A Great Lakes Pirate Ship . . . or Not
by Dave Swayze
One of the most celebrated pieces of Great Lakes lore is the story of the seizure of the Detroit-Sandusky passenger steamer PHILO PARSONS by Confederates who were attempting to capture the American iron gunboat MICHIGAN during the American Civil War. A lesser-known but related story is that of the Canadian-built propeller GEORGIAN, which, according to the U. S. Navy publication Civil War Naval Chronology, was intended to become a commerce raider on Lakes Huron and Erie during the same period.
The GEORGIAN was a sturdy 130 foot, 377 ton passenger and package freight propeller built in 1864 at the Potter shipyard of Port McNicoll, Ontario, at the mouth of the Severn River, in Georgian Bay. The new boat became the property of George Wyatt, who had put up the money, and A.M. Smith & Co. of Port Colborne. Her low smokestack gave her a rakish appearance - some said she had the look of a "wicked privateer" - but Wyatt claimed the stack had been truncated to improve her boiler's draft. The Smiths and their partner were avowed supporters of the U.S. Confederacy - they had previously sold at least one vessel for the purpose of blockade running - and when it was made known that Confederate agents were seeking out a Great Lakes ship for military purposes, the GEORGIAN was offered. Confederate Colonel Jacob Thompson and Dr. John Bates, an old Mississippi River pilot from Louisville, Kentucky, purchased the steamer at Toronto for about $17,000. It was reported later that their intended purpose was to arm her and strengthen her bow, making her ready for use as a "ram" in harassment of U.S. commercial vessels and fishing craft. The fact that she was built to carry heavy loads at a shallow draft for the lumber trade was a very positive factor in her selection. She could hit commerce quickly, then run for the shelter of shallow areas of Georgian Bay, where the deeper-draft iron warship MICHIGAN, which would be sure to come looking for her, could not follow. With the GEORGIAN turned into a cruiser and with Bates as her skipper, the Confederates hoped they could harass U.S. ports, destroy some American shipping, and capture a few more ships to develop a small fleet of "commerce raiders." All this was expected from a vessel with an engine of only 70 horsepower and a top speed of but eight miles per hour.
Though the GEORGIAN never fired a shot in anger, her mere existence and the rumor of her sinister intent was enough to foment a near-panic along the American side of the lakes. The PHILO PARSONS affair had occurred in mid-September of 1864, and after that the newspapers in Detroit and Buffalo began to see rebel "agents" behind every tree. Actually, there was plenty of evidence that Confederate plots effecting shipping were afoot in the North. Barely a week before the PARSONS incident, a plan had been uncovered in New York City whereby all of the steamers serving Long Island Sound were to be destroyed. By mid-October the city of Detroit was in a high state of apprehension due to the rumor that a group of Rebel sympathizers from Canada was about to stage a raid across the river. A citizen's militia was organized to defend the city, and was placed under the authority of the local police. Two weeks later a panic ensued in Buffalo over the similar rumor that a raiding party bent for the American city was being formed at Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario. The mayor of Buffalo even received a letter from U. S. Secretary of State Seward that raids on U.S. lake cities were imminent. These were moments when open war between the U.S. and Canada seemed a real possibility. None of the plots, real or imagined, ever came to anything, but the populace was in a high state of frenzy.
