CSS Albemarle

CSS Albemarle

:"See ""USS "Albemarle" and ""HMS "Albemarle" for other ships of the same name."

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 16 April 1862, the Confederate Navy Department, enthusiastic about the offensive potential of armor-protected rams following the recent victory of the ironclad CSS "Virginia" (the rebuilt USS "Merrimack") over the wooden-hulled Union blockaders in Hampton Roads, Virginia, signed a contract with Gilbert Elliott of Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to build such a vessel to destroy the Union warships in the North Carolina sounds. These Northern men-of-war had enabled Federal troops to hold the strategic positions which controlled eastern North Carolina.

Since the terms of the agreement gave Elliott freedom to select an appropriate place to assemble the ram, he established a primitive shipyard in a cornfield up the Roanoke River at a place called Edward's Ferry, near modern Scotland Neck, North Carolina. There the water was too shallow to permit the approach of Union gunboats which otherwise would have destroyed the ram while it was still on the way. Chief Constructor John L. Porter designed an ironclad ram armed with two convert|6.4|in|mm|sing=on Brooke rifles, one forward, the other aft, behind iron shutters, propelled by two engines of convert|200|hp|abbr=on each. It was built by Gilbert Elliott.

Construction of the ram began in January 1863, and word of the project soon alarmed Union naval officers in the region. They appealed to the War Department for an overland expedition to destroy the ram, which was named "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 the task.

In April 1864 "Albemarle", under the command of Captain James W. Cooke, got underway down-river toward Plymouth, North Carolina, to clear the river of federal vessels so that General Robert F. Hoke's troops could storm the forts. 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 Federal forces had placed in the Thoroughfare Gap. Captain Cooke immediately ordered steam and, by keeping in the middle of the stream, they passed safely over the obstructions. Their armor protected them from the guns of the forts at Warren's Neck and Boyle's Mill.

However, two steamers, USS "Miami" and USS "Southfield", lashed together with spars and chains, were approaching up-river, attempting to pass on either side of "Albemarle" and so trap her. Captain Cooke turned to starboard, running dangerously close to the southern shore, but got outboard of "Southfield". Turning back into the river, he rammed the Union ship, driving her under. "Albemarle" 's ram stuck in "Southfield" 's hull and her bow was pulled under, but "Southfield" rolled over when she hit the riverbed and released the Confederate ship.

"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 armor and exploded on "Miami", killing her commanding officer, Captain Charles W. Flusser. "Miami" 's crew tried to board "Albemarle" but were driven back by musket fire. "Miami" then avoided the ram and escaped into Albemarle Sound.

With the river clear of Union ships and the assistance of "Albemarle" 's guns, General Hoke attacked and took Plymouth and the nearby forts.

USS "Commodore Hull",
USS "Wyalusing",
USS "Sassacus",
CSS "Albemarle",
USS "Mattabesett" and the CSS "Bombshell"

On 5 May "Albemarle" and CSS "Bombshell", a captured steamer, were escorting the troop-laden CSS "Cotton Plant" down the Roanoke River. Then encountered four Union warships: USS "Miami", now supported by USS "Mattabesett", USS "Sassacus", and USS "Wyalusing". "Albemarle" fired first, wounding six men working one of "Mattabesett" 's two 100-pounder Parrott rifles, and then attempted to ram. The sidewheeler managed to round the ram's bow, closely followed by "Sassacus", which opened up a broadside of solid nine-inch and 100-pound shot, all of which bounced off "Albemarle" 's sloping armor. However, "Bombshell", a softer target, was hulled by each shot from "Sassucus" 's broadside and quickly surrendered and was captured.

Lieutenant Commander Francis Asbury Roe of "Sassucus", seeing "Albemarle" broadside-on at a range of about convert|400|yd, decided to ram. The Union ship struck the Confederate ironclad full and square, shattering the timbers of her own bow, twisting off her own bronze ram, and jamming the ships together. With "Sassucus" 's hull was almost touching the end of the gun barrel, "Albemarle" quickly fired two shells, one of which punctured "Sassucus" 's boilers. Though live steam was roaring through the ship, she was able to break away and drift out of range. "Miami" then tried first to use her torpedo, then to tangle the Confederate ram's propellor with a seine net, but neither ploy succeeded, and "Albemarle" steamed back up the Roanoke and moored at Plymouth.

"Albemarle" dominated the Roanoke and the approaches to Plymouth through the summer of 1864. By autumn, the Federal government decided that the situation should be studied to determine if something should be done. The US Navy debated several plans to destroy "Albemarle", and finally authorized Lieutenant William B. Cushing to locate two small steam launches that might be fitted with spar torpedoes. He discovered two 30-foot picket boats under construction in New York and acquired them. On each he mounted a 12-pound howitzer and a convert|14|ft|m|sing=on 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, with its crew of seven officers and men, at the mouth of the Roanoke. There it was fitted with a lanyard-detonated torpedo.

On the night of 27 and 28 October 1864 Cushing and his team began working their way upriver. A small cutter accompanied them, the crew of which had the task of preventing interference by Confederate sentries stationed on a schooner anchored to the wreck of "Southfield." Both boats, however, slipped past the schooner undetected, and Cushing decided to use all 22 men to try to capture "Albemarle". As they approached the Confederate docks, though, their luck turned. They were spotted and taken under heavy fire from both the shore and "Albemarle". They closed with "Albemarle" and discovered that she was defended against approach by booms of floating logs. The logs, however, had been in the water for many months and were covered with slime, and the small craft rode over them without difficulty. When the small civilian craft was against the hull of the warship, Cushing stood up in the bow and detonated the 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:1 escaped; 2 drowned; 11 captured.

Cushing's attack blew a hole in "Albemarle" at the waterline "big enough to drive a wagon in." She sank in eight feet of water, which left her upper works still dry. Commander Alexander F. Warley, who had been appointed as her captain about a month earlier, salvaged her guns and shells and used them to defend Plymouth against subsequent Union attack -- futilely, as it transpired.

After the fall of Plymouth, the United States Navy then raised the ram. At the end of the war, the Union gunboat USS "Ceres" towed "Albemarle" to the Norfolk Navy Yard where she arrived on 27 April 1865. On 7 June, orders were issued to repair her hull, and she entered dry dock soon thereafter. The work was completed on 14 August 1865, and, 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 sold at public auction there on 15 October 1867 to J.N. Leonard and Company. No record of her subsequent career has been found. One of her convert|6.4|in|mm|sing=on 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.

The effort to neutralize CSS "Albemarle" is honored by the U.S. Navy by a battle star on the Civil War campaign streamer.


A 63 foot (19.2m) replica of the "Albemarle" has been at anchor near the Port O' Plymouth Museum in Plymouth since April, 2002. The replica is self-powered and capable of sailing on the river.


* [http://www.cronab.demon.co.uk/alb.htm Maritime History and Naval Heritage Web Site]

Further reading

Elliott, Robert G., "Ironclad of the Roanoke", White Mane Publishing, 1994, ISBN 0-942597-63-X

External links

* [http://americancivilwar.com/tcwn/civil_war/Navy_Ships/CSS_Albemarle.html American Civil War Web Site]
* [http://www.csnavy.org/weapons/cannons.htm Confederate States Navy Research Center Mobile, Ala.]
* [http://www.civilwarartillery.com/inventors/Brooke.htm John Mercer Brooke]

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