Photo by John Duguay
Kathy Covert Warnes
No Civil War battles were fought on Michigan soil, but many Great Lakes mariners and ships fought for the Union Cause. It took the Union prison at Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie near Sandusky to bring the Civil War directly to the Detroit River and Michigan.
Escape from Johnson’s Island, 1864
Confederates had tried numerous times to escape from the prison at Johnson’s Island in the middle of Lake Erie off of Sandusky, Ohio, but the record shows only a few successful escapes before 1864. The year 1864 proved to be a successful year for escapes. The Sandusky Register reported the escape of six rebel prisoners on January 4, 1864. The Register said that six Confederates – Major Stokes, Captain Stokes, Captain Robinson, and Captain Davis, all Virginians, Captain McConnell of Kentucky and Major Winston of North Carolina made a crude ladder by tying the legs of a bench with a clotheslines across a board at spaces of about three feet, about four feet short of the desired length.
The fugitives gathered as much civilian clothes as they could from friends in the prison. With Major Winston leading them, they crept on their stomachs past the stakes or “dead line” to the bottoms of the fence. The changing of the guard made this move even more dangerous. First Major Winston got over the fence, and next came Davis, Robinson, Major Stokes and McConnell. Captain Stokes went last and a sentinel spotted him, but thought he was a Federal officer.
At about 10:30, the men ran, slipped, slid and tumbled across the ice to the shore of the Peninsula. They could hear the sentries cry “all’s well” as they made their way through fields and woods and over fences. A few hours before daybreak they found shelter in a frozen straw stack. They discovered two horses and bridles in a barn, mounted two men to each horse, and galloped toward freedom. The cold affected Captain McConnell so severely that the finally decided that he could not continue. Captain Stokes had not been able to get enough warm clothing and he too, decided not to go on with the others. He stayed outside the prison for a few days, but then returned. He refused to tell the names of the others.
Crossing the Detroit River at Trenton
The remaining fugitives crossed the Maumee River at Toledo Ohio, about daylight, joining workmen on their way to work. At noon they bought and devoured cheese and crackers at a country store, the first food they had eaten in thirty hours. The night of January 4, 1864, they passed through Monroe, Michigan during a snowstorm, and about ten o’clock they found a French Canadian who gave them shelter. They resumed their journey the next morning and after traveling about a mile, Captain Robinson discovered that he had left his wallet behind. The wallet contained papers revealing him to be an officer in the Confederate army. Major Winston went back to the house and retrieved the wallet without incident.
The fugitives arrived safely at Trenton, Michigan, and inquired of an old man about crossing the Detroit River. In the course of the conversation, the old man remarked that in eighty winters he had never seen such a cold snap. After dark the men ventured out onto the river ice. At first the going was smooth, but briers and marsh reeds made for slow progress. After about a mile, the ice turned dangerous. A storm a few days earlier had broken up the ice and the men had to scramble over piled up blocks of it. Major Winston felt the ice giving away and one of his feet broke through. He saved himself by leaning on firmer ice and his friends Davis and Winston knelt and pulled him out. His trouser legs immediately froze stiff.
The men did not know what to do. The sweeping north wind would eventually freeze them to death if they stayed out on the ice, but a return to the United States would be equally fatal. Davis moved ahead about ten feet and took a bearing from the North Star. The men could see a light burning on the Canadian shore and moved toward it. Near the shore they ran into another air hole in the ice. They slid up and down looking for firm ice, but found none. Desperate, they ran across the section one at a time. The ice creaked, but it held.
Finally, the fugitives stepped safely on Canadian soil. Davis bent over and kissed the ground as he had vowed to do if they ever reached Canada. They found a French Indian woman who gave them food and a warm place to stay. Then they were taken to Windsor where an innkeeper gave them room and board in exchange for their work as laborers. During their stay in Windsor and Montreal, they encountered C.L. Vallandigham, the copperhead leader who President Lincoln had ordered deported to the Confederacy and several of John Hunt Morgan’s men who had escaped to freedom.
