November 12, 1863 (Thursday)
Since the start of the war, the Federal government caste a leery eye toward the porous Canadian border. State secrets could very well travel overland through Pennsylvania and New York, and pass through the all-too-willing hands of custom agents who may or may not have Secessionist leanings. In 1861, there was a great purge, and all Federal agents were now “proven” to be loyal, but that was more wishful thinking than anything. Still, as the war progressed, a number of Confederates found refuge in the provinces of Canada.
The more that gathered to the north, the more brazen their machinations became, until in this early November, an extensive plot to free captured Confederate soldiers was formulated.
Johnson’s Island was a prisoner of war camp in Lake Erie near Sandusky, Ohio. It held roughly 2,500 soldiers, including Generals James Archer and Isaac Trimble, both captured at Gettysburg. In fact, it’s fairly possible that the plot started with Archer – or at least, one particular plot. Shortly after arriving, Archer wrote to Richmond suggesting that he and the rest of the prisoners be busted out of jail. But this plot was not to be, and even before the end of the war, became the stuff of “what-if” legends.
Still, there was something to it. Part of the plan involved the capture of the USS Michigan, which patrolled Lake Erie. Capturing a ship would give the Confederates the chance to blow apart the Erie Canal or bombard any number of the cities along the lake shore. But to capture such a ship, the Rebels would need ships of their own. And this is where their plot began to unravel.
News reached Canadian authorities that Southerners were trying to buy two vessels with a large sum of Confederate money. Just what they were going to do with the ships was any body’s guess (though the options of Johnson’s Island and/or capturing the Michigan were certainly on the table). Getting their information as much in order as they could, Canadian officials contacted Col. B.H. Hall, acting Assistant Provost Marshal General of Detroit. In well over his head, on November 9th, Col. Hall tossed the hot potato to General Jacob Cox, now overseeing the District of Ohio.
Hall told Cox that he was “positively informed that within forty-eight hours two armed steamers would attack Johnson’s Island and release the prisoners held there.” Cox immediately called the plot “improbable,” but followed through by sending a detachment of 500 newly-raised infantrymen and a battery to the island.
The next evening (the 11th), word reached Washington via Lord Richard Lyons, British diplomat to the United States, who heard it himself from Canadian officials. By this time, the plot had evolved. In writing to the governors of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and New York, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton explained:
“There is reason to believe that a plot is on foot by persons hostile to the United States, who have found an asylum in Canada, to invade the United States and destroy the city of Buffalo; that they propose to take possession of some of the steamboats on Lake Erie, to surprise Johnson’s Island, and set free the prisoners of war confined there, and to proceed with them to attack Buffalo.”
To General Cox, Stanton gave permission to use “all the means at your command to guard against and repel any hostile attack by their aiders and abettors from Canada.” He warned him to watch the steamboats, and mentioned that Ogdensburg, New York might have something to do with this. He ordered him to go personally to Sandusky and, if needed, to call upon Ohio’s Governor Tod for additional forces.
Secretary Stanton spread the news far and wide, contacting not only the state governors, but the mayors of Detroit, Chicago and Buffalo. He also dispatched General William Brooks from the Department of the Monongahela to speed to Erie, Pennsylvania “with any military force you may have at your command.” He had but six or seven companies.
On this date, General Cox hurried about his move to Sandusky, attempting to pull as many militia troops as he could away from their homes. From Columbus, Ohio, he tried to wrangle more troops who were guards in the city’s prisoner of war camp, but was turned back as there was some kind of plot brewing by the Rebels to overthrow their own Federal hosts. Finally, by midnight, Cox reached Sandusky, where he found out that the Rebels involved in the plot had not yet left Canada.
All through this day, Secretary Stanton was in communication with the mayors of Detroit, Cleveland, Toledo, Buffalo, Erie, Oswego, and Chicago, trying to throw together some sort of resistance.
“Not a single gun larger than a 32-pounder on the lakes, and only four of them,” wrote Zachariah Chandler of Detroit in an understandable panic. “They are at Erie, without powder. Send heavy guns from Pittsburgh instantly.” Chandler sent this message at least twice.
F.C. Sherman, Chicago’s mayor, took a cooler tone. “Our resources, such as they are, entirely at your disposal, if necessary,” he wrote to Stanton. “Send officers with capacity for organization. We have men enough.”
But William Fargo, Buffalo’s mayor, was not only taking the matter seriously, he had a plan of his own. “It is suggested to send discreet men to the frontier Canadian towns to watch movements,” went his suggestion. “Would you advise this?” Stanton deferred him to Cox, who was, by now, sleeping.
Over the course of the next few days, General Cox, along with the crew of the USS Michigan threw up hasty earthworks to protect Johnson’s Island from any Rebel invasion. This, believed Cox, is what foiled the plan. The Confederates caught wind that their hand was tipped to the Federals and they called off the plot.
“The leaders in it were commonly reported to have been some of [John Hunt] Morgan’s men who made their way to Canada when he was captured,” wrote Cox in his memoirs. “By the aid of Confederate agents they had procured the means to organize a considerable band of adventurers, and had chartered two steamboats which were to meet them at the mouth of the Detroit River. […] The raiders had assembled, and the boats were ready, when, on the 14th of November, they learned that their plans were exposed and the chance to succeed was lost. The less eager ones were quick to abandon the enterprise, and the bolder spirits found themselves reduced to a handful. So they scattered, threatening to try it again at some more convenient time.”1
- Sources: Official Records, Series 3, Vol. 3, p1008, 1012, 1014-1015, 1019, 1023, 1024; Military Reminiscences of the Civil War, vol. 2 by Jacob Cox; Civil War Years: Canada and the United States by Robin W. Winks. [↩]