Commander John C. Carter of the Michigan had received the first
warning from Lieutenant Colonel Hill at Detroit, on Sunday, September 18,
he sent Ensign C. C. Eddy to the West House in Sandusky for the night,
probably with instructions to keep an eye on activities there.[i]
The next day Ensign James Hunter was to be dispatched to Detroit,
but as he was leaving, Lieutenant Colonel Hill's second telegram arrived,
and after a conference with Colonel Charles W. Hill, in command on the
Island, it was decided to arrest Cole in Sandusky.[ii]
Hunter was then sent to the West House, where he and Provost Marshal
Steiner placed Cole under arrest and took him on board the Michigan between
3 and 4 o'clock.
Hill and Captain Carter then examined Cole, whose papers, in the meantime,
had been seized by Executive Officer E. G. Martin and brought to the Michigan.
They revealed that Cole had been a captain in the rebel army, had
taken the oath of allegiance to the United States, had been paroled by
General Stephen A. Hurlbut at Memphis, and that he nevertheless had
corresponded with rebel refugees and known secessionists at Windsor,
Niagara Falls, Toronto, and other points in Canada. A dispatch found on
Cole read: "I am sending you today by messenger the thirty shares of
Mount Hope Oil Wells purchased as you previously advised;" he
insisted that it was a private business telegram.
his inquisitors said they knew all about the plot and that this telegram
meant that 30 conspirators were coming down on the Philo Parsons, he
is reported to have confessed, and indicated that others were coming to
Sandusky and that in Sandusky itself there were persons who had assisted
in the enterprise. It was about 4:30 at this time, and the first train was
due in Sandusky at 5:30, so Colonel Hill returned quickly to his Island
headquarters, notifying the ferry boat Princess to be ready to
return to Sandusky immediately. He-called five commissioned officers and
25 men and boarded the ferry.
boat from the Michigan intercepted the Princess with the
word that Cole had named Abraham Strain, John H. Williams, Dr. Ellwood
Stanley, E. Merrick, John M. Brown, and a clothier named Louis Rosenthal,
citizens of Sandusky, and also a man named Robinson, as conspirators, and
Captain Carter requested that the Provost Marshal at Sandusky take these
men into custody. At 7 in the evening a small sloop leaving the bay was
intercepted by a crew from the Michigan to prevent any word of the
happenings at Sandusky being conveyed to the islands or lake vessels.
soldiers from Johnson's Island did not reach the station in time to
prevent passengers from leaving the train, but all were later intercepted.
One of the passengers reported that about 60 men had jumped off the train
several hundred yards south of the station and scattered toward cheap
lodgings in the back part of town, but all of them were quietly and
promptly picked up. Their appearance gave strong indications that they
were just the men who were wanted, but it turned out that they were
mechanics and laborers on their way to jobs in Nashville, Tennessee, as
well as substitutes and volunteers coming to be mustered in by the
6 o'clock Colonel Hill sent a party of officers and men on the south-bound
train of the Sandusky, Mansfield & Newark railroad to Monroeville, 16
miles away, to wait there for the train from Toledo and Detroit, then
return to Sandusky on the train due at 8: 15. The party returned without
discovering any suspicious characters.
Hill sought out Provost Marshal Steiner and he, with soldiers from Colonel
Hill's command, arrested the Sanduskians named by Cole. The colonel also
made careful inquiry to learn if there were strangers or suspicious
characters or unusual circumstances in Sandusky that might be related to
the plot, but he found nothing. The Cleveland train came in at 7:10 P.M.,
bringing no suspicious characters.
Hill then telegraphed Detroit to learn if the Philo Parsons had
left that city in the morning because it was more than two hours past due
in Sandusky. He said he did this out of an abundance of caution, because
he did not believe that her officers would be permitted to commence the
trip from Detroit unwarned if there were the slightest prospect of her
seizure. The non-arrival, and the fact that there was no news of her,
caused him to conclude that the Parsons had been warned and so had
not made the trip. The reply from Detroit did not come until after 9, and
as soon as it was received, Colonel Hill and his party returned to the
Island, taking with them on the Princess the co-conspirators named
Carter met Colonel Hill upon his arrival. Between them, they concluded
that, although it would be in violation of instructions for Captain Carter
to leave his station without orders from Washington, the Michigan would
weigh anchor at daylight. To go earlier might involve grounding the ship
in attempting to leave the harbor, and it might endanger the safety of the
Island, at that time not too heavily garrisoned, while the chance of
finding any piratical craft at night was slim. The captain maintained
close watch over the harbor and out upon the lake, and kept up his fires
at all times after Cole's arrest.