Major Winston wrote to a New York merchant and received a $200 check to defray expenses and pay the passage of the fugitives to Montreal where they had other Southern friends to help them. They traveled up the St. Lawrence River to the ocean and Bermuda. Then they sailed on the blockade runner Advance to North Carolina and home.
The Johnson’s Island Conspiracy
One of the earlier 1863 escapees returned. Captain Charles H. Cole of Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry had been brought to Johnson’s Island in September 1863. Days after he arrived the Yankees sent him and some companions into a steamer hold to get straw for bunks. The other men collected the straw and left the ship, but Captain Cole hid in the straw and stayed there as the guard lost count of the prisoners. He huddled under the straw as the ship stopped in Sandusky for the night. Eventually, Captain Cole crept off the ship and posing as a civilian worker, escaped to Canada. The next year Coe came back to Johnson’s Island as a Confederate agent.
The Johnson’s Island Conspiracy is one of the names for the Confederate plan to capture the United States gunboat Michigan and lake transports like the Island Queen and the Philo Parsons of the Detroit, Island, and Sandusky Line. Various accounts of the conspiracy give various reasons the Confederates wanted to capture the Michigan and free the 4,000 Confederate prisoners on Johnson’s Island. These reasons included burning the buildings on Johnson’s Island, invading, terrorizing and burning Great Lakes cities like Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo and striking terror into the heart of the North.
With the blessing of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and the active, on-site participation of Lt. Colonel Jacob Thompson, former U.S. Congressman, Secretary of the Interior, later Confederate legislator and presently trusted advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, the plan took shape. Lt. Colonel Thompson arrived in Canada in May 1864, and quickly marshaled his forces. Their primary objective, said Commander Thompson, was to send out peace feelers through contacts with influential Northern businessmen and politicians. If the peace efforts were unsuccessful, the alternate plan calling for subverting the Union forces using several methods, including capturing the Union warship Michigan guarding Johnson’s Island, freeing the Confederate POWS from Johnson’s Island and terrorizing port cities around the Great Lakes.
Other Confederates and Confederate sympathizers involved in the plot included Charles Cole, formerly of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry, John Wilkinson, CSA, who commanded the Johnson’s Island expedition, John Yates Beall, of the Confederate Navy, Bennett G. Burleigh, a comrade of Beall, and Charles H. Cole, formerly of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s cavalry. Captain Thomas Hines was recruited to be military leader of the conspirators. The remainder of the conspirators was “Confederate prison escapees, refugees, soldiers of fortune, Kentucky cavalrymen, rapscallions and a few Union detectives and spies.”
Altogether, about twenty men had the responsibility of carrying out the plot which had been simmering for at least three years before it finally came to a boil. A letter to James Gordon Bennett of New York City from Canadian, dated Sandwich June 6, 1862, described the plot a full two years before Lt. Colonel Thompson arrived in Canada. Canadian requested Bennett to forward the letter to the Secretary of War if he saw fit.
The Conspiracy Downriver
Canadian described a scheme hatched in Sandwich and on the American side of the river by some Southern sympathizers and Marylanders to liberate the rebel prisoners on Johnson’s Island who had been there since April 1862. They first planned to charter a steam boat which had to be fitted up specifically for running, since she had not been in commission for some years. Then the conspirators had to abandon that plan because it would have been necessary to let the crew in on the secret, the expenses and danger to the owner would be too great, and a steamer entering the bay would draw more attention than a sailing vessel.
Instead, the conspirators decided to purchase an old sailing vessel and place it at some point in or near the Detroit River. One of the conspirators would be disguised and sent to engage a powerful tug to go for this vessel and arrive alongside it after dark.
Next, parties from the vessel were to board the tug, make prisoners of the crew, take charge, tow the vessel to Sandusky Bay, surprise the guard, liberate the prisoners, who are to be informed beforehand if possible, place them on the vessel, and tow her to Canada where they will be landed. This vessel will then be set adrift, the tugs crew liberated and the tug given up to them again. This plan will be carried out as soon as things can be gotten in readiness.
Canadian added in a postscript that for prudent reasons he had to use the nickname Canadian. He assured Bennett that he would call at the New York Herald office in the fall when he came to New York on business. He said that he would mail the letter at Detroit or Niagara Falls.
