The Confederate Navy's Crazy Plan to Raid the Great Lakes

(Image via the US Navy Art Collection)

During the American Civil War, Confederate commandos and agents launched small attacks and engaged in clandestine activities from British Canada. Most famously, they robbed three banks in St. Albans, Vermont in 1864.

The Confederacy wanted to strike deep into the enemy heartland whenever possible. The industrial and economic centers along the Great Lakes were appealing targets. But reaching them was very difficult.

There was, however, an opportunity. In order to avoid an arms race on the Great Lakes, in 1817, the United States and Britain agreed to demilitarize them. In the Rush-Bagot Agreement, both nations agreed to maintain only a handful of small armed vessels on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. By 1863, there was only one American warship on the Great Lakes: the 14-gun steamboat USS Michigan, which is pictured above.

If the Confederate Navy could hijack the Michigan and crew it with skilled sailors, it could ravage Union infrastructure on the Great Lakes unopposed by the United States Navy.

That is precisely what Lieutenant William H. Murdaugh of the Confederate Navy proposed to do. Below is the letter that he sent to Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory detailing his scheme. I’ve added numbers to it and on an 1858 railroad map to illustrate his plan. 

C.S.S. Beaufort,
Richmond, February 7, 1863

Sir: I have the honor to submit the following plan of operations proposed to be carried out on the Northern Lakes:

The party is to leave the Confederacy at the earliest possible day, to be ready for commencing operations with the opening of navigation, which will probably be about the middle of April.

The commanding officer is to be issued with a letter of credit for $100,000, although it is not presumed that more than half this amount will be expended.

After reaching Canada to purchase, through the agency of some reliable merchant, a small steamer, say one of 200 tons, that can pass through the Welland Canal. If practicable, to let the agent equip and victual the vessel and collect a crew of 50 men, ostensibly with a view to mining operations on Lake Superior. If this is not practicable the officers will separate and each collect a party and join the vessel at some point on Lake Erie. The object of the expedition not to be made known to the men until the vessel is clear of the Canadian coast, when strong inducements in the way of pay, etc., must be held out to them for making the attempt and still stronger ones for its successful accomplishment. Those not willing to make the attempt to be returned to the Canadian shore; those who are willing to be shipped into the Confederate service.

In collecting men much judgment must be exercised in the selections. The crew will be armed with cutlasses and revolvers. The vessel will be provided with a number of small buoys to be used as torpedoes and also the powder, fuses, etc., to charge and fire them. These are to be used in the destruction of canal locks. She must also have on board plenty of spirits and turpentine and incendiary composition for rapid work in starting fires.

The first point to be aimed at is Erie, Pa. (1), the arrival there to be so timed as to make it about 1:00 a.m. The steamer to be laid alongside the USS Michigan and that vessel to be carried by boarding with as little noise as possible. If there is a reasonable hope that the vessel has been carried without its being known beyond the vessels engaged, both vessels will leave the harbor and proceed toward the Welland Canal (2), with a view of getting the small steamer into Lake Ontario before the news of the capture should have reached the Canadians, who might interpose objections to her doing so should the objects of her voyage be apparent. But if the capture is not made secretly, then the work of burning every particle of Federal property afloat will be immediately commenced. Even in this latter contingency the attempt will still be made to get the latter steamer into Lake Ontario, when she, under the command of the second officer of the expedition, would have a fine field, but the most important part of her work would be to destroy the aqueduct of the Erie Canal (3), which crosses the Genesee River at Rochester, 7 miles from the lake, and the locks of a branch of the canal at Oswego (4)

If a passage through the Welland Canal for the small steamer should be refused by the Canadians, both vessels would operate in Lakes Erie, Huron, and Michigan. In Lake Erie, after leaving the town of Erie, Buffalo (5) would be the first point to be visited, and fleet of trading vessels in its harbor and the locks of the great Erie Canal to be destroyed. The next place would be Tonawanda, distant about 30 miles from Buffalo, where there is also an entrance to the Erie Canal, which would be destroyed. Then, coasting along the southern shore of the lake, destroy the locks of the canals leading to the Ohio River (6), four in number, and burn the vessels fallen in with. Then pass Detroit at night, and if possible without notice pass through Lake Huron and into Lake Michigan, and make for the great city of Chicago (7)

At Chicago burn the shipping and destroy the locks of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, connecting Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River. Then turn northward, and, touching at Milwaukee and other places, but working rapidly, pass again into Lake Huron, go to the Sault Ste. Marie (8), and destroy the lock of the canal of that name. Then the vessel would be run into Georgian Bay (9), at the bottom of which is a railway connecting the main Canadian lines, and be run ashore and destroyed.

Four officers will be required for this expedition. I respectfully volunteer my services and ask that Lieutenants Minor, Robert Carter, and Wood be selected.

Very respectfully, etc.,
Wm. H. Murdaugh
Lieutenant, C.S. Navy

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Mallory approved of the plan and sent it on to President Jefferson Davis. Davis agreed to the scheme and set aside $100,000 for the expedition. Lt. Murdaugh and his fellow officers made preparations.

But then President Davis considered the consequences of the plan. Even if it was successful, it would almost certainly spark a diplomatic incident with Britain. At the time, the Confederacy wanted recognition and an alliance with Britain. Launching a clandestine operation from British territory without British consent would likely alienate British support.

The cost of Murdaugh’s plan exceeded the potential benefit, so the Confederate government cancelled the project.

It could, however, serve the basis of an excellent alternate history novel. Harry Turtledove, I've got a job for you!

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