Brown, Jr., son of the abolitionist of Harpers Ferry fame, had a vineyard
at Put-in-Bay, on South Bass. He was one of those who were puzzled by the
activity across the strait at Middle Bass. The moonlight was so bright
that the towing-away of the Island Queen could be plainly seen from
the neighboring island. John Brown got three of his neighbors together and
set sail for Ottawa City, a small settlement at the tip of Catawba Island
-- an island in name only which is actually the northern end of Marblehead
Peninsula. The wind was against them, the going was rough, and the passage
took much longer than usual. Brown then, in the darkness of night, walked
across the peninsula to a point opposite Johnson's Island and rowed
across. At 7 in the morning he reported what he had observed to Colonel
Hill. This was the first news of the seizure of the two steamers to reach
anyone in authority.[iii]
Hill, commending John Brown highly, then telegraphed the first word of the
Heintzelman, Columbus, Ohio (and provost-marshals and military
commanders at Detroit, Monroe, Toledo, Cleveland, Painesville,
Ashtabula, Conneaut, Erie, Dunkirk, and Buffalo):
from Canada captured the steamers Parsons and Island Queen near
the Bass Islands yesterday afternoon and have gone down or across the
lake; disappeared from the islands between 10 and 11 o'clock last night;
probably gone for re-enforcements, guns, and ammunition.
capturing party were about thirty, with abundance of revolvers and bowie
knives. No other weapons noticed. At Middle Bass Island captors took
wood enough to last two days. Warn all vessels and steamers and send all
important information here. We have one of the principal conspirators in
C. H. Potter
Adjutant-General, Columbus, Ohio.
yesterday, on suspicion, with my advice, Captain Carter, of the U.S.S. Michigan,
arrested Cole at Sandusky. He was the principal agent of the rebels
on this side. Disclosed the whole plot, showing that the men were to
come in on different trains at Sandusky last evening, and with boats
capture the Michigan and attack this post. I placed men at
Sandusky and searched each train on arrival. Cole implicated Stanley,
Brown, Williams, Merrick, Strain, and Rosenthal, citizens of Sandusky to
some extent, I can't say how far. On the direction of the commander of
the Michigan I handed their names to Captain Steiner, provost-
marshal. He arrested them and I now have them in charge. The Michigan
left on a cruise outside at daylight this morning; will probably be
back soon unless she gets fairly in chase. If the scoundrels come this
way, even in the absence of the Michigan, I will give a good
account of them, but I wish I had all my detachments back.
the telegrams indicate, Colonel Hill thought that the pirates had moved
off down the lake or across to Canada to receive re-enforcements of men
and ammunitions, and that, perhaps with enough captured boats to remove
the prisoners from Johnson's Island, they might come in upon him at any
moment. He moved four 20-pounder Parrott guns, manned with his infantry,
and placed them to command the entrance to Sandusky harbor.[v]
Target practice was resumed. Not expecting the Michigan to return
as long as Captain Carter might have reason to believe he could reach a
pirate on the lake, Colonel Hill ordered his quartermaster to take into
service the small steamer, General Grant[vi],
which plied the waters of Sandusky Bay, intending to place on board one or
two 20-pound Parrotts and a 12-pound howitzer, with a small infantry
force. The deck of the Grant, was shored up to guard against damage
from the guns, and she was lying at the dock ready to take them on board
when the Michigan steamed into the harbor, keeping course to
Sandusky. There Colonel Hill, crossing on the General Grant, learned
from Captain Carter what had happened out on the lake.
