Pulling on the thread connected the small Southern port of Washington, North Carolina, to the most daring raid executed during the Civil War.
I’ve lived in the village of Chocowinity, North Carolina less than a year. Settling into the place, I began to explore the local history. In a book called Washington and the Pamlico, I came across an intriguing thread. “The first torpedo boat was built in Washington by Lt. John M. Lay of the flagship USS Louisiana during the Union occupation.” I pulled on that thread.
The Washington referred to was in North Carolina, a few miles from where I live now, and the man’s name was actually John L. Lay. He wasn’t a lieutenant but an assistant engineer and it wasn’t a torpedo boat he invented but a variation on the spar torpedo. Some called it a bomb on a stick.
The spar torpedo wasn’t even a new weapon. The Confederacy, hard pressed by the Union’s naval strength, had innovated weapons out of desperation. In 1864, one of those desperate innovations, the ironclad ram CSS Albemarle, tipped the balance of power in North Carolina ass over tea kettle.
By 1864, the forts on the Outer Banks had fallen, the Confederate Mosquito Fleet had been destroyed, and the ports of New Bern, Beaufort, and Washington occupied. The Union dominated North Carolina’s inland sea. The Confederacy had nothing to challenge the Union’s naval blockade, nothing until the Albemarle.
In April 1864, the Albemarle launched from a cornfield beyond the reach of Union forces, steamed down the Roanoke River and sank the USS Southfield, a wooden gunboat of 750-tons, and drove off the USS Miami. In May she confronted a flotilla of seven Union gunboats in the Albemarle Sound. The Union fleet mounted 55 guns, the Albemarle only two. She fought the fleet to a standstill but suffered damage to her steering gear and her smokestack was riddled with shot. The damaged smokestack affected the steam boiler’s draft. Her crew had to feed bacon, lard, and butter into the boiler to keep up steam. The battle ended with nightfall.
The Battle of Albemarle Sound was no one’s victory but proved to the Union they had nothing that could withstand the Confederate ironclad. She had to be stopped at any cost or their naval blockade of North Carolina was at risk. The Union needed a desperate weapon of their own and a hero to wield it.
The weapon was John Lay’s spar torpedo. The hero was John Cushing.
John Louis Lay
John Lay was an ambitious man by anyone’s standard. He joined the Navy as assistant engineer of the USS Louisiana, a 295-ton propeller steamer active in operations on North Carolina’s sounds and rivers. In February 1862, he led engineers that spiked the southern end of the Albemarle-Chesapeake Canal, sinking several schooners and a dredge in the mouth of the canal, preventing Confederate access from the north. In April 1863. when a Confederate brigade invested the port city of Washington, North Carolina, Lay volunteered to command a battery on the transport ship Eagle. For 18 days he was under continuous fire from shore batteries and small arms but held his position and helped prevent the enemy from sweeping the Pamlico River of Union gunboats and taking the city.
He was also an inventive man. Off duty, he tinkered with the mechanics of a spar torpedo. Spar torpedoes were simply a cannister of black powder mounted on an extended bowsprit. The point was to impale an enemy ship on the spar and then detonate the black powder or lower the cannister below the hull of the ship, and then detonate the black powder. A small boat armed with a spar torpedo could substantially damage or even sink a ship.
The Confederacy had pioneered the use of spar torpedoes, most notably the CSS H.L. Hunley.
CSS H.L. Hunley
The Hunley was the first successful submarine in combat but she was hardly seaworthy. She had sunk twice in sea trials on Charleston Bay, killing her crews. When she steamed out of harbor on the night of February 17, 1864 with her third crew, she remained on the surface, quietly aiming for the USS Housatonic, a steam-driven sloop on station with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron standing off Charleston.
The Hunley was powered by a hand-crank turned by her crew and armed with a 2-foot-long torpedo packed with 135-pounds of black powder mounted on a 16-foot-long spar. She sank the Housatonic but never returned to port.
Raised from the bottom 137 years later, her hull intact, the skeletons of her crew were still at their stations with no indication they tried to escape. The Hunley’s external ballast weights were still in place, her bilge pumps still secured. Recent experiments indicate the crew of the Hunley were likely killed by the blast wave of their own device. At most only 42 feet from the explosion when the torpedo was manually denotated, the crew suffered severe injuries to their soft tissue—lungs and brain. They died at their posts.
A spar torpedo wasn’t a weapon for the timid.
On the Pamlico River, John Lay experimented with a much cheaper method of delivery, an open boat driven by a steam engine. A steam launch was discardable in the economy of the Civil War. They lacked the stealth of a submarine or any protection for their crew, but they were cheap to build. In the calculus of war, the crew of a torpedo boat was also expendable.
The success of John Lay’s sea trials on the Pamlico caught the attention of the Navy Department. In December 1863, he was ordered to New York to further develop his designs.
The success of the Confederates with spar torpedoes caused the US Navy Department to request proposals from inventors for similar weapons. John Lay teamed with Chief Engineer William Wood and submitted their design. Their torpedo carried only 40 pounds of gunpowder, compared to Hunley’s 135 pounds, and included a mechanism for detaching the torpedo and detonating it remotely. The Navy awarded Lay and Wood the contract. Several of their designs were fitted to steam launches and tested in New York during the summer of 1864. It was in New York that John Louis Lay met William Barker Cushing.
William Barker Cushing
William Cushing was a man who couldn’t sit still. At 14-years-old he enrolled in the Naval Academy, Annapolis, as midshipman. Candidates were allowed 200 demerits per year before being summarily dismissed. In his first year, Cushing earned 99. In his second, 188. In his fourth year, only months before graduation, he reached 200. Three weeks later, the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter.
