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The CSS Albemarle

The Confederate States Ship (CSS), Albemarle is considered by historians to be the most successful Confederate ironclad of the Civil War. It is a fascinating story!

The CSS Albemarle was built under contract with 19 year-old Gilbert Elliot from Elizabeth City, NC. It was built up the Roanoke River in a cornfield at Edward’s Ferry near Scotland Neck. It took over a year to construct. The iron needed for the armor was so difficult to find that at times it was collected at gunpoint from the surrounding area! Peter Evans Smith, the plantation owner where the ironclad was constructed, invented the modern twist drill to speed up the process of drilling through the 2” iron plates of the Albemarle.

According to a naval survey performed on May 18, 1865 by three officers, the Albemarle was 158’ long, 35’3” wide (beam) and drew 9 feet of water. She had two reciprocating compound 200 hp. steam engines with two 6’ propellers that had a 9’ pitch. Her cruising speed was only 5 knots! The casemate housed two 6.4 Brooke Rifled Cannon, one fore and one aft, that could each be pivoted to fire out of three different gun ports. The casemate was 60’ long and was covered in two layers of 2” iron plating. The slope of the casemate was at a 35-degree angle to deflect enemy shot and shell.

The Albemarle was baptized by fire under the command of James Cooke in a short but fierce fight during the Battle of Plymouth, when on April 19, 1864 she swept the Federal Navy from the Roanoke River. Charles Flusser, the commander of the Federal fleet, was killed by his own shell when it ricocheted off the casemate of the Albemarle and back at his feet on the deck of his flag ship, the USS Miami. The USS Southfield was rammed by the Albemarle in the same battle and still lies on the bottom of the river where she sank.

Later on May 5, 1864 the Albemarle faced down another Federal fleet of seven gunboats, three of which where three times the size of the Albemarle. The battle took place in the Albemarle Sound east of Plymouth. Together the Union fleet mounted 60 guns against the Albemarle’s 2 Brooke Rifles and fired 557 shells at the Albemarle, but could not sink her! After a 4 hour battle, finally the Union commander raised a signal flag to the rest of the fleet to cease-fire.

CushingShe was destroyed on October 27, 1864 in the most daring commando raid of the war by 21 year-old Lieutenant William Barker Cushing who was avenging the death of his friend, -Charles Flusser! He steamed up the Roanoke River to Plymouth in a 30’ steam launch with a group of volunteers at night and sank the Albemarle with a spar-mounted torpedo. Cushing became an instant hero in the North.

The “Cornfield Ironclad” nevertheless overcame overwhelming circumstances on her way to twice defeat the Federal Navy and become the most successful ironclad of the Civil War. Today a 62’ replica plies the Roanoke River in Plymouth in tribute to her predecessor. Launched in 2002 the powered replica is a 3/8 scale of the original Albemarle with guns that still echo on “The River of Death”.