John Yates Beall, the “Mosby of the Chesapeake,” launched a daring scheme to rescue Confederate POWs on Lake Erie.
In the years before the Civil War, what is now West Virginia was torn by inner strife. The issues of slavery and states’ rights bitterly divided its citizens. In October 1859, the tinderbox was ignited when fanatical abolitionist John Brown, his sons and a handful of followers managed to take over the Harpers Ferry arsenal. Brown was captured, tried and hanged in nearby Charles Town. Standing at attention with the local Botts Greys as the would-be emancipator dropped through the trap on December 2, 1859, was a young Virginian, John Yates Beall, who would share Brown’s fate in the final year of the war.
Beall (pronounced “Bell”) was a true son of the antebellum South. Born on New Year’s Day 1835 at his family’s Virginia plantation, Walnut Grove, Beall attended the University of Virginia, where he studied law. Upon the death of his father, he returned home to manage the farm and care for his mother and two sisters. Contemporaries described Beall as a handsome man, “wiry and muscular,” and “stoutly built, with broad shoulders, flat chest, and measuring…five feet seven and a half inches in height; His hair was brown, and half covered the ear; the forehead high, the nose straight, and regular, the complexion pale, the lips thin and compressed. He wore a light moustache, and whiskers coming to a point under the chin. His smile was exceedingly gracious and pleasant, his voice low, musical, his eyes a light blue, rather small, but at times very brilliant.” By all accounts, Beall was a kind man, with a dignified bearing and high sense of honor. And he was ferociously devoted to his home state.
Soon after the war began, Beall enlisted in the famous Stonewall Brigade of the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment. Gravely wounded while leading a charge at the 1863 Battle of Falling Waters, he conceived a plot during his recuperation to liberate the inmates of the Johnson’s Island Prisoner of War Depot, a hellhole of a Union prison camp on Lake Erie, where 3,000 Confederate officers were held. But when he presented his plan, which involved launching the raid from Canada, to Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president was concerned about the effect it might have on relations with Great Britain, and shelved the scheme. He did, however, give young Beall a naval commission to assemble a company of rangers and harass Union shipping on the Chesapeake Bay.
Technically, Beall’s Company was part of the Volunteer Coast Guard; in fact, its members were irregulars— guerrillas, or privateers. Their function was to seize or destroy enemy ships and stores. Beall was to undertake aboard ship what partisan leaders John Mosby and Nathan Bedford Forrest were accomplishing ashore—surprise and strike the enemy wherever and whenever possible, then vanish before Federal forces could catch them. Beall’s Company totaled only 18 men, with a “fleet” of two small vessels—a 22-foot yawl, painted black, and a white 28-foot sailing canoe. Based on their boats’ colors, Beall’s men christened them Raven and Swan. Beall himself soon attained fame as one of the Confederacy’s “Grey Ghosts,” and even his vessels gained legendary status among sympathetic locals, who called them “Beall’s Birds.” Beall was referred to by many as the “Mosby of the Chesapeake.”
By May 1864, the war was going badly for the South. With Jefferson Davis’ blessing, more emphasis was being placed on irregular warfare in the far North, in attempts to avoid or prolong the South’s seemingly imminent defeat. When Beall met with the secretary of the Navy and the chief of the Bureau of Secret Service to once again push for a raid on Johnson’s Island, they approved his plans.
His strategy was straightforward, if ambitious. He would mount the raid from Canada south across Lake Erie, capture the fort’s powerful guardian, the Union warship USS Michigan, train its 14 guns on the prison camp and effect the release of its 3,000 inmates. With the gunship under his control, Beall would seize enough vessels at Sandusky, Ohio, to convey the liberated Confederates to Cleveland. They would then work their way south to Virginia, to bolster the Confederacy’s dwindling ranks. Beall would subsequently employ Michigan as a raider, “sweep [Lake] Erie from Toledo to Buffalo, and burn these cities, or lay them under contributions.” As the only gunship on the Great Lakes, it would harass coastal cities and wreak havoc on Union shipping. It was a bold scheme, with a more than middling chance of success.
