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A speculative rendering of the Canadian merchant Georgian, by Gregory Proch

The Georgian started its life as a merchant steamer, but Confederate agents in Canada had darker plans

The quiet streets of Toronto stretched away from Dr. James Bates, disappearing into a darkened maze of brick walls and peaked roofs. He glanced furtively over his shoulder, making sure he wasn’t being followed. While Canada harbored its share of Rebel sympathizers, Canadian officials took a dim view of any activity that might lead to a confrontation with the American government. The moon vanished behind clouds twice, and the tall buildings around Bates cut off much of the light. Several times he had to slow down lest he trip in the dark or splash through a puddle.

He couldn’t be too careful; lack of caution could unravel the entire plot he had nurtured for months. He was entirely aware that the Confederacy was reeling, and the weight of helping arrest the slide to defeat bore heavily on his shoulders.

Bates allowed his mind to travel north to the Lake Huron port of Collingwood, an unassuming community of fewer than a thousand souls, and to the ship moored along the wharf. A smile stretched across his face. The Georgian might appear little more than a weathered barque, and no one would ever mistake it for the CSS Alabama or any of the other successful commerce raiders of the high seas. But if all went as Bates had plotted, this would-be raider could represent a reversal of fortune for the Southern cause. He imagined panic rippling across the breadth of the Great Lakes when the Union encountered a grave threat to its shipping interests there. The vast quantities of war supplies being transported down the Mississippi River via Chicago might be interdicted, and resources shipped west—including lumber and grain—could face costly interruptions. Then, Bates knew, the Union Navy would be forced to divert ships from other duties to deal with his raider.

By the spring of 1865, the Confederate Army was battered and exhausted. The end seemed near, and few entertained any illusion that the South could still win the conflict that had torn the United States apart. There was simply no way the Confederacy could match the industrial or demographic might of the North—the weight of Yankee men and materiel literally ground the rebellion down. Under the prodding of President Jefferson Davis, Confederate forces had begun resorting to unconventional measures in a desperate attempt to reverse their flagging fortunes. Any plot or ploy, no matter how outlandish or unrealistic, would at least be entertained. It was in this atmosphere that the concept of a raider on the Great Lakes took shape.

The South had embraced unconventional methods on the high seas early in the war. Daring blockade runners smuggled vitally needed goods through an iron ring of Northern warships, revolutionary ironclads challenged the primacy of wooden-hulled vessels and even primitive submarines were employed, though with little success. By far the most successful were the commerce raiders, or privateers, that wreaked havoc on Northern shipping and caused the U.S. Navy to pull dozens of warships away from the blockade in an effort to hunt them down.

Most of these raiders operated on the ocean, but mightn’t it be possible to send ships to the bottom of the Great Lakes as well? Bates certainly thought so. A native of Louisville, Ky., Bates was a Southern-sympathizing medical doctor and former captain of the Mississippi steamship Magnolia. For much of the war, it seems he was an envoy purchasing sorely needed goods in neutral Canada for the blockaded South. But in the autumn of 1864, at the behest of a known Confederate agent, Colonel Jacob Thompson, Bates was compelled to take a more direct and dramatic approach.

Thompson wanted to outfit a propeller-driven steamship, set out into the expanse of Lake Huron and leave a trail of burning Northern vessels in his wake. “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,” he wrote, “I aided Dr. James T. Bates, of Kentucky, an old steamboat captain, in the purchase of the steamer Georgian.”

The Georgian was an unlikely warship. It was newly built as a merchant steamer and intended for hard labor upon the unforgiving waters of Lake Huron. In fact, its short career to date had been spent towing rafts of square timber to sawmills at Collingwood. Perhaps therein lay part of the ship’s appeal: It was sturdy and dependable, a robust vessel that could take the strains of combat. The U.S. vice consul-general to Canada, David Thurston, sang its praises further when he described the Georgian 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.”

To fulfill the role of a raider, the Georgian would have to be transformed from a merchantman to something resembling a warship. Its engines were to be upgraded, the hull strengthened in the bow for a ram, and a new sail mast added to supplement the steam engines. Because neutrality laws forbade Canadian firms or citizens from selling armaments to Civil War combatants, there was no chance of outfitting the vessel with cannons. It was hoped that such armaments might be obtained from captured Union stores.

The deal between the conspirators and the Georgian’s owners, A.M. Smith and Co., was finalized on November 1, 1864, and $16,000 changed hands. Bates and a small crew took possession of the vessel at Port Colborne on Lake Erie and set sail for Collingwood, where the planned modifications would be made over the winter.