He convinced Gordon Wells, Secretary of the Navy, to appoint him Acting Master’s Mate in the US Volunteer Navy. Cushing was nothing if not convincing.
He served with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron on the North Carolina sounds, distinguishing himself by ingenuity and bravery. He once attempted kidnapping Confederate General Louis Hébert from his headquarters in Smithfield, NC, arriving with 20 men in two boats minutes after the General’s departure. In 1864 he led a 15-man team for 3 days secretly reconnoitering Confederate held territory between Fort Fisher and Wilmington on the Cape Fear River. Shortly afterward he was tasked with sinking the ironclad Albemarle.
Cushing proposed an attack on the Albemarle using small boats fitted with spar torpedoes. The Navy Department sent him to New York where John Lay already had his torpedo design fitted on two steam launches. The launches were less than 50-feet-long with a draft of three and a half feet. Cushing put the launches through successful sea trials on New York Harbor. He had a 12-pound howitzer mounted on the bow of each boat and sent them south through the inland waterways while he traveled by rail. He expected to rendezvous with them at Norfolk, Virginia. Only one launch arrived. The other had lost its way and blundered into occupied territory in Virginia.
Undeterred, Cushing piloted the remaining launch south through the Albemarle-Chesapeake Canal and, on October 27, 1864, met the Union flotilla cowering at the mouth of the Roanoke River, dreading the appearance of the Albemarle.
That night, Cushing steamed eight miles upriver, skirting the sentinels posted on the river banks, finally arriving at Plymouth where the Albemarle was berthed and guarded by a garrison of several thousand men. It was only when the ironclad was in sight that Cushing realized she was surrounded by a log boom that extended 30 feet from her hull, protection against just the sort of attack he intended.
The guard on the deck of the ironclad sighted Cushing’s launch at the same time. A bell rang the alarm. Rifle fire broke out. Cushing drove the launch in a circle, gathering speed, and aimed full speed straight for the log boom. He reasoned the logs had been submerged long enough to be waterlogged and coated with algae. When the launch struck, she’d ride over them.
Riflemen on the deck of the Albemarle were pouring fire into the boat. Cushing answered with the howitzer loaded with cannister shot, clearing the Albemarle’s upper deck.
Confederate soldiers on shore had a clear view of the scene lit by their bonfires. They continued to fire on the launch as it accelerated toward the log boom. Several shots tore Cushing’s coat as he stood at the bow, adjusting the lines that positioned the spar torpedo. The launch struck the log boom and drove over the top. Somehow Cushing kept his balance. The end of the spar almost touched the iron hull of the Albemarle. Cushing lowered the torpedo into the water as the launch’s momentum carried it forward until the torpedo was under the Albemarle’s hull. He pulled another line; the torpedo disconnected from the spar and fell into the water. A bullet cut the palm of Cushing’s hand. At the same moment, he pulled the lanyard that triggered the bomb.
Inside the torpedo, the lanyard released an iron ball that fell on a percussion cap. The percussion cap detonated the black powder. A moment later, the Albemarle’s hull pitched upward, driven by a column of water. At the same time, the gun crew of the Albemarle fully depressed the barrel of their 8-inch gun and fired, 15 feet from Cushing’s launch. The shot shattered the boat’s heavy bow timbers.
“Save yourselves,” Cushing shouted to his men and dove into the river.
The Confederates launched small boats. In a few minutes they had recovered Cushing’s crew, those still alive. Only Cushing escaped. He made his way down river, through swamps and past Confederate patrols, until he stole a boat near the mouth of the Roanoke and rejoined the fleet.
After the war, A.F. Warley, captain of the Albemarle, said of Cushing’s raid, “A more gallant thing was not done during the war.”
It didn’t end well for John Lay or William Cushing.
After the war, John Lay went to work for Peru, developing the Callao harbor defenses against the Spanish. While in Peru, he came up with his next invention. He called it a dirigible torpedo. Driven by a propeller and powered by a carbonic acid engine, the torpedo unspooled electrical wires that allowed control from either the shore or a boat. He sold his torpedoes to Egypt, the U.S., and Russia, making over a million dollars in direct sales or manufacturing rights. His cleverness didn’t extend to financial investments. He died on April 18, 1899, impoverished, at Bellevue Hospital, New York. The hospital staff didn’t know his name or history. He left behind a wife in London, a married daughter in Java, and a son on the Pacific coast. His obituary appeared in the Journal of the American Society of Naval Engineers.
After the sinking of the Albemarle, William Cushing was a national hero. He had a private audience with President Lincoln and received a Vote of Thanks from Congress. Herman Melville wrote a poem about him. He went on to distinguish himself in the battle of Fort Fisher and numerous smaller actions. After the war, he served in both the Pacific and Asiatic squadrons, married, had a family, and commanded his own ship but died of illness on December 17, 1874, 32-years-old. He lived only 10 years after he sank the Albemarle. He is buried at the Naval Academy, Maryland. His life was brief but brilliant.
As for the USS Louisiana, the ship on which John Lay served while first tinkering with spar torpedoes on the Pamlico River, she was ingloriously stripped of spars and machinery, disguised as a blockade runner, stuffed with 215 tons of powder, and towed close to the Northeast Bastion of Fort Fisher, the last of the Confederate coastal forts still standing. At 1:40 am on Christmas Eve, 1864, the Louisiana exploded. A shock wave rolled across the ocean, rattling the spars and rigging of the Union fleet assembled for the attack. The spectacular detonation did almost no damage to the fort.