The deal for the sale of the GEORGIAN was made on November 1, 1864, and by the third the ship was docked at Buffalo, her officers apparently ignorant of the upset they were causing. Word was passed that the GEORGIAN was designated to attack the Union prisoner of war camp on Johnson Island, in western Lake Erie and release Confederate prisoners - essentially the same mission in which the PARSONS had been involved. Though the Canadian papers indignantly denied that either the vessel or their countrymen had anything to do with any plot, many Americans would not be dissuaded. On the fifth the mayor of Buffalo wired the captain of the U.S.S. MICHIGAN of the vessel’s location and her intentions. Word went up the chain of command, and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered that the MICHIGAN should seize the GEORGIAN on the slightest pretext. Excitement ran up to the sticking point in the American ports and two Buffalo tugs were quickly drafted and armed with cannon for defense of the lake town. Four regiments of Union soldiers were sent to Lake Erie to guard against the pirate ship. While she was still sitting in Buffalo, the sinister steamer was boarded by local officials, but no contraband or weapons were found aboard, and the GEORGIAN sailed. Plagued by problems with her screw, the steamer limped her way up the lakes, stopping in Port Stanley for temporary repairs. She lay-to at Amherstburg, Ontario, for a couple of days while the Detroit papers squealed that she could be expected to reach the city at any moment, and the MICHIGAN showed her cannon by cruising up and down the river. After leaving Amherstburg she was stopped by U. S. Custom-house officials, then a little later by the two cannon-laden tugs. They were now termed "revenue cutters" and were commanded by Lt. Col. Bennet Hill of the Detroit garrison. In neither event was contraband found, and the upbound vessel was grudgingly allowed to go on her way again. When she arrived at Sarnia, Ontario, across the St. Clair River from Port Huron, GEORGIAN's Captain Bates went ashore and ordered a new propeller be sent ahead to Collingwood. When she arrived at that port, she was seized by Canadian authorities as a possible shipping hazard. Her "owner" and her skipper pleaded that they were taking her to Georgian Bay to be fitted up for legitimate business. Lt. Comdr. F.A. Roe, skipper of the MICHIGAN wrote later, "it was given out that she was going into the Saginaw lumber trade, but this was a blind. She has not carried a pound of freight or earned a dollar in legitimate trade since she fell into her present owner’s hands."
But again, there was no concrete reason to detain her, and the steamer made her way to the Upper Georgian Bay town of Bruce Mines, where she would lay up for the winter to repair and, if American military leaders were correct, make her plans. In the meantime, the Georgian Bay ice pack would keep her at bay.
On April 6, 1865, with the American Civil War only a few days from its end and before any plans that had been made could come to fruition, the GEORGIAN was seized by Canadian authorities. Aboard they found the only concrete evidence ever assembled to link the steamer with an actual plot. A letter to Captain Bates was discovered which made reference to the use of "Greek fire" — the launch of flaming projectiles against opposing vessels — and the procurement of "waterproof caps for the troops." The opinion of the Canadian government was that the vessel had been equipped only to harass American fishing vessels, not to attack and destroy the U.S.S. MICHIGAN, or to decimate American shipping and liberate Confederate prisoners from Johnson’s Island, as American authorities had claimed.
Soon after the close of the war, Colonel Thompson, who had organized the whole affair, expressed complete amazement at the hysteria on the American side which had surrounded the little ship. This statement may have been just smoke, as in later life he expressed grave disappointment that his minor plot had not led to the capture of the states of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, as had been the plan. Overall, he said he attributed the failure of his plan and all of the "behind the lines" Confederate activities in the North, to the fact that there was too much surveillance and there was a "detective on every street corner. Two or three [people] cannot interchange ideas without a reporter." He seemed to feel that the public madness — which he had earlier "pooh-poohed" — had been a major reason that his plot had been foiled, for the ship could not empty its bilges without the fact appearing in the papers.
Immediately after the war, the GEORGIAN was sold to G.T. Denison of Ontario and went on to a career of more that 20 additional years on the lakes. She was rebuilt and converted to a freighter in 1874 and rebuilt again in 1882. In a bit of irony regarding the vessel's all-but-forgotten past, the Detroit Free Press expressed feigned alarm at the presence of what looked like a British naval dispatch boat docked at Windsor, Ontario, on November 14, 1882, stating that it was up to the U. S. Revenue Cutter GEORGE M. BIBB to protect the American city from attack. The vessel turned out to be Dominion Salvage Company's Clyde-built iron wrecker CONQUEROR, on her way to see to the release none other than the old GEORGIAN, then stranded in Georgian Bay.
Ironically, it was her reinforced hull that was supposedly to be used as a Civil War-era ram which finally failed the old ship. On May 9, 1888, while towing the schooner GOLD HUNTER, she collided with an ice floe and was severely damaged. After the GOLD HUNTER coasted in and picked up her crew, the steamer that many thought had made a bid to become one of the only Great Lakes "pirate ships," sank in 300 feet of water off Cape Rich, Georgian Bay.
Artwork and article ©1999, David D. Swayze, Lake Isabella, MI, all rights reserved