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This biography is from HEROES OF ALBANY, by Rufus W. Clark, D. D.

Robert Henry King

Robert Henry King, son of Samuel W. and Susan King, was born in the city of Albany, November 8, 1844. His mother died when he was just one month old. He was a Sabbath school scholar from his youth, and was universally esteemed as an affectionate, noble minded and strictly moral young man.

The death of his father, June 18, 1864, left Robert an orphan, and he enlisted in the naval service of his country in the month of September, 1864. In a short time after his enlistment, he was on board the receiving ship "Vermont." From that vessel he was drafted as one of the crew of a small but unique craft, which was registered in our navy as "Picket Boat No. 1." This vessel was forty feet in length and ten in width, carried one gun, a twelve-pounder, and was furnished with a long projecting timber, called torpedo boom, and which was designed to run torpedoes under rebel vessels. Her commander was Lieut. Gushing. The vessel sailed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard September 22, 1864, and proceeded immediately to her place of destination, which was Plymouth, North Carolina. On the 28th of the next month (October), one of the most perilous achievements of the whole war was accomplished by this little craft. She blew up and entirely destroyed by her torpedoes the rebel ram "Albemarle," that had already inflicted serious injuries upon us.

In this enterprise, though not until it was perfectly successful, Robert H. King, together with almost all of the little crew of the picket boat, were taken prisoners. From Plymouth he was immediately sent to Salisbury, North Carolina, where already thousands of our brave men were imprisoned, and where multitudes died by exposures or starvation. From early in November, 1864, to March, 1865, a period of little more than four months, Mr. King was an inmate of that prison; and because he had been with others the instrument of inflicting a very severe injury upon the confederacy, he was treated with even greater severity than many of the other prisoners. Being exchanged about the middle of March, Mr. King returned immediately to his home, but with his constitution so completely shattered by the severity of his imprisonment, as to survive his return but a few days. Reaching his home April 1, he died on the 10th of the same month.

The following account of the destruction of the "Albemarle" appeared in one of our papers:

"The rebel ram 'Albemarle' was one of the most formidable vessels which the Confederate navy ever floated. It played a conspicuous part in the capture of Plymouth last spring, and on that occasion sank the 'Southfield.' She attacked the 'Miami' also; and a shot from the latter, striking the iron walls of the ram, rebounded and killed Capt. Flusser, of the 'Miami,' who was an intimate friend of Cushing. It was said that for this reason Lieut. Cushing vowed vengeance against the 'Albemarle.' This ram was the same which was engaged in the memorable conflict with the Sassacus,' and two other heavily armed doulble-enders, on the 5th of May last. The utmost, however, which these three vessels, by their combined efforts, were able to accomplish, amounted to but a slight injury to the rebel ironclad, though sufficient to compel its retirement. It has ever since been a source of considerable apprehension, and has made it necessary for Admiral Lee to greatly increase his naval force in the sound. As early as last June Lieut. Cushing, then commanding the 'Monticello,' submitted to the Admiral a plan for the destruction of the 'Albemarle.' The plan was approved, and the Lieutenant withdrawn from the 'Montieello' to perform this special service. Since that date Admiral Lee has been succeeded by Admiral Porter, who has signalized his assumption of command by the destruction of the 'Albemarle.'

"After the conception of his plan, Lieutenant Cushing came to New York, and in conjunction with Admiral Gregory, Captain Boggs, and Chief Engineer W. W. Wood, applied to one of the new steam-pickets a torpedo arrangement, and returned to the Sound. The torpedo arrangement was invented by Mr. Wood, and was illustrated in the 'Weekly' of October 1. The 'Albemarle' had been lying at Plymouth for some weeks previous to its destruction. A mile below the town on the wreck of the 'Southfield' a rebel picket was stationed. On the night of October 27, Cushing, wath a company of thirteen men, proceeded up the Roanoke river, toward Plymouth. The distance from the mouth of the river to the ram was eight miles. The picket above mentioned was passed without alarm, and the 'Albemarle' was discovered lying fast to the wharf 'with logs around her about thirty feet from her side.' As the party approached, the rebels opened fire from the shore, which was returned by the steam launch. The approach was made in the form of a circle and with bows on, and when the logs were struck they were driven in some feet, the bows of the launch resting on them. 'The torpedo-boom was then lowered,' says Lieutenant Cushing, 'and by a vigorous pull I succeeded in diving the torpedo under the overhang, and exploding it at the same time that the 'Albemarle's' gun was fired. A shot seemed to go crashing through my boat, and a dense mass of water rushed in from the torpedo, filling the launch and completely disabling her. The enemy then continued his fire at fifteen feet range and demanded our surrender, which I twice refused, ordering the men to save themselves, and removing my overcoat and shoes. Springing into the river I swam, with others, into the middle of the stream, the rebels failing to hit us."

