the Battle of Hampton Roads and at Fort Fisher, among many others. Cushing was promoted to lieutenant in 1862, and to commander in 1872, although many historians believe he deserved even greater honors for his bravery. Both of his brothers died in uniform, one (Alonzo Cushing) in the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, and another while fighting the Apaches in 1871.
It was his daring plan and its successful execution against the Confederacy's ironclad ram CSS Albemarle that defined his military career. The powerful ironclad dominated the Roanoke River and the approaches to Plymouth through the summer of 1864. By autumn, the U. S. government decided that the situation should be studied to determine if something could be done. The U. S. Navy considered various ways to destroy Albemarle, including two daring plans submitted by Lieutenant Cushing. They finally approved one of his plans and authorized him to locate two small steam launches that might be fitted with spar torpedoes. Cushing discovered two 30-foot (9.1 m) picket boats under construction in New York and acquired them for his mission (some accounts have them as 45–47 feet). On each he mounted a 12-pound Dahlgren howitzer and a 14-foot (4.3 m) spar projecting into the water from its bow. One of the boats was lost at sea during the voyage from New York to Norfolk, Virginia, but the other arrived safely with its crew of seven officers and men at the mouth of the Roanoke. There, the steam launch's spar was fitted with a lanyard-detonated torpedo.
On the night of 27 and 28 October 1864, Cushing and his men began working their way upriver. A small cutter accompanied them, its crew having the task of preventing interference by the Confederate sentries stationed on a schooner anchored to the wreck of "Southfield." When both boats, under the cover of darkness, slipped past the schooner undetected, Cushing decided to use all 22 of his men and the element of surprise to capture Albemarle.
As they approached the Confederate docks, their luck turned and they were spotted in the dark. They came under heavy sentry fire from both the shore and aboard Albemarle. As they closed with Albemarle, they quickly discovered she was defended against approach by floating log booms. The logs, however, had been in the water for many months and were covered with heavy slime. The steam launch rode up and then over them without difficulty. When her spar was fully against the ironclad's hull, Cushing stood up in the bow and detonated the torpedo's explosive charge.
The explosion threw everyone aboard the steam launch into the water. Recovering quickly, Cushing stripped off his uniform and swam to shore, where he hid until daylight. That afternoon, having avoided detection by Confederate search parties, he stole a small skiff and quietly paddled down-river to rejoin the Union forces at the river's mouth. Of the other men in Cushing's boat, one escaped, two were drowned, and eleven were captured.
Cushing's daring commando raid blew a hole in Albemarle 's hull at the waterline "big enough to drive a wagon in." She sank immediately in the six feet of water below her keel, settling into the heavy bottom mud, leaving the upper armored casemate mostly dry and the ironclad's large Stainless Banner battle ensign flying from its flag staff, where it was eventually captured as a Union prize.
After the Civil War, he served in both the Pacific and Asiatic Squadrons; he was the Executive Officer of the USS Lancaster and commanded the USS Maumee. He also served as ordinance officer in the Boston Navy Yard. Before taking command of USS Maumee, while he was on leave at home in Fredonia, that Cushing met his sister’s, friend, Katherine Louise Forbes. ‘Kate’, as she was known, would sit and listen for hours to William’s stories of adventure. Having decided that he was in love with her and she with him, Cushing asked her to marry him on July 1, 1867. Unfortunately, he received orders and was gone before a ceremony could take place. Finally, on February 22, 1870, Cushing and Forbes would marry. Their first daughter, Marie Louise was born on the first of December 1871.
On January 31, 1872 he was promoted to the rank of commander, becoming the youngest up to that time to attain that rank in the Navy. Two weeks later he was detached to await orders. Weeks of waiting turned into months, but no word came. He had given up hope of another sea command, when early in June 1873 Cushing had an offer to take command of USS Wyoming. He took command of his new ship on July 11, 1873.
Cushing commanded the Wyoming with his typical flair for being where the action was, performing daring and courageous acts. The warship's boilers broke down twice, and in April she was ordered to Norfolk for extensive repairs. On April 24, Cushing was detached and put on a waiting list for reassignment. He believed that he would be given the Wyoming again when she was ready for duty, but in truth, his ill health would not permit him to command another vessel.
