Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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  • nhhc-wars-conflicts:civil-war
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Michigan I (SwStr)

Michigan, the 26th State, was admitted to the Union on 26 January 1837.

I

(Sidewheel Steamer: tonnage 685; length 163'3"; beam 27'1"; draft 9'; speed 8 knots; complement 88; armament 1 18‑pounder; class Michigan)

Michigan, the U.S. Navy's first iron‑hulled warship, was designed by naval constructor Samuel Hart; fabricated in parts at Pittsburgh, Pa., during the last half of 1842; and carried overland to Erie, Pa., where assembled. When Hart attempted to launch this pioneer steam man‑of‑war 5 December 1843, she slipped down the ways some 50 feet but halted and stuck before reaching water. After darkness ended the strenuous but fruitless efforts to prod the ship into resuming her descent, the shipwrights retired for the night. Upon returning to the shipyard before the next morning, however, Hart found the ways empty, while some distance offshore Michigan floated easily in Lake Erie after seemingly having launched herself in the night. She was commissioned on 29 September 1844, Cmdr. William Inman in command.

Michigan was built by the Navy for defense of Lake Erie after the British Government had armed two steamers there during the Canadian rebellion. Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur had selected iron for her hull "to use the immense resource of our country in that most valuable metal" and "to ascertain the practicability and utility of building vessels, at least for harbor defense, of so cheap and indestructible a material."

Michigan operated on the Great Lakes out of Erie throughout her career. In May 1851, she assisted in the arrest of James Jesse Strang, known as "King James I," who headed a dissident Mormon colony on Beaver Island at the head of Lake Michigan, some 40 miles from Mackinac. Strang was soon freed, but five years later was assassinated by two of his followers on 19 June 1856. The assassins fled to Michigan for sanctuary and were taken to Mackinac and freed.

During the Civil War the Confederacy considered launching attacks against the North from Canada. Early in 1863, Lt. William Henry Murdaugh, CSN, planned to lead a group of southern naval officers to Canada where they would purchase a small steamer, man her with Canadians and steam to Erie to board Michigan and use the prize against locks and shipping on the Great Lakes. President Jefferson Davis, however, would not approve of the scheme.

Michigan cruised on the lakes during most of the war providing an element of stability and security. On 28 July 1863, a short time after riots had shaken New York City, Cmdr. John C. Carter, commanding Michigan, reported from Detroit "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." During August, Michigan was called on for similar service at Buffalo, N.Y.

During 1864, rumors of Confederate conspiracies in Canada again were rife. In March, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered Michigan "prepared for active service as soon as the ice will permit."

In the fall of 1864, the Confederates finally struck. Led by Acting Master John Yates Beall, 20 southerners embarked on board the steamer Philo Parsons as passengers and seized her. Next, they captured and burned the steamer Island Queen.

Meanwhile Capt. Charles H. Cole, CSA, a Confederate agent in the Lake Erie region, was attempting to ingratiate himself with Michigan's officers as the Union steamer lay off Johnson's Island helping to guard Confederate prisoners. Cmdr. Carter discovered Cole's duplicity, however, and had him arrested before Beall reached Johnson's Island in Philo Parsons. When the prearranged signals from shore were not made, Beall reluctantly abandoned his plan and retired to Sandwich, Canada, where he stripped and burned his prize.

After the war, Michigan continued her faithful service. Michigan was renamed Wolverine 17 June 1905. She was decommissioned on 6 May 1912, then turned over to the Pennsylvania Naval Militia which she served for 11 years making training cruises in the summer for the U.S. Naval Reserve. On 12 August 1923, a connecting rod of her port cylinder broke, ending her active career.

In 1927, she was pushed up on a sandbank in Erie Harbor and loaned to the city of Erie as a relic. She was sold to the Foundation for the Preservation of the Original USS Michigan, Inc., on 19 July 1948. Fundraising efforts failed to acquire sufficient money for her restoration and preservation, however, and, ultimately, she was cut up and sold for scrap in 1949. The next year her bow and cutwater were erected as a monument, near the shipyard where she had been built.

Published:Thu Jan 25 22:45:44 EST 2018