Southern Historical Society Papers/Volume 23/The Plan to Rescue the Johnson's Island Prisoners

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[From the Richmond (Va.) Dispatch, December 15, 1895.]



Why the Daring Expedition Failed.

The following letter from Captain R. D. Minor, Confederate States navy, to Admiral Buchanan, giving the experience of the expedition for the rescue of the Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island, is taken from advance sheets of "Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion," so called:

Naval-Ordnance Works,
Richmond, Va., February 2, 1864.

My Dear Sir,—Enclosed I send you the express company's receipt for a package of cloth, forwarded several days since to your address, at Mobile. Before leaving the Confederacy in October last I wrote to say good-by, and with the hope that before my return you would have heard of our success abroad, but the fortunes of war were against us, and all the consolation we have is the consciousness that we did our best, and that our efforts have been appreciated. You will pardon the prosy story I am about to tell you of our expedition, but, as it were one designed to do much good to our poor fellows at the North, and through their release to be of great benefit to our country, I have thought that it would be interesting to you to know something of its details.

Early in February of last year Lieutenant William H. Murdaugh, of the navy, conceived the plan of a raid on the northern lakes, based on the capture by surprise of the United States steamship Michigan, the only man-of-war on those waters, and, on mentioning his views to Lieutenant Robert R. Carter and myself, I need not tell you how cordially we entered into them, and endeavored by every means in our power to carry them into execution; but it was only after repeated efforts that the Government was induced to take any active part in promoting the expedition, though Mr. Mallory, the Secretary of Navy, was in favor of it from the inception of the plan; but money, or rather the want of it, seemed to be the cause of delay, which, however, being eventually provided to the amount of $25,000, we, together with Lieutenant Walter R. Butt, one of our ward-room mess on board of the old Merrimac, were at last ordered to hold ourselves in readiness to proceed on the duty assigned us, when suddenly the order was changed, it having been decided in Cabinet council that our operations on the lakes might embarrass our relations with England, and thus prevent the completion of the iron-clad and other vessels building for us in the private ship-yards of that country. So the plan was foiled at the last moment, and, as we learned, by order of his Excellency, President Davis, who was apprehensive on the score of foreign complications. With the expedition thus broken up, Murdaugh, disheartened, sought other duty, and he, Carter, and Butt were ordered abroad, leaving me here on my regular ordnance duty, as only representative of a scheme whose prospects were so inviting and so brilliant. Late in the spring, I believe it was, that our enemies made Johnson's Island, in the Bay of Sandusky, O., a depot for our officers, their prisoners, and after the surrender of the Post of Arkansas, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson, some 1,500 or 2,000 were imprisoned there, whom it became an object to release, as the balance was, and still is, strongly against us. With this view I found myself one day, in August last, closeted with Mr. Seddon, Secretary of War, and Mr. Mallory, who asked me to give my views on the contents of a letter, a part of which Mr. Seddon read to me, containing a proposition for the release of our poor fellows.


As a cruise on the lakes in the Michigan, and the destruction of the enemy's very valuable commerce, has been my study for months past, I assented at once to the plan, and remarked that "I need not inform you, gentlemen, how much pleasure it would give me to be engaged upon such duty." Well, sir, nearly a month of precious time passed away without my hearing another word on the subject, when one day I was sent for by Mr. Mallory, who told me to organize an expedition, select the officers, make all the necessary preparations, and then concluded by offering me the command of it, which, however, I waived in favor of my friend, John Wilkinson (who was in a manner somewhat committed to the plan by the letter which I have mentioned as being shown to me by Mr. Seddon, the Secretary of War), with this proviso, however, that on our arrival in Canada, in the event of adopting two lines of operations, I was to have one of them as my command.