the Philo Parsons, with the Island Queen in tow, left Middle
Bass, those who had been marooned attempted to report the news of the
piracy. Two parties of eight obtained boats and pulled out for Put-in-Bay
where they went to the West Dock and arranged with a man named Stone to
take them by sail to Ottawa City. He found rough seas and a direct head
wind in which progress was difficult, so, not as persistent as John Brown,
Jr., he returned to the dock with his frustrated passengers. The group
then went to the east end of the island and procured two skiffs, one of
which, after a tedious row of eight or nine miles, arrived at Kelleys
Island at daybreak, its crew of four wet, cold, and tired.[vii]
at daybreak, the Michigan had weighed anchor and started up the
lake. At sunrise as she approached the dock at Kelleys Island, the
islanders were not sure that she was in friendly hands until they saw the
familiar figures of Pilot William Hinton and Captain Carter at their
stations. It was then that the men on the Michigan first learned of
the fate of the Parsons and the Istand Queen, from the
"captives" who had rowed all night from Put-in-Bay, and who were
now taken aboard the Michigan as she left in search of the captured
boats. About half way to Middle Bass they overhauled a sailboat taking
Clerk Ashley of the Parsons and a number of the passengers and crew
to Sandusky. From these informants Captain Carter learned that the Parsons
had been seen at about 2 in the morning headed for the Detroit River.
As the Michigan passed Middle Bass she was loudly cheered by those
who had spent the night there. She arrived in the Detroit River at about
10 o'clock and learned from the captain of the schooner J. W. Bolt of
Buffalo that neither the Parsons or the Queen had been
sighted in the river, so the Michigan changed her course for Pelee
The tug W. B. Castle, which had left the river a short time
before, also reported no sight of either of the captured boats.
was then changed for Put-in-Bay, and the Michigan stopped at Middle
Bass shortly before 1 o'clock to take on board seven of the stranded
passengers, the rest of them having been removed by the steamer Gazelle.
Three-quarters of an hour later they sighted the Island Queen grounded
on Chicanolee Reef, but shallow water kept them at a distance. They then
shaped the course of the Michigan for Sandusky, arriving in the Bay
at 3 o'clock. Acting Gunner John Murray, Sergeant Stevenson, and a file of
marines were sent to arrest John Robinson, one of Cole's underlings, who
was brought aboard, and at 5 o'clock the Michigan returned to her
usual berth off Johnson's Island.
can well imagine the excitement in Sandusky over the events of these two
days. It pervades a letter to Allie Stem, a Sanduskian who was visiting in
Tiffin that September 20, 1864:
the tocsin of war has sounded in the usually quiet streets of Sandusky,
everything is excitement, everyone you see tells you something new and
every report contradicts the one preceding. I send you an extra, I don't
know whether it is worthwhile, for I presume you know more about it than
we do. The Michigan has just returned from a partially unsuccessful
search after the missing I. Queen and Parsons, saw or
heard nothing of the Parsons but saw the Queen ashore on N.
Bass Island, neither Capt. Orr or Mr. Hamilton have been heard from,
rumor is that the Queen went down with all on board and another
that Capt. Orr is in Toledo, no idea how he got there.
was a quite a number of Copperheads arrested last night, among them
Strain, Williams, J. M. Brown, Merrick and it is said here they are still
prisoners over at the island. The Queen, Parsons, then in command
of the rebels, and two small boats appeared at the mouth of the bay last
night, were halted by the Michigan, when they made off toward
battery has been at the foot of Columbus Avenue all afternoon waiting to
go to the Island or Cedar Point and the battery over at the Island is down
on the shore firing to get the range. Imagine Grandma's consternation when
they commenced firing. Sara has just come in saying that Mr. Cotton says
that two small boys said they saw Capt. Orr this morning and that Capt.
Orr said that he was on the Parsons when it was sunk.
telegraph wires were busy. Following Colonel Hill's initial telegram to
Captain Potter, and his telegraphic warnings to Major General Heintzelman
at Columbus and the provost-marshals and military commanders at all
American ports on Lake Erie, the wires began buzzing between Washington,
New York, Detroit, and Sandusky. (General John A. Dix was in command of
the Army's Department of the East.)
September 20, 1864.
DIX, New York:
following telegram has just been received In relation to the recent
piracy on Lake Erie. You will not probably need any troops, but will
proceed to Buffalo and make an official examination, and report of the
facts to be ascertained there and at Detroit, or any other point on the
20, 1864. (Received 2 p.m.)
