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Navy Lt. William B. Cushing made a name for himself during the Civil War by sinking the CSS Albemarle in 1864. By Scott Boyd
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"IN THE 1800s, he was a man known in every household in America. He was like Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger rolled into one. He was as big a celebrity as any movie star you could mention today," began Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. in his presentation during the 2004 National Civil War Naval History Symposium.
Who was this American celebrity? J.E.B. Stuart? George Armstrong Custer? The Gallant Pelham? Adm. David "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" Farragut?
He was Navy Lt. William Barker Cushing, described by Fonvielle as "a determined, intrepid young seaman who performed a number of commandolike raids behind enemy lines."
One such raid was the surprise nighttime attack by Cushing's tiny 40-foot steam launch against the CSS Albemarle--a 152-foot Confederate ironclad--on Oct. 28, 1864, on the Roanoke River in North Carolina.
Cushing sank the ironclad by detonating an explosive charge on the end of a wooden spar shoved under the waterline of the rebel ship, said Fonvielle, who teaches history at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and wrote "The Wilmington Campaign: Last Rays of Departing Hope and Fort Anderson: Battle for Wilmington."
The Port Columbus Civil War Naval Center in Columbus, Ga., sponsored the symposium, which was held at Columbus State University's Rankin Arts Center in November. Six nationally known naval historians addressed leadership in the Civil War at sea during the second annual symposium, which was titled "Comrades in Conflict."
"His name should be known to anyone at all familiar with American naval history," Maurice Melton said of Catesby Jones, commander of the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) in its epic battle against the Union ironclad Monitor on March 9, 1862, at Virginia's Hampton Roads.
The more famous Confederate naval officer at Hampton Roads was Franklin Buchanan, who had been the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Buchanan commanded the Virginia in its first day at Hampton Roads, destroying the Union Navy wooden sailing ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress. But he was wounded and unable to command the Virginia on its second day of battle. That left Jones in command the next day when, for the first time in history, two ironclads met in battle.