THE RAM ALBEMARLE
"Her Battles and Victories"
On June 3, 1863, Lieutenant Flusser, commanding the United States steamer Miami, in Albemarle sound, advised Rear-Admiral S. P. Lee, U. S. N., of the building of a new Confederate. States ram, the Albemarle, at Edward's Ferry on the Roanoke river, 30 miles below Weldon. The United States navy department several times called the attention of the general in command of the United States forces on the sound to the construction of this vessel, and advised that as the United States ships could not reach her on account of the shallowness of the water, a land force be sent to burn her. This appeal was disregarded.
In the meantime the building of the vessel, subsequently named the Albemarle, went on under the most discouraging circumstances. There was not even a ship yard at Edward's Ferry; the timber had to be cut in the woods, workmen were scarce, there was no machine shop, and iron was almost unobtainable. Fortunately, Commander James W. Cooke, C. S. navy, was ordered to assist her builders, and take command of her when finished. She was simply a flat- bottomed boat, sharp at both ends. The prow was solid oak, plated with iron; her shield was slanting, and covered with railroad iron, which was sufficient, as after experience demonstrated. She carried two good guns, Brooke rifles. As the vessel went down in the water, Cooke moved her farther and farther down the river into deeper water. The officers, crew and workmen suffered great hardships from bad fare, bad water, and bad climate. But the indefatigable Cooke encouraged them by his example.
By April, 1863, the vessel was partially completed, and a combined movement against the Federal forces at Plymouth, N. C., was planned. About the middle of April, General Hoke, commander of the Confederate land forces, visited the ship, then at Hamilton, and Captain Cooke promised to be at Plymouth by the 18th to assist the army. Few men would have ventured to make the promise. Workmen were still at work; the engine had not been tried, nor the crew drilled. Cooke had, however, an excellent executive officer in the brave Lieut. F. M. Roby.
On the 17th and 18th of April, 1864, vigorous attacks were made upon the forts at Plymouth by the Confederates under General Hoke. At this time the United States vessels present were the Miami, the Southfield, two small picket boats, the Bombshell and Whitehead, and the gunboat Ceres, all under the command of Lieutenant Flusser. In Albemarle sound were several United States vessels, technically called double-enders. Captain Flusser helped materially in the defense of the forts on the 17th and 18th; his two larger vessels carrying one rifled zoo-pounder and five or six 9-inch shell guns each. On the evening of the 18th, expecting the advent of the Albemarle, he chained the Miami and Southfield together, a somewhat novel proceeding. In this condition he confidently awaited the attack, having some months before expressed the opinion that "we shall whip them if they venture down."
In the meanwhile the Albemarle, having landed her mechanics in the afternoon of the 18th, was slowly making her way down the river, stern foremost, as she was difficult to steer. About 3 a.m. on the 19th, Captain Flusser was made aware of her approach, and the Miami and Southfield steamed to meet her. The Albemarle, with her ports closed, passed the enemy's fort at Warren's Neck under a heavy fire, and rammed the Southfield, forcing her ram into the fire- room. The Albemarle had some difficulty in extricating herself, the water coming into her bow port before she could get clear. The Southfield filled and sank as the ram was drawn out. Commander Cooke, in his official report, spoke highly of his officers, Lieutenant Roby, Master Shelly, Past Midshipman Hamilton and Pilot Hopkins. He also specially thanked Mr. Elliot, the builder, who accompanied him as a volunteer, for great gallantry and efficient service.
As the Albemarle closed with the Miami and Southfield they fired shells, which of course burst into fragments against the ram's iron sides and rebounded over the Miami's deck. Three or four of the pieces struck the gallant Flusser, and he was instantly killed. Seeing the fate of the Southfield, the Miami, Whitehead and Ceres made off down the river. The Bombshell had been previously sunk by a shot from a Confederate battery. The Albemarle having sunk the Southfield and driven off the other vessels, now turned her guns upon the forts, and the town surrendered the same day. Thus did the navy assist the army in the capture of Plymouth. Without the aid of the Albemarle it could not have been effected.
The Albemarle now went to the wharf at Plymouth to be completed. On May 5th, accompanied by the steamer Cotton Plant and the little gunboat Bombshell, which had been raised by the Confederates and commissioned under Lieut. W. E. Hudgins, she steamed down the Roanoke river into Albemarle sound. According to Capt. J. N. Maffitt, C. S. N., in his "Reminiscences," Captain Cooke was ordered to convoy the Cotton Plant to Alligator river. After proceeding some 15 miles down the sound she encountered the Federal fleet, consisting of the double-enders Mattabesett, Sassacus, Wyalusing and Miami, and the gunboats Ceres, Whitehead and Commodore Hull, all under the command of Commodore M. Smith, U.S. N. These vessels were heavily armed, and the Miami carried a torpedo and a seine, the latter to foul the Albemarle's propeller. The Cotton Plant was sent back to Plymouth, and the Bombshell should have been, for of course she had soon to surrender.
About 5 p.m. the engagement commenced. The Albemarle made repeated attempts to ram her huge antagonist, but her slow speed prevented. The enemy poured broadside after broadside into her; but even the 100-pound rifled projectiles and the 9-inch solid shot failed to penetrate her shield. The Sassacus rammed her just abaft the shield, but without effect. In return, she received from the Albemarle a 100-pound Brooke rifle-shot, which passed through one of her boilers, scalding many of her crew, and sending her out of action, disabled. The Miami made no use of her torpedo and the seine accomplished nothing. The Albemarle kept up a constant fire, though one of her guns was badly cracked. Finding it impossible to capture the Albemarle, the Federal fleet discontinued the action at 7:30 p.m., and the unconquerable little ram made her way slowly back to Plymouth. The total loss in the Federal vessels was 29. We have no returns of the Albemarle's loss.
As the Confederate navy department was building an ironclad ram on the Neuse river, the Albemarle now awaited her co-operation. On the night of October 27, 1864, she was sunk while lying at the wharf at Plymouth, by a torpedo boat under the command of the heroic Lieut. W. B. Cushing, U. S. N., one of the most brilliant exploits in naval annals. At the time, the Albemarle was commanded by Lieut. A. F. Warley; Commander Cooke, who had been promoted to captain, having retired from ill health. After the destruction of the Albemarle the town of Plymouth fell again into the enemy's hands.
Source: The Confederate Military History, Volume 12, Chapter XI