The Ironclad Ram CSS Albemarle was surely not the first nor the biggest ironclad of her time. Nor did she carry the most cannon in her class nor manned by the largest crew. However her wartime record places her in contention to be the most successful ironclad of the American Civil War. CSS Albemarle was commissioned on April 17th, 1864 and named after a town or sound in North Carolina or perhaps a county in Virginia. The Albemarle was built to be a ram, this being her foremost weapon. Her underlying structure consisted of oak timbers covered over in iron plates. The iron ram protruded from her bow and was shaped like the head of an ax. Simply put, she was designed to smash through the sides of wooden ships, the damage hopefully sinking the enemy vessel. The Confederacy was high on the previous successes of their CSS Virginia ironclad.
In 1863, with the war reducing available resources for the south, finding iron proved difficult. For the war effort, iron pots and farm tools were donated and collected from loyal southerners around the Elizabeth City, North Carolina area. Some locals were not inclined to donate so theft of iron was the work around and, at times, the iron was taken at gunpoint to support the war effort. The prime area for iron was railroad yards where iron rails were rolled into plates 2 inches thick and 7 inches wide. Peter Evans Smith owned the plantation where the ironclad craft was constructed in a small shipyard built in a cornfield up the Roanoke River near Edward's Ferry.
The contract to build the craft was given to 19-year old Gilbert Elliot of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, a Southern Lieutenant. Strategically, the water levels of the upper Roanoke River proved too shallow to permit the approach of Union gunboats that otherwise would have been sent to destroy the Albemarle while she still lay under construction. Elliot completed the necessary base drawings of the new warship and these were then sent to the Confederate Navy Chief, John Porter, who furthered the design with the addition of a battering ram and an armored, sloped casemate. The casemate was nothing more than an armored bunker for the crew and propulsion systems as well as armament. Porter elected for a pair of 6.4" (160mm) Brooke rifled cannons to be the secondary armament following the ram. As such, these systems were delivered to Elliot, along with an engineer, to properly install the weapons within the casement - one to be fitted forward and the other aft. There would be three fixed gun ports and both cannons would be protected from all sides by movable shutters. Propulsion was accomplished by way of 2 x three-bladed screw propellers, each powered by two steam engines, rated at 200 horsepower (150 kW). These engines were built by Elliot himself and managed a top speed of 5 knots in ideal conditions. The new vessel was also completed with a kitchen, mess hall and crew quarters while officers were even given small rooms. Total crew complement was 150 personnel. A "battle bridge" was set near one of the cannons and the all-important boiler room was located in the aft section along with the necessary coal bins.
The oak needed for the vessel's construction was taken from the local forests and work proved difficult when attaching the required iron plates to the oak frame. The plates needed to be drilled so iron bolts could attach the plates to the oak spars. This, of course, was a time consuming task using the bow drilling process of the day, taking about 20 minutes per plate. Peter E. Smith, also a blacksmith and observing the building process, saw the need for a more efficient drill and invented a "twist" drill bit system that resembled the modern bits and hand drill we use today. This new tool now allowed the drilling process to be reduced to 4 minutes per iron plate. The Albemarle was completed in approximately 12 months. Her length was 158 feet from bow to stern with a beam measuring 35 feet, 3 inches and a draught of 9 feet. The iron casemate was 60 feet long and was covered in two layers of 2-inch iron plating. The slope of the casemate was built on a 35 degree angle to deflect enemy rifle and cannon shot.
At this time during the war, the goal of the North was to strangle the South with a Federal naval blockade of Confederate ports thus denying the South any aid from her allies in Europe. Being a strategic port, Plymouth became a focal point for both the Union and the Confederacy. The port provided for relatively easy access to the vital Wilmington & Weldon Railroad, a rail link from Wilmington, North Carolina to Richmond, Virginia - a lifeline of sorts for the Confederacy. This rail system was required to keep supplies running to General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. Except for Wilmington, the Union blockade of major Southern ports was successful. Fort Fischer, called the "Confederate Goliath", guarded access to the port of Wilmington.
