CSS Albemarle

CSS Albemarle

Confederate Ironclad

Ordered: 16 April 1862
Builder: Gilbert Elliot; Constructed at Edward’s Ferry on the Roanoke River
Laid down: April 1863
Commissioned: 17 April 1864
Fate: 27 October 1864 sunk by spar torpedo, captured, raised, and sold

General Characteristics
Area of Operation:
Displacement: 376 tons
Length: 152 feet
Beam: 34 feet
Draft: 9 feet (2.7 m)
Propulsion: Two screws from two steam engines 400 hp
Speed: 4 knots
Complement: 150 officers and men
Armament: (2) 6.4 Brooke double-banded rifles
Armor: 6 inch iron

CSS Albemarle was an ironclad ram of the Confederate Navy (and later the second Albemarle of the United States Navy), named for a town and a sound in North Carolina and a county in Virginia. All three locations were named for general George Monck, the first Duke of Albemarle and one of the original Carolina Lords Proprietors.

On April 16 1862, the Confederate Navy Department, enthusiastic about the offensive potential of armored rams following the victory of the ironclad CSS Virginia (the rebuilt USS Merrimack) over the wooden-hulled Union blockaders in Hampton Roads, Virginia, signed a contract with 19 year-old detached Confederate Lieutenant Gilbert Elliott of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to oversee the construction of such a gunboat to destroy the Union warships in the North Carolina sounds. These men-of-war had enabled Union troops to hold strategic positions that controlled eastern North Carolina.

Since the terms of the agreement gave Elliott freedom to select an appropriate place to build the ram, he established a primitive shipyard, with the assistance of plantation owner Peter Smith, in a cornfield up the Roanoke River at a place called Edward’s Ferry, near modern Scotland Neck, North Carolina. Smith was appointed the superintendent of construction. There, the water was too shallow to permit the approach of Union gunboats that otherwise would have destroyed the ironclad while still on its ways. Using detailed sketches provided by Elliott, the Confederate Navy’s Chief Constructor John L. Porter finalized the gunboat’s design, giving the ram an armored casemate with eight sloping sides. Within this thick-walled bunker were two 6.4-inch (160 mm) Brooke pivot rifles, one forward, the other aft, each capable of firing from three fixed gun ports. Both cannons were protected on all sides behind six exterior-mounted, heavy iron shutters. The ram was propelled by two, 3-bladed brass screws powered by two steam engines, each of 200 hp (150 kW), and built by Elliott.

Construction of the ironclad began in January 1863 and continued on during the next year. Word of the gunboat reached the Union naval officers stationed in the region, raising an alarm. They appealed to the War Department for an overland expedition to destroy the ship, to be christened Albemarle after the body of water into which the Roanoke emptied, but the Union Army never felt it could spare the troops needed to carry out such a mission. It was a decision that would prove to be very short-sighted.

Service on the Roanoke
In April 1864, the newly commissioned Confederate States Ship Albemarle, under the command of Captain James W. Cooke, got underway down-river toward Plymouth, North Carolina. Its mission was to clear the river of all Union vessels so that general Robert F. Hoke’s troops could storm the forts located there. She anchored about three miles (5 km) above the town, and the pilot, John Lock, set off with two seamen in a small boat to take soundings. The river was high and they discovered ten feet of water over the obstructions that the Union forces had placed in the Thoroughfare Gap. Captain Cooke immediately ordered steam and, by keeping to the middle of the channel, they passed safely over the obstructions. The ironclad’s armor protected them from the Union guns of the forts at Warren’s Neck and Boyle’s Mill.

However, two paddle steamers, USS Miami and USS Southfield, lashed together with spars and chains, approached from up-river, attempting to pass on either side of Albemarle in order to trap her between them. Captain Cooke turned to starboard, running dangerously close to the southern shore, and got outboard of Southfield. Turning back into the river, he rammed the Union sidewheeler, driving her under. Albemarle ‘s ram became trapped in Southfield ‘s hull from the force of the blow, and her bow was pulled under as well. As Southfield sank, she rolled over before settling on the riverbed. This action released the deathgrip that held the new Confederate ram.

Miami fired a shell into Albemarle at point-blank range while she was trapped by the wreck of Southfield, but the shell rebounded off Albemarle ‘s sloping armor and exploded on Miami, killing her commanding officer, Captain Charles W. Flusser. Miami ‘s crew attempted to board Albemarle to capture her but were soon driven back by heavy musket fire. Miami then steered clear of the ironclad and escaped into Albemarle Sound.

With the river now clear of Union ships, and with the assistance of Albemarle ‘s rifled cannon, General Hoke attacked and took Plymouth and the nearby forts.

