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Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Cushing, William Barker

Appletons' Cushing William Barker.jpg
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CUSHING, William Barker, naval officer, b. in Delafield, Wis., 4 Nov., 1842; d. in Washington, D. C., 17 Dec., 1874. He was appointed to the naval academy from New York in 1857, but resigned 23 March, 1861. In May, 1861, he volunteered, was appointed master's mate, and on the day of his arrival at Hampton Roads captured and brought into port a tobacco-schooner, the first prize of the war. He was attached to the north Atlantic blockading squadron during the war, and repeatedly distinguished himself by acts of bravery. He was commissioned lieutenant on 16 July, 1862. In November, 1862, he was ordered in the steamer “Ellis” to capture Jacksonville, Fla., intercept the Wilmington mail, and destroy the salt-works at New Juliet. He captured a large mail, took two prizes, and shelled a Confederate camp, but was unable to cross the bar that night, and in the morning ran aground. The crew transferred everything except the pivot-gun to one of the captured schooners, and sailed to a place of safety, a mile and a half away; but Cushing remained with six volunteers on board the steamer until she was disabled by a cross-fire from the shore, when he set her on fire and made his escape to the schooner in a row-boat. He distinguished himself the same year on the Blackwater and in the sounds of North Carolina. In 1863 he added to his reputation for bravery and judgment by an expedition up the Cape Fear and Little rivers and operations on the Nansemond. His most brilliant exploit was the destruction of the Confederate iron-clad ram “Albemarle” on the night of 27 Oct., 1864. This powerful vessel had successfully encountered a strong fleet of U. S. gunboats, and fought them for several hours without sustaining material damage. There was nothing able to cope with her in the sounds. Cushing volunteered to destroy her, and with a steam launch and a volunteer crew he ascended Roanoke river, towing an armed cutter. The river was lined with pickets to guard against just such an attack as this; but Cushing's luck did not desert him, and he was within a few yards of the “Albemarle” before he was discovered. Casting off the boat that was in tow, he ordered its crew to attack a picket-post near by, while, with a full head of steam, he drove the launch straight at the huge bulk of the iron-clad, whose crew rushed to quarters and at once opened fire. The launch replied effectively with her howitzer. A raft of heavy logs surrounded the larger vessel, but the launch was driven over them, and by the time she had received her death-wound from the “Albemarle's” guns Gushing had coolly swung the torpedo-boom under the great ship's overhang and exploded the charge. A large hole was blown in the iron-clad's side, she sank at her moorings. and was never raised. Telling his companions to look out for themselves, Cushing left his sinking launch and swam down stream, reaching the bank, thoroughly exhausted, half a mile below. As soon as he recovered his strength he plunged into the dense swamp, and after many hours of tedious wading came out upon the shore of a creek, where, with his usual good luck, he found a picket-boat, and at 11 P. M. the following night reached a U. S. gun-boat at the mouth of the river. Of the gallant fellows who risked their lives with him, only one escaped besides himself. Two were drowned, and most of the others captured. Lieut. Cushing did not expect to return alive from this enterprise. When he set out to destroy the ram, he said laughingly to the companions he was leaving, “Another stripe, or a coffin.” Five times the secretary of the navy officially wrote him commendatory letters, and for the “Albemarle” affair he received the thanks of congress, and was promoted lieutenant-commander, 27 Oct., 1864. At Fort Fisher, under a constant and heavy fire, he buoyed out the channel in a small skiff, and continued the work for six hours till he had completed it. At the final assault on Fort Fisher he led a force of sailors and marines from the “Monticello” in an attack on the sea-front of the fort, and amid an unceasing fire at short range, which cut down his men in windrows, he crossed a hundred yards of sand, rallied his men, and lent such efficient assistance to the troops that before midnight the fort was surrendered. After the war he served in the Pacific and Asiatic squadrons, being in command of the steamer “Lancaster” in 1866-'7, and of the “ Maumee,” in the Asiatic squadron, in 1868-'9. On the return of the “Maumee” to the United States, Lieut.-Com. Cushing was advanced to the rank of commander, 31 Jan., 1872, being the youngest officer of that rank in the navy. He was allowed leave of absence, but his health, which had been impaired by over-exertion, failed completely, and he died of brain fever.