William B. Cushing was born in Delafield, Wisconsin on November 4, 1842 and was raised in Fredonia, New York. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland from 1857 to 1861, but resigned due to disciplinary issues. Cushing was described as a "high-spirited" young man and was prone to getting into trouble. The outbreak of the Civil War proved to be his avenue back into the navy.
Cushing generally performed well and was promoted to lieutenant in mid-1862. He was the Executive Officer of the USS Commodore Perry before becoming commander of the steam tug USS Ellis. On November 23, 1862, Cushing undertook a daring raid up the New River in Onslow County, North Carolina to the county seat of Jacksonville. His aim was to capture or destroy any trading vessels along the way and to capture the mail bound for Wilmington. What ensued is now known as the Battle of New River. Cushing successfully made it to Jacksonville, burning one schooner along the way. He captured the Wilmington mail, confiscated some enslaved persons belonging to the postmaster, and commandeered two schooners. On his retreat downriver, the Confederates were waiting for him and harassed him with artillery fire from the banks of the river, which his crew returned. However, with low water preventing him from crossing the bar at the inlet, Cushing was forced to lay up in the river and wait for the rising tide. Eventually, the Ellis ran aground and could not be freed. Cushing ran the artillery gauntlet in one of the captured schooners and made it back out to sea and to the Union naval station at Beaufort, North Carolina. Though he lost his ship in the raid, he was commended for his bravery in the action. He went on to command the USS Commodore Barney, USS Shokoken, and USS Monticello.
Cushing again undertook a daring expedition on October 27-28, 1864. Using a small steam launch armed with a 12-pounder boat howitzer and a spar torpedo, Cushing and his crew snuck past Confederate pickets on the Roanoke River, just downstream from Plymouth, North Carolina. In the early morning hours of October 28, Cushing attacked the Confederate ironclad CSS Albemarle at its dock on the Plymouth waterfront. He successfully rammed the ironclad, set the spar torpedo under its hull, and detonated the charge. Though the Albemarle was sunk, Cushing's crew found themselves in a tight spot, as the launch was badly damaged. One crewman was killed, two drowned, eleven were captured by the Confederates, and Cushing escaped back to the Union fleet after hiding out along the riverbank. This daring action instantly made Cushing a national hero in the north and he was promoted to lieutenant commander.
During the war's last months, Cushing served with the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron in the Cape Fear region. He reconnoitered New Inlet prior to the battles of Fort Fisher, and he conducted daring information gathering missions at Fort Anderson prior to the battle there. He also had a sham ironclad constructed and sent upriver from Smithville (now Southport) to try and coax the Confederates into detonating their torpedoes in the river. The fake ship, named Old Bogey by the Federals, did draw enemy artillery fire, and the Confederates exploded some of their underwater ordnance as well. At the end of the war, Cushing remained a hero.
Cushing remained in the navy after the war, serving as executive officer of the USS Lancaster and later, commander of the USS Maumee. In 1870, he married Katherine Louise Forbes and the couple had two daughters. Cushing was promoted to commander in 1872 and, at that time, was the youngest man to achieve that rank. He served as commander of the USS Wyoming in 1873-74. In November 1873, he confronted Spanish authorities in Cuba when the steamer Virginius was found to be carrying men and supplies to Cuban revolutionaries. Cushing's health began to fail during his last years of service. In 1874 he was named Executive Officer of the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. He died there on December 17, 1874 and was buried in the U.S. Naval Academy cemetery in Annapolis on January 8, 1875.