Bennett G Burley CSN
The Philos Parsons Affair
Bennett G Burley CSN
Stands in Foremost Line of the Heroes and Martyrs of the Civil War
About the proposed raid on Johnson's Island
A Proclamation by the President of the Confederate States of America for Burley
The Capture of Acting Master Bennet G Burley on a raid up the James River
The expedition to Mill Creek, Virginia

War Department to Maj. Gen Heintzelman

Edwin M Stanton informs Heintzelman of the capture of the two steamers
Hill reporting that he thinks the raid is over

The Philos Parsons Affair

In the summer of 1864, with both Richmond and Atlanta under attack, things weren't going well for the Confederacy. It was only a matter of time before the armies of the North would win through. In the November it was time to elect a new President. If it were Lincoln the war would go on. If Democrat McClellan won then Independence for the South was still possible. It was desperate times and called for desperate measures.


Sept 17th 1864, Lt Col Bennet H Hill Assistant Provost Marshal General of Michigan was in his office in the Detroit Armoury Building, responsible for the draft, general security and counter espionage a spy in his employment came to see him. Godfrey J Hyams an Arkansan, working for the Confederacy in Canada, had come to him with a plot that was to bring hostilities as close to Michigan as they would ever come throughout the Civil War.

Hyams information detailed a plan to hi-jack the Philos Parsons, a passenger steamer that plyed a service daily between Detroit (Michigan) and Sandusky (Ohio). To aid this plan Confederate agents would drug the officers and crew of the Warship USS Michigan, stationed off Johnson's Island.

A letter written on June 6th 1862 had outlined a similar plan to James Gordon Bennett and was signed Canadian. (Letter). The Prison on Johnsons Island had received its first prisoners in April 1862, and by late 1864 held close to 3,000 officers. It was guarded by the 128th Ohio Infantry, called the Grey Beard Brigade because many of the men were to old for active service.

Hill forwarned Captain John C Carter CO of the Michigan by telegraph, he immediately put his men on full alert. Hill received further information from Hyams on September 18th that the leader of the Sandusky plot was one Charles H Cole. Cole was in Sandusky, posing as a wealthy businessman befriended the officers of the Michigan, he was in fact a former Confederate Officer. What Cole was going to do was to drug the crew during dinner so the vessel could be seized.

As Walter Ashley, co-owner and ship's clerk prepared his ship for the next days sailing, he was approached by a man introducing himself as Bennett G Burley. Burley was dressed in English attire and speaking in a British accent, asked if the ship might stop at Sandwich the next day to pick up some friends who wished to go to Kelley's Island. Ashley agreed unbeknown to him that Burley was a Acting Master in the CSN. It was said the Burley had fought on both sides of Garibaldi's war to unify Italy and then emigrated to America.

On Monday September 19th at 0800hrs the Philos Parsons cast off and with about 40 passengers including Burley set sail down the Detroit River towards Sandwich. At Sandwich four men boarded her one of whom was John Yates Beall a graduate of the University of Virginia and an ex private with the 2nd Virginia Infantry before being wounded. At Amherstburg twenty men, roughly dressed, got on carrying a single trunk. They to were Confederate agents. They ignored both Burley and Beall.

The ship steamed into Lake Erie, stopping as normal at North Bass Island and Middle Bass Island, here Captain Attwood complained of illness and left the ship for his home on the Island, the 1st Mate D.C. Nichols took over command. Then stopping at South Bass Island and Kelley's Island which she left at 4:00pm on the last leg.

About 12 miles south of Kelley's Island, Beall and the others put in to operation their plans. Beall burst into the wheelhouse and announced that he was a Confederate Officer and that the ship was being taken over. He ordered Campbell the wheelman to keep his course, meanwhile the rest of the Confederates using weapons they had secreted in the trunk, ordered the remaining crew and the passengers into the hold. Burley burst into Ashley's room, demanding money and informing him that Confederates were now in charge of the ship. With the ships wood supply dwindling they headed back Middle Bass Island. While loading wood Captain Attwood returned to the ship asking why she had returned, he was immediately taken prisoner. Beall the released the passengers and most of the crew swearing them to silence for the next 24hrs. As they were finishing wooding the steamer Island Queen came alongside, onboard were 30 soldiers from Co K 130th Ohio, the raiders boarded her and captured the unarmed militiamen. Beall released the soldiers and passengers getting the same agreement to silence. With the Island Queen and Philos Parsons lashed together they set out for Sandusky Bay. When half way between Kelley's and Bass Islands they scuttled the Island Queen.

