(Late on the night of October 27, 1864, Lt. Cushing led 22 men—12 in a small cutter called Picket Boat No, 1, and ten in a second cutter—eight miles up the Roanoke River to Plymouth, on a mission to sink the Confederate ironclad ram, the Albemarle.)
Two o’clock had come; then 2:30. Cushing signaled with a handkerchief for the men to take their stations by their oarlocks and make ready, and the shifting of bodies he sensed behind him showed that the men had understood. They were getting close. There, ahead, a dark shape was angling awkwardly above the stream; it was the corpse of the Southfield, now manned by rebels, and another little confederate ship lurking nearby. Picket Boat No. 1 drew near, just 20 yards away, close. Will expected a challenge at any moment, the click of a musket, a shot, but. . .nothing. not a sound, just the low, discreet murmur of his engine that piqued no interest.
And then they were through, floating between two enemy vessels without being seen. He felt a sense of elation, a desire to whoop which he immediately suppressed. They hadn’t done anything yet. Another five minutes went by; another curve in the river passed. The low lights of Plymouth could be seen now, the dwindling camp fires, the lamps in the windows of the sleepless.
And then, the Albemarle was suddenly there. Bulky, angular, squarely silhouetted against the wharf, somewhat squattier than any legendary beast ought to be, sleeping the calm, undisturbed sleep of a ruthless killer. Keep the launch, Will told himself. Keep the men, We’ll seize it, he thought. We’ll steal it dead away.
But no sooner did Cushing move his launch towards the wharf than sentry called. “Who’s there? Who’s there? Who goes there?’’ Then the shooting started.
Cushing immediately knew that idea of cutting the ship out was finished. “Cast off, Peterkin,’’ he shouted to the men being towed in the launch, “go get those pickets on the schooner!” Realizing the need for silence was over, he shouted “Ahead fast!” The engines roared, the launch fell away, the cutter shot forward towards the iron monster. Around them, the pop of muskets picked up, and bullets began to splash and zing.
Suddenly there was a whooomp, and a tall pile of wood splashed with tar and turpentine was ignited. A warning bonfire, built for this very contingency, leaped to life, turning the riverfront into an orange flickering stage. Aided by this illumination, Cushing could see that the rebels had installed a line of defense that he had not expected–a ring of logs, chained together, encircling the ram in a protective pen about thirty feet from her side, placed there for the very purpose of foiling a torpedo attack.
The presence of the timbers came as a complete surprise to Cushing. He ran the cutter up to the ring, oblivious to the increasing gunfire from the shore, and then ran along side it, examining the chain for a weakness, a break, a piece of information that would unlock this obstacle. Turning the wheel hard, he traveled in a wide circle, running the cutter away from the ship, back near the tall gum and cypress trees and the darkness of the far side, and then spun it again and aimed it back at the Albemarle. “Full speed!” he shouted, and the picket boat shot ahead. He would leap the boom, and once inside, he would blow the ship, blow it to hell, along whatever else was in the way. Ahead in the flickering of the flames he could see the rebels on the shore, running in confusion, and in front of that the dark logs, silhouetted against the firelight, their wet mossy surfaces shining as he came.
Wham! Flying at full speed, the cutter smacked the logs, Cushing hoping that slime atop the timbers would act as a lubricant, and that his momentum would carry him over. It only halfway happened; after impact there was a grinding, tearing sound, and then the launch hung there, stuck halfway over. For a moment, raiders and rebels alike held their breath. Then Captain Alexander Warley atop the casemate of the Albemarle shouted “What boat is that?’’
“We’ll soon let you know!” Cushing replied and yanked on the lanyard of the howitzer, sending a load of canister against the ironclad, clearing her deck.
And then, tumult. As gunfire erupted from all over the shore, Gay swung the boom around, and the torpedo was lowered below the surface, the deliberate grinding of the winch testifying that the torpedo was dropping as fast as possible, yet from the point of view of the men in the cutter, nowhere fast enough. Meanwhile, a race was developing, winner take all, between Will, patiently waiting in his open boat for his torpedo to float below the knee of the ironclad’s armor, where Will could try to get it to explode; and Captain Warley and a gun crew, in the casemate of the Albemarle, who were scrambling to load one of their cannons and blow Cushing to pieces.
Neither could make their objects move how they wanted. The torpedo floated, and bobbed, borne on the current. Warley could see it get nearer, knew just how much time he had to foil the attack. Will was standing upright in the prow of his cutter, the epitome of cool. A bullet had already taken away the heel of his show, another creased his sleeve. Now a load of buckshot carried away the back of his coat, and still he did not flinch. The torpedo was at the hull of the ship now, just a few feet from going under its armor lip, and the gaping mouth of Warley’s gun was not ten feet from Will’s head. But the window of the casemate prevented them from lowering the mouth of the gun any further. Will could hear Warley shouting “Lower! Lower! Lower!’’
And then the torpedo dipped below the water and vanished under the ship.
Just as Will pulled the lanyard, he heard Warley yell “Fire!’’ and then all was lost in sensation: a tremendous ear-splitting roar, a screaming hot wind above, the sense of the floor of the cutter vanishing in favor of pure air, and then a smashing wave of water.
Followed by throbbing quiet.