By the end of 1863, the shadow of imminent doom had lengthened across the South in the wake of Pyrrhic Confederate victories at Chancellorsville and Chickamauga, and defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg and Chattanooga. The Union controlled the Mississippi in the West, and Federal armies were poised to march through Georgia. In the field and at home, soldiers and civilians alike were feeling the pinch of the Union blockade. Desperate times called for desperate measures.
One of those measures was a surreptitious scheme meant to capitalize on perceived discontent with the war in the U.S. Northwest—Ohio, Indiana and Illinois— with hopes it would lead to the Northwest’s secession. Such an action, Confederate officials believed, might embarrass President Abraham Lincoln enough to cause his defeat in the 1864 election, bringing in a new administration more amenable to Confederate demands.
Part of that plot, conceived by Confederate agents in Canada, was a plan to seize the Union’s only warship on the lower Great Lakes, the 14-gun USS Michigan, and use it to free Confederate prisoners held at the Johnson’s Island prison camp in Lake Erie. The more than 2,000 freed Confederates would then form an army to fight their way back south or support the Confederate-controlled Michigan as it sailed the lake, laying ruin to Sandusky, Cleveland, Detroit and Buffalo.
The prison was on 15 acres at the southeast shore of Johnson’s Island, in the harbor of Sandusky, Ohio. At its closest point the island was about one-half mile from the mainland and a mile from the city. The prison population varied over the several years of its existence, but averaged about 2,500 men. The vast majority of those were officers, including a number of generals. They were guarded between early 1862 and January 1864 by four companies of Ohio volunteers. By 1864, however, as rumors—and fears— grew that an attack on the prison would be launched from Canada, the garrison grew to 2,200 men.
The plot began to unfold in late April 1864 when President Jefferson Davis appointed Clement Claiborne Clay of Alabama and Jacob Thompson of Mississippi to operate as Confederate commissioners in Canada. Thompson and Clay left the South in May, ran the Union blockade to Bermuda, and then sailed to Nova Scotia and eventually Montreal. One of Thompson’s first acts was to appoint Captain Charles H. Cole, another operative, to develop plans to capture Michigan. That vessel, the oldest ironclad gunboat in the U.S. Navy, had been launched at Erie, Pa., in December 1843.
Clay, a former U.S. representative, was also ordered to seek peace with the North through whatever means he could, and he did in fact meet with Lincoln aide John Hay at Niagara Falls in July. Those talks collapsed because the Confederacy would not entertain any proposal to rejoin the Union. It seems that Thompson, who had served as secretary of the interior under President James Buchanan, was in charge of more heavy-handed tactics.
Cole, a former member of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, immediately traveled to Sandusky, where he made the acquaintance of Michigan’s Captain J.C. Carter, an old Navy man. After sizing up Carter, Cole reported to Thompson, “I do not think he can be bought.”
In Sandusky Cole represented himself either as the secretary of the Mount Hope Oil Co. of Harrisburg, Pa., or as a Philadelphia banker, and spent freely to ingratiate himself with officers of both the prison and of Michigan. Meanwhile John Y. Beall, a Confederate naval officer assigned to work under Cole, had been dispatched across the Detroit River from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, to collect men for the raid.
That’s when the plot began to unravel. An unidentified man informed Lt. Col. Bennett H. Hill, acting assistant provost marshal at Detroit, that he had been approached to help commandeer Michigan and use it in an attack on Johnson’s Island. The lake steamer Philo Parsons was to be seized during its normal run between Detroit and Sandusky, the informant said, and used in the attack. He also said some of Michigan’s enlisted men and officers had been compromised by a man named Cole to further the plot, which was scheduled for September 19.
Hill’s informant was later identified as a Union operative who ran a hotel used by many Confederate refugees in Windsor. He was said to have overheard talk of the plot there, possibly from Thompson himself, who stayed in Windsor shortly before the raid.
Hill wired Captain Carter on September 17, telling him what he had discovered and warning him that some of his crew had been “tampered with.” On the evening of the 18th, a man later identified as Bennett G. Burley came aboard Philo Parsons, which was docked at Detroit, and booked passage for himself and four friends. The next morning the steamer departed with a normal complement of crew and passengers, including Burley and his friends. At its first scheduled stop, Malden, Ontario, another 20 or so men came aboard carrying with them a large trunk. Each of the men paid individually and in cash for his passage; the newcomers seemed to pay no attention to Burley and his group. Philo Parsons made its regular stops at North Bass and South Bass islands and at Middle Bass Island, where the ship’s captain, Sylvester F. Atwood, went ashore to spend the night with his family, something he did routinely.
