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James W. Cook and the CSS Albemarle

[The Daily Journal, December 31, 1882]

Of North Carolina and the Confederate States.

The article, Messrs. Editors, which appeared in the Journal a few days ago, taken from the Detroit Free Press and written by “M. Quad,” relative to “The great fight in the sound—the Confederate Ram Albemarle, and her attack on a fleet” we read as many others doubtless did with much interest. But there are errors in the account and in simple justice to a heroic commander—a North Carolinian—long since dead, at our solicitation, Capt. Joseph J. Roberson of Newbern furnishes the following statement of facts:

"Captain James W. Cook was born in Beaufort, N.C., about the year 1812. He went to school there until he joined the United States Navy in 1828. His father, Thomas Cook, a merchant at Beaufort, was drowned off Beaufort bar in the storm of 1815 while returning from New York. He left a wife and two children, James, and a daughter, Harriet. She married a Mr. Sheldon whose affection, kindness and liberality saved Cook and his family, consisting of wife, son and mother-in-law, after the war, from want. His son is, we think, in business, now, in Portsmouth and is prospering. His sister with her husband, the last we heard from them, were residing in New Jersey.

“James W. Cook left Beaufort immediately after receiving the commission of midshipman, entered the service of his country and was at once sent to sea. His sea experience was great, having sailed around the world more than once. He visited many cities in distant countries and spent several years in Europe. He finally moved his family—he married either in Norfolk or Portsmouth—to Fairfax county, Virginia, where he lived when on shore for some years, on a farm, with all the comforts desirable at his command. When the civil war had become a fixed fact, Cook at once tendered his resignation as an officer in the U.S. Navy, and was among the very first to offer his services to the Confederate States Government. Then forever did he turn his back on his beautiful Virginia home and come with his family to this, his native state. Secretary Mallory without delay gave him a commission as Captain and assigned him to duty. He aided in the defense of Roanoke Island and was there wounded by a man attempting to pull down his flag. After this he was sent to examine the rivers of North Carolina. I happened to meet him at Goldsboro in the later part of the summer of 1862, the only meeting since our days of boyhood except one and that but for a moment. The cordial—I may say affectionate—greeting over, he carried me to his room in the hotel, informed me, confidentially, of his mission, and asked my assistance in making the examination of the Neuse, Tar and Roanoke rivers for the purpose of finding suitable places for the construction of iron clad gunboats. We started the next morning and went to White Hall on the Neuse. The Tar river was found not suitable. The Roanoke was then visited and considered better than either of the others. But Capt. Cook desired to have one boat built on the Neuse. He returned to Richmond and by his solicitation I went with him. The matter was referred to him by Mr. Mallory and by Capt. Cook’s request the Secretary made me his assistant. We returned to North Carolina and made, without delay, a contract with Messrs. T.S. Howard & Co., of Newbern, for the construction of a boat at White Hall on the Neuse and with Messrs. Gilbert Elliott & Co., for one at Smith’s Ferry, on the Roanoke. The latter was the famous Albemarle. I superintended her construction from the commencement of her frame to the driving of the last bolt. She was fitted out at Halifax and at Hamilton. Her first work as you know was to assist in taking Plymouth. This work she did well—sinking there one of the largest of the Federal gunboats and causing another to surrender which afterwards was stealthily run off, and holding the town at her command. She came out of this conflict with little damage and was soon prepared again for any emergency. Subsequently to this fight, came the order to Capt. Cook to take the Albemarle to Newbern and there to act in conjunction with the iron clad Neuse, which had been ordered down from Kinston, in clearing our rivers and sounds of the Federal vessels. Capt. Cook at this time was quite sick, and had been for several days before the order to move was received. However, with alacrity everything was arranged for the start. I lodged with him on shore the night prior to his leaving and he walked holding my arm next morning at sunrise, wearing his slippers, to the river. There shaking hands with Commodore Pinckney and myself he stepped on the deck of the Albemarle and in a moment more was steaming down toward the sound. The Albemarle was accompanied by the Cotton Plant, a stern wheel boat that ran up the Tar river before the war. She carried no gun; and the Bombshell, a little steamer, as tender, carried one small gun. She had been a Federal boat, was sunk at Plymouth and raised by myself and listed out for the Confederate service. In the fight she amounted to nothing. Early in the afternoon the roar of the cannon was plainly heard and without cessation continued until night. The Cotton Plant returning to Plymouth some time before dark and while the fight was still raging and making the very waters quiver with the thunders of guns. Night finally came and all was still—the lull after a terrific storm. The anxiety now for Cook and his gallant crew was intense. All hope was lost for them and the ship. Commodore Pinckney and myself were still sitting up at 12 o’clock hoping against hope. Pinckney was the ranking officer but as Cook desired to do so he had been in charge of the Ram, the Commodore from courtesy, remained on shore and allowed him to command her. Hours seemed now longer and longer. At last between one and two o’clock in the morning we heard a whistle. It is the Albemarle’s but who now commands her? Who is dead and who is living that left in her at sunrise? The voices soon tell all is well. She is safe and her crew all living. We board her with joy and give thanks for her deliverance after one of the most terrific battles on the water. We see her brave commander with no hat or cap but a long gash in his head and we learn from him only two of the men are slightly wounded. The upper works of the vessel were badly wrecked, though the bottom after all the ramming and pounding and jarring is still tight. One of the guns was badly broken in the commencement of the engagement and could afterwards be used to little advantage. One port shutter was gone, still in the bottom of the Sound. Turret was smashed in, iron plates were cut as with an axe could be inch boards, deck was torn up and smoke-stack was riddled as a sieve. A wreck she was above her main deck. Every effort was made to run her down; to throw powder down the smoke stack and to pound her to pieces, yet she lived through it all, fighting until night, and reached port with her crew. Cook said they might sink him or blow him up, but they could not make him surrender. Fight and die if necessary, was his order; surrender, never!

