The last legs of the great Push the Cush speaking tour–the last legs that have been scheduled, anyway–were held last week. On November 1st, I spoke before the Civil War Roundtable of Eastern Pennsylvania, an attentive and dedicated group of Civil War buffs (and why not? Some of the best parts came in their back yard!) in Allentown PA and Lloyd NY. ) The following Monday, I was up near Poughkeepsie, where I spoke before the Town of Lloyd Historical Society. Another large and appreciative group, and why not? Cushing’s story is a great yarn. Thanks to Bob McHugh and Vivian Yadlin and everyone else for your help in booking me and helping to make arrangements.
The other day I received a nice note from Jack Horst, a volunteer at the Chautauqua County Historical Society’s McClurg Museum in Westfield, NY. Will Cushing, of course, spent much of his life in Fredonia, which is a town in Chautauqua County.
“Your book , Commander Will Cushing, which I just finished, really captures the spirit of that young man and his brother, Alonzo,” wrote Jack. “We often refer to him as the original or prototype Navy SEAL when we tell visitors to the Museum about him and show them the Cushing artifacts that we have on display. I hope your book does well. Well done.”
Thanks for the note, Jack–much appreciated.
Newly discovered, anyway–from Kevin O’Mara of San Francisco, writing in Model Ship World:
After meeting with the Gov last Monday, I had a little time to kill. I spent some time admiring the glories of The War Room, a reception area on the second floor of the Capitol Building. The War Room has that name because it is decorated with murals dedicated to the various conflicts in which New Yorkers of European descent have engaged, between the founding of the Dutch colony and World War I. The murals, which were painted by William de Leftwich Dodge, are fairly amazing, in a comic book sort of way. I was pleasantly surprised to see my man Will Cushing kinda sorta honored. In one corner is a frieze that clearly shows the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack, or CSS Virginia. Above the frieze, however, is the legend, Albemarle and Merrimack. I would like to have heard the arguments that got Cushing pushed in, or left out, of that honor.
I had a terrific time over the weekend. On Freezy Friday night I spoke about Will Cushing’s exploits before an enthusiastic crowd and very knowledgable and active crowd of Civil War enthusiasts at the Capital District Civil War Roundtable. At left, I show them how Will used to throw his famous curve ball. Then, on a sunny Saturday, I went to Saratoga Springs and spoke to another excellent crows at the New York State Military Museum. Thanks to Courtney Burns, Rosemary Nichols, Matt George, Bob Mulligan, and everyone else who helped make these appearances possible.
On Friday, April 8, Bob Mulligan of the Capital District Civil War Roundtable kindly showed me the grave of Landsman Henry Wilkes, one of Cushing’s Raiders, at the Beverwyck Cemetery in Rennselaer NY. Wilkes was born in Bath-on-Hudson, a forerunner of the city. Stories related that he and a friend, Robert H. King of Albany, skipped Sunday school to enlist in the Navy. Cochran said they may have been substitute enlistees taking someone else’s place in the service, which the law allowed at the time. At the time of the attack on the CSS Albemarle, Wilkes was just 19. He survived the mission and a stint in Libby and Salisbury prison. After he was exchanged in March 1865, Wilkes returned to his job at Weed and Parsons Book Bindery. He died at age 42 on March 3, 1888, in his hometown. this tintype, as well as his Medal of Honor, is on display at the Renselaer City Hall.
The Governor summoned several of us to Albany yesterday; when we finally got to see him, he told us to take the rest of the day off. So what did I do with a free afternoon in Albany? What almost anyone in his right mind would do–I visited a cemetery. Specifically, the lush, large Albany Rural Cemetery, which is really quite the spread. There I visited the grave of Landsman Robert King, one of Cushing’s Raiders, and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.
Almost nothing is known of King. We know he volunteered for the mission, and since Cushing had a wide choice of volunteers, we must he must have stood out–either by reputation or by physical presence. I believe Cushing intended not to blow up the Albemarle, but to capture it. To do so, he would need battlers and brawlers. I therefore King must have been big, and quick with his fists.
It’s not clear whether any of Cushing’s men did any fighting on the raid. They were probably armed with pistols and cutlasses, weapons geared to close combat. Did they have muskets? Not known. Would they have fired them? It’s hard to know what targets at any given moment they might have seen.
After the explosion, Cushing and three of his men made a run for it. Two men died; perhaps they were wounded during the attack. Cushing made it back to the fleet that night; a week later, the fourth man showed up.
All the rest, King included, were captured. For four month they suffered in poor conditions; several became sick. The raiders were released in March 1865. King went back to Albany, and died just days later, leaving little in a short life besides participation in Cushing’s great adventure.
There are not a great many photos of Will Cushing, and nearly all of the ones we have are from various sessions Will spent at Mathew Brady‘s studios. One exception is the group portrait of Admiral Porter and his captains, taken in December 1864, in which Will is included. That photo appears on this site.
Now comes another photo from that session. It has been in the hands of private collectors, most recently a Maryland man named Peter Tuite, who has donated the photo, along with a ceremonial sword presented to Cushing by his fellow officers, to the US Naval Academy Museum.
The director of the museum, Claude Berube, and the chief curator, James Cheevers, allowed me to publish the photo in the April issue of Smithsonian.
I love the picture. Here Will is lounging on deck of the USS Malvern–the ships he captains–, in a posture totally inappropriate for a senior officer, but that is so perfect for a too cool for school 22 year-old who has just become a national hero and whose face is on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. The next best thing is in the lower right hand corner, where Admiral Porter, arms on hips, fumes at his young hero. It’s hilarious.
Thanks to the folks at the North Shore Civil War Round Table, headquartered in Huntington, Long Island, for inviting me to visit them on January 7th and talk about Commander Will. What a great group–attentive and eager to buy books. Special thanks to the distinguished Alex Short, who arranged the engagement, and who gave the book a wonderful introduction.
Kihm Winship writes a blog about the history of the people of Skaneateles, a lakeside village in mid-New York not all that far from Syracuse. In a recent entry, he told the story of Ben Porter, who was Will Cushing‘s friend at Annapolis. He also served with Will, fighting and dying at the battle of Fort Fisher. Kihm’s excellent entry reminded me that young Porter was very brave, standing out at the battles of Roanoke, a 1863 assault on Fort Sumter, and at Fort Fisher. It was his terrible fate to be captured at Sumter and to spend 14 months as a POW, only to be released in October 1864 just in time to fight and die at Fort Fisher. Very sad indeed.