By the time Beall set about implementing his plan, the Confederacy had established an impressive intelligence network in Canada. As part of the British Empire, Canada was neutral. But the northern neighbor had much greater significance to the Confederacy than to the Union, given its proximity to the northern Federal border. By 1864, Confederate agents, soldiers, saboteurs and escaped POWs were congregating in Montreal, Toronto, Dundas, Windsor and Halifax, either informally or as part of intelligence cells. Canada provided the South with safe bases for a wide variety of operations. Toronto alone offered access to the upper United States from Maine all the way to Detroit.
Beall worked his way north behind enemy lines, finally reaching Ontario—or “Canada West,” as it was called at the time. Arriving in Dundas, Canada West, in mid-August 1864, he met with Lt. Col. Jacob Thompson, senior commissioner in charge of Confederate operations in Canada, to plan the operation. Twenty men were selected to form a ranger company, with Beall in command. Beall then traveled to Sandusky, Ohio, just three miles south of Johnson’s Island, to meet with Charles Cole, who had volunteered to be the “inside man” in the plot.
Cole, a former Confederate cavalry captain under the legendary Forrest, had been imprisoned by the Federals but escaped to Canada. He would assume the role of a “dashing young swell” who would ingratiate himself with the Federal officers—especially those aboard Michigan. Representing himself as a wealthy Philadelphian, Cole played the charming, free-spending host. In return, the officers gave Cole a tour of the ship. He also went ashore on Johnson’s Island and talked with the Confederate prisoners.
Cole’s mission was to dine with the officers aboard Michigan on the night of Beall’s attack and drug their wine. Once the officers were stupefied, a messenger working for Cole would alert Beall and his men to proceed. By that time Beall was to have commandeered a steamer on the lake and brought it close to Michigan under cover of darkness, to use as a boarding stage. Cole had already alerted the prisoners on Johnson’s Island: A cannon shot fired from Michigan through the officers’ quarters would be their signal to overpower the guards and seize the camp. Of course, few plans go exactly as intended.
The Johnson’s Island POW Depot was located at the mouth of Sandusky Bay, just off Lake Erie’s southeastern shore. It was by no means an ideal location for a prison camp, but creature comforts were not a concern for the North or South when determining where to pen their unlucky captives. The camp was built on a 16-acre clearing, and consisted of a dozen long, two-story frame barracks, each housing 250 men and a single stove. In addition, there were a hospital, three wells and various outbuildings. Around the entire complex ran a 14-foot plank stockade fence. Predictably, the winters on Lake Erie were extremely harsh, food, fuel, blankets and warm clothing were in short supply, and disease and death were common. According to an article in a Montreal newspaper: “The American government…sent the southern officers accustomed to a tropical climate, to Johnson’s Island….It was in fact, an attempt to commit murder without publicly incurring the odium of slaughter.”
Conditions on the island were dismal. Southerner Daniel Bedinger Lucas, an attorney, friend and biographer of Beall, recalled: “In this delightful pen…the mud was generally knee deep. Three shallow pits furnishing water at the rate of four gallons per hour each, were expected to supply the prisoners with muddy water; they consequently suffered much from thirst, while the waters of Erie, rolling within fifty yards, but as inaccessible as if they were one hundred miles distant, strongly suggested the punishment inflicted by Divine anger upon Tantalus. Of food the day’s allowance sufficed for one meal, being much less than one day’s ration. Petty tyranny and low meanness displayed themselves on the part of the Federal officials, in rank luxuriance.”
The prisoners were guarded by the 128th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, initially under Lt. Col. William S. Pierson. Even after Pierson was relieved of his role as camp commandant on grounds of cruelty and incompetence, the guards amused themselves with a peculiarly vicious form of entertainment. One prisoner’s diary reads: “The Yankees here guarding us have been keeping up a regular fire on us since we came here. For the last two weeks the fire has been awful. Last night, two officers in Block 5…were seriously wounded. Such shameful cowards the Yankees are.”