As soon as it was definitely settled that the expedition was to go for the President said it was better to fail than not to make the attempt, as it had been vaguely talked of in Montreal), our preparations were made. Thirty-five thousand dollars in gold, or its equivalent, was placed at our disposal by the Navy Department, and a cargo of cotton, which was subsequently sold at Halifax for $76,000 (gold) by the War Department—in all some $111,000 in gold, as the sinews of the expedition. The officers selected John Wilkinson, lieutenant commanding; myself, Lieutenant B. P. Loyall, Lieutenant A. G. Hudgins, Lieutenant G. W. Gift, Lieutenant J. M. Gardner, Lieutenant B. P. (F. M.) Roby, Lieutenant M. P. Goodwyn, Lieutenant Otey Bradford, Acting-Master W. B. Ball (colonel of Fifteenth Virginia Cavalry), Acting-Master William Finney, Acting-Master (H.) W. Perrin, Lieutenant Patrick McCarrick, Acting-Master Henry Wilkinson, Chief-Engineer (J.) Charles Schroeder, First-Assistant-Engineer H. X. Wright, Second-Assistant-Engineer Tucker, Assistant-Pay master (P. M.) DeLeon, Assistant-Surgeon (William) Sheppardson, gunners Gormley and Waters, John Tabb, a man named Leggett, who subsequently left us at Halifax. Of course our plan was kept secret, only Wilkinson, Loyall, and myself knowing its objects, and we did not attempt to contradict the report that we were going to England, where many of the officers and our friends on shore supposed we were bound.

The party consisted of twenty-two, all told, and on the 7th of October we left Smithville, N. C., on the Cape Fear river, in the blockade steamer R. E. Lee, with Wilkinson in command; and, after successfully running the gauntlet of the blockading squadron of river vessels (not, however, without getting a shell in our starboard bulwarks, which exploded on board, set the cotton on fire, wounded three men, and broke a small hoisting engine into smithereens), we arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where our arrival was at once telegraphed all over the country as being en route for England. Dividing the party, we left Halifax as soon as possible, taking two routes for Canada—one via St. John, New Brunswick, and thence up through the province via Frederick and Grand Falls to Riviere du Loup, on the St. Lawrence, to Quebec and Montreal; and the other via Pictou, through the Northumberland Strait to Bay of Chaleurs, via Gaspe, up the St. Lawrence to Quebec, and thence by railroad to Montreal, where we all met under assumed names about the 21st of October.


As it was of vital importance that the utmost secrecy should be observed, the officers were directed to take lodging in quiet boarding-houses, to avoid the hotels, not to recognize each other on the street, and not to be absent from their rooms for more than half an hour at a time. Finding Marshal (J.P.?) Kane and some of our friends in Montreal, we set to work to prepare and perfect our arrangements, the first object of the plan being to communicate with the prisoners on Johnson's Island, informing them that an attempt would be made to release them. This was effected through a lady from Baltimore, a Mrs. P. C. Martin, then residing with her husband and family in Montreal, and whose husband did all in his power to aid us in every way. She brought a letter from Baltimore, which General (J. J.) Archer, who with Major-General (I. R.) Trimble, was a prisoner at Johnson's Island, had sent there to Beverly Saunders, Esq., telling us to communicate with him through the personal columns of the New York Herald, which Wilkinson very promptly did, telling A. J. L. W. that his solicitude was fully appreciated, and that a few nights after the 4th of November a carriage would be at the door, when all seeming obstacles would be removed, and to be ready. The obstacles alluded to were the United States steamship Michigan and the prison guard. Our original plan was to go aboard one of the lake steamers at Windsor, opposite Detroit, as passengers, and when fairly out on the lake to play the old St. Nicholas game, and, by rising on the officers and crew, take possession and run her to Johnson's Island, trusting to the prisoners to overpower the guard, while we would be ready to receive them on board for transportation to the Canada shore; but, finding that the steamers seldom and at irregular interval stopped at Windsor, or at any point on the Canada side, we changed the plan at the suggestion of a Canadian named McQuaig, who was introduced to Kane by Mr. Hale, of Tennessee, as a good and reliable Southern sympathizer, engaged in running the blockade, and occupying a high commercial position in Canada. He entered into our views with enthusiasm, and we believe that up to the last moment he was heart and soul with us; but more of him directly. A reliable man was sent to Sandusky to ascertain the strength of the garrison, position of the guns, etc., and on his return we were delighted to hear that the United States steamship Michigan, under Jack Carter, was lying at anchor about two hundred yards from the island, with her guns (having six reported as mounted) bearing upon the prison; that there were but four hundred troops on the island, and no artillery save two small Howitzers, one of which was upon a ferry-boat plying between the island and the city.


