The Great North-Western Conspiracy In All Its Startling Details
By I. Windslow Ayer
Public Domain Books
FIRST ATTEMPT OF THE REBELS TO CAPTURE UNITED STATES STEAMER MICHIGAN CARRYING EIGHTEEN GUNS–MODUS OPERANDI–WHY THEY FAILED, &c., &c.–UNITED STATES COMMERCE UPON THE LAKES TO BE DESTROYED–NORTHERN CITIES TO BE LAID UNDER CONTRIBUTION, &c.
Canada, occupying the geographical position and belonging to another nation as it does, has been ever since this war broke out, the rendezvous of thousands upon thousands of the vagabond and criminal population of the United States, together with the rebels and refugees, until its population far exceeds what it had in 1860; almost every business occupation is crowded to such an extent that it is almost impossible to obtain employment of any kind, many persons being obliged to keep from starving by begging, for their food, and the clothes they wear upon their backs. Some of this refugee population have means, others are supplied by their friends and families at home; but by far the greater number are without any occupation or visible means of support, habitué of the gambling hells, drinking saloons, &c., in favor of any crime or villainy to supply their depleted purses, and furnish them with the means of living at ease and idleness. Under such circumstances and among such a class of population, is it anything strange, that the robbery of banks, the pillaging of the inhabitants of the Northern border, that raids with all the necessary plundering and so forth, found plenty of advocates and supporters, and when the time arrived to carry them into execution, plenty of desperadoes, fit tools for such infamous projects. The great difficulty in Canada was not in getting enough of these men to participate in matters of this kind; but to prevent too many of them from knowing of them, so that there would be a smaller number among whom to divide the spoils and plunder thus obtained, so that the chief difficulty lay in getting together just enough of the most desperate characters to carry out an expedition. During the Chicago Democratic Convention the efforts of the rebels were not confined alone to Camp Douglas; but simultaneously with their efforts in Chicago, they were to make an attempt to capture the United States Steamer Michigan, carrying eighteen guns, stationed on Lake Erie, the steamer permitted by the treaty between the United States and Great Britain, for the better protection of rebel prisoners confined at Johnston’s Island.
The prisoners of war at Chicago, Illinois, being released, and the great conspiracy in the North once fairly inaugurated, the capture of the steamer Michigan was to be one of the combined movements that were to startle the country, and aid the conspiracy in overturning the authority of the United States Government, With the “Michigan” in their hands, the conspirators would have a powerful auxilliary in their pernicious designs upon the country, and be able to render effective aid to the Southern Rebellion; ruining the commercial status of the United States on the great lakes, and effectually closing all the ports on their borders, and in addition to this, their laying all the large towns and cities on the northern portion under contributions, and exacting from them enormous sums of money, through fear of bombardment. The plan of the conspirators to get possession of the Michigan was by bribery and by surprise. Mr. Thompson, in his efforts to seize the vessel, secured the services of a man named Cole, of Sandusky City, who, whilom, had been a citizen of Virginia, but who still retained his sympathies for the rebellion, and took an active part in aiding it whenever he had an opportunity, and a woman, said to have been his paramour, who carried dispatches backwards and forwards between the parties. This man Cole seems to have been the most wiley conspirator of them all, and played his infamous part of the plot with the most adroit shrewdness; and the defeat of the whole scheme was not owing to any blunder of his, but rather the blunder of those who employed and furnished him with the means. Having been well supplied with money by Mr. Thompson, and no limit put to his expenses, he began his work with a will. He seems to have begun by getting generally well acquainted with the officers of the vessel, by feasting them, and now and then lending them money, or accommodating them in some other way, until he had won the confidence of all those in command of the steamer, as well as those in charge of Johnston’s Island. After a time, he found out those who were most vulnerable on the money question, and those whom he did not dare to approach upon the subject. Of the latter class, there is one mentioned in particular by the rebels, whose suspicions they did not care to arouse, and which they made every attempt to lull. This was an officer named Eddy, from Massachusetts. Of the former class, whom they bribed, the rebels mentioned particularly the chief engineer, who, they said, had agreed, for twenty thousand dollars in gold, to get the machinery out of order, and otherwise aid in the vessel’s capture, and one or two others.
A citizen of Chicago, he was at one time the Democratic candidate for Sheriff of Cook County, in which is the city of Chicago, during the earliest part of the war he was very active in helping to raise what was called the Irish brigade. He afterwards became a bitter democratic partizan and was connected with the Sons of Liberty. Just before and during the Convention be received into his family several rebel soldiers who were there during the day and night time, making cartridges for the expected release of the rebel prisoners of war at Camp Douglas. He was arrested in his own house on the morning of the 7th of November, as was also his son, and two Rebel soldiers and taken to Camp Douglas. In his house and on his premises were an immense numbers of guns of several kinds and also immense military stores, consisting of powder, buckshot, cartridges, with two or three cast braces of army revolvers, all these guns and pistols were loaded and ready with the exception of being capped. Charles Walsh is of Irish extraction and about forty years of age, and a fine looking man. He is generous, impulsive, rather easily influenced, agreeable in conversation, and except in the character he assumed as an enemy to his country was possessed of qualities which would win for him many friends. There are as bad men, in our opinion, as Mr. Charles Walsh, to day at liberty and talking treason in our midst.]
