The Albemarle

The only ironclad to be completed and used to any purpose in North Carolina was the Albemarle. It is an ironic commentary on the dismal performance of the Confederate Navy in this area that as the result of one victory over a Union gunboat and a converted ferryboat, the commanding officer received the thanks of the Confederate Congress and a permanent place in naval history.

The story of the Albemarle begins in much the same fashion as her woebegone consorts. Early in 1863, another contract was awarded to Gilbert Elliott, who had built the unnamed ironclad at Tarboro, for construction of one ironclad gunboat at Halifax, on the Roanoke River. Soon afterward, the Confederate Navy Department ordered Commander James W. Cooke to assist Elliott and to expedite the job. Cooke proved to be a wise choice. Tireless and enthusiastic, he showed what could have been accomplished elsewhere. He ranged through the countryside, begging and buying any kind of iron. He made frequent trips to the Tredegar Works in Richmond, and to the Clarendon Iron Foundry in Wilmington, in search of scrap.

He decided to build the Albemarle at Edward's Ferry, about 10 miles downriver from Halifax, where he had leased the farm of one Peter Smith. Although the farm contained no machine shops, or shipbuilding facilities, there were abundant stands of yellow pine, needing only to be cut. Carpenters and blacksmiths were recruited and soon were working in the open field. Flag Officer Lynch reported that the Albemarle's keel was laid in April, 1863, and by November she had been launched ( without her plating, engines, or boilers ). After launching, she was moved upriver to be completed at Halifax, where there were good railroad connections to Richmond. As was always the case, at this point progress slowed to a crawl. There was intense competition in Richmond for the services of the Tredegar Works among elements of the Army and the Navy, and Cooke was forced to bring some of his plating all the way from Atlanta. The ship's engines, as usual, were salvaged - no one knows where - and were in poor repair. Guns were in short supply by that time, and Cooke had to be content with only two 100-pound rifles, one a Brooke, the other an English Whitworth. Both were pivoted to fire out of one of three ports. The general plan of the Albemarle was that of the standard model, octagonal casemate, topped by a low pilothouse and a stack. With an over-all length of 122 feet, a beam of 45 feet, two 200-horsepower engines driving twin screws, and 6 inches of railroad iron, she would have been a poor match for even the original Monitor. Nevertheless, for the sounds she was a dreadnought. There were no Union ironclads in the sounds, only some of the double-ender gunboats of the Sassacus class - useful, but vulnerable with side paddle wheels and thin iron hulls - and a collection of converted ferryboats and yachts, relics of the desperate days of 1861 and the paper blockade.

As the Albemarle inched toward completion in the spring of 1864, the Confederate command in Richmond decided to retake Plymouth, at the mouth of the Roanoke River. The capture of Plymouth would give them an opening on Albemarle Sound, and with the Albemarle in the sound there would be a chance to do something about Roanoke Island.

For once the Army was ready to co-operate. When, in April, 1864, Cooke was asked by Confederate General Hoke how long it would take him to complete the Albemarle, he replied that with 10 more mechanics he could be ready in 15 days. The mechanics were sent, and the officers, men, ammunition, and supplies as well. By the 17th of April, the ship was as ready as she would ever be. With workmen still aboard, she weighed anchor and started downriver to Plymouth.

As always, the Yankees had good intelligence and had been awaiting the coming of the Albemarle. Lieutenant Commander C. W. Flusser, commanding the Union naval forces at Plymouth, had followed the progress of the Albemarle's construction almost from its beginning. From contrabands and deserters, he had obtained a fair idea of her plan and layout, and enough information to make an accurate sketch of a cross section of the ship, which he sent on to his superiors. When Confederate land forces began assaults on the Union strong points above Plymouth, he expected the Albemarle to make an appearance, and planned the best reception he could. His force consisted of the USS Southfield, a converted ferryboat, and the USS Miami, a small doubleender. Each of these ships carried a 100-pound rifle and five 9-inch smoothbores. Flusser also had two small tugs, the Whitehead and the Ceres, which served him as picket boats and were of little combat value.

On the morning of the 18th of April, the Albemarle was at Hamilton, on the Roanoke River, some 12 miles above Plymouth. General Hoke's forces already were attacking Plymouth. Between three and five A.M., they had mounted an unsuccessful assault on Fort Gary, and during the day they made a number of attacks on the Union lines. The Miami and the Southfield were engaged in supporting the defenders in Plymouth. The Southfield upriver of the town shelled the Confederate artillery positions, while the Miami kept up a cross fire on the Confederate troops who were attacking Fort Williams, below Plymouth. The Whitehead and the Ceres were upriver of the Southfield, watching for the Albemarle.