The encounter at Albemarle Sound, May 5, 1864. From left to right are USS Commodore Hull, USS Wyalusing, USS Sassacus, CSS Albemarle, USS Mattabesett and the CSS BombshellOn May 5, Albemarle and CSS Bombshell, a captured steamer, were escorting the troop-laden CSS Cotton Plant down the Roanoke River. They encountered four Union warships: USS Miami, now supported by USS Mattabesett, USS Sassacus, and USS Wyalusing. All four ships combined mounted more than 60 cannons. Albemarle opened fired first, wounding six men working one of Mattabesett ‘s two 100-pounder Parrott rifles, and then attempted to ram her, but the sidewheeler managed to round the ironclad’s armored bow. She was closely followed by Sassacus, which then fired a broadside of solid 9-inch (229 mm) and 100-pound shot, all of which bounced off Albemarle ‘s casemate armor. However, Bombshell, being a softer target, was hulled by each heavy shot from Sassucus ‘s broadside and was quickly captured by Union forces, following her surrender.

Lieutenant Commander Francis Asbury Roe of Sassucus, seeing Albemarle at a range of about 400 yards (370 m), decided to ram. The Union ship struck the Confederate ironclad full and square, broadside-on, shattering the timbers of her own bow, twisting off her own bronze ram, and jamming both ships together. With Sassucus ‘s hull almost touching the end of the ram’s Brooke rifle, Albemarle quickly fired two point-blank shells, one of them puncturing Sassucus ‘s boilers. Though live steam was roaring through the ship, she was able to break away and drift out of range. Miami first tried to use her spar torpedo and then to tangle the Confederate ram’s brass screws and rudder with a seine net, but neither ploy succeeded. More than 500 shells were fired at Albemarle during the battle, but she steamed back up the Roanoke the victor, soon mooring at Plymouth.

Albemarle successfully dominated the Roanoke and the approaches to Plymouth through the summer of 1864. By autumn, the U. S. government decided that the situation should be studied to determine if something could be done. The U. S. Navy considered various ways to destroy Albemarle, including two plans submitted by Lieutenant William B. Cushing. They finally approved one of his plans, authorizing him to locate two small steam launches that might be fitted with spar torpedoes. Cushing discovered two 30-foot (9.1 m) picket boats under construction in New York and acquired them for his mission (some accounts have them as 45 feet (14 m) to 47-feet). On each he mounted a 12-pound Dahlgren howitzer and a 14-foot (4.3 m) spar projecting into the water from its bow. One of the boats was lost at sea during the voyage from New York to Norfolk, Virginia, but the other arrived safely with its crew of seven officers and men at the mouth of the Roanoke. There, the steam launch’s spar was fitted with a lanyard-detonated torpedo.

On the night of October 27 and 28, 1864, Cushing and his team began working their way upriver. A small cutter accompanied them, its crew having the task of preventing interference by the Confederate sentries stationed on a schooner anchored to the wreck of “Southfield.” Both boats, under the cover of darkness, slipped past the schooner undetected. So Cushing decided to use all 22 of his men and the element of surprise to capture Albemarle.

Battle between the Sassacus and the Albemarle, May 1864As they approached the Confederate docks, their luck turned and they were spotted in the dark. They came under heavy fire from both the shore and Albemarle. As they closed with Albemarle, they quickly discovered she was defended against approach by floating log booms. The logs, however, had been in the water for many months and were covered with heavy slime. The steam launch rode up and then over them without difficulty. When her spar was fully against the ironclad’s hull, Cushing stood up in the bow and detonated the torpedo’s explosive charge.

The explosion threw everyone into the water. Cushing stripped off his uniform and swam to shore, where he hid until daylight. That afternoon, he stole a small skiff and paddled down-river to rejoin the Union forces at the river’s mouth. Of the other men in Cushing’s boat, one escaped, two were drowned, and eleven were captured.

Cushing’s daring commando raid blew a hole in Albemarle ‘s hull at the waterline “big enough to drive a wagon in.” She sank immediately in the six feet of water below her keel, settling into the heavy bottom mud, leaving the upper casemate mostly dry and the ship’s large Stainless Banner ensign flying from its flag staff. Commander Alexander F. Warley, who had been appointed as her captain about a month earlier, later salvaged Albemarle ‘s Brooke rifles and shells and used them to defend Plymouth against subsequent Union attack—futilely, as it turned out.

Lieutenant Cushing’s successful effort to neutralize CSS Albemarle is honored by the U. S. Navy with a battle star on the Civil War campaign streamer.

Raising and later service
After the fall of Plymouth, the United States Navy then raised the Confederate ram. At the end of the war, the Union gunboat USS Ceres towed Albemarle to the Norfolk Navy Yard where she arrived on April 27 1865. On June 7, orders were issued to repair her hull, and she entered dry dock soon thereafter. The work was completed on August 14 1865, and, but a fortnight later, the ship was condemned by the Washington, D.C prize court. Purchased by the Navy, she saw little if any active service before being placed in ordinary at Norfolk, where she remained until being sold at public auction on October 15 1867 to J. N. Leonard and Company. No record of her subsequent career has been found, so she was likely scrapped for salvage. One of her 6.4-inch (160 mm) double-banded Brooke rifled cannon is on display at the Headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief U.S. Atlantic Command at the Norfolk, Virginia Naval base. Her smokestack is also on display at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

List of Commanders/Crew
Capt. James W. Cooke CSN

Painting Information

Books/Articles and other resources
A Short History of the Civil War At Sea

Back to Confederate Ironclads


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