Of the remainder of the officers of the Michigan, they thought their well-known Democratic faith and sympathy with the rebellion, would prevent them from seeing or knowing too much, until too late to avoid the disaster. Of these last, the conspirators did not seem to entertain the least fear, some of them being Southern men by birth, and at most, but passive in their fidelity to the government. The men of the vessel who were loyal, were also tampered with, and the rebels in Canada looked for assistance from them, and claimed that some of their own men from Canada had enlisted on board of her for the purpose of aiding to capture her. Of these rebels, however, there were but few. As the writer has stated before, the attempt on the steamer Michigan was to be simultaneous with that at Chicago, Ill., and while the rebels and their friends were assembling in Chicago, they were also gathering in Sandusky City, for the capture of the Michigan. The exact number of conspirators in Sandusky, at that time, is not known to the writer, nor the details of their plans; but let it suffice to say, that they were there, armed and ready. When the time of action arrived, however, the engineer and his accomplices were no where to be found, and after waiting for nearly two days, the rebel portion of the conspirators, with the exception of Capt. Beall, returned to Canada. On their return, they said that the persons whom they had bribed were afraid to toe the mark–that is, were afraid to carry out their infamous and hazardous part of the contract. The rebels were in great fear, lest something had happened that would put an end forever to their hopes, in regard to the steamer, but in a few days after this, the non-appearance of the engineer and friends, were duly explained, and the alarm caused by it quieted, and another time set for the attempt; the sequel will show how much they intended, and how much they ventured to effect their aims. It is a well known fact that the rebels while in Sandusky city, were feasted and toasted in the houses of some of the prominent citizens and business men, and encouraged in every way by them. The day being set once more, preparations were again made to capture the vessel, and this time occurred what was called the Lake Erie Piracy, nearly everything connected with which was so disgraceful to the United States service, that although the government hastened to remove all the reprehensible officers, and retain those who deserved well of their country, yet seems to have endeavored to keep some of the facts connected with it, from being made public. About one week before the time set for the second attempt arrived, Capt. Beall returned from Sandusky to Windsor, Canada West, and announced that all was ready for the capture, and immediately telegraphed to Jacob Thompson, who was then at the Queen’s Hotel, in Toronto, who at once answered that he would come to Windsor that night, and desired not to be recognized. That evening he arrived at Windsor, and without apparently being known got into a carriage waiting, and was taken to the residence of a Col. Steele, about a mile below Windsor, where he was expected. During this week all the men who were to participate in the affair were notified, and this time the services of some of the men who had been to Chicago during the Convention, were called into requisition. The officers of the rebel army could be seen running about, here and there, to the different boarding houses where the men were stopping, carrying ominous looking carpet bags, distributing from them pistols, ammunition and other things, deemed necessary for the undertaking, which was to be made on the night of the following Monday. Most active in these efforts to incite these men to deeds of desperation, were Col. Steele and Jake Thompson–or when he used his assumed name, Col. Carson. The plans of the pirates were as follows, and the writer gives them just as he heard them from the lips of two of the rebel officers who participated in the affair, commanding detachments on board of the “Philo Parsons.” Part of the men, amounting in all to about seventy-five, were to go from Canada to Sandusky city by rail, another party were to cross the river at Detroit early on Monday morning, and take passage on the steamer “Philo Parsons” for Sandusky, another portion were to take passage on her from Sandwich, Canada, about two miles below Detroit, and still another party of them, consisting of about fifteen (with eight or ten citizens who knew nothing of what was contemplated), on Sunday morning were to charter a small steamer called the “Scotia,” plying between Windsor and Detroit, ostensibly for the purpose of taking a pleasure ride to Malden, Canada, about twenty miles below Detroit, and near the entrance of the river into the lake, when they were also on Monday to take passage for the same place on the Parsons. At Kelley’s Island, one of the points at which the boat touched in her daily trips, they were to receive a messenger from Cole, letting them know, that up to that time everything was going on smoothly in Sandusky; upon receiving this information, all the different portions of the gang were to unite and seize the steamer, before she reached the next landing, at which she generally stopped. The engineers and pilots were to be forced, by threats of instant death if they refused, to still occupy their respective places; the passengers were to be put off at some out of the way place, where it would be impossible for them to give any information to the authorities, and after dark they were to run down into Sandusky bay, where they would see certain signals, made by those conspirators on the shore, when they would land, take on board all those who had come by rail from Detroit, and some Copperheads from Cincinnati, Ohio, and other places, and at once would immediately turn the prow of the Parson for the steamer Michigan. Cole was to give a champagne supper on board the Michigan that evening, to the officers, and was to be there himself with a party of rebels, who had also become well acquainted with the officers, and was