1843: First USS Michigan Launched

December 5, 2021 all-day

USS Michigan, seen here after her name was changed to USS Wolverine in 1905, courtesy of Wikipedia

Built at Erie, Pennsylvania and commissioned in 1843, the U.S.S. Michigan spent its entire career patrolling the Great Lakes. For most of its term of service, it was the only iron-hulled ship patrolling the Great Lakes in the United States Navy. During its early years of service, the ship and its crew patrolled the Great Lakes for timber pirates. On one occasion, a timber-pirate steamer rammed the U.S.S. Michigan, but due to the U.S.S. Michigan’s iron hull, the pirate ship was disabled and captured by the U.S.S. Michigan’s crew. In may 1851, the U.S.S. Michigan also assisted in the arrest of James Jesse Strang, the leader of a dissident Mormon colony on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.

During the Civil War, the U.S.S. Michigan continued to patrol the Great Lakes. Union officials utilized the ship to protect the Great Lakes as well as to quell civilian unrest in port cities. Authorities dispatched the U.S.S. Michigan to prevent draft riots in Detroit, Michigan and in Buffalo, New York. Following the Detroit expedition, John C. Carter, the commander of the U.S.S. Michigan, reported, “I found the people suffering under serious apprehensions of a riot….The presence of the ships perhaps did something toward overawing the refractory, and certainly did much to allay the apprehensions of the excited, doubting people.”

On multiple occasions during the war, Confederate forces hoped to commandeer the ship. In early 1863, William Henry Murdaugh, a lieutenant in the Confederate Navy, intended to capture the U.S.S. Michigan by sailing a steamship, which he would purchase in Canada, alongside the warship and commandeering the ship with Southern naval officers. Confederate authorities never endorsed the plan, and the mission did not occur.

In September 1864, Confederates actually carried out an attempt to capture the U.S.S. Michigan. The leaders of this attempt were Captain Charles Cole, a purported member of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederate cavalry, and Captain John Yates Beall, a member of the Southern navy. Confederate officials hoped that these two men could free the Confederate officers at Johnson’s Island, a Northern prison camp on an island in Sandusky Bay of Lake Erie. The freed men would then proceed by hijacked railroad train to Camp Chase, a Union prison camp for Confederate enlisted men, which was located in Columbus, Ohio, where the former prisoners at Johnson’s Island would free these other inmates. The two sets of prisoners would return to Sandusky, Ohio, where they would form a new army with the 2,700 prisoners currently at Johnson’s Island and the approximately 5,000 inmates from Camp Chase. Commanded by Major General Isaac Trimble, the highest-ranking officer imprisoned at Johnson’s Island, this new Confederate Army of the Northwest would principally operate in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, helping other Southern armies defeat the North.

Cole was the principal ringleader of the expedition. During the summer of 1864, he entered Sandusky, posing as the secretary of the Mount Hope Oil Company of Titusville, Pennsylvania. He soon befriended several officers on the U.S.S. Michigan. Cole hoped that he and his associates could seize control of the ship and use the vessel to free the Confederate prisoners on Johnson’s Island. He also had ten Confederate soldiers successfully enlist in the 128th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which served as the main force that guarded the prisoners. Cole also sought assistance from members of the Sons of Liberty, a group of Confederate sympathizers who resided in Northern states, and from Jacob Thompson, the Confederate States of America’s commissioner to the Canadian government. Beall also recruited twenty-five men to assist him in his portion of the expedition.

On September 19, 1864, Cole and Beall launched their plan. Beall and his compatriots boarded the Philo Parsons, a passenger and transport ship that principally travelled from Detroit, Michigan, to Toledo, Ohio, and finally to Sandusky, with stops at Windsor, Malden, and Sandwich, ports on Lake Erie that are located in Canada. Some of these twenty-six raiders boarded the Philo Parsons at each Canadian stop. The only luggage that these men brought onboard the ship was a single trunk, filled with revolvers and hatchets. Following a stop at Kelley’s Island, Ohio, the Confederates seized control of the ship. They ordered the helmsman to head for Middle Bass Island, Ohio, where the Southerners put the Philo Parsons’s passengers, including thirty-five members of recently discharged Company K of the 130th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, onshore. While the Confederates were still at Middle Bass Island, another ship, the Island Queen, came along side and tied onto the Philo Parsons. The Confederates seized this new ship, but in the process, gunshots occurred, with the Southerners wounding the Island Queen’s engineer and Alonzo Miller, a resident of Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Beall then had these two ships sail towards Sandusky, but approximately three miles from Middle Bass Island, he had his crew scuttle theIsland Queen on a reef. The Philo Parsons continued towards Johnson’s Island, where it stopped just short, in sight of the U.S.S. Michigan but disguised by darkness.

Meanwhile, Cole was onboard the U.S.S. Michigan. He was participating in a dinner with his befriended Union officers. His intention was to drug the wine, incapacitating the Union officers. Beall would then sail the Philo Parsons alongside the U.S.S. Michigan, allowing Beall’s men to jump onboard the U.S.S. Michigan, taking control of the ship. The Confederates would then use the U.S.S. Michigan to free the prisoners on Johnson’s Island.

Several factors caused the plan to fail. First, seventeen of Beall’s men became convinced that Union authorities knew of the plan and refused to participate. Beall immediately sailed for Sandwich, where he destroyed the Philo Parsons and dismissed his crew. Union officials did know of the plan, due to a prisoner, a Colonel Johnson from Kentucky, notifying his guards at Johnson’s Island. A Union officer from Johnson’s Island boarded the U.S.S. Michigan shortly before midnight, the appointed time for the attack. He approached Cole and stated, “Captain Cole, you are my prisoner.” Cole responded, “Captain–captain of what? Certainly no man will accuse me of being a soldier.” The Northern officer responded, “No. But here is a telegram saying you are a Confederate spy and are in a conspiracy to capture Johnson’s Island. It orders your arrest. We must at least take you into custody.” Thus ended Cole’s attempt to seize Johnson’s Island.

Following the Civil War, the U.S.S. Michigan continued to patrol the Great Lakes. On June 17, 1905, officials renamed the ship the U.S.S. Wolverine, as the U.S. Navy was preparing to commission a new battleship named the U.S.S. Michigan. Authorities decommissioned the warship on May 6, 1912, when it joined the Pennsylvania Naval Militia. The ship remained with the Pennsylvania Naval Militia until August 12, 1923, when a connecting rod in the warship’s port cylinder broke, ending its military career. The U.S.S. Michigan’s prow is now part of the Erie (Pennsylvania) Maritime Museum.

“U.S.S. Michigan” (2012) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved August 19, 2012, from Ohio Civil War Central.

Wikipedia entry

20 Years Before the Ironclads, the USS Michigan

The USS Michigan – the First Iron Ship of Her Age

Naval Warfare, December 31, 2007.

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