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Georgian

 

(ScStr: t. 350)

 

Georgian might easily have headed the entire roster of Confederate cloak-and-dagger ships—had it not been for treachery and bungling. Intended for quick conversion to a cruiser by being "strengthened in the bow for a ram somewhere on Lake Huron", she was purchased in Toronto, Ont., by Confederate agent Cpl. Jacob Thompson through a Dr. James Bates of Louisville, "at one time a captain of the steamer Magnolia on the Mississippi River." Delivery to the Confederate fifth column was effected at Pt. Colborne, Upper Canada (Ont,), 1 November 1864. The price paid was $16,000 or $16,500 to A. M. Smith & Co., who had labeled themselves Southern sympathizers two years earlier by selling a ship for blockade running.

 

Georgian was described by U. S. Vice Consul Gen. Thurston, Montreal, as "a new vessel, built some year and a half since on the Georgian Bay, by [George] H. Wyatt and others, and has, I believe, made one trip across the Atlantic. She is a splendid vessel, built with great care, a fast sailer, and would ***be capable of doing immense injury to the shipping on the Lakes." He noted, the Confederate agents "claim that she is particularly adapted to the lumber trade, as she carries heavy loads with light draft and***intend to strengthen her beams for towing."

 

Word traveled quickly; by 5 November, Mayor W. G. Fargo of Buffalo, N.Y., where Georgian arrived the 3d., telegraphed Michigan's Comdr. John C. Carter at San-dusky, 0., that the steamer would "be armed on the Canada shore for the purpose of encountering the USS Michigan and for piratical and predatory purposes." Carter, known to some of the conspirators as "Jack," a former shipmate, had just foiled the Philo Parsons (q.v.) plot and was unimpressed by a second lightning bolt impending; he wrote routinely to Secretary Welles two days later, "These reports are gotten up for the purpose of alarming the citizens on these Lakes." Welles retorted the 16th, "This may be so, but past experience teaches us to be on our guard," and ordered him to seize Georgian on the smallest pretext.

 

Carter's relief, Lt. Comdr. F. A. Roe, followed the scent and wrote Welles, 6 December: "Her captain, Bates, is a notorious secessionist and rebel sympathizer. When the Georgian put to sea from Buffalo her propeller became loose. She went into Port Stanley, when it again became loose**to Sarnia, and Bates went to Toronto and ordered a new wheel***sent to Collingwood*** On her passage by Detroit [Lt.] Colonel [Bennett H.] Hill [Detroit post commander], who was on the lookout with two armed tugs, caught her, overhauled and examined her, and reports to me that he found nothing about her to justify her seizure. At Collingwood she was a second time examined—by the Canadian authorities—and they could not condemn her. Here 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." She went to Bruce Mines and back to lay up for the winter in Collingwood, highly suspect but untouchable.

 

On 6 April Canadian authorities seized Georgian, transferred to a new owner, "G. T. Denison", and "being altered for the purpose, as it was said, of carrying more freight"; a new mast was being stepped "and she was intended to sail among the fishing vessels of theUnited States to attack and destroy them." So prophesied Consul Thurston on 7 April, but he had been nearer right the first time about her intentions. This time a letter of October to Bates was captured on board containing patent references to procuring "Greek Fire" and "finest waterproof caps for the troops." By the time this furor had subsided, the war was over.

 

Colonel Thompson's own confidential report of the plot is more amazing: "Desiring to have a boat on whose captain and crew reliance could be placed, and on board of which arms could be sent to convenient points for arming such vessels as could be seized for operations on the Lakes, I aided Dr. James T. Bates, of Kentucky, an old steamboat captain, in the purchase of the steamer Georgian. She had scarcely been transferred when the story went abroad that she had been purchased and armed for the purpose of sinking the Michigan [only warship on the Lakes], releasing the prisoners on Johnson's Island [off Sandusky], and destroying the shipping on the Lakes and the cities on their margin. The wildest consternation prevailed in all the border cities. At Buffalo two tugs had cannon placed on board; four regiments of soldiers were sent there— two of them represented to have been drawn from the Army of Virginia; bells were rung at Detroit, and churches broken up on Sunday. The whole lake shore was a scene of wild excitement. Boats were sent out, which boarded the Georgian and found nothing contraband on board; but still the people were incredulous."

 

The outline of the plot was essentially the same as the February '63 plan of Lt. William H. Murdaugh, CSN, partly carried through that November—as far as Halifax, N.S.—by Lt. John Wilkinson, CSN, 21 other naval officers and 32 escaped prisoners from Johnson's Island. The Wilkinson expedition (cf. Robert E. Lee, infra) had substituted an Ogdensburg-Chicago liner, to be boarded in the Welland Canal, for the Detroit-Sandusky steamer they had planned to join at Windsor; they too might have succeeded but for the treachery of a Canadian—one McCuaig—who informed the Governor General, which led him, Lord Monck, to alert Secretary of War Stanton. But Colonel Thompson never gave up although he lamented bitterly to Secretary of War Benjamin in the 3 December report quoted above: "The bane and curse of carrying out anything in this country is the surveillance under which we act. Detectives, or those ready to give information, stand at every street corner. Two or three can not interchange ideas without a reporter."

 

Thompson was abysmally disappointed that the "Order of the Sons of Liberty" had been unable "to throw off the galling dynasty at Washington", seize and hold "the three great Northwestern States of Illinois, Indiana and Ohio" besides freeing Kentucky and Ohio— since such a coup "in 60 days would end the war." Nothing daunted by the Philo Parsons and Georgian debacles, Thompson in January 1865 was busy promoting "The Order of the Star", a new, "purely military" organization based on his belief that, "There is no ground to doubt that the masses, to a large extent, of the North are brave and true, and believe Lincoln a tyrant and usurper."