Category Archives: Civil War Naval History


IMG_0413I 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 IMG_0409Civil 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.


IMG_0399On 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. 920x920Stories 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.


IMG_0278king1000The 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.


CushingThere 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.




ben-porter-swordKihm 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.


150thAnniversaryRaisingFlagonDonatedLandSmallIt’s a shame that today’s New Yorkers are so divorced from our naval heritage. The shipping fortunes that were made, the literary heritage of Herman Melville, and the history of invention and innovation that emerged from the Hudson and East River waterfronts all seem as distant as Peter GreenpointMonitorMuseumLogofromAECOMsmallStuyvesant. One fact that seems almost wholly neglected is that the USS Monitor was born here, in the fertile mind of the prolific inventor John Ericsson, and built here, in Thomas Rowland‘s  Continental Iron Works at Green Point, New York. Thankfully, this neglect is being addressed. On Friday, the Greenpoint Monitor Museum teamed up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to place a marker in Greenpoint to note where Monitor had its birth, one of a number of markers is placing around the country to establish where significant events in the ship’s life took place. I hope to get back to Brooklyn soon to see what’s being done.




leg ironsI can’t say that Will Cushing had a thing to do with the CSS Georgia, which experts are salvaging from Savannah harbor. Also known as State of Georgia and Ladies’ Ram, the Georgia was built in 1862, and was intended to join the Virginia in glory. Instead, the  leaky, mosquito-infested dog of a ship lacked sufficient power to engage in offensive operations, and was instead employed under the command of Lieutenant Washington Gwathmey, CSN, as a floating battery intended to defend Fort Jackson. She had been deployed for twenty months when on Decenber 21, 1864, Sherman’s troops reached Savannah and the rebs elected to scuttle her. It is believed that she never fired a shot in combat. The ship is expected to be raised next year; meanwhile, more than 1000 relics have been recovered, including grape shot, a bayonet hilt, and leg irons (above) to prevent the sailors from deserting. Yikes!