Category Archives: The Cushing Story


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.




ahowardCould the adventures of Howard Cushing (right) have inspired the character of Luke Skywalker (below right)? Thanks to my college pal Ned White, who sent me this link to an article by Meg Jones in The Milwaukee Sentinel, I have learned of an amateur historian/ literary detective in Wisconsin named Jim Heinz who believes that could be the case.

Heinz has persuasively created a trail that leads from Howardaluke, who after the Civil War was a officer with the Third Cavalry stationed at Fort Grant in Arizona, to John G. Bourke, a Medal of Honor winner who served in Howard’s command, and who helped recover Howard’s body after he was killed fighting the Apache in 1871.. Bourke mentioned Howard frequently and glowingly in the several books he wrote about his career; indeed, he called Howard the bravest man he ever knew. Twenty five years later,  a young trooper named Edgar Rice Burroughs (below left) was stationed at Fort Grant, and read Bourke’s works. Burroughs eventually left the service, tried this and that for a decade or so, and then started writing pulp fiction. One of his earliest creations was Tarzan, who was featured in many adventures. A later creation was a Civil War veteran known as John Carter of Mars, who first appeared in the 1940s, and eventually made frequent appearances in films and comics (below right)

aedgarJim Heinz cites many similarities between the descriptions of Howard Cushing by Bourke and John Carter of Mars by Burroughs. Both are recklessly brave, good in the saddle, superb marksmen, and are “filled with fire and initiative,” as Burroughs wrote. Heinz is not the only scholar to note a connection.  “I’m aware of Cushing and I think Cushing is a good piece of John Carter of Mars — how a Civil War hero inadvertently found his way into literature,” said Michael Sellers, a Burroughs scholar and author of “John Carter and the Gods of Hollywood.

Closing the loop to Luke Skywalker is an interview with the creator of the Star Wars ajohnuniverse, who in 1976 told American Film magazine that his new movie was “very surreal and bizarre and has nothing to do with science. I wanted it to be an adventure in space, like John Carter of Mars. That was before science fiction took over, and everything got very serious and science oriented.”

So there you have it: Howard Carter to John Bourke to Edgar Rice Burroughs to George Lucas in four easy, entirely plausible steps. The only thing that bothers me is the thought that Howard might be a model for Luke Skywalker. I don’t buy that yhe battle-scarred Civil War veteran turned Indian fighter could be a model for the altruistic young Skywalker. To me, Lt. Cushing was much more a soldier of the empire, subduing the indigenous populations who were in rebellion. In other words, Howard Cushing seems more of a model for Darth Vader, eh?


photo-1After speaking in Texas, I went on to visit my brother Matt, who lives in Tucson, Arizona. As it happens, Matt is a civilian employee of the Army. He works at Fort Huachuca, wherephoto-2photo Lt. Howard Cushing, the very brave but least heralded of the courageous Cushing brothers, was stationed during his years with the cavalry. There are a number of reminders of Howard’s distinguished service and brave death, including streets named after him in Tucson (left, under a mountain with a big “A” on it), and at Fort Huachuca (right). At top, the Whetstone Mountains, where Howard died fighting the Apache at Bear Springs.


manvil3Twice last week I ventured into the wilds of Orange County to speak about the marvelous <strong>Commander Will Cushing</strong>. On a sweltering Thursday evening I visited the quaint and scenic Museum Village in Monroe, where about a dozen hearty souls sat at picnic benches in an un-air conditioned structure to hear me go on. On Friday, about 20 of the residents of the Glen Arden Retirement community in Goshen joined me for a lunchtime talk. Providentially, Will Cushing again proved to be an entertaining subject. Many thanks to <strong>Michael Sosler</strong> at Museum Village and <strong>Dee Steeger</strong> at Glen Arden for inviting me, and to all the people who came to hear me speak. Happily, a great number of them bought books! Huzzah!


607612_1I recently came across an article written last January by Doug Shepard in the Dunkirk, NY, Observer. The article is about a gift that was presented to the Historical Museum of the Darwin R. Barker Library in Fredonia: a copy of The Academist, a newspaper written, edited and published by the students of the Fredonia Academy, dated 5 August 1857. The Academy was run by Mrs. Mary Cushing, mother of Will Cushing. The most pleasant surprise is that the paper features a poem by 14 year old Will, written on the eve of his departure for the Naval Academy.  It is entitled “A Farewell.”

Ere I haste away to another clime,
To a clime with promise bright,
My heart would say in simple rhyme,
Dear village home, good night!
Companions dear, I leave you here,
With a grief I may not tell;
May a blessing rest in every breast,
Dear village home, farewell!
Ten bright years have swiftly fled,
Since I among you came,
A little homeless, orphan lad,
Your sympathies to claim.
And kindly hands and words of cheer,
Have caused my heart to swell,
With thoughts and hopes forever dear;
Sweet village home, farewell!
Each much-loved spot, each shady nook,
From the forest green and old,
To the playground dear, and fishing brook,
Full long will memory hold.
Teachers, and friends, and schoolmates dear,
May sorrow never blight
The happy hearts that cluster here;
Dear village home, good night!


dsc_0118I’m a little late with this news, but on March 8, the CSS Neuse  Interpretative Center opened in Kinston NC. The Neuse was a confederate ironclad that had, up to a point, a story very much like that of  the CSS Albemarle, Built on a North Carolina river (the Neuse, natch), it was intended to be a great equalizer in the Union Navy-dominated riverine combat in North Carolina, and lead to a confederate capture of New Bern. Too bad for the Neuse, however, it was not a sailable ship, and had mostly a sad little life as a battery until confederate forces sank her to prevent Yankees from seizing her.  Unlike the Albemarle, significant remnants of the Neuse remained intact, and the folks in Kinston have done a great job restoring the ship’s hull and otherwise using technology to show what the rest of the ship looked like. Visitors might consider going to Kinston to see the display (I had a great lunch at a Jamaican restaurant there) then visitng Plymouth a couple hours away to see where Will Cushing blew up the Albemarle. As they say in those parts, Kinston has the ship, but Plymouth has the story.