invited at the request of Cole, to join in the festivities of the occasion. It was intended for the Philo Parsons to reach hailing distance of the Michigan about eleven or twelve o’clock that night, in order that by this time as many of the crew as possible, through the champagne, would be incapable of rendering any resistance, when the Parsons was hailed by the watch on board the steamer, and Cole and his associates were at once to take possession of a gun, which would sweep the whole decks, to prevent that portion of the crew who were not rendered incapable of it by drink, from attempting any effectual resistance to the conspirators boarding her from the Parsons. Once in possession of this vessel of war, the prisoners on the island were to be immediately released, landed at Sandusky, when the Sons of Liberty, Illini and other secret societies were to seize the opportunity of rising up, and asserting their peculiar doctrines, under the protection of this powerful man of war. The same course was to be pursued at Cleveland and other places, along the lake coast, where their secret societies were in full blast, the conspirators exacting an enormous tribute of the loyal portion of these communities to save their property from the dangers of bombardment. This expected tribute of ten millions of dollars, (to be divided equally among them,) from the border cities, was the greatest inducement held out by the rebel leaders before leaving Canada, to their desperadoes, in order to excite their cupidity and zeal, and inflame their minds to such a pitch, that they would render a strict obedience to their officers, and hesitate at no act of violence. These were the plans of the conspirators, and although they may seem almost ideal and improbable, yet are very possible even to the most minute details, when one will take time to stop and consider the great chances of success the pirates had in having a portion of the crew bribed, and their prospects of having the remainder too excited by liquor, to make any effectual opposition–the surprise, the chaos and confusion of the crew at finding those whom they supposed their friends, as well as their own comrades and fellow-soldiers, fighting them hand to hand. Under such circumstances as these, it is very easy to conceive of the capture of a vessel by a band of desperadoes, who would hesitate at no act of bloodshed or villainy to accomplish their objects. In addition to this, they were rendered more desperate, if such a thing could be, by the certainty that if they failed and were captured, a speedy and disgraceful death awaited them. The Michigan being captured, it is also easy to conceive that all the other portions of their plans could have been carried out, perhaps to a greater extent than already mentioned, that contributions could have been levied and exacted from the people, and especially that the Sons of Liberty and other secret societies would joyously seize such an opportunity as the protection of this man-of-war afforded them, to throw off the mantle of secrecy and darkness from their hell-born principles, and parade them to the view of the public in all their hideousness. We will now follow up the plans of the conspirators, and mention the facts as they occurred. On Sunday the –th of September, just preceding the attempt, although it was a rainy and very disagreeable day, in accordance with orders, the Scotia was chartered and conveyed her part of the pirates, together with some arms to Maiden, C.W. It is due to the citizens who were with the pirates, to say here, that they had no idea that the piracy was contemplated, and thought that it was only a fishing excursion, which at that time was a very common occurrence with the Southeners at Windsor. That evening when the Scotia returned, they alleged that it was so unpleasant that they would wait until the next day before going back to Windsor, in this way lulling everything like suspicion in the minds of those who had only been invited to go with them, the more effectually to conceal the real objects of the pirates. On Monday, on the arrival of the Steamer Philo Parsons at Malden, those who had taken passage from Detroit and Sandwich, were seen in very conspicuous places on the decks, by those on the wharf, who immediately boarded her in the capacity of passengers. It was not the intention of the pirates to seize the vessel until nearly to Sandusky, and in the event they received no messenger from Cole, at Kelley’s Island, they were not to take possession of her at all, but continue in their characters as passengers to Sandusky, and there learn the cause of his failure to communicate with them. But as subsequent events will show, they were compelled to change their whole plan of operations. Shortly after the vessel left Malden, the frequency with which all of these men patronized the bar of the boat, attracted the suspicions of some of the passengers, as well as the officers, one of whom, from some remarks let fall by one of the men, thought they were a suspicious set, and said that as soon as the boat arrived at Sandusky, he would have them arrested and taken care of. Some of the pirates happened to hear this remark, and as soon as it was generally known, created the greatest consternation among them, and upon arriving at Kelley’s Island and not receiving the messenger promised by Cole, they were in a very unenviable position. To go to Sandusky they would be arrested; the only course they could take to save their own lives and liberty, was that which they eventually adopted. Capt. Beall, after hearing this report, quickly determined to seize the vessel, which was accordingly done, to the great terror of the passengers and crew. One or two of the crew who refused to obey the orders given by the pirates, were severely wounded. Finding that there was only wood enough on board to last for a short time, she was run to Put-in-bay to get a supply, and it was at this landing that they seized the Island Queen, which happened to be there also, for the same purpose. This vessel, after removing her valuables, was immediately scuttled and left