In the meantime, the Albemarle was having troubles. The current in the river was so swift that it caused steering difficulties, and Cooke was obliged to bring her down stern first with her anchors dragging! When she had arrived at a point about 3 miles above Plymouth, she anchored at a line of obstructions and torpedoes which blocked the river. Incredible as it may seem, Cooke had no plans for doing anything about passing the obstructions, and after sending a party to reconnoiter, decided that it was impossible to pass them. Whereupon he ordered the Albemarle's fires banked, and the crew and officers not on duty turned in for the night. Cooke no doubt intended to solve the problem in the morning.

At this point Gilbert Elliott, the builder, who was aboard as a volunteer aide and technical adviser, begged Cooke to let him investigate the obstructions and see if something could be done. Cooke let him take a boat and several volunteers to sound the obstructions. Elliott returned with the news that there were 10 feet of water over and above the obstructions, enough for the ship to pass safely. Cooke immediately ordered steam up, and shortly after 1 A.M. the Albemarle passed the obstructions and headed for Plymouth.

After a busy day of bombarding the attacking Confederates, the Miami and the Southfield had anchored below the town, where the Union line was in danger of being outflanked by Hoke's forces. Shortly after midnight, the Whitehead sighted the Albemarle coming downriver, and reported the fact to Flusser. According to a prearranged and, it would seem, somewhat foolhardy plan, a heavy chain was passed from the Southfield to the Miami. Flusser's intention was that the two ships would maneuver to catch the Albemarle between them, and as the Confederate ship thrust against the chain, the two gunboats would be drawn close alongside the Albemarle, where the impact of their guns would loosen her plating, and demoralize her crew from the concussion alone.

At 3:45 A.M., the Ceres came downriver, and, passing the Miami, hailed Flusser with the report that the Albemarle was close behind. Flusser immediately ordered both vessels to move upstream to meet her.

Aboard the Albemarle, Cooke had sighted the two Union ships and noticed the chain between them. He surmised their intention at once ( although it is possible that he already had some knowledge of the scheme, since the two ships had been chained together part of the day before in view of Hoke's forces). He reacted correctly to the situation by running in close to the south bank of the river, and, when alongside the Union ships, he swung his ship out into the stream, glanced off the bow of the Miami, which was closer, and smashed into the side of the Southfield. The Southfield began to sink immediately. As the Albemarle s bow chains became entangled in the wreckage of the sinking ship, her bow was dragged under and she began to ship water through her forward gunport. The Albemarle's crew was starting to panic when the Southfield rolled over and released her.

Flusser's Miami was right alongside while this was going on and had opened fire on the Confederate. The Miami's guns were still loaded with shells for use against the Confederate infantry, and, as they exploded against the side of the Albemarle's casemate, the shell fragments raked the Miami. The third shot was fired by Flusser himself. The shell had a 10-second fuse. It bounced off the Albemarle, back to the Miami, exploded, and killed Flusser instantly.

The chain had parted and the Miami swung toward the shore, while the Albemarle turned to ram her in turn. Flusser's second in command decided to quit while he was ahead and turned the gunboat downriver. He soon retreated out of range into the sound.

Thus ended what was probably the most unqualified Confederate naval victory of the war. Plymouth fell to the forces of General Hoke the next day, and the whole of Albemarle was in jeopardy. The Albemarle then was ordered to remain at Plymouth and to await the completion of the Neuse, still abuilding at Kinston, on the Neuse River.

The Union naval forces were rapidly re-enforced and concentrated in Albemarle. Captain Melancton Smith, U.S.N., his flag flying aboard the double-ender gunboat Mattabesett, was placed in command of the squadron. There were no ironclads among the Union ships. The utter failure of the Casco class of light-draft monitors had deprived the Northern forces of suitable monitors for the sounds.

Melancton Smith moved his ships, which by that time included the double-enders, Mattabesett, Wyalusing, and Sassacus, as well as the survivors of the previous battle, to the mouth of the Roanoke River below Plymouth. This was on the second of May.

On the afternoon of May 5, the Albemarle was sighted under way coming downriver fromPlymouth, accompanied by a transport and a gunboat, the CSS Bombshell.

The Albemarle attempted to ram the lead ship, the Mattabesett, after hitting her twice with the forward Brooke rifle, but the faster Union ship avoided the ram and circled completely around the Albemarle's stern, followed by the next ship, the Sassacus. Both ships gave the Confederate a broadside as they passed at close range, and, as they swung around her stern, they shifted their fire to the second Confederate gunboat, the unarmored Bombshell which promptly surrendered. Soon they had circled almost completely around the Albemarle, with the third ship, the Wyalusing, bringing up the rear. As they headed across the Albemarle's bow, they came into the line of fire of the rest of the Union squadron, led by the Miami, which had been proceeding in a column to the left of them.

At this point the three ships reversed engines to get out of the line of fire, and the Sassacus turned sharply and rammed the Albemarle, which at that moment was only about 200 yards away.

The Albemarle, unharmed, fired a shell through the bow of the Sassacus, followed it with another which ripped open the double-ender's boiler, filling her with steam and scalding the engine room personnel.

After several moments of complete confusion, the Sassacus dropped out of action.

