Sailors, Ships, and Shore Mates from the Great Lakes to the Great Barrier Reef
Yankee John Murray vs. Conspirator Charles Cole - the Johnson's Island Plot
Union detective John Murray followed hot on the trail of conspirator Charles Cole who plotted to free the Confederate prisoners on Johnson’s Island.
Conspirator Charles Cole had someone on his trail.John Wilson Murray, a Union Detective who supposedly uncovered theplotto capture the gunboatMichiganand free the prisoners on Johnson's Island, published his version of the story in a memoir after the 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 inCanada. Commander Carter gave Murray an unlimited commission to get to the bottom of the plot.
Union Detective John Wilson Murray Shadows Clement Vallandigham
Arriving in Detroit, Murray first conferred 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 little man who frequently visited Vallandigham’s headquarters soon captured his attention.
Murray learned that the little man’s name was L.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 about 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.
Detective Murray and Cole Play a Cat and Mouse Game
Then 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 as “a magnificent blonde.”
From Montreal, Cole and Irish Lize, as Murray 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.
Detective Murray, Irish Lize, and L.C. Cole Arrive in Sandusky on the Same Train
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 the strangers 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 receive callers. 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 theU.S.S. Michiganwhich lay off Sandusky and cultivated 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 theMichiganand the army officers on the island. He sent baskets of wine and boxes of cigars aboard theMichiganand over to Johnson’s Island.
Detective Murray Continues His Surveillance
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 theConfederate conspirator’splot to capture theU.S.S. Michiganand raid Great Lakes cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland ran smoothly. On September 19 1864, Beall and Burleigh boarded as regular passengers on thePhilo 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.
The Confederates Take Over thePhilo Parsonsand theIsland Queen
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 thePhilo Parsonsand captured the captain and crew. Immediately the hijackers discovered that thePhilo Parsonsneeded wood, so they headed back to Middle Bass Island. While they were there wooding, a second ferry, theIsland Queen, appeared.
Since theParsonsoccupied its dock space, theIsland Queentied up to theParsons. The Confederates sent some of their men aboard theIsland 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 theIsland Queenrealized that he was being hijacked, he resisted forcefully, but finally yielded at revolver point.The Island Queencaptives 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 thePhilo 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 theIsland Queenout into Lake Erie, ran her aground on Gull Island and abandoned her. Then they steamed off in thePhilo Parsonsto capture theU.S.S. Michigan. Beall, Burleigh and the other conspirators pulled thePhilo Parsonswithin sight of theMichiganand waited for Charles Cole to signal.
Captain Cole is Unsuccessful on theMichigan
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 of the officers on theMichiganand on Johnson's 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 thePhilo Parsonsand Cole 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 theMichiganwho was ashore.
When the crew returned they willingly pulled off to theU.S.S. Michiganwhich lay three miles offSandusky. 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 theMichiganwas 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 theMichiganThey went on to theMichiganand the officers aboard greeted Cole cordially and invited him to have a glass of wine, apologizing for disarranging his plans or delaying his party.
The Confrontation Between Cole and Captain Carter of theMichigan
According to Murray’s account, his friend Wilson turned to the orderly. “Tell Mr. Cole Captain Carter wishes to see him,” he said. Cole, accompanied by his former friend Wilson of New Orleans, now Murray of theU.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 Cole. Cole laughed.
“You served me well Murray Wilson or Wilson Murray or whatever the deuce your name may be,” Cole said.
“I served you the best I could,” said Murray.
“Sit down,” said Cole.
Murray and Cole sat down.
Cole 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 would not be responsible in bringing about Cole’s hanging.
In his account of the confrontation between Confederate agent L.C. Cole and Captain Carter of the U.S.S. Michigan, Detective Murray wrote that Cole 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.
Murray left Cole a prisoner on theU.S.S. Michigan, “smiling in the little cabin with the sentry at the door.”
The Confederates Scuttle the Philo Parsons and the Passenger and Crew
Meanwhile aboard thePhilo 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 theMichiganwithout a signal. Beall and Burleigh voted yes, but the other 17 conspirators voted no. TheParsons turned around and steamed for Detroit. The Confederates dropped most of the crew and passengers on Fighting Island across from Ecorse, Michigan, and docked at Sandwich, Ontario. They scuttled theParsons and began walking toward Windsor.
Colonel Charles Hill Evaluates the Conspirators
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 theMichigan, 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 theMichiganheld 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.
ThePhilo Parsonswas refloated, but burned to the waterline in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. TheIsland Queenwas 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.
Charles Cole 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.”
History Professor Gil Stelter Researches the Conspiracy
A Canadian history professor emeritusGil Stelterof 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 theUSS Michigan.
Dr. Stelter found copies of theconspirator’scorrespondence in the Robertson home and he contends 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.
General Hitchcock Writes a Letter to Secretary of War Stanton
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, Commissioner for the Exchange of Prisoners, 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. He 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 plot was a sufficient warning to prod the government into action.
Major General Hitchcock earnestly recommended that no time be lost in putting afloat armed vessels upon Lake Ontario and speedily upon the upper lakes also. He said, “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
Starr, Stephen Z.Colonel Grenfell's Wars. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
Thorndale, Theresa, Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands, Ohio State Historical Society, 1898
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Photograph courtesy of the Ecorse, Michigan Rowing Club.