Little is known of Charles H. Cole's life before and during the first few years of the American Civil War. Numerous sources, including Cole himself, claimed to have been a captain in Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry.
Little is known of Charles H. Cole's life before and during the first few years of the American Civil War. Numerous sources, including Cole himself, claimed to have been a captain in Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry. Rosters from Forrest's various commands do not list any man named Charles Cole having attained the rank of captain. The only Charles H. Cole to serve as a captain in the Southern military enlisted as a second lieutenant in Company B of the 9th Regiment Confederate Infantry. Officials eventually promoted this man to the rank of captain before he was discharged.
While Cole's early life and wartime experience remains unclear, he became one of the ringleaders to free Confederate inmates at the Union's Johnson's Island prison camp, which was located in Ohio, on an island in Sandusky Bay in Lake Erie. The leaders of this attempt were Cole and John Yates Beall, a member of the Confederate Navy. Confederate officials hoped that these two men could free the Confederate officers at Johnson's Island. The freed men would then proceed by hijacked railroad train to Camp Chase, a Union prison camp for Confederate enlisted men, which was located in Columbus, Ohio, where the former prisoners at Johnson's Island would free these other inmates. The two sets of prisoners would return to Sandusky, Ohio, where they would form a new army with the 2,700 prisoners currently at Johnson's Island and the approximately 5,000 inmates from Camp Chase. Commanded by Major General Isaac Trimble, the highest-ranking officer imprisoned at Johnson's Island, this new Confederate Army of the Northwest would principally operate in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, helping other Southern armies defeat the North.
Cole was the principal ringleader of the expedition. During the summer of 1864, he entered Sandusky, posing as the secretary of the Mount Hope Oil Company of Titusville, Pennsylvania. He soon befriended several officers on the U.S.S. Michigan, the only iron-hulled Union warship on the Great Lakes. Cole hoped that he and his associates could seize control of the ship and use the vessel to free the Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island. He also had ten Confederate soldiers successfully enlist in the 128th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, which served as the main force that guarded the prisoners. Cole also sought assistance from members of the Sons of Liberty, a group of Confederate sympathizers who resided in Northern states, and from Jacob Thompson, the Confederate States of America's commissioner to the Canadian government. Beall also recruited twenty-five men to assist him in his portion of the expedition.
On September 19, 1864, Cole and Beall launched their plan. Beall and his compatriots boarded the Philo Parsons, a passenger and transport ship that principally traveled from Detroit, Michigan, to Toledo, Ohio, and finally to Sandusky, with stops at Windsor, Malden, and Sandwich, ports on Lake Erie that are located in Canada. Some of these twenty-six raiders boarded the Philo Parsons at each Canadian stop. The only luggage that these men brought onboard the ship was a single trunk, filled with revolvers and hatchets. Following a stop at Kelley's Island, Ohio, the Confederates seized control of the ship. They ordered the helmsman to head for Middle Bass Island, Ohio, where the Southerners put the Philo Parsons's passengers, including thirty-five members of recently discharged Company K of the 130th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry, onshore. While the Confederates were still at Middle Bass Island, another ship, theIsland Queen, came along side and tied onto the Philo Parsons. The Confederates seized this new ship, but in the process, gunshots occurred, with the Southerners wounding the Island Queen's engineer and Alonzo Miller, a resident of Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Beall then had these two ships sail towards Sandusky, but approximately three miles from Middle Bass Island, he had his crew scuttle the Island Queen on a reef. The Philo Parsons continued towards Johnson's Island, where it stopped just short, in sight of the U.S.S. Michigan but disguised by darkness.
Meanwhile, Cole was onboard the U.S.S. Michigan. He was participating in a dinner with his befriended Union officers. His intention was to drug the wine, incapacitating the Union officers. Beall would then sail the Philo Parsons alongside the U.S.S. Michigan, allowing Beall's men to jump onboard the U.S.S. Michigan, taking control of the ship. The Confederates would then use theU.S.S. Michigan to free the prisoners on Johnson's Island.
Several factors caused the plan to fail. First, seventeen of Beall's men became convinced that Union authorities knew of the plan and refused to participate. Beall immediately sailed for Sandwich, where he destroyed the Philo Parsons and dismissed his crew. Union officials did know of the plan, due to a prisoner, a Colonel Johnson from Kentucky, notifying his guards at Johnson's Island. A Union officer from Johnson's Island boarded the U.S.S. Michigan shortly before midnight, the appointed time for the attack. He approached Cole and stated, "Captain Cole, you are my prisoner." Cole responded, "Captain–captain of what? Certainly no man will accuse me of being a soldier." The Northern officer responded, "No. But here is a telegram saying you are a Confederate spy and are in a conspiracy to capture Johnson's Island. It orders your arrest. We must at least take you into custody." Thus ended Cole's and Beall's attempt to seize Johnson's Island.
Cole remained in prison for the war's duration. He escaped execution only due to a pardon from President Abraham Lincoln. On December 16, 1864, Union authorities captured Beall at a railroad station in Niagara Falls, New York. Northern officials hanged Beall as a spy on February 24, 1865 at Governor's Island, New York. Colonel Johnson, the man who informed Union authorities of the plot, reportedly committed suicide due to guilt shortly after revealing the failed mission.
Upon his release from prison, Cole moved to Texas, where he became a rancher.