In any documentary, there are lots of stories that never make it into the final cut.
In the case of Rebels on Lake Erie, there are stories of inmates and guards at the Union prison for Confederate officers on Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio, crewmen of the U.S.S. Michigan, pirates and skedaddlers. There just isn’t enough time to tell everything in a mere 56 minutes and 46 seconds, the allotted time for a one-hour public broadcasting television program.
That’s part of the reason for this blog – to tell more of the story that never made it onto the television screen.
The story of mutineer John Slick Riley is a case in point.
Riley, uncle of the famous Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, was with John Yates Beall on board the Philo Parson during the abortive attempt to liberate the Confederate officers at Johnson’s Island. He probably got on with Beall at Sandwich (Canada) for Riley would never be mistaken for a skedaddler, a draft dodger from Ohio.
In the Confederate conspiracy game, most of the players were young. In 1864, Beall was 29; the Scotsman Bennett Burley (better known as Bennet Burleigh during his second career as a war correspondent after the Civil War) was about 20. In contrast, Riley, a physician, was 50 years old — not old by today’s standards but certainly older than most Confederate soldiers – or conspirators during the Civil War. (In 1864, the life expectancy for any American was only about 42 years.)
How Riley got involved in the plot may never be known. Perhaps he was part of Bennett Burley’s circle of friends in Canada. In spite of the age difference, Burley and Riley had much in common.
Both were well educated and were separated from their families.
Burley was the charming, well-educated son of a master mechanic in Glasgow. Burley had been sent to America to negotiate a war contract with the Confederacy for torpedo boats to be made in his family’s foundry in Glasgow. Burley apparently had no success in those negotiations but got involved in the Confederate cause as a mutineer (with Beall) in the Chesapeake Bay in 1863.
Riley was also separated from his family – in terms of geography, politics and war sentiment. Born in Bedford, Pa., Riley was educated in the North. He attended the Medical College of Ohio in Cincinnati (also known as the Cincinnati Medical College), graduating in 1836. At some point after graduation, he moved to the Southwest and served in the Mexican-American War. After the war, he returned to Franklin, Miss., and married Martha Calcote. They didn’t have much time for a honeymoon, however. Riley and his brother in law headed for California for the gold rush.
A descendant (by marriage), James Smith of College Station, Texas, who is writing a book on John Slick Riley, has adventurer’s letters from his journey to the California gold rush. According to Smith, Riley describes the beautiful wildflower valleys around Corpus Christi and traveling through “the pit of hell” in southern and western Texas and the Arizona/New Mexico territory. Upon his return from California, where apparently hedid not strike it rich, Riley moved his wife to Texas, presumably far removed from the “pit of hell.”
The rest of the Riley family wasn’t nearly as adventurous as John and remained in the Midwest. Riley’s brother Rueben, father of poet James Whitcomb Riley, became an attorney in (and later first mayor of) Greenfield, Ind. Reuben also served as captain in the Union army – but this gets ahead of the story.
Riley and Burley might also have been drawn to each other because of similar Civil War experiences
Both had escaped from Union prisons. Burley had been captured during his time as a mutineer on the Chesapeake Bay. He was sent to the Union prison at Fort Delaware, about 40 miles from Philadelphia. He and five others planned to escape through the sewers beneath their cells. Only Burley and another were successful; two were recaptured and two died in the attempt. Burley made his way to Canada, a safe haven for many Confederate escapees from a Union prison. Burley had relatives in Guelph but apparently didn’t spend much time there because he was in Windsor, when he re-united with Beall and recruited the crew needed for the attempt to liberate Johnson’s Island.
Burley probably met Riley in Windsor as well.
By the time the Civil War started, Riley and his wife had settled in Caldwell, Barleson County, Texas, and had seven children. In addition to carrying on his profession as a physician/surgeon, Riley also purchased some land and did farming. When Texas seceded, Riley volunteered – as a private – in Co. G of Waul’s (also spelled Wall’s) Texas Legion.
What happened to Riley next is a little unclear. Accounts say Riley was captured at the Battle of Vicksburg. However, his name does not appear in any of the parole cards signed by Confederate prisoners. Smith speculates that Riley may have been captured either before the siege on Vicksburg or directly after. In either case, Riley would not have been eligible for the parole.
After his capture, Riley was sent to a Union prison up north in Alton, Ill., not far from his brother’s home in Indiana. It’s unclear how Riley escaped, but Riley did visit his mother in Indiana and met his nephew, the young James Whitcomb Riley. After that visit, Riley made his way to Canada, eventually ending up in Windsor and meeting with Burley.
In September 1864, Burley, Beall, Riley and the other 17 to 20 armed men boarded the Philo Parsons, ready to take the U.S.S. Michigan and liberate the Confederate officers imprisoned on Johnson’s Island.
Things didn’t go too well for Beall’s men that night.
In the dark, the Philo Parsons, then under the control of Beall and his crew, sailed into the shallow waters of Sandusky Bay. The engineer warned the men of the danger of running aground in range of the U.S.S. Michigan’s guns.
In a strangely worded note that praised Beall’s gentlemanly manner, the crew mutinied. Dr. John Slick Riley was the first to sign the note. Did that mean Riley led the mutiny? We may never know. That mutiny, however, spelled the end of Beall’s grand plan to liberate Johnson’s Island.
Beall’s men returned to Sandwich and attempted to scuttle the Philo Parsons.
After the war, Riley returned to his family in Texas, where he lived a long life as a physician/surgeon, a farmer and an amateur poet. When died in 1919, he was 102 years of age, the eldest resident in town. His obituary praised his scholarly, literary nature. He was, according to the newspaper, “a natural born poet,” like his nephew James Whitcomb Riley.