A Stripe Or A Coffin
( Originally Published 1902 )
CUSHING was only twenty-two years of age, and a lieutenant in the United States Navy, when, in 1864, he won for himself rank, and enduring fame in naval history, by an almost unparalleled act of heroism.
At that time, and for some prior period, the greatest damage had been done to our shipping by the Confederate ram, Albemarle, whose great strength had proven her invincibility, in an attack by a whole Federal fleet. The fear of the future ruin which it was in her power to accomplish, induced our Government to resort to every method toward her destruction, but, up to this time, all in vain.
Cushing, however, determined to make the hazardous attempt, futile though it seemed. He received permission to proceed, and having gathered together a volunteer crew of thirteen men in a steam launch, he prepared to leave the fleet, then off Roanoke River, on the night of October 27.
At that time the Albemarle was moored some eight miles up the river, at Plymouth, and well guarded from attack, both by a force of soldiers and also by many powerful batteries, too formidable for our fleet to face. To guard against any secret attempt, a heavy detachment of troops was always near her, and in addition she was surrounded by a pen of heavy logs, thirty feet wide.
Cushing had but little hopes of ever returning from his expedition alive, but was determined to succeed in his task at any rate. But he gave no sign of these apprehensions regarding his own fate, as he cheerfully bade his friends in the fleet farewell, with the words, "Another stripe or a coffin."
It was a dark night, and so carefully did he proceed in the launch, that he was able to get within a few yards of the ram before being discovered. Then broke forth a perfect hail of shot, shell and rifle balls, which fairly riddled his boat; but through all this storm Cushing drove right ahead, and ordering on full steam, sent his vessel straight against the logs. So great was the force of impact, that the launch forced herself sufficiently over the logs to enable Cushing to swing the torpedo boom under the overhang of the ram, and explode the charge; an act which he coolly performed, although but fifteen feet distant from the enemy, whose crew were all the time pouring a withering fire upon the little handful of men. The explosion was a success ; the ram went to the bottom that night. Cushing's work was done, but his own position was most precarious ; for the launch was a total wreck, and his enemies all around about pouring down upon him their fire. Calling upon the survivors of his crew to save themselves the best way they could, he sprang into the river and struck out down stream. He swam for nearly a mile, when he just managed to reach the shore, but so completely exhausted that he lay for some time on the bank, motionless. At last he managed to crawl into a nearby swamp, where he remained in the mire until some strength returned to him, when he proceeded to work his way through the morass. After many hours' weary toil, he luckily found himself on the banks of a creek, where he happily discovered a boat, of which he immediately took possession, and pushed off, and by the following night reached an United States gunboat near the mouth of the river.
For this great heroism Cushing received the thanks of Congress, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander. He did not live long, however, after this event, as his exertions in his country's cause had so undermined his constitution, that before his thirty-second birthday this ornament to our navy had passed from earth.
It makes one proud of his country and race to read such a story of sublime heroism. When he said, "A stripe or a coffin," he meant that he had the ambition which is natural to mortals ; but deeper and better than that ambition, he had a love for his country which made him reckless of his own life, to promote its welfare. Many heroes take great risk and perish. Lieutenant Cushing took the awful risk, and succeeded; but the explosion after all killed him the more slowly but surely, and he became one of the martyrs of the Republic.
Such heroism is constantly manifested in the religious world. There are people taking their lives in their own hands in every heathen nation on the globe, in their attempts to sink the fleets of moral evil and establish the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. Some are killed by the "Boxers"; some are eaten by the cannibals ; others die by a slower process from fevers ; but their places are quickly taken by the long line of godly men and women who are willing to dare and die for Christ.