Gen. J. B. Fry, Provost-Marshal-General:
American steamer Philo Parsons, running from this place to
Sandusky, was seized yesterday by rebel refugees who embarked at Malden,
Canada. They captured and sunk the steamer Island Queen. The
steamer Philo Parsons was brought this morning to Sandwich,
Canada, where, after plundering and cutting her pipes to scuttle, was
abandoned. The seizure of the Philo Parsons, and the capture and
sinking of Island Queen, occurred in American waters. The
plundering and scuttling of Philo Parsons in British waters. Have
seen district attorney in relation to proper legal steps to take.
U. S. Army
20, 1864 -1.15 p. m.
Dix, New York:
Department has just received information that rebels from Canada have
captured two steamers at Bass Island, on Lake Erie. You will proceed
immediately to Buffalo and take such measures of defense and for the
recapture of the steamers as you find proper and practicable, reporting
to this Department. If you need any forces, there is a regiment at
Albany of the Veteran Reserve Corps, which is placed under your orders.
You will also issue a requisition upon the Ordnance Department for arms
and accoutrements that may be required by the Governor of New York, and
that you deem necessary for coast defense. Acknowledge this telegram.
E. M. Stanton:
dispatch in regard to capture of steamers on Lake Erie is received. I
shall leave by first express train for Buffalo. Will you request the
Secretary of the Treasury to direct Captain Ottinger, of the revenue
service, to finish the new revenue cutter at Buffalo by working on her
night and day. I am advised that she can be finished in a few days.
give me all the particulars you have respecting the steamers captured at
Bass Island. When was the provost-marshal of Buffalo's telegram
received? Who was it addressed to? Where were the steamers captured? How
did he get his information?
E. M. Stanton,
Hill, commanding at Johnson's Island, telegraphs the provost-marshal at
Buffalo at 8 a.m. as follows:
from Canada captured the steamers Parsons and Island Queen near
the Bass Islands yesterday afternoon, and having gone down or across the
lake. Disappeared from the islands between 10 and 11 o'clock last night.
Probably gone for re-enforcements, guns, and ammunition. The capturing
party were about thirty, with abundance of revolvers and bowie knives;
no other arms noticed. At Middle Bass Island captors took wood enough to
last two days. Warn all vessels and steamers, and send all important
information here. We have one of the principal conspirators under
arrest. The last telegram from Detroit says rebels returned to Detroit
River early this morning. Have been foiled in design, which is supposed
to have been the capture of the U. S. steamer Michigan and to
release prisoners on Johnson's Island. Crew of steamer Parsons were
put ashore on Fighting Island this morning after being robbed of
everything valuable. Furniture of boat destroyed and feed-pipe cut,
leaving her in a sinking condition. Vessel seized by Canadian
authorities. Two of rebel crew arrested and now in jail at
following telegram received here this p.m.:
J. A. Dix:
rebels are capturing our steamers on the lakes and burning them, to
destroy our commerce. Captain Ottinger, revenue-cutter service, is
building here a steam revenue cutter, nearly finished. By an additional
expense and working night and day, she can be ready for service in a few
days -- say ten days. The Treasury Department would so order at your
request. I could arm two or three strong propellers for temporary
service as gun-boats, if you see proper to so order.
C. Wilson, Assistant Quartermaster."
have asked for further information from Detroit, Sandusky, and Buffalo.
When received will forward to you.
20, 1864 -- 1.15 p. m.
Department has just received information of the capture of two steamers
by rebels from Canada, at Bass Island, Lake Erie. You will proceed
immediately to Johnson's Island, and take such measures as may be
necessary for the security of the prisoners at Johnson's Island, and
call on the Governor of Ohio for such assistance as you may need.
Acknowledge the receipt of this order, and report your arrival at
Johnson's Island and Sandusky.
20, 1864. (Received 6 p. m.)
E. M. Stanton:
have been taken for the security of the prisoners at Johnson's Island.
Since then have telegrams from Detroit that the steamer Island Queen has
been sunk and the Philo Parsons plundered and sunk; the latter in
British waters. It is not necessary for me now to go to Johnson's
20, 1864 -1.15 p. m.
Department has just received information of the capture of two steamers
by rebels from Canada, at Bass Island, Lake Erie. The object will
probably be to release the prisoners there. Please render such aid as
General Heintzelman may require for the security of the prisoners there.
Department, Washington City,
20, 1864 -1.20 p.m.