"Cushing's escape was so precipitate that he was not able to report the destruction of the ram from his own observation, but formed his judgment from a conversation which he heard while concealed in the marshes close to the enemy's fort, and from the report of a negro whom he sent into the town for information. He had become exhausted in swimming, and had taken shelter in the immediate vicinity of the enemy. He was picked up by the 'Valley City' on the night of the 30th, having made his way to that vessel in a skiff captured from an enemy's picket. Lieut. Cushing is a citizen of New York.

"From the Richmond papers we learn that the 'Albemarle' was destroyed, and that none of Cushing's party were killed, only one of them, indeed, having been wounded. No lives were lost on board the 'Albemarle.' The destruction of this vessel has given us possession of Plymouth."

It is an interesting fact, which I will state in this connection, that another of the heroes of this hazardous expedition was a native of Albany, and after his gallant conduct and his great surfferings in Southern prisons, has returned to us to enjoy the reward of his patriotic services. I allude to Mr. Henry Wilkes, who is at present connected with Parson's book bindery in James street.

Mr. Wilkes and Mr. King were among the five sailors who received medals of honor prepared by the Navy Department. Each medal was accompanied by a letter from the Secretary, stating that it was awarded for gallant and meritorious conduct. Mr. Wilkes after having passed through scenes of great danger, was selected for his daring and bravery for this enterprise; and he has kindly furnished me with the following account of it, and of his own capture and imprisonment:

"On the night of the 27th we got under weigh from the fleet, off the mouth of the river, and steamed up the river. In the steam launch, were Lieutenant Cushing, Paymaster Avolington, from the 'Otsego,' Swan, Master's Mate, William B. Howitt, of the gun boat 'Monticello,' and third assistant Engineer, Stokesbury, in charge of the engine, with a crew of ten men."

"An assigned cutter of the 'Shamrock,' with an officer and ten men, was towed along for the purpose of capturing the rebel pickets on the river. It was known that the rebels had pickets along the river, and on the 'Southfield,' which had been sunk by the 'Albemarle' last spring, which laid about a mile below the town of Plymouth. The pickets were stationed on the hurricane deck of the 'Southfield,' the only portion of the wreck above water. These were turned over to the care of the 'Shamrock's cutter."

"When the time came, about eleven p.m., the picket boat entered the Roanoke river, and steaming up without making any noise, the 'Southfield' and three schooners along side of her, engaged in raising her up, were passed, so near, that we could toss a biscuit aboard of her without being hailed.

"We arrived within pistol shot of the ram which lay along side of the dock, at Plymouth. We were hailed, and Cushing made no answer. We steamed on towards the ram, the rebel Captain shouted "what boat is this?" Then we said, "go to grass." Then the battle was sprung, the bells on the ram were rung, and all hands were beat to quarters in great confusion. A musketry fire was opened on one boat, and a charge of canister, injuring some of the crew

. "Along the dock where the 'Albemarle' was, there were a large number of soldiers stationed to guard against a landing of our force. After the surprise, in front of their lines, there were a number of fires, which threw a light on the ram. By this light Lieutenant Cushing could see the timbers which were around the ram to guard against torpedoes, floating down on her. We could see the soldiers on the wharf blazing away at our boat. Then we brought the bow of our boat around and discharged a load of canister into them, from our twelve-pound Howitzer mounted on the bow. This sent some of them flying, and making a circle about forty yards round, under a scorching fire. We came around, now on, at full steam, and struck the logs which were around the ram, pressing against them in towards the ram. Our boat came to a stand-still. We could not back or go ahead. Then the fun commenced. The rebels fired muskets and pistols almost in our faces from the port holes of the ram and the wharf. There were two killed. Paymaster Swan got a slight scratch on the side of his face with a ball. The officers of the ram cried out surrender, or we will blow you to pieces; but Cushing took it all with perfect coolness. He seized the laniard attached to the torpedo, and the line of the spar, and crowding the spar until we brought the torpedo under the ram, he detached it by a line attached to a pin, which held the torpedo on the boom. He then pulled the laniard of the torpedo, and pressed it under the ram on the port side, just below the port holes. A two hundred pounder which was discharged at us, instead of sinking our boat, went over us, and did no damage. A large body of water was thrown out by the explosion of the torpedo, which came down on the boat, and gave us a good ducking. Lieutenant Cushing ordered every man to save himself the best way he could. He pulled off his coat and shoes, and jumped into the river, followed by those of us that could swim. We struck out for the middle of the river under a hot fire. The water was so cold there was only one escaped with Cushing. His name was William Houton, a sailor, who belonged on the 'Chicopee,' one of the fleet in the Sound.

