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The 1863 Confederate contract to build the a ironclad ram was granted to a nineteen year old North Carolina soldier named Gilbert Elliott who would oversee the bulk of its construction in a cornfield in Halifax County. The ship, later named the Albemarle was intended, if ever completed, to operate on the waters of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds.
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Elliott began building the Albemarle at Tillery’s Farm, seven miles below Halifax on the Roanoke River. He moved the operation downstream to Edwards Ferry in March 1863. There, on the property of Peter E. Smith, a shipyard was built in a cornfield by the river. While Smith brought in or built the equipment needed, Elliot combed the state for iron, collecting old railroad iron, broken boilers, and even buckets of bolts. Regarding the difficulties in completing the ship, Elliott wrote “No vessel was ever constructed under more adverse circumstances.”
In March 1864, after about a year at what became known as the Edwards Ferry Shipyard, the Albemarle was launched about two miles downriver to Hamilton, where the two layers of iron plating were applied. Completed, the ship was 152 feet long, 45 feet wide, with a draft of eight feet. Although the eighteen-foot ram was the Albemarle’s primary weapon, the vessel was also outfitted with six gunports and two rotating eight-inch Brooke rifled guns. The two engines, built by Elliot out of an assortment of odds and ends, were 200 horsepower each.
General Robert F. Hoke convinced Commander James W. Cooke to have the Albemarle ready in time to aid in his planned attack on the Union occupying forces at Plymouth. On April 17, 1864, the Albemarle was commissioned and launched, departing directly for Plymouth. Since the iron plating was not yet complete, forges were installed on the deck and mechanics, carpenters and blacksmiths boarded to work on the ship as it floated down the Roanoke River. As work was completed, Cooke made brief stops to drop off surplus men, materials, and equipment. Elliott volunteered to join the crew as Cooke’s aide and, on the night of April 17, completed a reconnaissance mission that made it possible for a furtive early morning journey through enemy obstacles in river.
The Albemarle easily bypassed Fort Gray, slipping further downstream toward Plymouth. Two Union steamers, the Miami and the Southfield, were targets of the next naval action. The Albemarle rammed the Southfield, which sank, and Cooke turned his attention to the Miami. The Miami’s commander, Charles W. Flusser, was killed when a shell that he fired at the Albemarle was ricocheted back to the Miami, so close were the two vessels. Having already taken punishing shellfire, the Miami then fled downstream. The Albemarle was liberated to steam to Plymouth and pound the city’s Union defenses, providing significant support to Hoke’s troops who recaptured Plymouth on April 20.
Though the Albemarle fought successfully in only one other engagement, the ram, moored at Plymouth, remained a threat to Union forces in eastern North Carolina. Lieutenant William B. Cushing was dispatched to North Carolina with orders to destroy the Albemarle. On October 27, 1864, Cushing torpedoed the ram from a small launch in the river, clearing the way for Union forces to recapture Plymouth and subsequently the entire sound region. Near the end of the war the Albemarle was raised, towed to Norfolk, and sold at public auction.
John G. Barrett, The Civil War in North Carolina (1963)
William B. Trotter, Ironclads and Columbiads: The Civil War in North Carolina, The Coast (1989)
Robert G. Elliott, Ironclad of the Roanoke (1994)
Gilbert Elliott, “The Ram ‘Albemarle,’” in Walter Clark, ed., Histories of the Several Regiments and Battalions from North Carolina in the Great War (1901), V, 314-323
Fort Branch website: http://www.fortbranchcivilwarsite.com/