The remaining ships continued to circle and pound the slowmoving Albemarle with their guns, without doing much damage. Although the Albemarle returned the fire occasionally, she did no serious damage to any of her opponents, unarmored though they were. At about 7:30 P.M., it grew dark and the ram returned to Plymouth, the Union forces content to let her go.

Nevertheless, she posed a constant threat to Union forces, especially in view of the fact that there were no Union ironclads capable of crossing the Hatteras bar and entering the Sounds. The Casco class of monitors designed by Stimers had been intended for use in this area, but the aforementioned failure of the Chimo at its launching in Boston had deprived the Union of any possibility of countering the Albemarle with monitors for some time to come.

Admiral S. P. Lee now turned to another quarter for a means of destroying the Confederate ironclad. He had under his command a remarkable young officer - one of the really authentic heroes of the war, Lieutenant William B. Cushing, U.

After having been dismissed from the Naval Academy just prior to the outbreak of war, for a rather harmless bit of fun at the expense of one of his professors, Cushing had secured an appointment (through the efforts of General Benjamin Butler) as an acting Master's Mate. In October, 1861, he was fully restored to duty as an acting midshipman. After a tour on the Minnesota, Cushing appeared in the North Carolina theater as Executive Officer of the gunboat Perry. During the next two years, he acquired a fabulous and completely genuine reputation as the leader of many "commando" raids on Confederate ships and shore installations.

In response to inquiries from Admiral Lee, Cushing submitted two plans for the capture or destruction of the Albemarle. The first proposed a boarding expedition of about 100 men who would make their way through the swamps bordering the Sound to a point a few hundred yards from the Albemarle. The boarding would then be accomplished by using inflatable rubber boats which would be carried by the expedition.

The second plan, which Cushing himself favored and which was adopted, was to equip a steam launch with a spar torpedo, take it up the Roanoke River, and ram the Albemarle at her moorings. In New York, Cushing purchased two steam-powered picket launches about 30 feet long, and had them fitted out with an ingenious arrangement whereby the torpedo could be lowered into the water, detached from the boom, and then set off by a line after the launch had backed off a safe distance.

Having completed his preparations, Cushing took the boats to Albemarle via the inland canals to Chesapeake Bay and from there via Chesapeake and Albemarle Canal. One boat was lost in the Chesapeake, but Cushing finally reached the Union flotilla in Albemarle, now under the command of Commander Macomb aboard the gunboat Shamrock. On the night of October 27th, soon after his arrival, Cushing took his launch, accompanied by a cutter and a combined force of 20 volunteers, up the Roanoke River. His first intention was to board and capture the Confederate ironclad. When his force had successfully passed the Confederate sentinels stationed on the wreck of the Southfield, the boarding attempt looked promising, but soon afterward, as he was attempting to land at a wharf in Plymouth, he was discovered by Confederate sentinels. Cushing then ordered the cutter to return down stream and boldly headed for the ram with his torpedo launch, under fire from the Confederates on both banks of the river. As he approached the Albemarle, he saw that she was protected by a barrier of floating log booms. Unimpressed by this barrier, he backed down a hundred yards ( under constant fire ) and headed full tilt at the booms, intending to vault them with his boat. As he had hoped, the launch cleared the logs, and still under a hurricane of fire from shore he brought her alongside the Albemarle and set off his torpedo. In the confusion that followed, Cushing managed to swim to safety, although the rest of the crew was either killed or captured. Dawn found him in the swamps below Plymouth. He managed to avoid the Confederate pickets and learned from an old Negro of the Albemarle's complete destruction. His mission completed, he began a harrowing expedition back through the swamps, and eventually managed to commandeer a skiff and make his way back to the Union flotilla.

With the loss of the Albemarle, control of the Sound passed once more into Union hands. Plymouth was retaken and Confederate hopes in North Carolina were extinguished.

Charleston and Savannah

After Richmond, the most promising area in the Confederate States for the construction of an ironclad force was most certainly Charleston, South Carolina, together with the neighboring port of Savannah, Georgia. The well-fortified harbor at Charleston made a secure base of operations, and the combination of a fair-sized local shipbuilding industry and good rail communication with the iron-producing facilities of Richmond and Atlanta offered considerable promise. (An ironclad floating battery actually had been built at Charleston and was in service at the time of the bombardment of Fort Sumter. Shortly afterward, another floating battery had been built with private capital by J. R. Hamilton, who later held a commission in the Confederate States Navy, but these were not in any sense war ships.)

The Confederate Navy Department in the summer and fall of 1861 primarily was interested in developing naval forces in New Orleans, and with the capture of Norfolk, in the James River area. Thus it was not until December that any construction at Charleston and Savannah was authorized, or any contracts awarded. By that time the Federal Navy had occupied the splendid harbor at Port Royal, South Carolina, midway between the two ports. With this in their possession, the Federals were, in a very short time, to face the Confederates with the most powerful naval force that had ever existed.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment