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William Barker Cushing

The Story of William Barker Cushing
William Barker Cushing was born in Delafield, Wisconsin on November 4, 1842, the fifth of seven children born to Doctor Milton Buckingham Cushing and Mary Barker Smith. The five Navy ships that have been called Cushing were named after Commander William Barker Cushing, a true Naval hero of the American Civil War.

Even as a child, William Cushing was drawn to adventure and to the sea. At the age of three Will, as he was known, donned a tall black hat, eyed some boats that were leaving a dock and ran after them. When he reached the end of the dock he stepped off into the water. A sailor lounging nearby couldn’t catch him in time but jumped in after him and saved Will before he drowned.

A year later, on the first of January, William Cushing decided to make his way around the world by land. Apparently remembering his first attempt at walking on water, Will crept into the family’s barn where his father kept an unbroken colt. The perfect means of land transportation! Noticing that the colt wasn’t shoed Will remembered watching a blacksmith shoe horses. How hard could it be? He fetched four shoes a hammer and some nails from the nearby workbench and approached the horse. The horse having noticed that a four year old with a handful of shoes, nails and a hammer is probably disaster in the making, reared and kicked. The first kick sent Will flying and knocked him unconscious. When he awoke he found he had lost all of his front teeth.

In the fall of 1846 Dr. Cushing’s health was failing. Thinking that travel would be good for him he set out on a journey. The journey ended the second week in April when he came down with a cold which developed into pneumonia. He died at the age of forty-six in a hotel room in Gallipolis, Ohio on the 22nd of April. At the age of four, William Barker Cushing was without a father.

Mary Cushing moved her family back to Fredonia early in the summer of 1847. Realizing she had a large family to support and not much in the way of income, Mary decided to open a school in her home. With the school’s success and the help from her children’s after school jobs, she was able to hold hearth and home together.

On September 25, 1857, William Barker Cushing became a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. He was just two months shy of his 15th birthday. Writing home to his mother the proud young Will described the naval uniform as “distinctly nautical.” The jacket was navy blue, double-breasted with a rolling collar bearing a gold foul anchor on each side. Trousers were navy blue and cut slim. Under the jacket was a white shirt, and the necktie was a loosely flowing black handkerchief.

A model midshipman young Cushing wasn’t. It would require 200 demerit points to “return a midshipman to his friends” and William’s first year alone he received 99 demerits. None were for serious offenses. The next year he did much better...he received 188 demerits. Again they were for annoying little misconduct’s. At one point William came very close to being dismissed. It must have been a sobering experience because in his third he managed to collect only 155 demerits.

Despite the brilliant naval career that he eventually had William Cushing wasn’t what you could call scholarly material. In his second year at the academy, in a class of thirty-seven, he stood "3 in gunnery, 8 in ethics, 13 in astronomy and 9 in general order of merit and last in conduct."

The young man’s love of ‘skylarking’ got him in trouble during his last year at the Academy, when he started playing jokes on his Spanish professor. One evening, as the professor opened the door to his quarters to depart on a social outing, a tub of water fell over from the door top and drenched him. Just before February examinations, Cushing was caught showing an uncomplimentary caricature of the same professor to his classmates. This didn’t cause his expulsion, but the professor found him deficient in Spanish after the examination.

Superintendent Blake had a heated exchange with Cushing in January 1861. The next month, he learned of Cushing’s failure in Spanish. No doubt the irreverent Cushing sorely tested Blake’s patience with poor conduct and lack of diligence with his studies. Cushing’s angry outburst, however, may have had engendered some personal resentment in Blake.

Cushing wouldn’t graduate from Annapolis. It has been commonly thought that he simply quit the academy. Not so. Cushing’s casual approach to discipline and academics was just too disruptive and could no longer be tolerated. Superintendent Blake forwarded the following report to the Navy Department: "Deficient at February semi-annual examination, 1861. Midshipman William B. Cushing. Deficient in Spanish. Aptitude for study: good. Habits of study: irregular. General conduct: bad. Aptitude for Naval Service: not good. Not recommended for continuance at the Academy." He was ordered to leave the Academy just months before his class was expected to graduate. His forced resignation was signed on March 23, 1861.

Stunned by this enforced resignation Cushing went to Washington and stayed with Commodore Smith. He spent much of his time wandering around, meeting up with fellow midshipman from time to time. He was invited to join the Confederate Navy and after briefly entertaining how ironic and poetic that would be, he declined the offer.

Gideon Wells, the Secretary of the Navy, who had informed Cushing of the final decision as to his dismissal apparently saw something in the young man that others had not. Wells was impressed by the sincerity with which Cushing presented himself when he approached the Secretary about an appointment. "The Navy, sir is my life--and I was, and am, determined to serve in it" William declared.

In an appointment back-dated to April 1st, Cushing was made an Acting Master’s Mate in the United States Volunteer Navy, and assigned to the USS Minnesota. Cushing informed Wells that he would gain advancement and that the Secretary would never have cause to regret his decision. The rank paid only forty dollars a month but at least Cushing was in the Navy...although not yet at sea.

The Minnesota was one of the largest ships in the navy at the time. She carried forty-seven guns and a crew of 540; she was powered by both steam and sail, and could make 12 knots. One night, during a storm off of Hampton Roads, from out of the darkness came the Confederate blockade runner Delaware Farmer. Bearing down on the Minnesota and on a collision course the men on the deck froze in fear. Cushing sprang to the wheel and put the ship hard over to port but a collision couldn’t be avoided. However, his actions avoided having the Delaware Farmer cut the ship in two. Instead the two ships hit bow on. The collision tore off the Minnesota’s starboard bulwarks, spanker boom, and three or four backstays.

After showing his mettle, Cushing quickly rose up the ladder of naval success. On June 1, 1861, he was warranted as a midshipman (the same rate he would have had if he would have graduated from the academy), and was ordered to the USS Cambridge. She was a screw steamer of about 850 tons.

As a result of the Act of Congress July 16, 1862, many opportunities for promotion were created, and Cushing waited hopefully. In spite of his pranks and apparent disregard for discipline, he believed that he deserved to be promoted one grade to Ensign. The Navy agreed, and in August of 1862, promoted the 19 year old Cushing, two grades, to Lieutenant.

Shortly after, Cushing left Cambridge and reported to USS Commodore Perry where he was named Executive Officer. The Commodore Perry was a fourth rated sidewheel steamer with a crew of twenty-one and four guns and was commanded by Cushing’s Academy mentor, Charles Flusser. Cushing and Flusser became a great team during the desperate action against enemy forces on the banks of the Blackwater River.

As a swarm of Confederates rushed to storm the ship, Cushing and seven volunteers wheeled a howitzer out amid a hail of bullets. Taking deliberate aim, he fired a devastating round of canister at the charging horde. For his bold action, Flusser commended Cushing in his official report for great gallantry.

Cushing was offered his own command of USS Ellis. The ship was then an iron ship, measured about 100 tons with a mounted eighty-pounder rifle forward, and a twelve-pounder rifle howitzer aft. The Ellis was lost, under Cushing’s command, at New Inlet, November 24, 1862.

Cushing became the Commander of USS Commodore Barney. The Commodore Barney was a powerful steamer of 512 tons with a very heavy battery consisting of five one-hundred-pounder smoothbore guns, a one-hundred-pounder Parrott rifle and a twelve-pound howitzer. She carried a crew of about a hundred and twenty five men and thirteen officers. In the middle of July, 1863, Cushing was relieved of the command of Commodore Barney when she was withdrawn from service.

On August 9, 1863 Cushing became the Commander of USS Shokokon. In his own words it was "a large and fast ferryboat with the hull built out". Caught in a gale, Shokokon was severely damaged. Much to everyone's surprise, the ship weathered the storm, and was sent to Hampton Roads, Virginia for repairs. While the ship was being repaired, Cushing was sent to Washington to deliver dispatches to the Navy Department. While there, Assistant Navy Secretary Fox ordered Cushing to take command ofUSS Monticello.

Cushing had taken command of USS Monticello while it was still in overhaul at Philadelphia. She was a real war vessel, extremely seaworthy, and with a good armament. She was a ship of trim lines, lying low in the water, and capable of well over twelve knots under a full head of steam and canvas. Monticello had one funnel amidships and two masts; the rear was gaff-rigged while the foremast carried two square sails. She could also fly at least two jibs. She was painted black, but alongside her bows was an intricate curling decoration in gold paint with the letters of her name picked out in gold. As Monticello sailed from Philadelphia, just up the Roanoke River they were putting the last rivets into the into the iron sides of CSS Albemarle.

In July, 1863, Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee called his aide, and instructed him to get Lt Cushing to his office "As quick as you can." Five days later, Cushing was standing in the Admiral's cabin. The Admiral proposed that Cushing lead an expedition against the Albemarle. With that, a new commanding officer for the Monticello was requested and Cushing embarked on his new mission.

The Albemarle had sunk or damaged several Union warships during the spring and summer of 1864 and was causing considerable apprehension in Washington D.C. because no Union ironclad could navigate the shoals off the North Carolina coast. This allowed the ports in the area to remain open to blockade runners as Albemarle could destroy the wooden inshore blockading squadron. Lieutenant Cushing proposed a small boat attack on the ironclad using boats of his own design. The Navy Department agreed and sent the twenty-one year old officer to New York to have the boats built. After a brilliant service in the blockading fleet off the North Carolina Coast, Cushing’s plans were to outfit the torpedo boats with a spar torpedo and destroy the formidable and dangerous Confederate ram, Albemarle.