John Yates Beall and Charles Cole planned to capture two ships, the Philo Parsons and the Island Queen which he would use to overpower the USS Michigan. Then he would free the prisoners on Johnson’s Island and they could commandeer trains and begin an overland escape to Columbus, Ohio.
In preparation for his plan, Cole endeared himself to some of the Union officers on the Michigan and became their onboard guest. From this vantage point, he intended to send vital signals to guide Beall’s attack. According to local historian Theresa Thorndale, Colonel Cole was supposed to have possessed wonderful coolness and courage and ample resourcefulness, although she wrote “to outward appearances he was a coarse, uncultured man.”
Charles Cole Moved the Johnson’s Island Conspiracy Along
One version of the story said that “coarse, uncultured” Cole arrived in Sandusky Ohio in August 1864, dashingly dressed and smoking expensive cigars, with an equally stylish wife on his arm. He claimed to be a Pennsylvania oilman and sweet talked a meeting with Jack Carter, the Michigan’s captain. Charming Captain Carter into a detailed tour of the Michigan, the expansive Cole said that he would treat the crew to a champagne dinner to repay the Captain’s kindness when he really intended to put knockout drops in the champagne and commandeer the Michigan.
Cole had someone on his trail. John Wilson Murray, a Union Detective who supposedly uncovered the plot, published his version of the story in a memoir after the Civil War ended. Murray wrote that Commander J.C. Carter of the United States Navy sent for him and detailed him to special duty. He had heard talk of a plot to blow up Johnson’s Island, liberate all Confederate prisoners and take them across Lake Erie to safety in Canada. Commander Carter gave Murray an unlimited commission to get to the bottom of the plot.
Murray first went to Detroit to confer with Colonel Hill who gave him what meager information he had. The information included the fact that Clement Vallandigham, a member of Congress from Ohio who sympathized with the South, lived in exile across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. Dressed like a civilian, Detective Murray crossed the River to Windsor and found a place to live near Vallandigham’s headquarters. He settled down to learn all he could about Vallandigham and the plot, closely observing everyone who called on Vallandigham.
A dapper, energetic little man who frequently visited Vallandigham’s headquarters soon captured his attention. Murray learned that the little man’s name was C. Cole and that he was supposedly a Confederate agent. Murray described Cole as about 38 years old, five feet seven inches tall, and weighing abut 135 pounds. He had red hair, long mustachios and grey eyes so small and sharp and bright that the first thing Murray noticed about Cole was his eyes.
Murray managed to overhear part of a conversation between Cole and Vallandigham that firmly convinced him that Cole stood in the center of the plot. Murray advised Commander Carter and prepared to follow Cole wherever he led. Cole left Windsor, with Murray close behind. First Cole went to Toronto, stopping at the Queen’s Hotel where a number of other Confederate sympathizers joined him. After long conferences Cole continued on to Montreal and Murray followed him on the same train.
The cat and mouse game began. Murray wrote that he felt somewhat like the underdog or the mouse, being only 24 years old, inexperienced as a detective, and untrained in shadowing, running down clues or solving mysteries. On the other hand, Cole made a good cat, being and experienced and trained agent who knew all of the spy tricks. Murray followed him, learning and accommodating as he went along. The chase took place in Canadian and American cities.
When Cole alighted from the train in Montreal, Murray hovered a car length behind him. Murray followed Cole to the St. Lawrence Hall Hotel and watched a woman join him. Murray described the woman:
“She was an elegant looking lady, big and stately, a magnificent blonde with clothes that were a marvel to me. I did not know her then, but later she turned out to be the celebrated Irish Lize. The contrast between her and Cole was striking. She was big, stout and fine looking; he was a little, sandy, red-haired fellow, but smart as lightening.”
From Montreal, Cole and Irish Lize as Muarry heard him call her, traveled together to Albany. Murray wrote that he fiercely debated with himself whether or not he had enough evidence to seize them as Confederate sympathizers, but he knew that he did not yet have any evidence of a plot. He decided to follow them, expecting to be led South.