The first stage of Beall’s plan called for capturing no easy task. Known as the Michigan, “Guardian of the Great Lakes,” the 167-foot-long frigate weighed in at 450 tons and sported 14 guns—some capable of firing heavy red-hot shot, solid shot or shells 2,000 yards, while others had an extreme firing range of two miles. The ship was powered by two steam-driven iron paddle wheels and carried three barkentine-rigged masts. Under a “medium head of steam,” it could achieve over 14 knots, phenomenal for the era. Michigan was also the first iron-hulled vessel in American naval history— built 20 years before the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac.
By the time Beall targeted Michigan, the frigate had already achieved an impressive service record. Originally constructed to protect the United States from Canada, Michigan built a stellar reputation as the only U.S. naval presence cruising the Great Lakes. Patrolling the lakes’ bays and harbors, it frequently came to the rescue of ships in distress. The frigate was also employed against gangs of American timber pirates that were operating on Lake Michigan.
At the Civil War’s outset, Michigan served as a recruiting vessel, enlisting some 4,000 men into the Navy. Never was its presence more clearly felt than after the passage of the conscription laws in March 1863. The following July Michigan was ordered to Detroit, to discourage a draft riot in the making. Its presence alone was sufficient to discourage potential rioters, and it served a similar function at Buffalo and Milwaukee.
Before Beall’s raid was launched, Michigan’s commander, John C. Carter, received word from the Navy Department advising him that “a project is on foot in Canada to fit out steamers and attempt a rescue of the prisoners confined on Johnson’s Island.” Carter was ordered to anchor off Sandusky, and Washington even sent him several cannons to supplement his firepower. While Michigan’s crew practiced their gunnery, its contingent of Marines went ashore to patrol the island. Beall would clearly have his work cut out for him.
At first all went well. On the night of Sunday, September 18, Bennett Bur – ley—Beall’s second in command— stepped aboard the 220-ton passenger steamer Philo Parsons as it lay at the Detroit wharf. He requested that its co-owner, W.O. Ashley, make an unscheduled stop at the Canadian lakefront town of Sandwich on the regular morning run to Sandusky, to pick up three friends. The next morning Philo Parsons left the dock with 80 passengers, including Burley. As it swung close to the Sandwich wharf, three young men in civilian clothes jumped aboard, Beall among them.
At Amherstburgh, Ontario, 16 more men boarded carrying an old rope-bound trunk, which they unceremoniously threw down the aft gangway. When the ferry was five miles off Sandusky, Beall drew a pistol, held it to the mate’s head and declared: “I take possession of this boat in the name of the Confederate States. Resist at your peril!” At the same time, Burley and three others drew their revolvers, assembled the passengers and locked them and Ashley in the captain’s cabin. Beall’s men then opened the trunk and removed pistols, hatchets, grappling hooks and a Confederate flag, which they ran up the mast.
The raiders threw all the deck freight overboard to lighten the steamer for the work ahead. Beall ordered the vessel to Middle Bass Island, some 10 miles from Johnson’s Island and Michigan, to take on fuel. There he “paroled” all his prisoners, first making them promise not to take action for 48 hours. The fact they were stranded on an island in the middle of Lake Erie would make it easier for them to keep their word.
When another passenger vessel in need of wood, Island Queen, steamed alongside and tied up to Philo Parsons, there was nothing for it but to seize that ship as well. On board Island Queen were 25 to 30 unarmed Union solders of the Toledo 130th Ohio Regiment, returning to be mustered out of the service. The last thing they wanted was to engage a party of Confederates in their backyard. The soldiers were “paroled not to take arms against the Confederacy till duly exchanged,” and Beall released the passengers and extraneous crew on Middle Bass.
Thus far Beall and his men had behaved with remarkable restraint and courtesy. Although the books, papers and funds aboard both boats were seized as legitimate prizes, no private property was taken. One passenger was permitted to keep the $80,000 he was carrying, and Ashley himself later testified that everything he claimed as personal property was restored to him.
Since Beall had no need for a second vessel, five miles off Middle Bass Island he scuttled Island Queen. He planned to approach Johnson’s Island as though on a regular run, then pull alongside Michigan and board the frigate. On his approach he expected to meet Cole’s messenger, bringing word that the gunship’s officers had been drugged and his path was clear. Philo Parsons still lingered near the mouth of Sandusky Bay, waiting for Cole’s courier.