A major problem lay in Plymouth which had been occupied by the Union Army and Navy since 1862. A number of failed operations to reach the railroad bridge at Weldon by Union forces were made. These attacks were ultimately repelled by the Confederates at Fort Branch located on the Rainbow Bluffs above Williamston on the Roanoke River. In 1864 General Robert E. Lee sent Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke to rid the coast of North Carolina from the Union occupation. Hoke had 13,000 troops under his command and would attack Plymouth on April 17th, 1864. Plymouth was defended by 3,000 Union troops under the command of Brigadier General Henry Wessells. The Union Army was supported by the Navy under the command of Captain Charles Flusser with a pair of gunboats - the USS Miami and the USS Southfield - as well as the USS Whitehead, the USS Massasoit and the USS Ceresa.
In mid April 1864 the now-commissioned CSS Albemarle steamed down the Roanoke River toward Plymouth, North Carolina with Captain James W. Cooke at the helm. Her mission was rather simple - to eliminate the Union presence from the river. Without naval support, General Robert F. Hoke's troops would be called upon to take the Union positions on land. Prior heavy rains ensuring a deep water depth and allowed the Albemarle to seamlessly pass over the installed Union obstacles.
Hearing the news of the Confederate ironclad coming downstream, the Union Navy joined the USS Miami and USS Southfield by chains and sent them upriver towards the Albemarle in an attempt to ensnare the vessel between them and open fire at point-blank range. However, Cooke saw the vessels steaming towards his position and deciphered the Union plan. In response, he ordered his vessel hard to starboard, positioning the Albemarle outside of the snare and alongside the passing USS Southfield.Cooke then ordered hard to port which forced the Albemarle to bank sharply, ramming the Union vessel in the process. The force of the blow sent the USS Southfield underwater, leaving the Albemarle's ram impaled in the Southfield's hull. This pulled the Albemarle bow under the river but it was the USS Southfield that sank. The movements of the Southfield eventually allowed release of the embedded Albermarle ram. The awaiting USS Miami countered by firing a volley against the Albemarle at short range but the Albemarle's armor and design held firm. In fact, the Miami shot ricocheted off of the Albermarle's structure and rebounded back into the Miami, causing considerable damage and killing her captain. Once command of the vessel was passed, USS Miami's first officer ordered a boarding which was dutifully repelled by Confederate muskets. Without much option, the USS Miami pulled from the battle and made steam towards safety at Albemarle Sound.
Seemingly without equal, the Albemarle moved on with impunity, shelling Union forts along the river with her rifled cannons. With the accompanying land army taking ground and no enemy naval support to contend with, Union forces now found themselves hopelessly surrounded, allowing Confederate General Hoke to take Plymouth and the available Union forts. Confederate forces captured Fort Comfort, eventually driving the Union defenders into Fort Williams where General Wessell formally surrendered on April 20th. Prior to its surrender, Confederate President Jefferson Davis had been preparing to evacuate the southern capital of Richmond. Onboard the CSS Albemarle was John Taylor Wood, a nephew to Davis, and it was he that sent word of the Confederate victory. Davis now felt the Confederate lifeline safe for the moment and did not abandon the capital.
The Union Navy now moved more warships in to help blockade Albemarle Sound and the mouth of the Roanoke River. On May 5th, the CSS Bombshell with the CSS Albemarle escorted a Confederate troop carrier - the CSS Cotton Plant - down the Roanoke River to challenge the new blockade. Entering the bay, the Confederate forces came upon four Union warships - the USS Miami, the USS Mattabesett, USS Sassacus, and the USS Wyalusing. Completely outgunned, the CSS Albemarle and CSS Bombshell nonetheless opened fired, targeting the more vulnerable wooden USS Mattabesett. The volley struck one of Mattabesetts two 100-pounder Parrott rifles and wounded six crew. Albemarle then moved on to ram the USS Mattabesett though the Union vessel managed to steer clear of the approaching Confederate ship.