Instead, after stopping overnight in Albany, they traveled on to New York City, and Washington D.C., Murray trailing them from city to city, hotel to hotel. Cole and Irish Lize met several strangers in each city, evidently by previous appointment because they were always there waiting for the couple. In Cleveland, Charles Robinson, son of a former judge, joined them and they stayed there for two days before traveling to Sandusky. They arrived at Sandusky about June 20, 1864 and Murray arrived with them on the same train.
At Sandusky Cole posed as an oil prince and Irish Lize as his wife. They registered at the West House and appeared to plan on staying for a time. Soon after their arrival, they began to get company. A young man known as G.C. Bear and another called John U. Wilson of New Orleans joined Cole. The young men and Cole drank together and seemed to be well acquainted with each other. Cole bought fast horses and chartered a yacht. He cultivated the acquaintance of the officers of the U.S.S. Michigan which lay off Sandusky and of the United States Army officers in charge of Johnson’s Island.
Murray reported that Cole appeared to be a free spending fellow who loved to have a good time. He became a favorite with both the naval officers aboard the Michigan and the army officers on the island. He sent baskets of wine and boxes of cigars aboard the Michigan and over to Johnson’s Island.
Murray reported the events of the past weeks to Commander Carter and Carter advised him to continue his surveillance. In late summer 1864 Cole arranged for a party at the Seven Mile House, seven miles out of Sandusky and invited all the officers of Johnson’s Island and all of the officers of the Michigan. John U. Wilson of New Orleans helped Cole prepare for the party. Early on the morning of the party, Cole received a telegram from Detroit that said, “I send you sixteen shares per two messengers.”
The First part of the Conspiracy Ran Smoothly
The first part of the plot ran smoothly. On September 19 1864, Beall and Burleigh boarded as regular passengers on the Philo Parsons, a ferry making its regular run from Detroit to Sandusky, making stops of Windsor, Ontario. This particular morning, sixteen men got aboard at Amherstburg, in Canada at the mouth of the Detroit River, carrying their luggage with them. They were the “sixteen shares” that the two messengers were to deliver to Cole at Sandusky.
About ten miles north of Sandusky off Ohio’s Marblehead Point, the 18 Confederates- 16 shares and 2 messengers – opened their luggage boxes and took out braces of revolvers. They took over the Philo Parsons and captured the captain and crew. Immediately the hijackers discovered that the Philo Parsons needed wood, so they headed back to Middle Bass Island. While they were there wooding, a second ferry, the Island Queen, appeared. Since the Parsons occupied its dock space, the Island Queen tied up to the Parsons.
The Confederates sent some of their men aboard the Island Queen, and caught the few of her crew aboard unaware. They ordered Engineer Richardson to get the Queen underway and when he refused to obey, they shot him dead. As soon as Captain George W. Orr, master of the Island Queen realized that he was being hijacked, he resisted forcefully, but finally yielded at revolver point. The Island Queen captives also included 25 Union soldiers on leave.
At gunpoint, their Confederate captors forced the soldiers and the Middle Bass Island locals to load wood onto the Philo Parsons. Then, since they had captured one more ship than they needed, the Confederates made the soldiers and their other prisoners promise not to fight against the South and put them ashore. They towed the Island Queen out into Lake Erie, ran her aground on Gull Island and abandoned her. Then they steamed off in the Philo Parsons to capture the U.S.S. Michigan. Beall, Burleigh and the other conspirators pulled the Philo Parsons within sight of the Michigan and waited for Charles Cole to signal.
Charles Cole Captured and Exposed
Captain Cole hadn’t been as successful as Yates and Burleigh. Cole watched and waited in Sandusky with his party that would take practically all oft he officers on the Michigan and on Johnsons Island to the Seven Mile house, well away from the center of the action. Cole and his deputy Wilson waited for the officers who were supposed to start from Sandusky early in the afternoon, to appear. They waited and waited. Finally, growing impatient, Cole told his deputy Wilson to see what was keeping the officers.
