Friday, November 23, 2012

Cushing's Raid on Jacksonville, North Carolina

As written in previous posts, the U.S. Navy waged an intriguing form of strategic warfare with targeted raids against salt works in Florida. These small works produced usable salt by evaporating brine.  Salt (the "table salt" type) was a critical mineral to everyday life as it was needed for dietary reasons, to tan leather, and to preserve meat.  In late 1862, the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, under the new command of Acting Rear Admiral Samuel Phillips Lee, picked up on this strategy by launching similar raids against salt works in Virginia and North Carolina. 

USS Ellis (ex-CSS Ellis)
One such raid occurred the evening of November 23, 1862 aboard the USS Ellis, a tug captured by the U.S. Army during the Roanoke Island Campaign.  Led by Lieutenant William B. Cushing, the nominal purpose of the raid was to find the salt works near Onslow Courthouse (also called Jacksonville), North Carolina. For Cushing, however, one target was never enough.  In what would become common place in Cushing-led raids, this operation would not end until the either the Confederate forces were defeated or Cushing's ship sank. 

Lieutant William B. Cushing
Cushing later wrote that his "object was to sweep the river, capture any vessels  there, capture the town of Jacksonville (also called Onslow), take the Wilmington mail, and destroy any salt works that I might find on the banks."  This was all to be done with a tug boat armed with two 32-pounder cannons and twenty-three men. 

Ellis arrived at Jacksonville at 1:30 in the afternoon.  Finding little initial opposition, Cushing and his men proceeded to capture the post office, several stands of rifled muskets, grabbed any African American in sight to "liberate" them, and two schooners.  A salt works was also destroyed soon after.

Around 5 p.m., Confederate ground forces converged on the town just as Ellis began head back down river.  Darkness prevented any combat.  As the Sun came up, the shooting started.  Confederate infantry and cavalry would lay down fire on Cushing's little squadron while Ellis returned fire with her two guns.  During this running fight, Ellis ran hard aground.

After several attempts to free her, Cushing transferred most of his men and material to one of the schooners.  In typical Cushing-style, however, he and six volunteers stayed on board Ellis to provide covering fire.  At this point in the battle, a battery of four Confederate guns (including one Whitworth rifle) fired on Ellis.  Cushing  refused to give up on Ellis until the last minute.  Eventually, he declared Ellis a loss, set fire to her, and abandoned ship.  She blew up the following morning. 

After reading Cushing's after-action report, Commander Davenport (Cushing's commanding officer) reported to Admiral Lee, "I think the courage of this young officer should meet the commendation of his superiors."

Indeed he would be.  It would only be the first of many commendations to come. 

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