Lt Cushing proposed a small boat attack on the ironclad using boats of his own design. The Navy Department agreed, and sent the 21 year old officer to New York to have the boats built. Once there, he obtained two 30ft picket boats. Engineers had outfitted the open steam launches with small, screw propelled engines, 12-pounder howitzers mounted in their bows, and a complicated 14ft torpedo hook securely bracketed to the sides of the launches.

Testing of the torpedo boom took place in the Hudson River. If the boom was extended properly, and if the aiming lanyard and the trigger line were properly manipulated, the 100 pounds of powder would detonate.

Cushing had no trouble recruiting 26 volunteers to accompany him in the launches, on his missions. Many of the ones not selected offered to give those selected a month’s pay if they would swap places.

On the night of October 27, 1864 Cushing led his volunteers in one of his small steam driven boats up the Roanoke River to North Carolina. Albemarle had been secured in a log boom. She was protected by a pen of logs that extended about 30 feet from the vessel. The fire watch on the bank of the river afforded Cushing a good view of the logs that encircled the Albemarle. Pressing the attack, at about 0300, he turned away and went about 100 yards from the target. Turning again, he steered the launch at full speed to hit the log booms squarely. Cushing knew that this was the only way to get the torpedo boom close enough to the ram, and he also knew the launch would have no way of freeing itself.

The Albemarle's Captain, Lieutenant Alexander Warley, demanded to know what boat it was; Cushing fired a shot of canister from his bow howitzer in response. Cushing then rammed the log barrier at full speed and, as Cushing had guessed it would, slid over the slick barrier causing his boat to stick fast, less than ten feet from the mighty ironclad.

From this position, by the use of lines that he controlled while standing on the bow, Cushing lowered the torpedo into the water, released it, waited for the torpedo to settle under the ironclad, then detonated it. At the instant the torpedo exploded the fatally crippled Albemarle fired one of its eight inch guns at Cushing’s craft. Fortunately, the gun could not be depressed enough to hit Cushing’s boat, but the concussion swamped it. Cushing and a few others dove into the river attempting to escape. Two were drowned and ten were captured. Only Cushing and one seaman escaped. Cushing eluded his pursuers and managed to work his way through enemy territory to the coast where he was picked up by the blockading Union forces. For this action Cushing was promoted meritoriously to Lieutenant Commander and received the official thanks of Congress, the only non-flag officer of the Civil War to be so honored.

President Abraham Lincoln sent a special message to the Senate and House of Representatives. It read

In conformity to the law of July 16, 1862, I most cordially recommend that Lieutenant William B. Cushing, United States Navy, receive a vote of thanks from Congress for his important, gallant and perilous achievement in destroying the rebel ironclad steamer Albemarle on the night of the 27th of October, 1864, at Plymouth, NC. The destruction of so formidable a vessel, which had resisted the continued attacks of a number of our vessels on former occasions, is an important event touching our future naval and military operations, and would reflect honor on any officer, and redound to the credit of this young officer and the few brave comrades who assisted in this successful and daring undertaking.
At the end of the war even the captain of the Albemarle said of Cushing, "A more gallant thing was not done during the war.

The war was not yet over in December of 1864. There was still General Lee, waiting in Virginia. There was still Fort Fisher.

Fort Fisher, which defended the entrance to the Cape Fear River and thus the city of Wilmington, was the last great Confederate port; Lee said he would not hold Richmond if he lost Wilmington. On December 2, Cushing was named commander of the USS Malvern. Eleven days later the Malvern left Hampton Roads, joined more of the fleet off North Carolina and and on December 18, sailed south for the attack.

The first attack was made on Fort Fisher on Christmas Eve, and the next day, in 1864. It was completely unsuccessful, and the Union forces were forced to withdraw. At the same time, Cushing was up to his usual tricks.

Cushing had noted that the channel was not well marked on Union charts, and at about 1300, he and a few men set out in a boat to sound the channel. Directly under the guns of the most important fort in the South! Cushing wore every bit of gold braid that he was allowed, and his boat flew the blue and white pennant of a commanding officer. Shocked, the Confederates did not fire for ten minutes. When they came out of their stupor, they made up for lost time. Shells splashed all around his boat, but they did not score a hit upon it. After some six hours, Cushing and his men returned to Malvern. By the way, the channel was unsuitable for the larger ships in the fleet.

After Christmas, Cushing was detached from Malvern, and placed in command of USS Monticello again. After chasing blockade runners, he returned to the fleet which was planning another attack on Fort Fisher.