"The enemy called out for us to surrender, or they would sink us. Our boat being fast on the logs, we could not get out, and we surrendered, and then they stopped firing, and came out in their boats and picked us up.

"We were put in a jail that night, and we had the soft side of a plank for a bed. We were wet and hungry the next morning, and shivering with the cold. We had no change of clothes with us. Some of us threw off our overcoats about ten o'clock that morning. They gave us some thing to eat, and our bill of fare was corn bread and stewed beef. Some of the boys said it was mule's meat. We were hungry, and we did not care what we ate.

"We stopped there until noon, and then they started us on a march of sixty miles. While we were in Plymouth we were treated very well. We had a guard of twelve mounted men placed before us. We heard our gunboats coming up the river, and we were hurried along as fast as possible. While we were in the jail, we had a good many call to see us. They asked us a good many questions, and wanted to know who was in command of the boat. We did not tell them, as we did not want Lient. Cushing to be caught. We named the commander that was on board before we left. They supposed, however, it was Cushing. It was lucky that he made his escape, for if they had caught him they would have shot him. When we heard the gunboats coming up we knew Cushing was safe, and had sent them up the river.

"We marched that day until sundown, when we arrived at an old school-house, where we stopped for the night. Before starting from the jail, they gave us rations for three days, which was about a dozen hard tack, and truly it was hard enough. We had as much as we could do to eat them.

"We got up the next morning at four a. m., and felt stiff and sore. We had to eat our hard tack in a hurry, and we started again. We were about tired out, and our feet so sore that we could hardly walk. We arrived at a barn, where we put up for the night. We passed a great many troops on the road to Plymonth. They looked like a flock of sheep straggling along.

"The next morning we started again on the road. Before we got ten miles, some of the men got tired out. We met an old negro on the road, with a cart and mule, and the guard ordered him to stop and take some of us up, which he did. We arrived that night at a railroad station, and were put into a cattle car, with a guard of six men. There were about four inches of dirt in the bottom of the car, but we had to make the best of it. We rode for two days in the cattle car, and arriving at a station, we were transferred to a passenger car, in which we rode till we arrived at Salisbury prison.

"The prison is about a mile from the railroad. When we got there it was raining. They opened the gate of the pen, and told us to march in. The number of prisoners was between eight and nine thousand. Most of them were our soldiers, and some Unionists of the south, who would not take arms against the United States. Some had small tents, and the rest dug holes in the ground, about five feet deep, four feet long and four feet wide. They were covered with sticks and brush for a roof, and plastered over with mud, with a hole in one end for a chimney to let the smoke out. Our rations were meat, two or three times a week, of two ounces, and eight ounces of corn bread. Part of the time we were put on half rations. There was no running stream on the place, and we got water out of wells, which were quite dirty. We had not been in prison over a week, when the prisoners talked about making a break out. The rebels heard of it, and they took our officers and sent them to another prison, so they gave up the break at that time. Some tried to escape by digging a tunnel under ground, but they were caught and brought back. There was a trench dug all around the fence which was about the prison, which they called the dead line, and any one who tried to get over the trench was shot down. Besides every one had to be in their tents or holes, as soon as it was dark. The rebels would call out, "Get to your holes or tents, you Yankees, or I will shoot you;" and if we were not quick enough, they would fire at us.

"We had another break, and we attacked the guard. We were armed with stones and clubs, and made for the gate, which was broken open. We were, however, driven back by the guards. By this time the guards on the fence were reinforced, and they opened a heavy fire on us. As soon as the break commenced, a train arrived at the depot, with a regiment on board. They came up, and opened fire on us with two six-pounders, which they used and loaded with box tin punchings, for grape. The boys saw they could not make it go, and so they gave it up. We lost about fifty, killed and wounded. Major Gee, who had command of the prisoners, said the next time the prisoners made a break, he would shoot every man on the place.

"In January, there were three United States officers came there with some clothing. But they did not bring enough to supply us. However, some got a shirt, and some a pair of pants, and some shoes, &c.

"On the 22d of February, we were sent away to be exchanged. Partly on foot and partly by railroad, we were conveyed to the Union lines. As we approached our lines, we put a flag of truce on the locomotive. There were about two thousand of us exchanged, and we were received by a battalion of our troops, with arms presented. When passing out of the rebel lines, we all gave a wild hurrah, and traveled on to Washington and to the navy yard, and were presented with medals of honor by Commodore Montgomery.

All honor to this noble patriot and brave soldier, who has survived the perils and hardships of war! May the remainder of his life be peaceful, prosperous and happy!

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Debby Masterson

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