Two small nine-pounders were quietly purchased, Colt furnished us with two navy revolvers, with an ample supply of pistol ammunition—of course, through several indirect channels; dumb-bells were substituted for cannon-balls, as it would have excited suspicion to have asked for such an article in Montreal; powder, bullets, slugs, butcher-knives, in lieu of cutlasses, and grapnels were obtained, and all preparations made to arm the escaped Confederate officers and soldiers who, to the number of 180, we were promised, could be induced to act with us in any way to benefit our cause; but when the time came for them to come forward, only thirty-two volunteered, and, with our party thus augmented to fifty-four, we determined to make the attempt on the Michigan on the following plan: From Ogdensburg, in New York, there is a line of screw steamers plying to Chicago, in the grain and provision trade, and as they return nearly empty to Chicago, and sometimes carry the Adams Express Company's safe, we decided to take deck-passage on board one of them, as mechanics and laborers bound to Chicago to work on the city water-works there, and with this view one of our clever privates, named Connelly, was sent over to Ogdensburg, who paid the passage-money for twenty-five of us in advance, to be taken on board at some point on the Welland canal, and, while doing so, he made an agreement to take as many more laborers as he could obtain, their passage being fixed at the same price, to which the New Yorker consented, and gave him the ticket to show to the captain of the boat. We were then to assemble at St. Catharines, on the canal, go on board the steamer (one of our men, apparently entirely unconnected with us, having charge of the guns, powder, pistols, etc., boxed up in casks, boxes, etc., and marked "Machinery, Chicago," going on board the same steamer with us), and when fairly out in Lake Erie, and well clear of British jurisdiction, we were to rise on the officers and crew, overpower them, seize the steamer, mount our two nine-pounders, arm the men, secure the prisoners, and push on for Sandusky, timing our arrival so as to reach the Michigan about daylight, collide with her as if by accident, board and carry her by the cutlass and pistol, and then, with her guns, loaded with grape and canister, trained on the prison headquarters, send a boat on shore to demand an unconditional surrender of the island, with its prisoners, garrison, material of war, etc., upon penalty of being fired into and the prisoners being released without restraint upon their actions. Major (W. S.) Pierson, the commanding officer, is said to be a humane man, and seeing the disadvantage at which we would have him, with the prisoners by this time clamorous for their release, he would have been compelled to surrender, and, with the half-dozen steamers at the wharf in Sandusky, we could have speedily landed the whole 2,000 prisoners on the Canada shore, distant only some forty miles; and then, with the Michigan under our command, and she the only man-of-war on the lakes, with a crew composed of our fifty-four and some fifty others of such men as the Berkeleys, Randolphs, Paynes, and others among the prisoners, we would have had the lake shore from Sandusky to Buffalo at our mercy, with all the vast commerce of Lake Erie as our just and lawful prey. So confident were we of success and so admirable were our arrangements, that we had all assembled at St. Catharines, on the canal, waiting in hourly anticipation the arrival of the steamer, when the storm burst upon us in the shape of Mr. Stanton's telegram to the mayors of the lake cities to be on their guard against a Confederate raid, which he had been notified by the Governor-General of Canada (Lord Monck) had been organized in Canada for operations on Lake Erie. Thus, my dear admiral, with victory, and such a victory, within our grasp, we were foiled; and so anxious were the British authorities to keep on good terms with their detested neighbors (for they do detest them) that the troops who were about to be removed from Port Colborne, the Lake Erie terminus of the canal, were ordered to remain at that place, with instructions to arrest any vessel passing through the canal with a suspicious number of passengers on board. With our plan thus foiled, and with the lake cities in a fever of fear and excitement, and with the rapid advance of re-inforcements, both naval and military, to re-inforce the garrison at Johnson's Island against our compact little band of fifty-two Confederates, we had, as a matter of course, to abandon the design, and leave Canada as soon as possible, but to do so in a dignified and proper manner. Wilkinson, Loyall, and I (Coleman, Kelly, and Brest) remained in Montreal from five to ten days, giving to the Canadian authorities every opportunity to arrest us, if it was thought proper to do so; but Lord Monck was satisfied with having frustrated our plans, and did not care to complicate the matter or show his zeal for the Yankees in any other shape than the very decisive one of informing on us. And thus we came away, leaving our poor fellows to bear the increased hardships of their dreary prison life for months to come.