On January 13, 1865, eight thousand assault troops were landed under cover of a naval bombardment that lasted until the next day. The final battle for Fort Fisher was on. The fort had been weakened by previous bombardments, but it was still going to be hard to take. A decision was made to send an assault column of sailors ashore to help the army. As part of the column, which was made up with men and officers from nearly every ship in the fleet, Cushing went ashore with forty men on January 15. By early afternoon, they had built a breastwork less than two hundred yards from the walls of the fort.

At 1500, every steam whistle in the fleet was sounded as the signal to advance. Cushing and his friend Lieutenant Benjamin Porter were in the front of the column. The defending fire was fierce, and men were dying all around Cushing. One of his men called out that the sailors were retreating, and Cushing found himself alone. The entire Union line was retreating! Cushing new that he had to rally his men. He ran to them, but they could not be stopped. He returned to the beach with them, which was now covered with the dead and wounded.

During the next several hours, Cushing seemed to be everywhere at once. He was mentioned in at least a half-dozen official reports. He organized help for the wounded, ensuring that they would not be drowned by the incoming tide. He was seen gathering a group of sailors for a final assault on the fort, but a Union general stopped him.

The Union Army had taken advantage of the Navy's attack, and the Confederate efforts to repulse it and got into the fort. Cushing and his sailor were ordered to take up positions in a line of entrenchments that had been set up to prevent a Confederate counter attack from the rear. The sailors remained through the night, but no attack ever came. The next morning, the survivors of the sailors' assault returned to their ships.For Fisher was now in Union hands.

After the fall of Fort Fisher, Cushing remained busy. On January 17, he captured Fort Caswell. On the 19th, he captured Smithville, North Carolina. For the remainder of January, he chased blockade runners. On February 4th, he captured the town of All Saints Parish, North Carolina. There were other adventures, but for Will, the war was ending. On February 24, he was detached from Monticello, to await orders. they did not come until after the end of the Civil War.

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. Of course, he received orders and was gone before a ceremony could take place.

Finally, on February 22, 1870 William Barker Cushing and Katherine Louise Forbes would marry. Wasting no time, 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 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 Wyoming'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 in Washington, DC. He spent the summer of 1874 pretending to be happy with his inactive roll. 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 up-coming 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 being 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 8th 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. Click here to read his obituary.

Commander William Barker Cushing was buried on January 8, 1875 at Bluff Point, at the Naval Academy Cemetery in Maryland. His grave is marked by a large, monumental casket in 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 Academy. In the hall hangs a portrait of Commander Cushing in full uniform. Nearly all of the other portraits in the hall are of Admirals.

He was survived by his mother, his wife, two daughters and one of his brothers. Cushing had two other brothers; one died during the Battle of Gettysburg and the other died fighting the Apache in 1871.

Kate Cushing, his wife, who never remarried, followed William in death thirty-five years later in January 1910.

CSS Albemarle
The Albemarle was designed by a young engineer named Gilbert Elliot. She had an octagonal casement on a flat hull. Albemarle was laid down in April of 1863 in Edward’s Ferry Shipyard, which was nothing but a large cornfield. She was launched on July 1, 1863 and commissioned on April 17, 1864.

The Albemarle was damaged at launch and taken to Halifax, North Carolina for completion. She attacked Union forces at Plymouth, North Carolina, sinking the USS Southfield, on April 19, 1864. Albemarle also attacked a Federal squadron below Plymouth and was damaged May 5, 1864. She was sunk on the Roanoke River by spar torpedo boat, Picket Boat Number 1 on October 27, 1864. She was raised by Union forces and taken to Norfolk Navy Yard in April of 1865 and was sold on October 15 that same year.

Albemarle's Specifications:
  • Displacement: 376 tons
  • Complement: 150
  • Armament: 2-6.4"
  • Armor: 6"
  • Dimensions:
    139’ (bp) 152’ (oa) x 34’ x 9’
  • Machinery: 2 screws, 2 horizontal non-condensing engine (18" x 1’7’’)
  • Speed: 4 knots
  • Ships of the United States Navy and Their Sponsors 1924-1950, Keith Frazier Somerville & Harriotte W. B. Smith, USNI Press, 1952
  • Lincoln’s Commando, Ralph J. Roske & Charles VanDoren, Naval Institute Press, 1985
  • Damn The Torpedoes!, A.A. Hoehling, John F. Blair, Publisher; 1989
  • Civil War Times Illustrated, "David and Goliath"; Michael Morgan, December 1997
  • Naval History Magazine, August 1995, "No Aptitude for the Service?" Captain William Alexander, US Naval Reserve (Retired)
  • The Ships: Steam, Steel and Torpedos, National Maritime Museum, David Lyon, 1980
    This page launched April 1997
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