Beall soon learned that the operation had been compromised and Cole had been seized. Who betrayed the plan? There are various theories, but no definitive answer. John W. Headley, assistant to Commissioner Jacob Thompson, claimed, “Someone in the confidence of Colonel Thompson had betrayed Cole.” A week after the failed operation, Commander Carter wrote to the Navy Department that the plot to seize his ship had been revealed by “unidentified Canadians.” A third theory was expressed by Cameron Moseley, a cousin of Beall’s, who stated that “Charles Cole…was a man of questionable character and twisted motives” who was “working both sides of the battle lines, and living high on the hog at the same time.” Moseley suspected that “double-agent Cole” was the informer. Given the evidence, this seems unlikely.
Between 8 and 9 p.m., as he waited for a messenger who didn’t come, Beall stared at USS Michigan as it lay silhouetted in the moonlight, and resolved to proceed with the raid. If Cole had failed, Beall would board the warship to face 106 forewarned sailors. But as he would later write to a friend, he was “not one of the giving-up kind.”
Then the unthinkable occurred. As Beall wrote in his diary, “I…started back to attack the Michigan, when seventeen of my twenty men mutinied, and refused to go forward, and this necessitated my turning back. [A] most cowardly and dishonorable affair….”
Without any assurance that the officers aboard Michigan had been neutralized, the raiders reasoned, boarding the frigate would be suicide. Of the 20 men, only three stood with Beall. Furious, their leader ordered the boat to come about and head for the Canadian shore. But first he had the mutineers write a document stating that they had refused to follow his orders. It read: “On board the Philo Parsons, Sept. 20th, 1865 [sic]. We the undersigned, crew of the aforesaid, take pleasure in expressing our admiration of the gentlemanly bearing, skill and courage of Capt. Beall as a commanding officer, and a gentleman; but believing, and being well convinced that the enemy is informed of our approach, and is so well prepared that we can not possibly make it a success, and, having already captured two boats, we respectfully decline to prosecute it any further.” It was signed by all 17 mutineers.
As Daniel Lucas later wrote, “Sadly, angrily, gloomily, therefore, did the young soldier submit to the exigency of the situation.” Beall raced Philo Parsons toward Canada, convinced that success had been within his grasp before his men rebelled. Around 8 a.m. on the 20th he reached Fighting Island, where he released his remaining prisoners. He next steamed upriver to Sandwich, Ontario, where he stripped the steamer and scuttled it. He then ordered his men to scatter, a directive they willingly obeyed.
As it turned out, the mutineers had been correct in their assessment of the threat aboard Michigan. Commander Carter was in fact aware of the plot, and had set a trap for Beall, warning his crew of a takeover attempt. It wasn’t until midnight of the following day that Carter realized Beall had fled. When he finally received orders to pursue Philo Parsons, Carter steered toward Middle Bass Island, where he found the castaways. They told Carter all they knew about Beall’s plans, and he bore away for the Detroit River. Beall was fortunate that Michigan had been delayed at Johnson’s Island; as it was, Carter arrived at the mouth of the Detroit only two hours after the Rebels scuttled Philo Parsons and fled.
Michigan returned to Johnson’s Island, arriving in time to encounter a freak hurricane that felled more than 100 trees and blew the roofs off several prison buildings. The prisoners, who had been waiting three days for the signal shot, assumed the damage had been caused by Michigan’s guns, and attempted to escape. But the Federals quickly subdued them.
Beall traveled to Niagara, N.Y., where he plotted to derail a train containing Union gold and several hundred Confederate prisoners bound for Johnson’s Island. He was soon captured and taken to New York City for a military trial. Convicted of being a “spy and guerrillero,” he was sentenced to hang. Appeals to Lincoln by prominent Northerners, as well as Jefferson Davis, failed to work. The “notorious Captain Beall” died on the gallows on February 24, 1865.
Freelance writer Ron Soodalter’s latest book is Hanging Captain Gordon.
Originally published in the April 2009 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.