Just before midnight they arrived off the Marblehead Light at the entrance to Sandusky Bay, Beall and Burley were viewing the distant Michigan with glasses looking for any sign of activity, they saw none, but unknown their comrade Cole had been arrested the previous day. The men on board the Philos Parsons were dubious about attacking the Michigan which could easily outgun the unarmed steamer. Beall being disgusted took a blank piece of paper and wrote:- "We the undersigned....take pleasure in expressing our admiration of the gentlemanly bearing, skill and courage of Captain John Y Beall as a commanding officer and gentleman, but believing and being well convinced that the enemy is already appraised of our approach, and is well-prepared that we cannot by any possibility make it a success, and having already captured two boats, we respectfully decline to prosecute it any further" all signed with the exception of Burley. The Philos Parsons entered the Detroit River at 4pm sticking close to the Canadian coast. Beall ordered the Confederate flag hoisted as the ship steamed up the river, sticking to the Canadian coast Beall ordered they hoist the Confederate flag.

The Philos Parsons docked at Sandusky where they stripped the ship but the Canadian authorities stopped much of the booty being carried off. The raiders quickly dispersed and evaded capture except for Beall who was captured in Dec 1864 in New York, charged with spying, and hung on Feb 24 1865. And finally Burley the object of this piece was captured by the Canadian authorities where after a long legal wrangle, he was extradited to the US. He was tried in Port Clinton, Ohio, for stealing $40 from the clerk of the Philos Parsons. While in jail Burley escaped, leaving a note for the sheriff it read "I have gone for a walk. Perhaps (?) I will return shortly". He returned to Scotland and became a newspaper correspondent, covering wars in Africa and Europe.



Union Correspondance refering to the Philos Parsons affair


Telegram from the War Departmant to Major General Heintzelman, Columbus, Ohio

Washington, September 20, 1864--1.15 p.m.
Major-General HEINTZELMAN, Columbus, Ohio:


This Department has just received information of the capture of two steamers by rebels from Canada, at Bass Island, Lake Erie. You will proceed immediately to Johnson's Island, and take such measures as may be necessary for the security of the prisoners at Johnson's Island, and call on the Governor of Ohio for such assistance as you may need. Acknowledge the receipt of this order, and report your arrival at Johnson's Island and Sandusky.

Secretary of War.


Heintzelmans' Reply to Stanton


COLUMBUS, OHIO, September 20, 1864.
(Received 6 p.m.)

Measures have been taken for the security of the prisoners at Johnson's Island. Since then have telegrams from Detroit that the steamer Island Queen has been sunk and the Philo Parsons plundered and sunk; the latter in British waters. It is not necessary for me now to go to Johnson's Island.


War Department to Col. W.S. Pierson


Washington City, September 20, 1864--1.20 p.m.
(Or the officer commanding at Johnson's Island, Sandusky Bay, Ohio):

This Department has just been informed that rebels from Canada have captured two steamers at Bass Island. The effort will probably be made to release The prisoners under your charge. You will use every exertion to guard against' any surprise and to prevent the rescue. Acknowledge the receipt of this telegram, and give any information you have on the subject; also report your state of defense and what precautions you are taking.

Secretary of War.

Reply from Johnstons Island to Stanton

JOHNSON'S ISLAND, September 20, 1864.
(Via Sandusky. Received 1.50 a.m. 21st.)

Your telegram of to-day to Colonel Pierson, relating to rebel raid from Canada, is received. The rebels abandoned and set the Island Queen adrift this morning at 3 o'clock, then with the other, the Parsons, steered for Detroit River. Lieutenant-Colonel Hill telegraphs that they abandoned her, and went ashore in Canada, near Sandwich, on Detroit River. The Michigan went out at daylight this morning, and cruised along the islands and to the mouth of the Detroit River. Returned here about 3 this afternoon. I approved of her departure. I have one 30 and six 20 pounder Parrotts and three 12-pounder howitzers on the island, and a six-gun light battery, New York, at Sandusky, and by calling in my fatigue parties, extra duty men, and recruits, could have a force of near 900 available men on the island, as infantry and heavy artillery. Nearly all my available men for guard duty ordinarily go on guard every other day. Granting the petition of my officers to the adjutant-general, dated 5th of August, would place us just right and be force enough. We are always ready for the rebels, inside and out. Yesterday afternoon I united with captain of the Michigan in arrest of Cole, and to-day Robinson, certainly conspirators in this raid last night. Six citizens of Sandusky to some extent implicated by Cole. This morning I reported these arrests to district attorney and marshal at Cleveland. I think this raid is over.

Colonel, Commanding.

Hill to Asst Adjt General


SANDUSKY, September 20, 1864.
Capt. C. H; POTTER,
Assistant Adjutant-General :

The Michigan has been to Detroit River and returned. The Island Queen was plundered and set adrift about 3 o'clock this morning. The rebels, with the Parsons, turned up the lake from the islands, ran into Detroit River, and there disabled and abandoned her. I think the raid is over, but we shall be ready for anything.


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