floating with the current in a sinking condition. After dark that night, the pirates ran down into Sandusky Bay, but failing to see the signals agreed upon, and after waiting a short time, again returned to the open lake, convinced by this time that something had happened to their friends in Sandusky. Capt. Beall then seeing that something had happened which would prevent them from capturing the Michigan, announced his determination to cruise on the lake as long as possible, burning and destroying all he could, and endeavored to induce his men to go with him; but they were already scared, and begun to fear the consequences of their act, and insisted upon going back to Canada. This is what Capt. Beall himself told Mr. Thompson on his return to Canada, that “if it had not been for these mutinous scoundrels, I could have run that boat on these lakes for two weeks, burning and destroying all the vessels we met with, before the Yankees could have made us take to land.” The owners of shipping upon the great lakes, can now if they never could before, appreciate fully the danger to their vessels at that time. The day before the rebels left Windsor, C.W., the United States authorities had been notified of the expedition, and fully placed upon their guard, and if the plans of Lieut. Col. Hill, the efficient commander of the post at Detroit could have been followed, he would have captured the whole gang. However, he telegraphed to Sandusky, and had Cole arrested while he was sitting at the table, taking dinner with the officers on board the Michigan. This effectually prevented Cole from communicating with the conspirators.
Col. Hill’s plans were to let the pirates take the Parsons, and then before they had time to do any damage, have the Michigan meet them on their way to Sandusky and capture them all together, and thus relieve the Government from any farther trouble with this most desperate band of incendiaries. Col. Hill telegraphed to the commander of the Michigan, requesting him to do this, and it is generally understood that the reason why he did not do it was that the machinery of the vessel was out of order, thus showing how well those who had been bribed had done their duty. In addition to these attempts to capture the steamer Michigan, was the celebrated St. Albans raid, which among others, was one of the rebel modes of carrying the war into Africa and harrassing the northern border.
This raid, which has become so famous in the history of this war, was first started by a Texan, named Bracey, belonging to one of the rebel Texan regiments. This man, for four or five years before the war, had been going to one of the schools or colleges (according to his own account of himself,) in St. Albans, and was well acquainted, both with the city and country, in the immediate neighborhood. He gave all the information he could, and offered to return there to get more, which he, with one or two rebel soldiers did, and obtained all the necessary information that would, in any way, aid them in their criminal designs. Upon their report, on their return to Canada, the fitting out the expedition immediately began–the money, arms, etc., being furnished by the rebel agents in Montreal or Quebec. Of the details of this affair, as carried out, the people have been fully advised by the newspapers, and, to all intents and purposes, the raid has been a success, or has operated in this manner by the winding and twisting course of the Canadian law courts, which seem to be actuated by no fixed principles, but wavering between the fear of the public opinion of the American people, and their desire to aid the rebels in overturning the government–and had it not been for the sudden turn the war has taken in the last six months, the people along the northern border would have been subjected to numerous other and similar raids. The St. Albans raid was only a part of one grand scheme of the rebels, for the past two years, to inaugurate a new mode of warfare, entirely beyond the pale of that waged by civilized nations, and a relic of the more barbarous ages. This new mode of warfare, or incendiarism, as it is generally called, was first started by the rebel government, after the fall of Memphis, Tenn., for the purpose of destroying vessels, loaded with government property, and cut off the communications of the armies in the lower countries, with their depots of supplies; with this end in view, companies of men were regularly enlisted for the purpose, and after a time, the sympathies and the aid rendered the rebellion by certain classes of the people at the North, justified them in extending its pernicious effects further North. Companies were enlisted and sent through the lines, with orders to burn public buildings, army stores, and supplies, wherever they could find them. Thus far, secret agents of the rebels were scattered all over the North, in small squads, wherever there was a prospect of doing injury to the government; and it is to the efforts of these men, that the country is indebted for the wholesale destruction of steamboat and other property at St. Louis, Cairo, and other places on the western rivers. These men performing the incendiary acts frequently upon information furnished them by their sympathizing friends. The public are already well aware of the manner in which some of these acts of incendiarism terminated, most especially the attempt of Capt. Kennedy and others, holding commissions in the rebel service, to burn New York city. If ever a man deserved his fate, this man Kennedy certainly did, and the public, having been saved, unscathed, can never fully appreciate the enormity of his crime. One, knowing the facts of these men being in the North for this purpose, can readily appreciate the punishment awarded them; but upon reviewing all the facts in the case, will as readily say that they are now less guilty than the citizens of the North, who aided them in their designs, by furnishing them information and associating with them, and even receiving them into their families, while they were yet public enemies, and in arms against the country.