Foiled Plot of Confederate Pirates
There have been more than a few campaigns or operations with the added contingency of liberating prisoners of war; however, none could have tipped the balance on risk more so than the devised raid by sea upon the prison camp at Johnson's Island, Sandusky, Ohio on September 19, 1864.
Secrecy however, was sometimes lacking in the Confederate underground as news of the plot reached Lieutenant Colonel Bennett H. Hill, the United States Army's Acting Assistant Provost Marshal in Detroit, Michigan. Word was passed to Captain John C. Carter, commanding USS Michigan, the War Department's only warship posted outside Johnson's Island on Lake Erie that a Confederate operation was underway with the intent of capturing the warship and making the prison break.
About 2 o'clock on the afternoon of the 19th of September, Captain Carter met with Colonel Charles W. Hill commanding the prison camp at Johnson's Island with two dispatches and announced the plot to him. In the second, Lieutenant Colonel Hill had fingered a Charles H. Cole as the operative in Sandusky leading a raid of thirty men to arrive by train at half past five that afternoon.
The ship's captain set out to place Cole under arrest and announced his apprehension two hours later just as Hill and a hand picked group of twenty five enlisted men, armed with revolvers set sail back to Sandusky to round up the thirty raiders expected off the trains. Cole's information, when interrogated, presented the names of Rosenthal, Merrick, Williams, Strain, Brown, and a Doctor Stanley, all citizens of Sandusky and connected with the conspiracy.
Charles W. Cole, a native of Pennsylvania as it was learned had received large amounts of money from Confederate operatives over in Canada including that of Mr. Jacob Thompson, former President James Buchanan's Secretary of the Interior. He claimed he was going to betray his employers, but his involvement having several meetings on the Canadian side with Thompson proved too suspicious, receiving in excess of $4,000 dollars in gold and greenbacks.
Colonel Hill discovered the thirty men arriving by train were found in town to be there for enlistment purposes instead, so he set out to arrest the six Sanduskians, notifying the U.S. Provost Marshal's office for assistance, and placed them aboard the Princess, a ferry from the island. Informed also that the Philo Parsons had been seized in an effort to transport the raiders from Michigan to Sandusky a decision had to be made. Although the commanding officer of the prison as well as that of the USS Michigan had no authority without orders from Washington, they both agreed that Captain Carter should take his ship to the mouth of the Detroit River in search of the Philo Parsons, scheduled to have arrived earlier that day, but failed to do so.
The USS Michigan set sail at dawn on the 20th in search of the Philo Parsons having learned that she had been captured and the Island Queen set adrift and then sunk.
Johnson's Island received additional help through a group of concerned citizens heavily armed and lead by John Brown, Junior, son of the Harper's Ferry insurrectionist, determined not to see the Michigan lost. These men too learned of what was taking place and crossed the Lake in an effort to assist.
The plot was foiled. The Philo Parson setting sail for Sandusky begged off from attacking the Michigan at the last minute, the Confederates having landed the boat on Sandwich Island and scattered. Charles H. Cole remained in federal hands being held as a spy, whose trial continued postponement and in spite of Richmond's best efforts remained a prisoner into 1865. The prisoners on Johnson's Island locked in, if not by walls, perhaps Lake Erie, would not see the daring plan of liberation attained; but would remain until the end when the country had no more war to return to.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at firstname.lastname@example.org