Robert E. Lee’s Invasion of Ohio

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2013-2014, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the May 2014 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

People with even a little knowledge of the Civil War likely know that Robert E. Lee led two invasions of the North, one into Maryland and another into Pennsylvania. However, Lee once invaded Ohio, and if Lee had been successful in this invasion, Ohio would have lost some of its territory. Worse yet, the territory that Ohio would have lost would have been lost not to the Confederacy, but to the state of Michigan.

This story starts in 1787 when Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance. In the Northwest Ordinance the border between the future states of Ohio and Michigan was stipulated as “an east and west line drawn through the southerly bend or extreme of Lake Michigan.” This seems sufficiently definitive to be beyond question. But the map that was used to determine this border, a map known as the Mitchell Map, was in error with respect to the southernmost extension of Lake Michigan. In fact, Lake Michigan extends further south than is indicated by the Mitchell Map, which places the border between Ohio and Michigan further south than originally expected.

The Mitchell Map

When Ohio applied for statehood, the proposed state constitution was written such that the border with the future state of Michigan was to run from Lake Michigan’s southern tip to Maumee Bay. In other words, the border was to run not as an east-west line as stipulated in the Northwest Ordinance, but at an angle from the tip of Lake Michigan northeastward. The principal reason for this change was to include the city of Toledo and the mouth of the Maumee River within the borders of Ohio. This was important to Ohio, because at the time there was a proposal to build a system of canals that would link Toledo to the Ohio River. This means that there would be a shipping channel that would connect Lake Erie to the Mississippi River through Toledo, and this was expected to make Toledo a major shipping hub. When Congress reviewed Ohio’s Enabling Act for its application for statehood, Congress rendered no decision regarding Ohio’s northern border. In its report about the border issue, a congressional committee stated that the committee “thought it unnecessary to take it, at the time, into consideration.” In other words, Congress followed a long-standing congressional tradition that still exists today: it kicked the can down the road.

A correct map showing the actual southernmost extension of Lake Michigan and the Toledo Strip (in black)

In 1805, two years after Ohio became a state, Congress created the Territory of Michigan, and it then became necessary to resolve the border issue. Several years later Congress authorized a survey to establish the border between Ohio and Michigan, but due to the War of 1812, the survey did not occur until 1817. This was fortuitous for Ohio, because at this time, the Surveyor General of the United States was Edward Tiffin, a former governor of Ohio. Tiffin employed a person by the name of William Harris for the survey, but instructed Harris to survey not the line stipulated in the Northwest Ordinance, but the line stipulated in the Ohio Constitution. Not surprisingly, the territorial governor of Michigan, Lewis Cass, felt that Tiffin was biased about the border issue, and he appealed to President James Monroe and to Congress for a survey of the line stipulated in the Northwest Ordinance. This survey was done the following year, 1818, by John A. Fulton, and Fulton’s survey indicated that the border between Ohio and Michigan was south of the line stipulated in the Ohio Constitution, and furthermore that Toledo and the mouth of the Maumee River were in Michigan, not in Ohio. These two survey lines, named for the men who did the surveys, demarcated a thin strip of land that came to be known as the Toledo Strip with the city of Toledo at its eastern end. From north to south, the Toledo Strip is 5 miles wide at the Ohio-Indiana border and 8 miles wide at Lake Erie and encompasses almost 500 square miles.

The Toledo Strip

For the next 14 years the issue simmered with much political posturing and maneuvering until in 1832 Michigan petitioned for statehood. Congress refused the petition and cited as the reason the unresolved border dispute with Ohio, the very same border issue that Congress could have taken care of many years earlier, but instead chose to do nothing about. Congress commissioned another survey of the Northwest Ordinance line, this one to be done by the Army Corps of Engineers. This survey was carried out in the spring of 1835 by Captain Andrew Talcott and two young Corps of Engineer lieutenants, Washington Hood and Robert E. Lee. While Lee was conducting the survey, he sent a letter to a fellow officer in Washington, in which he gave his impressions of the wilderness that he was encountering in Michigan and Ohio. “The country around savors marvelously of bilious fevers, and seems to be productive of nothing more plentifully than of mosquitoes and snakes.” This survey followed the Fulton line very closely and supported Michigan’s claim to the Toledo Strip.

