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CSS Albemarle

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Ordered:16 April 1862
Laid down:January 1863
Fate:sunk by spar torpedo, captured, raised, and sold
General Characteristics
Displacement:376 tons
Length:158 feet
Beam:35 feet
Draft:9 feet
Speed:4 knots
Complement:150 officers and men
Armament:two eight-inch rifles
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 of which were named for General George Monck, the first Duke of Albemarle and one of the original Carolina 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 Virginia (the rebuilt Merrimack) over the wooden-hulled Union blockaders in Hampton Roads, Virginia, signed a contract with Gilbert Elliot 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 President of the United States Abraham Lincoln's troops to hold the strategic positions which controlled eastern North Carolina.

Since the terms of the agreement gave Elliot 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, 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 eight-inch rifles, one forward, the other aft, behind iron shutters, propelled by two engines of 200hp each.

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 J.S. Cooke, got underway down-river toward Plymouth, North Carolina, to clear the river of federal vessels so that General Hoke's troops could storm the forts. She anchored about three miles 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 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 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.

On 5 May Albemarle and Bombshell, a captured steamer, were escorting the troop-laden Cotton Plant down the Roanoke River. Then encountered four Union warships: USS Miami, now supported by Mattabesett, Sassacus, and 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 Roe of Sassucus, seeing Albemarle broadside-on at a range of about 400 yards, 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 Commander William Cushing to locate two small steam launches that might be fitted with 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 14-foot spar projecting into the water from its bow. One of the boats was lost at sea during the voyage from New York to Norfolk, 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 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 the 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.

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. Alexander Worley, 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. Following the conquest of the Confederate States of America, the Union gunboat 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 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.

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


This article includes information collected from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.