William S. Pierson,
the officer commanding at Johnson's Island, Sandusky Bay, Ohio):
Department has just been informed that rebels from Canada have captured
two steamers at Bass Island. The effort will probably be made to release
the prisoners under your charge. You will use every exertion to guard
against any surprise and to prevent the rescue. Acknowledge the receipt
of this telegram, and give any information you have on the subject; also
report your state of defense and what precautions you are taking.
20, 1864. (Via Sandusky. Received 1.50 a. m. 21 st.)
E. M. Stanton:
telegram of today to Colonel Pierson, relating to rebel raid from
Canada, is received. The rebels abandoned and set the Island Queen adrift
this morning at 3 o'clock, then with the other, the Parsons, steered
for Detroit River. Lieutenant-Colonel Hill telegraphs that they
abandoned her, and went ashore in Canada, near Sandwich, on Detroit
River. The Michigan went out at daylight this morning, and
cruised along the islands and to the mouth of the Detroit River.
Returned here about 3 this afternoon. I approved of her departure. I
have one 30 and six 20 pounder Parrotts and three 12-pounder howitzers
on the island, and a six-gun light battery, New York, at Sandusky, and
by calling in my fatigue parties, extra duty men, and recruits, could
have a force of near 900 available men on the island, as infantry and
heavy artillery. Nearly all my available men for guard duty ordinarily
go on guard every other day. Granting the petition of my officers to the
adjutant-general, dated 5th of August, would place us just right and be
force enough. We are always ready for the rebels, inside and out.
Yesterday afternoon I united with captain of the Michigan in
arrest of Cole, and today Robinson, certainly conspirators in this raid
last night. Six citizens of Sandusky to some extent implicated by Cole.
This morning I reported these arrests to district attorney and marshal
at Cleveland. I think this raid is over.
C. H. Potter ,
Michigan has been to Detroit River and returned. The Island
Queen was plundered and set adrift about 3 o'clock this morning. The
rebels, with the Parsons, turned up the lake from the islands,
ran into Detroit River, and there disabled and abandoned her. I think
the raid is over, but we shall be ready for anything.
W. Hill, Colonel,
the Philo Parsons was moored to the dock at Sandwich, two men, seen
staving a hole in her cabin and taking out a piano and other furniture,
were arrested by the Canadian customs officer for importing goods without
The furniture was guarded with scrupulous fidelity, but the pirates,
arraigned before a justice of the peace, were released without delay,
regardless of the evidence against them. When Simon Fox, one of the owners
of the Parsons, came to Sandwich to claim his ship, which the
authorities promptly released, the customs officer, returning some of the
items, said that he saw among the goods a market basket containing
revolvers which he seized but subsequently released to the men who laid
claim to them.[xi]
Engineer Denison said he saw most of the men walk away, some going up to
Windsor with Campbell and him, each with a bundle of plunder -- this
corroborated by Campbell.[xii]
Crown Attorney of the county said he had instruction from the Government
at Quebec to spare no pains in bringing to justice the parties implicated
in the seizures; that there was reason to believe that the parties had
fled; and that identification was a problem; but that they would dispatch
a constable with warrants to arrest the parties at Toronto or elsewhere,
if members of the Parsons crew would be sent along.[xiii] This was done, but
attention of Crown Attorney MacDonell was called by Major-General Dix to
the fact that Mr. Jacob Thompson had been in the vicinity of Sandwich,
staying with a Southerner named Colonel Steele, as late as Saturday,
September 17, and that it could be made to appear that Thompson, an
authorized agent of the insurgent authorities at Richmond, was residing in
Canada under British protection, engaged in at least one instance in
setting on foot military enterprises against the United States, and in
another instance, in organizing a piratical expedition. It was manifest
that he could not be in Canada, and especially on the Detroit River, where
the water boundary between the countries was less than a mile wide, for
purposes other than mischief.
Dix, in the report of his investigation, explored the problem of
extradition of the participants from Canada under the Ashburton Treaty of
August 9, 1842, between the United States and Great Britain. He assumed
that the offence would be treated as an act of piracy, or as a robbery, or
as an assault with intent to commit murder. There might be a technical
difficulty in establishing the crime of piracy under Federal jurisdiction,
because it must be committed outside the jurisdiction of any particular
state; whereas the boundary of the State of Ohio was defined by Congress
under the Act of June 15, 1836, Section I, as the boundary line with
Canada, running north of the Bass Islands and Kelleys Island, leaving them
within the State of Ohio. Under the decision of the Supreme Court of the
United States (12th Howard 453) the lakes and Sandusky Bay are
declared to be inland seas, subject to admiralty jurisdiction.