Stevens Mason

In the meantime, the new governor of Michigan Territory, Stevens Mason, prodded the territorial legislature to expedite another petition for statehood with the Toledo Strip as part of Michigan. In response, Ohio Governor Robert Lucas spearheaded passage of a law early in 1835 that extended Ohio’s jurisdiction into the Toledo Strip. Not to be outdone, Mason and the Michigan territorial legislature enacted the Pains and Penalties Act, which called for a fine of $1,000 and/or imprisonment for five years for anyone other than a Michigan territorial official exercising jurisdiction within the Toledo Strip. The remainder of 1835 saw the situation escalate into what came to be called the Toledo War. Much of the activity of the Toledo War involved calling up of militias, shooting in the air rather than at adversaries, and chasing people who had left before their pursuers arrived. It was actually not so much a war, but really just jostling, posturing, and saber rattling. However, the name “Toledo War” sounds much more impressive than “Toledo Jostling, Posturing, and Saber Rattling.”

Robert Lucas

One of the first incidents of the Toledo War occurred in April 1835 and involved Michigan law enforcement, who were sent by Governor Mason into the Toledo Strip to enforce the Pains and Penalties Act. Among the Ohioans whom they attempted to arrest was a staunch partisan named Benjamin Stickney. Stickney’s house was ransacked, and some Ohioans were arrested, but Stickney was not found. In response to these actions, Ohio Governor Lucas prepared to send the militia. When news of this reached Michigan, the press there stated that any Ohio militia who entered the Toledo Strip would be “welcomed…to hospitable graves.” To validate Ohio’s claim to the Toledo Strip, Governor Lucas arranged for a Court of Common Pleas to be held in Toledo. Court officials snuck into Toledo under cover of darkness, opened court at 1:00 a.m., elected officers and conducted other cursory business, and then adjourned to the local tavern to celebrate. All of the court proceedings were recorded on slips of paper and put into the clerk’s hat. When rumors came that Michigan troops were on their way to arrest these Ohioans, they quickly fled.

Two Stickney

The only casualty of the Toledo War suffered his wound on July 15, 1835. A party of Michigan law enforcement led by Deputy Sheriff Joseph Wood was sent into Toledo to arrest a number of Ohioans, including Benjamin Stickney, the man whose house had been ransacked a few months earlier. Benjamin Stickney had two adult sons whose names were One Stickney and Two Stickney. When Wood and his party tried to make their arrests, Two Stickney stabbed Wood, whose wound was not serious, and then Two Stickney fled south.

President Andrew Jackson was anxious to put an end to the Ohio-Michigan border dispute, and his administration and Congress proposed in the summer of 1836 that, as a condition of statehood, Michigan would relinquish its claim to the Toledo Strip and in return be given a large portion of the Upper Peninsula. The eastern tip of the Upper Peninsula was already part of Michigan Territory, but Jackson’s proposal offered Michigan the western three-fourths of the peninsula, which was part of Wisconsin Territory. Michigan refused the offer, because it was felt that the Upper Peninsula was too remote and consisted of worthless wilderness. Ironically, not only did Michigan not want the Upper Peninsula; the residents of the Upper Peninsula did not want Michigan, because they believed that their distance from the rest of the state would cause them to be neglected. However, in December 1836 a convention was called in Ann Arbor, at which the offer was finally accepted. The Ann Arbor convention came to be known as the Frostbitten Convention, both for the bitterly cold weather and the very cold reception among many Michiganders to their territorial government’s acceptance of the proposal. In return for giving up the less than 500 square miles of the Toledo Strip, Michigan received 9,000 square miles of the Upper Peninsula. And far from being worthless, the Upper Peninsula was found to be rich in mineral deposits, such as iron and copper, and also to be a valuable source of timber. Moreover the canal system linking Lake Erie to the Ohio River through Toledo turned out to be much more problematic and much less profitable than expected.

The story does not end there, however. There were still disputes about the exact border until a survey in 1915 brought a final settlement, although this applied only to the land border. In the 1960s Michigan went to court over the issue of the border between itself and Ohio within Lake Erie. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ohio that the border within Lake Erie angles sharply from the coast to the northeast until it contacts the international border with Canada. This puts most of the U.S. portion of Lake Erie’s western basin in Ohio.

In the end, although Michigan received the Upper Peninsula, it lost the disputed territory, but perhaps this outcome was to be expected in light of one of Michigan’s allies in this dispute. Robert E. Lee gave his support to Virginia and the Confederacy, a cause that was lost, and more than 25 years earlier, in a lesser known chapter of Lee’s life, his efforts had provided support for Michigan in another cause that ultimately failed.