The USS Sassacus steamed into the path of Albemarle and fired a broadside of solid 9-inch (229 mm), 100-pound shot - all of which bounced off Albemarle's casemate iron armor. Sassacus then moved on to attack the CSS Bombshell which, after receiving many hits from Sassacus was, was captured by a Union sloop. USS Sassacus again set her sights on Albemarle at a range of about 400 yards (370 m) but this time decided to ram her. Sassacus reached the Albemarle at amidships, smashing her own ram in the process but embedding it into the side of the Albemarle. Now conjoined, Albemarle gun crew fired two rapid, point-blank rifled shells into her foe, one of them pierced Sassucus' armor and detonating a boiler. The leaking boiler then sent boiling water and steam throughout the internal works of the Union ship, wreaking havoc and injury to the crew. Eventually freed, the USS Sassacuswas, completely disabled and without propulsion, could only drift out of the Albemarle'a range with the currents.
The USS Miami joined the fray and tried to hook her spar torpedo mine into Albemarle but failed. Miami was receiving and firing shot from and into Albemarle while attempting to set a net in an attempt to tangle the Albemarle's propellers and rudder but this also failed. Miami then moved away from the battle and left the mighty Albemarle still in commission. In all, some 557 shells were fired by Union vessels at the Albemarle with the only visible damage being her smokestack and some of the iron plating. Nevertheless, the Albemarle was developing a mythical and fearsome reputation as the ship that would not sink. With darkness approaching, the Confederate legend steamed back up the Roanoke at Plymouth for needed repairs.
The repaired Albemarle now threatened the entire Union position on North Carolina's river system. Albemarle continued to successfully defend the region the approaches to Plymouth throughout the summer of 1864. The Federal Navy Department decided a special plan was needed to destroy the Albemarle and took on a plan submitted by Lieutenant William B. Cushing. The mission would require two small steam launches (otherwise known as a "steamer") that could be fitted with spar torpedoes. Cushing learned of a pair of such ships being constructed in New York and procured them for the attack. Each vessel was completed with a 14-foot spar to hold the torpedo as well as a Dahlgren 12-pounder howitzer for close-in, secondary defense. All told, the mission would be something akin to a modern-day, stealth-like commando raid.
Once finished, the two ships steamed away from New York towards Norfolk. However, one was lost at sea, forcing the remaining boat to take on the rescued crew. The personnel and vessel eventually reached Roanoke and prepared with its torpedo mine. From there, Lt Cushing made his way up the Roanoke river under the cover of darkness on October 27th with a small support cutter assisting. When they arrived at the site of the wreck of the USS Southfield they found a Confederate schooner anchored nearby. Without mush choice, the two vessels continued past the Confederate boat.
Despite their attempts at pure secrecy and stealth, the Union positions were finally discovered. Confederate forces opened up with small arms fire forcing the attacking vessels into decisions quickly. Cushing's vessel slipped over the slimed water logs protecting the Albemarle and brought the torpedo mine in close to the enemy ship. The torpedo was then detonated.
The resulting explosion killed a number of the men aboard the Albemarle. Cushing himself, as well as some crew, were thrown clear of their own vessel in the blast. The Albemarle was heavily damaged and left with a massive smoldering hole at the waterline to which she then sank in just six feet of water. Cushing and surviving members of his crew were able to swim to shore - some being captured. Cushing managed to hide under the overhung bank until daylight, avoiding enemy search parties throughout the night. The following morning, he found a small boat and used it to escape to the river's mouth, propelled in the water by his own hands. At least two fellow sailors died in the blast.
Albemarle now sat along the muddy river bottom with only her upper casemate above waterline. The Confederates ordered her surviving cannons to be used to defend Plymouth against the expected Union attack. The Union Navy now moved its river ironclads up the Roanoke and shelled the Confederate forts, ultimately capturing Plymouth.
After the end of the war, the Union gunboat USS Ceres towed the now-raised Albemarle to Norfolk, finally arriving there in April of 1865. She was repaired in August of that year but the Navy department decided to sell her at auction for scrap in October of 1867. Her only parts to have survived the war was a cannon and her smokestack, the latter on display today at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
Lt. William Barker Cushing, USN, who planned and carried out the commando raid that sank the CSS Albemarle on October 27th, 1864, became a national hero to the North. Even Confederate Captain A.F. Warley of the CSS Albemarle said his exploit was a gallant thing. Admiral Farragut said young Cushing was the "hero of the war" and even President Abraham Lincoln added " I most cordially recommend that Lieutenant William B. Cushing, USN, 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 October 17th,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 redounds to the credit of this young officer....".