The Albemarle was a strong built, iron-clad boat, carrying two guns; speed not over seven or eight miles in still water. She was not as well built as was the iron-clad on Neuse river which was run ashore and burned just below Kinston about the close of the war. There was no plate on the Albemarle over four inches thick.

After this unprecedented battle the Albemarle underwent thorough repairs at Plymouth, the work being done under my own superintendence by order of Capt. Cook. He was then raised to Commodore for his gallant fight, and we moved up to Halifax to construct other vessels for the service. Two were nearly finished when the order came to apply the torch, as General Lee had surrendered. soon nothing was left but the ashes of the burned vessel with us, and an old horse, bridle and saddle. Commodore Cook’s family was then in Warrenton; my own was in Goldsboro. I insisted he should take the horse and make his way to his family. With his known generosity he at first declined and commanded me to do it, and try to find mine. Finally, I prevailed in him to mount and we separated, bidding each other as we supposed, perhaps, farewell forever. He safely reached Warrenton and carried his family to Portsmouth. There he learned his home had been burned, including mills and all out houses. He had no money to replace them. Living in a small house with his mother-in-law, his accomplished wife gave music lessons which gave them a small income. The Commodore then was too feeble to engage in any kind of business. After the war he pressed me to visit with him which I did, and his kindness I can never forget. His life was fast ebbing and he knew his stay here was short, though the expected summons had no terror for him. Commodore Cook knew not what fear was. No braver a man ever walked the deck of a ship and he was as generous as he was brave. He was entirely unselfish and begrudged not a living being of wealth or fame. As a friend he was close and reliable, and was no one’s enemy. In war he was humane and never shed a drop of blood for his own glory if it could be avoided. As at Plymouth rather than risk firing on surrendered foes, he would allow them to escape to his own injury. With all and over all he was a Christian. He never took a mouthful of food that he did not return thanks for it, neither did he ever close his eyes at night or open them in the morning without prayer. After this we need not say he was a gentleman and an officer of unblemished honor, under every charge however eventful. Those that knew him best loved him best.”

