10 Things You Should Know About The Civil War & The Great Lakes

Unless you live near them, the Great Lakes probably aren’t on your mind. That’s unfortunate because these huge bodies of water in the north eastern part of the United States – along the Canadian border – have been the scenes of many historic moments in American History.

There’s an idea that the American Civil War wasn’t fought in the North. And – generally speaking – that’s mostly true. However, there were plenty of riots, local disturbances, sabotage attempts, and other violent issues in the “Union” states. And Confederates caused disturbances around the Great Lakes.

Today – to provide some historical back-up to some plot points in Lighthouse Loyalty – we’ve rounded up ten basic things you should know about the Civil War on the Great Lakes.1. Canada – A “Neutral” Place

Officially speaking, Canada did not get involved in the American Civil War since it was part of the British Empire and had to remain “neutral.” However, Canada’s history ties closely to the United States and aspects of the Civil War; for example, in the Antebellum Period, many slaves found freedom in Canada, safe from the fugitive slave laws.

Perhaps it’s ironic that the same freedom and protection offered to escaped slaves was available to Confederates during and after the war. Like it or not, details known or unknown, Canada’s neutrality sheltered schemers and played a major role in the 1860’s American conflict in the Great Lakes region.

Great Lakes – satellite image from space, labelled for identification

2. Commerce on the Lakes

To set the historical stage, the Great Lakes were used for commerce transportation. Large cities stood on the shores, fostering and driving an ever-growing maritime trade in the area. Lighthouses were under construction or shining brightly along the shores (though the main lighthouse building boom along the lakes would occur post-war). Disruption of the maritime traffic, a raid, or simple subterfuge at a strategic point could have caused panic on the Northern homefront and potentially opened two war fronts.

3. Union Prisons along the Shores

As the war progressed, Federal forces constructed prisons along the lake shores. Originally created to confine officers but later imprisoning enlisted men too, Johnson Island Prison in Lake Erie operated for three years and held over 15,000 Confederates or Southern sympathizers captive. Camp Douglas at Chicago, Illinois, was known for its harsh conditions and had a higher death rate compared to other Union prisons.

4. The USS Michigan

This warship had the distinction of being the first iron hulled steamship in the U.S. Navy when she was commissioned in 1844. She spent her entire patrol career guarding the Great Lakes, eventually decommissioned in 1912.

During the Civil War, USS Michigan became a central target in some of the Confederate plots, patrolled the waters, appeared off Detroit and Buffalo to advert draft riots, and hung around Johnson Island to help guard the Southern prisoners.

USS Michigan – later renamed USS Wolverine – image from about 1900.

5. Draft Riots

Draft Riots? Yes, many Northerners weren’t happy about the Union draft instituted in March 1863. And by 1863 and 1864 there was growing discontent with the war as a whole among the Peace Democrats (Copperheads) throughout the North.

In July 1863, violent riots broke out in New York City and other cities agitated. On July 28, the commander of the USS Michigan reported that citizens in Detroit, Michigan, worried about a destructive riot in their city and felt calmer with the presence of a U.S. vessel in their harbor. In August, the ship anchored off Buffalo, New York – again, making a quiet threat against violence and rioting. In these cities, the danger was adverted, partly to the tiny, but effective, U.S. defense on the lakes.

Jefferson Davis

6. Davis originally says “No”

The Confederate government knew about the Union prison camps along the lakes; unlike other prisons, these would be relatively easy to approach with a military force if the Lakes were in Confederate control. (Remember, they could assemble a military force in Canada.) One of the major obstacles? USS Michigan.

In 1863, a lieutenant in the Confederate Navy – William Henry Murdaugh – put forward the idea to gain control the lakes by simply capturing the Union warship. Then they could work on freeing the prisoners who could add to the dwindling Southern armies.

However, in 1863, Confederate president Jefferson Davis vetoed the idea. With enough troubles in the east and west of the Confederacy, how wise would it be to open another conflict front?

7. Confederate Prisoner Escape?

Just because Davis said “no” in 1863, didn’t mean officers didn’t stop thinking about raids or escapades on the lakes. In 1864, Captain Charles H. Cole and Captain John Yates Beall received permission to arrange a prisoner escape from Johnson’s Island and Camp Chase (located inland in Ohio). The first step in the plot required the captains and thirty-five volunteers to capture USS Michigan. The schemers managed to befriend some of the Michigan‘s officers, contact a secret society in the North that sympathized with the Confederate, and infiltrate the regiment of prison guards.

Johnson Island Prison

September 19, 1864 – fateful day to begin the venture… Cole boarded the Michigan to dine with his friends, also preparing to take the ship. Beall and his team were supposed to capture the ferryboat which connected the American and Canadian ports on Lake Erie; they managed to capture the ferry, then had trouble with another vessel and a brief firefight broke out, leading to the scuttling of plans when the volunteers got scared and refused to go farther.

In reality, the Union troops in the area already knew about the plot. A Confederate prisoner at Johnson’s Island had informed the guards of the plan and Michigan‘s crew – along with the guards – were on high alert, making it doubtful the Southern plot would have succeeded if pursued.

8. St. Albans Raid

St. Albans, Vermont, sits on the shore of Lake Champlain and isn’t technically a “Great Lake,” but the raid is worth mentioning in this discussion. Just one month after the attempted Johnson’s Island Prisoner Rescue, a small group of Confederates crossed from Canada to St. Albans and, on October 19, 1864, attacked the small town, robbing banks, burning buildings, and injuring several civilians who tried to resist. The raiders escaped to Canada with about $208,000 (over $3 million in modern value) and the hopes that they would divert many Union troops to guard the northern border.

Canadian officials caught the raiders, but because of the neutrality laws refused to send them to trial. (However, the money was returned to the town.) Once again, Confederate plans backfired, more severely this time as Canadians turned unfriendly to the Southerns in the country, feeling like their nation was being used and drawn into a war because there were spies, plotters, and maybe even assassins seeking refuge under their “neutrality.”

John Wilkes Booth

9. John Wilkes Booth

Lincoln’s assassin. What does he have to do with the story of the Great Lakes and Canada during the Civil War?

Well, in October 1864, Booth visited Montreal (not on the Great Lakes, but in Canada) without a plausible reason. In the city, he met Confederate secret agents and probably laid plans for a presidential kidnapping that would eventually turn into the assassination. (Long, long story). There are hints that he was meeting with other agents in the North, and some may have been operating in the Great Lakes region with a quick getaway to Canada. It’s just not quite clear in the historical documentation…

10. Historical Mysteries

Spies and secret agents generally don’t keep records. Combining the known incidents of possible riots and the attempted rescue at Johnson’s Island with the numbers of known and unknown Confederate agents and agitators in the Great Lakes region on both sides of the border, it seems possible there was even more going on than is readily available to cover in this short post. While it’s not wise to speculate with solid facts, it does seem reasonable to conclude that there was a secret Civil War going on along the border and along the lake shores that has mostly escaped documentation and therefore most history books.

And that’s one of the treasures of history, locked away in time. Perhaps to be discovered. Perhaps to hold the secret of the spies and conflict until the end of time.

“Were there really Rebels on the Lakes?” Jacob asked, wide-eyed.

“Yes. Some escapades made it to the newspapers. I’m sure many things happened that were never reported.” (Lighthouse Loyalty, Chapter 18)

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Do you have more “secret” Civil War history to add to the discussion? (And don’t forget – we have a series on Civil War spies in our archives!)

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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