Cushing returned to Fredonia to see his new daughter, Katherine Abell, who had been born October 11, 1873. His wife was shocked to see the condition of her husband. His health was in apparent decline. Kate remarked to William’s mother that he looked to be a man of sixty instead of his thirty-one years.
Cushing had begun having severe attacks of pain in his hip as early as just after the sinking of the Albemarle. None of the doctors he saw were able to make a diagnosis. The term “sciatica” was used in those days without regard to cause for any inflammation of the sciatic nerve, or any pain in the region of the hip. Cushing may have had a ruptured intervertebral disc. He had suffered enough shocks to dislocate half a dozen vertebrae, and with the passage of time it would come to bear more and more heavily upon on the nerve. On the other hand, he may have been suffering from tuberculosis of the hip bone, or cancer of the prostate gland. There was nothing to be done and Cushing continued to suffer.
Cushing was next given the post of executive officer of the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. He spent the summer of 1874 pretending to be happy with his inactive role. He played with his children and enjoyed their company. On August 25 he was made senior aide at the yard; in the fall he amused himself by taking an active interest in the upcoming Congressional elections.
On Thanksgiving Day, William, Kate and his mother went to church in the morning. That night, the pain in Cushing’s back was worse than it had ever been and he couldn’t sleep. The following Monday he dragged himself to the Navy Yard. Kate sent Lieutenant Hutchins, once of the Wyoming and now Cushing’s aide, to bring his superior home. She feared that he wouldn’t last the day.
True to his nature, Cushing stayed at the yard until after nightfall, and went right to bed when he got home. He would not rise again. The pain was constant and terrible. He was given injections of morphine but they only dulled the pain a little.
On December 8, 1874, it became impossible to care for Cushing at home, and he was removed to the Government Hospital for the Insane. His family visited him often, but he seldom recognized them.
Commander Cushing died on December 17, 1874 in the presence of his wife and mother. He was buried on January 8, 1875 at Bluff Point, at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland.
Cushing was survived by his mother, his wife, two daughters and one of his brothers. Kate Cushing, his wife, who never remarried, followed William in death thirty-five years later in January 1910.
William Cushing was a first cousin twice removed of Erskine Hamilton Childers. Cushing's grandparents, Elisha Smith and Mary Butler Bass, were also the great-grandparents of Mary Osgood, Erskine's mother. Elisha Smith was descended from Edward Fuller, and Mary Butler Bass was descended from John Alden through her father and Richard Warren through her mother.
Namesakes and honors
Five ships in the U.S. Navy have been named USS Cushing after him, the last one (DD-985) was decommissioned in September 2005.
His grave is marked by a large, monumental casket made of marble, on which in relief, are the Commander’s hat, sword and coat. On one side of the stone the word ‘Albemarle’ is cut and on the other side, ‘Fort Fisher’.
Another memorial to the Commander hangs in Memorial Hall at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis. In the hall hangs a portrait of Commander Cushing in full dress uniform. Nearly all of the other portraits in the hall are of admirals.
- Edwards, E. M. H., Commander William Baker Cushing, F. Tennyson Neely Publisher, London & New York, 1898, No ISBN.
- Ralph J. Roske, W. B. Cushing, Charles Van Doren - Lincoln's Commando: The Biography of Commander William B. Cushing, U. S. Navy (revised and expanded from the original 1957 first edition), Naval Institute Press, 1995, ISBN 1-55750-737-6
- Robert J. Schneller, Jr., Cushing: Civil War Seal (Brassey's Military Profiles), Potomac Books, 2003, ISBN 1574885065
- Commander W. B. Cushing, The Destruction of the "Albemarle," The Century Magazine, Vol. XXXVI, New Series Vol. XIV, May-October 1888, The Century Co., New York, NY, No ISSN.
- Elliott, Robert G., Ironclad of the Roanoke: Gilbert Elliottt's Albemarle, White Mane Publishing, 1994, ISBN 0-942597-63-X.
- Campbell, R. Thomas, Rebel Fire: Exploits of the Confederate Navy (Chapters 8 and 9), Burd Street Press, 1997, ISBN 1-57249-046-2.
- Hinds, John W., The Hunt for the Albemarle: Anatomy of a Gunboat War, Burd Street Press, 2002, ISBN 978-1572492165.
- Cushing's NY Times obituary
- USS Cushing Reunion Association
- "Cushing, William Barker". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. 1900.
- Template:Cite EB1911
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