The two men discussed how to proceed and then walked down to the dock together. The spotted the Philo Parsons and Coe handed a ten dollar bill to the coxswain of the boat’s crew and told him to take the boys up for a drink. All went except the boat keeper who waited with Cole and Wilson and James Hunter, an officer of the Michigan who was ashore. When the crew returned they willingly pulled off to the U.S.S. Michigan which lay three miles off Sandusky.
About half way out, Cole, who seemed to have a premonition of trouble, decided to turn back. Wilson remarked to the coxswain that the pennant of the Michigan was flying. The coxswain said that he would have to continue the trip but that he would bring them back as soon as he had reported to the Michigan. They went on to the Michigan and the officers aboard greeted Cole cordially and invited him to have a glass of wine, apologizing for disarranging his plans or delaying his party.
According to Murray’s account, his friend Wilson turned to the orderly. “Tell Mr. Cole Captain Carter wishes to see him,” he said.
Coe appeared, smiling and merry. Young Wilson met him on deck. “The Captain wants to see you,” said young Wilson.
At the tone of his voice, Cole stopped short and looked at him, his eyes wary. Then he laughed and entered Carter’s cabin with Wilson.
“Captain Carter, this is Mr. Cole, a rebel spy,” said Wilson.
“Murray, arrest him,” said Carter to young Wilson.
Cole straightened and saluted. “I am not a spy. I am a Confederate officer.”
He thrust his hand inside his grey coat and pulled out his commission signed by Jefferson Davis, identifying him as a major in the Confederate Army.
“Take him and search him, Murray,” Captain Carter ordered.
Cole, accompanied by his former friend Wilson of New Orleans, now Murray of the U.S.S. Michigan, went to a cabin and a sentry was placed at the door. Murray searched him and found $600 in currency, some letters and papers, and ten certified checks for $5,000 each on the Bank of Montreal, Canada, payable to the bearer.
Murray laid them all out in front of Coe. Coe laughed.
“You served me well Murray Wilson or Wilson Murray or whatever the deuce your name may be,” Coe said.
“I served you the best I could,” said Murray.
“Sit down,” said Coe.
Murray and Coe sat down.
Coe told Murray that he was a pretty smart young fellow and concluded his remarks by asking, “You wouldn’t like to see me hung, would you?”
Murray said that he wouldn’t and that he hoped he had not been responsible in bringing about Coe’s hanging.
Murray wrote that Coe had the best nerve of any man he ever saw, not making a fuss or even changing his tone of voice. According to Murray, Cole offered him $50,000 if he would not reveal enough information to put a rope around his neck. All Murray had to do was give him $500 or enough money to get to the South. For a moment, Murray considered the possibilities that amount of money could open up in his life, but then reconsidered. He told Cole that all Cole had to do was send for Captain Jack Carter and suggest that Murray or Wilson be searched and that would reveal who had sold out his country. “Mr. Cole, would you sell out the Confederacy?” Murray asked him.
Cole considered his question thoughtfully then put out his hand and shook Murray’s hand. Murray left Cole a prisoner on the U.S.S. Michigan, “smiling in the little cabin with the sentry at the door.”
Confederates Aboard the Philo Parsons Downriver from Detroit
Meanwhile aboard the Philo Parsons, the Confederates anxiously awaited Cole’s signal. As the minutes on the ships clock tickled by, they grew more and more nervous. Finally the crew voted on whether or not to attack the Michigan without a signal. Beall and Burleigh voted yes, but the other 17 conspirators voted no. The Parsons turned around and steamed for Detroit. The Confederates dropped most of the crew and passengers on Fighting Island and docked at Sandwich, Ontario. They scuttled the Parsons and began walking toward Windsor.
In a letter to Captain C.D. Horton, Colonel Charles W. Hill, Commandant of Johnson’s Island Prison, reported the aftermath of the conspiracy. Along with a United States attorney, marshal and commissioner and Captain Horton of the Michigan, Colonel Hill evaluated the conspirators. They agreed that evidence was pretty strong against Merrick, Rosenthal, Cole and Robinson, and issued a warrant for their arrest.