British courts were understood to take a different view. Crimes on the
high seas would be triable by the courts of both countries and not subject
to extradition under the treaty. If committed within the borders of a
state, the act would not constitute the crime of piracy under the federal
law. The act must be an offence or crime under the laws of Great Britain,
Major General Dix concluded; and if extradition under the charge of piracy
was doubtful, he expected no hesitation on the part of the British
authorities to surrender them on a charge of robbery or assault with
intent to murder, both of these crimes being specified by the treaty, and
both being crimes under the laws of both countries. He also anticipated
that the ablest counsel money could procure would be employed in defense
of the extradition proceedings, and that it was more than probable that
the defense would attempt to show that the expedition was organized and
executed under the direction of the Confederate authorities and therefore
was an act of war.[xiv]
capture of Cole was made known to Jacob Thompson in Toronto by Annie
Davis, who was with Cole at the time of his arrest at the West House. Her
baggage, like Cole's, was packed, and ready for a trip to Toronto. Cole's
baggage was taken for inspection, and Annie Davis's bags were impounded,
but she made the trip to Toronto, and, as we shall see later, returned to
Sandusky. The following report to President Davis of the Confederacy was
sent by Thompson and Clay:
Excellency, Jefferson Davis:
time since Charles H. Cole, captain, C. S. Army, and also a lieutenant
in the Navy, was sent to reconnoiter the position of the war steamer Michigan
and ascertain whether it was possible to capture her. He found her
lying opposite Sandusky, guarding Johnson's Island. He conceived and
perfected a plan for her capture. The scheme was admirably laid, and
promised success and the gravest consequences --the release of the
prisoners and their return to the Confederate States.
few hours before the consummation of his plan, by some treachery, he
became suspected and was arrested, which defeated the execution of his
design. He is now held as a prisoner, and we are informed that he is
charged with being a spy, and a trial has been awarded him by a
Cole is an escaped prisoner, and having never returned to his own
country since his escape, he was legitimately within the enemy's lines.
may have been his designs, he has violated no law or regulation of the
enemy. On the contrary, he was popular with the officers of the boat and
of the island. We think the Government should interpose for his release.
On the principle by which he would be considered a spy every soldier or
officer of the Federal Army within our territory can be so considered.
He is a brave, true man, a good officer, and every way worthy the
special protection of the Government.
hope you will do all that can be done for his protection, either in the
way of exchange, or, if need be, by way of retaliation. On this subject
you are a better judge than ourselves. He has been acting in the line of
duty with a courage and discretion that deserves the highest
great respect, your obedient servants,
Thompson. C. C. Clay, Jr.
of War for attention
the commissioner of exchange or otherwise, as may be indicated, let all
practicable effor1s be made in behalf of Mr. Cole.
seems clear that this officer is not liable as a spy, but is entitled to
the protection of his Government. The enterprise was a legitimate one,
and the release of our prisoners could not be looked upon as other than
a laudable object for a Confederate officer to essay. A magnanimous foe
would respect and admire him. Make proper representations in the case.
Robert Ould was Confederate Agent of Exchange.
A. Seddon was Secretary of War in the Confederate cabinet.
October 12. 1864.
in May, 1864, in Sandusky; 115' overall length, 37' beam, 6'9" draft;
The register of the West House verifies the presence of C. C. Eddy.
Register, September 21, 22, 23, 1864; for this sequence of
events see also Colonel Charles W. Hillís report, October 1, 1864,
to Major General E.A. Hitchcock, O.R., 2, VI, 901-906.
Register, September 22, 1864.
O.R., 2, VII, 850-851.
Colonel Hillís report, O.R., 2, VI, note 2.
Register, May 20, 1864.
Ibid., September 21, 22, 1864.
O.R., 1, XLIII, Part 2, 128-129.
Simon Fox Deposition, O.R., 1, XLIII, Part 2, 246.
Deposition, ibid., 242; Campbell Deposition, ibid., 238.
Ibid., 2, VII, 864-864.