Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338
February 26, 1999
Guelph researcher looks to solve Civil War mystery
How's this for a conspiracy theory: Abraham Lincoln's assassination was carried out to avenge the Civil War hanging of a Confederate soldier who had led a plot to free prisoners of war being held by the Union side on an island in Lake Erie -- a scheme concocted in the home of a Guelph, Canada foundry owner and Confederate sympathizer.
University of Guelph history professor emeritus Gil Stelter says the connection to the former American president is likely untrue. But many of the facts emerging from his research read like a best-selling suspense story. Did the conspirators hijack a paddlewheeler to carry out their plan? Why in the decades after the Civil War did one of the conspirators, who became a celebrated war correspondent in London, England never write about the Lake Erie exploit?
Over the course of the past three years, Stelter has ferreted out much of what happened a century and a half ago.
He has travelled to sites in North America and Europe to collect scattered records and bits of evidence that might shed light on this mystery, the results of which will be published soon in a book describing this forgotten story of the Civil War.
It begins with Scottish immigrant Adam Robertson, who established two iron foundries in Guelph before starting his own factory in 1852. Although farm implements were its main stock-in-trade, the foundry ended up beating at least a few plowshares into cannon through its connection to the Civil War.
Bennett Burley, a Scottish-born cousin of Robertson's and a Confederate officer, had found his way to Guelph along with several compatriots, including their ringleader, John Yeats Beall, a Virginian and friend of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. Burley and his compatriots persuaded Robertson to make several cannon, cannonballs and even grenades in his foundry. (Later, arrested and extradited to the U.S. on a charge of robbery, Burley escaped from prison and returned to England. There, having changed his surname to Burleigh, he gained fame as a war correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph and eventually wrote nine books about campaigns in Africa, the Far East and the Balkans).
According to Robertson's son (speaking in 1917), the conspirators planned to ship the munitions to Lake Erie, where they would be used to free Confederate soldiers imprisoned on Johnson's Island in Sandusky Bay, Ohio. In the process, the group planned to capture a Union warship, the USS Michigan, which was guarding the island. "The war was going badly for the South and they thought it would be a boost for the forces," says Stelter.
The plot failed dismally. Stelter, who found copies of correspondence written by the conspirators from the Robertson home, says it was common knowledge that the foundry was turning out more than plows. Even worse, the Union army had learned of the Johnson's Island plot -- and of a companion scheme to burn New York, for which explosives were also being made in Guelph.
Just how the plan foundered is a matter of some debate, says Stelter.
One theory has it that the conspirators realized they had been discovered, and so fled before eventually scuttling a steamer which they had hijacked.
But based on his reading of correspondence and other documents, Stelter has developed a different, more complicated theory. He believes on a second attempt, the conspirators purchased a boat in Toronto and hoped to outfit it with the cannon cast in Robertson's foundry.
A number of the raiders were eventually caught, including Beall and Burley. The former was tried and hanged for his role in this and other schemes. One story has it that John Wilkes Booth, Beall's friend, planned Lincoln's assassination partly to avenge his friend's execution. "That's a long-held rumour that I don't think is true," Stelter says, "although there is enough smoke around this notion that I think somewhere underneath might be a story."
Back in Guelph, Robertson's involvement in the scheme appears not to have damaged his prospects. His foundry continued, and he eventually became mayor of Guelph. Those long-ago cannon from Robertson's foundry were lost -- all but one, which now overlooks Vancouver's Horseshoe Bay.
Besides his academic interest, Stelter has a personal stake in the story. Even before beginning his paper chase, he had long had his eye on the former Robertson home. He and his wife, Sally, bought the house in 1990. Glancing around his living room, Stelter says it might have been in this very room that the Confederates hatched their schemes. With Canada trying to remain neutral, he says: "Any activity for the Confederates by Canada would have had to be secret. In that summer of 1864, this must have been a lively place. All of that stuff was conceived here, people sitting where we're sitting and making these plans."
Professor Stelter can be reached at 519-821-9267. For more information, contact Communications and Public Affairs, 519-824-4120, Ext. 6982.