Cole and Robinson were arrested and Captain Horton of the Michigan held them while Colonel Hill arrested and held Merrick and Rosenthal. Beall traveled as far as Niagara Falls where he was arrested, brought back to Port Clinton, Ohio and jailed. Eventually he escaped and returned to Scotland. The Philo Parsons was refloated, but burned to the waterline in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. The Island Queen was raised, put back into service and finished her career as a cargo carrier. Cole went to prison once again on Johnson’s Island, and his “wife,” Annie, returned to her profession on the Buffalo water front.
Professor Gil Stelter Has the Last Word
Charles Cole managed to have the last word- at least an etched one. More than a century later, as Sid Jordan, a songwriter and volunteer guide at the abandoned North Quarry, clambered around a rocky ledge on the north shore of Kelley’s Island, Ohio he found an inscription scratched into the stone. The inscription read: “CC 1864.”
A Canadian history professor emeritus Gil Stelter of the University of Guelp in Ontario feels that there are deeper dimensions and ramifications to the conspiracy then have been realized. Through three years of extensive research, Stelter discovered that a Scottish immigrant, Adam Robertson, established two iron foundries and a factory in Guelph. Bennett Burley, a cousin of Robertson’s and a Confederate officer and several of his friends, including John Yeats Beall, persuaded Robertson to make several cannon, cannonballs and grenades in his foundry. Robertson’s son, speaking in 1917, said that the conspirators planned to ship the weapons to Lake Erie to help free the prisoners at Johnson’s Island and capture the USS Michigan.
Dr. Stelter found copies of the conspirator’s correspondence in the Robertson home an asserts that everyone knew that the foundry was making more than plows. The Union Army discovered the Johnson’s Island plot and a parallel scheme to burn New York. It failed, but after an intensive reading of the correspondence and other documents, Dr. Stelter theorizes that the plot had a second dimension. He believes that the conspirators purchased a boat in Toronto and hoped to outfit it with cannon cast in Robertson’s foundry.
Robertson’s clandestine activities did not seem to affect his fortunes. His foundry continued to prosper and eventually he became mayor of Guelp. The only surviving cannon from his factory now overlooks Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay.
The unfolding of the Confederate conspiracy threw the United States War Department into a frenzy. Shortly after Beal and Cole and their fellow conspirators were arrested, Major General E.A. Hitchcock wrote Secretary of War Stanton a letter from Sandusky dated September 23, 1864. In his letter he strongly advised Stanton that the U.S. Government should have several armed vessels fully manned on the Great Lakes, so the Confederates could not seize commercial steamers and convert them into war vessels.
Major General Hitchcock reminded Secretary Stanton that Ex-Secretary Thompson was employed in Canada creating dangerous expeditions. He cited as his proof:
“The recent seizure of two steamers in this vicinity has indeed terminated disastrously for the projectors of the horrible scheme, but the demonstration actually made is a sufficient warning to induce our government to take immediate measures to guard against a repetition of it. It will be but an act of self dense, and from the disclosures made by Cole, now in arrest at Johnson’s Island, I earnestly recommend that not time be lost in putting afloat armed vessels upon Lake Ontario, and speedily upon the upper lakes also. We are engaged in war, rendering this step justifiable under the treaty of 1815, but it is my duty to speak only the justifying necessity of this case.”
Seven months later in April 1865, the Civil War ended, sparing Secretary of War Stanton the necessity of putting armed vessels on the Great Lakes.
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Headley, John William. Confederate Operations in Canada and New York. New York: Neale, 1906. [Reprinted] Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1984.
Horan, James D., Confederate Agent: A Discovery in History, Crown Publishers, 1954
Kinchen, Oscar A. Confederate Operations in Canada and the North: A Little-Known Phase of the American Civil War. North Quincy, MA: Christopher, 1970.
Shepard, Frederick Job, The Johnson’s Island Plot: An Historical Narrative of the Conspiracy of the Confederates, in 1864, to Capture the U.S. Steamship Michigan on Lake Erie, and Release the Prisoners of War in Sandusky Bay, Cornell University Library, 1906
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Thorndale, Theresa, Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands, Ohio State Historical Society, 1898
The Sandusky Register