Philo Parsons continued on to Kelley’s Island, and at about 4 p.m. a man approached the acting captain, Mate D.C. Nichols. The man identified himself as a Confederate officer and said he had 30 men with him to seize control of the ship. Armed men, who had gotten weapons from the trunk brought aboard at Malden, appeared throughout the ship. They herded male passengers and nonessential crewmembers into the hold and sent ladies into the cabin.
Captain Beall took over and piloted Philo Parsons toward Sandusky. At about 5 p.m. the steamer lay about eight miles off Cedar Point, and its Rebel crewmen could see Michigan, anchored near the prison. At that point, however, Beall discovered that Philo Parsons was low on fuel, and was forced to return to Middle Bass Island. Seeing his ship’s unscheduled reappearance, Captain Atwood ran to the dock to see what was happening— and was himself taken prisoner.
While Philo Parsons took on firewood, Island Queen, which ran between Sandusky and the Lake Erie islands, came in to Middle Bass Island and was also seized. Its passengers, including 20 or so unarmed Union soldiers on a holiday, joined Philo Parsons’ passengers. Once the refueling was completed, all the male passengers, including Captain Atwood, were paroled to the island, which had no telegraph service, the women were unconditionally released, and Philo Parsons departed towing Island Queen. Atwood took the ladies to his home and tried to make them as comfortable as possible. Island Queen was scuttled in the lake, and Philo Parsons continued on to Sandusky and put to outside the harbor.
The Confederate raiders now waited for Cole’s signal to attack: a rocket fired from Michigan’s deck or from land. The captain had planned to hold a lavish dinner aboard Michigan that evening for his new friends, drug their champagne to knock them out, and subsequently fire the all-important rocket. In the meantime, a group of pro-Southern Northerners, called Copperheads, were supposed to arrive in Sandusky by train and seize the arsenal. At the same time, a prison revolt instigated by Cole during his visits to Johnson’s Island was supposed to break out, enabling the prisoners to be freed with the aid of the Copperheads, supported by Michigan’s guns.
Unknown to the Rebels aboard Philo Parsons, the informant’s leak in Detroit had already derailed the elaborate plot. Cole had been arrested that afternoon at his hotel, and the dinner never took place. The Copperheads, whose numbers and organization Thompson had greatly overestimated, never arrived, and the prison revolt never materialized. When it was clear that the signal rocket would never go up, the Rebel crew turned Philo Parsons back toward Detroit.
A letter exists, signed by 16 members of the Confederate crew, addressed to Beall asking that the attack on Michigan be abandoned because “the enemy is already apprised of our approach and is so well prepared that we cannot by any possibility make it a success.” It is unclear, however, if the letter, written on the back of a bill of lading, was written while Philo Parsons returned to Sandusky from its refueling stop, while the ship waited for the planned signal, or later as a justification for abandoning the raid.
At about 1 a.m. on September 20, the officers marooned on Middle Bass Island again saw Philo Parsons as it passed in the moonlight, and around 4 or 5 a.m. it docked at Sandwich, Ontario, where the crew plundered the ship and attempted to sink it. The great raid was over—and it had accomplished nothing. The Northwest stayed in the Union, the lake cities remained safe and in the fall Lincoln won reelection. Even the two ships, Philo Parsons and Island Queen, returned to service after being repaired.
The man assigned to capture Michigan, Cole, was housed at several Federal prisons, ending up at Fort Lafayette in New York City, where he was found guilty of treason and was sentenced to be hanged. He received amnesty, however, after he made a full confession of his involvement with the Johnson’s Island plot. He was released in 1865.
Beall did not fare so well. He was captured in December 1864 after attempting to derail a train near Buffalo, N.Y. A military commission convicted him of being a spy and a guerrilla, in part for seizing Philo Parsons and Island Queen. He was hanged at Fort Columbus, on Governors Island in New York Harbor, on February 24, 1865.
Clay spent about a year in Canada before returning South in time for General Robert E. Lee’s surrender and the end of the war. He returned to his law practice and died in Alabama in 1882. Thompson profited greatly from his experience in Canada. As the war drew to a close, he withdrew all the remaining funds in Confederate accounts there and fled to France, where he is said to have lived lavishly. He died a rich man in 1885.
Michigan—later renamed Wolverine— continued to serve unmolested on the Great Lakes until it was decommissioned in 1912. It then served for 11 more years, making training cruises for the Pennsylvania Naval Militia until a broken cylinder rod ended its service in 1923. All but the prow was sold for scrap in 1949.
After the war Johnson’s Island was more or less abandoned. In 1889, however, a party of editors and public officials visited the island and, appalled at the condition of the small cemetery there, held a public subscription for funds to erect gravestones to replace the rotting wooden markers that had originally been put up. Through their efforts, marble gravestones were erected over all 206 Confederate graves. Today the Department of Veterans Affairs maintains the cemetery.
Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.