Word of the sale traveled quickly and aroused suspicion among officials on both sides of the border. When the Georgian arrived at Buffalo, N.Y., on November 3, Mayor W.G. Fargo lost little time in telegraphing the news to Commander John C. Carter, captain of the USS Michigan, the only American warship on the Great Lakes and then located at Sandusky, Ohio, on Lake Erie. Fargo wrote that the steamer would “be armed on the Canada shore for the purpose of encountering the USS Michigan and for piratical and predatory purposes.” Many began to surmise that, in addition to preying on Great Lakes shipping and fishing fleets, the Georgian would be used in an attempt to free the 2,000 to 3,000 Confederate prisoners incarcerated on Johnson’s Island, off Sandusky. These men, relatively well treated and enjoying a better diet than most Rebels in the field at this stage in the war, represented potentially invaluable manpower for the short-handed Confederacy.

Commander Carter, however, was not particularly impressed. He wrote to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles that “these reports are gotten up for the purpose of alarming the citizens of these lakes.” He dismissed the warnings out of hand and made no effort to intervene. Officials at Detroit were more vigilant. As the Georgian passed along the Detroit River en route to Lake Huron, Lt. Col. Bennett H. Hill, the Detroit post commander, intercepted it with two armed tugs. The vessel was searched bow to stern but nothing was found that would warrant seizing what was still technically a private vessel registered in neutral Canada. Reluctantly, Hill was forced to release the Georgian and send it on its way.

The Georgian went on to Collingwood, where it was inspected by Canadian officials and again released. To maintain cover as a humble merchant steamer, the Georgian was taken on a freight run to Bruce Mines on the northern shore of Lake Huron, and then returned to Collingwood to lay up until spring.

While the Georgian remained ice-bound, the conspirators were far from idle. Bates purchased armaments and stores needed to outfit the vessel, and recruited sailors with Southern sympathies. On January 17, 1865, Bates sold the Georgian to Toronto lawyer George Taylor Denison, who for reasons undetermined had allied himself with the Confederate cause. Bates made the sale to avoid having the ship seized by the Canadian government under the auspices of the Alien Act, which sought to ensure Canadian neutrality in the Civil War. Having a Southern owner was arousing suspicion and bringing unwanted attention to the Georgian, and Bates thought if the vessel were in the hands of a native, Canadian and American officials would at last drop their guard.

Bates wasn’t the only one busying himself. William Lawrence McDonald, a notorious Rebel agent who had been involved in an attempt to burn New York City to the ground in November 1864, arrived in Toronto to assist in the machinations. Here, in a makeshift arms factory in the basement of his Agnes Street home, he manufactured “torpedoes [as mines were known at the time], hand-shells [hand grenades], Greek Fire, and other explosive missiles.” He also had molds for casing bullets. McDonald told compatriots that he envisioned raids upon Great Lakes shipping and even Detroit. He also was heard to say that he believed the Georgian would be “a mighty fine thing for a blockade runner,” perhaps anticipating taking the fight beyond the Great Lakes and into the Atlantic.

For a time, McDonald, Bates and the rest of the Georgian conspirators avoided undue suspicion, but by late March 1865, Canadian officials were tipped off to the scale and advancement of the plot by Godfrey J. Hyams, a Rebel agent and close confidant of Colonel Thompson and Lawrence McDonald. Why Hyams dropped the dime on his associates has never been established, but it was probably an attempt to save himself from a lengthy prison sentence.

Police swung into action. On March 31, Toronto constables raided McDonald’s house and found, in addition to the paraphernalia for weapon manufacture, 26 torpedoes hidden in a secret compartment in his basement floor. Of McDonald, there was no sign. A few days later, police intercepted two boxes marked “potatoes” that actually contained grenades bound for Collingwood. Finally, on April 6, the Georgian was impounded. Hiding aboard ship, still proclaiming his innocence, was McDonald.

The arrests of the principals and the impounding of the Georgian allowed officials on both sides of the border to finally relax. Although Commander Carter had dismissed the matter, an armed steamer let loose upon the Great Lakes posed a real and present danger. With only a single American warship in these same waters, the Georgian might have cost thousands of dollars in damages, slowed the movement of goods upon which the Northern economy depended and caused citizens in states bordering the waters to lose confidence in how the war was being managed.

As it was, the mere threat caused a near panic. The Union commandeered and armed two tugs; four regiments of soldiers were drawn from other duties (two from the fighting in Virginia) and sent to protect vital points along the Great Lakes; resources were re-allocated to prepare against the now phantom menace. If it had not been so late in the war, the distraction alone would have been of value to the Confederacy. Had the Georgian actually gone to sea and caused any trouble, the impact could have been substantial.

Andrew Hind is a freelance writer from Ontario, Canada, whose work has appeared in Military History.