And now for the sickening part. It appears that McQuaig, whom I believed to have been earnestly with us, became alarmed at the last moment, when our success seemed so certain, and fearing the ultimate bearing of it upon his own individual fortunes, involving, perhaps, failure, exile, loss of position, and imprisonment, betrayed us to Mr. Holden, a member of the Provincial Cabinet, who at once communicated it to the Governor-General; and hence the discovery.

So, but for treachery, which no one can guard against, our enterprise would have been the feature of the war, and our little navy another laurel-wreath of glorious renown. Leaving Quebec, we travelled in open wagons and buggies through the wilds of Lower Canada and New Brunswick, often looking into the houses on the Maine side of the river, with a desire to do to them as their people do to ours; but, as our policy is different, and as we carry on the war more on principles of civilization, the feeling was a childish one, though the contempt one felt for the cowardly dogs who crossed the line to avoid the dreaded draft was only natural, and still more so when their daily papers poured such venom on our cause and all connected with it. Taking the steamer at the small village of Tobique, we came down the St. John river, and at St. John we went on board the steamer Emperor, in which we crossed the Bay of Fundy, to the village of Windsor, in Nova Scotia, and thence by railroad to Halifax, where I volunteered for and obtained command of the captured steamer Chesapeake, then supposed to be making her way to the port of St. Mary's, about seventy miles to the eastward of Halifax, but before I could get to her with my crew and officers, with the idea of making her a regular cruiser, she had been forced by stress of weather to put into a British port, where her arrival was telegraphed, and, as a great excitement had been made over her novel capture, both English and Yankees were endeavoring to get her; and as I had but a forlorn hope of ever reaching her in a dull, heavy-sailing collier, the attempt was abandoned, and thus I lost my chance of a command afloat, when I had invitingly open before me the prospect of so much damage to the enemy's coasting trade. At Bermuda (where we arrived on the morning of the of December, in the royal mail steamer Alpha) I found Bob Carter, of the navy, in command of the Navy Department blockade-running steamer Coquette, purchased by Commander Bullock, of the navy, to run in naval supplies and out cotton for our service. Finding some cloth on board for you, I brought it over with me in the little steamer Presto, but by whom it was sent I do not know. After a very rough and exciting passage of four days, during which I did not have my clothes off, we succeeded in eluding the blockading squadron, and reached Wilmington in safety on the 7th of January, our little steamer, under John Wilkinson, being the only one of four leaving about the same time that succeeded in getting into port, the others being wrecked on the coast. On the day of my return to Richmond, with important dispatches from abroad, my former position as lieutenant commanding the ordnance-works was offered me, and accepted, with more work ahead of me than I can do justice to.

I hope, my dear sir, that you have entirely recovered the use of your leg, and that you suffer no pain or inconvenience from your wound, and that you have recently had good news from Mrs. Buchanan. Captain Mitchell delivered your very kind message a day or two since, for which please accept my thanks, and if I can assist you in any way my services are entirely at your command.