The writer of this said, in a communication which appeared in the Sentinel, Raleigh, September the 18th, 1871:

“The reference to Capt. Cook calls to mind his terrific engagement, while commanding the Confederate ram Albemarle, with a Federal fleet of double enders and other heavy ships in Albemarle Sound after the capture of Plymouth by Gen. R.F. Hoke, who was so ably seconded by Gen. M.W. Ransom and the brave officers and men under them, and in which Cook also participated by clearing the Roanoke river with his vessel. It is doubtful whether the annals of naval warfare could furnish a parallel to the [illegible] fire the Albemarle received in this battle. Never before had the size of such guns and the weight of their deadly, crushing missiles been directed against any single vessel. One side of the timbers under the iron plates were literally crushed and the plates badly cut as the vessel had the misfortune early in the action to have knocked out, by a slug, several feet of one of the two guns she carried, thus the necessity of fighting principally from the one side and the heavy pounding there. It is said during the terrible ordeal through which this ram was passing, Capt. Cook was as deliberate and calm as if arranging his toilet in his chamber at home. No excited expression escaped his lips; no harsh command uttered; but quietly his orders were given, and the men, partaking of his spirit, quietly and promptly obeyed. Cook, too, then was in delicate health, and never regained it. Some time since his brave spirit winged its flight from the bosom of his family, in Portsmouth, Virginia, to join the spirits of his comrades that had gone before him, and where merit is to be rewarded, and not success alone, as in the ‘vale of tears.’ Capt. James Wallace Cook was a native of Beaufort, Carteret county, North Carolina, and was as modest and as pure in his deportment as he was brave and fearless in battle. If his great action had been for the English, Cook would have been knighted; as it is he sinks into obscurity, almost forgotten by his native State, upon which he has shed imperishable honor.”

“M. Quad” states: “While the fight between the Monitor and Merrimac, Alabama and Hatteras, Kearsarge and the Alabama brought out some terrific fighting and proved that American pluck had lost none of its ardor since the days of Paul Jones, the affair with the Confederate ram Albemarle, off the mouth of the Roanoke River, on the 5th of May, 1864, may be set down as the bravest and most determined action between vessels afloat in any war for the last hundred years. Nothing in the naval history of Europe approaches it, and circumstances will never bring about another such action on this side of the ocean.”

When the above was written by “M. Quad,” he believed that Cook was fighting under much more advantageous circumstances than he was, and also that the damage to the ram was not near as great as it proved to be after the action. What nation upon earth, when everything on both sides is taken into consideration, would not boast of the performance of the Albemarle with the overwhelming power of the Federal fleet against her, and be proud to place high in the roll of fame the name of her intrepid and patriotic commander? Would it not glow if added to the chronicles of any naval history? Is it then not singular that Mr. Davis should, in his work, “The Rise and fall of the Confederate Government,” have passed over such a battle and the name of such a Captain in silence, while others are remembered, it seems to us, of much less importance to the present and future honor of the Southern people? We have hastily examined Mr. Davis’ work, and may have overlooked the fight on Albemarle Sound. We trust so. The finest vessels in the United States Navy before the war, the steam frigates Merrimack, Wabash, Roanoke, and others were constructed under the direction and approval of Gen. Graham and Mr. Dobbin, when Secretary of the Navy. They were then, perhaps, the best war ships in the world. Now “M. Quad” says we made the best iron-clads in the Confederate service, and a native of North Carolina commanded on “the bravest and most determined action between vessels afloat in any war for the last hundred years.” Capt. Winslow, that sunk the Alabama, was also a North Carolinian. Mr. Davis says: “General G.I. Rains was in charge of the submarine defences on the James River. Opposite Drewry’s Bluff the first submarine torpedo was made. The secret of his future success consisted in the sensitive primer, which is unrivaled by any other means to explode torpedoes or sub-terra shells.” His brother, Gen. Rains, made the powder in Georgia. They were both born in Newbern, in the house now the residence of Mrs. Dr. Isaac W. Hughes. They were West Point graduates. We might add to this list if time would allow.

Cook has been blamed for not using his vessel as a ram. It was not left with him, but with the commanders of faster vessels, to say whether it would be allowed. It seems they would not consent to be thus sunk. D.

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