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John Yates Beall


Philo Parsons (top) and the Island Queen

Virginian John Beall began his Civil War career at 26 as a private in the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment and fought in the 1st Battle of Bull Run as a part of the Stonewall Brigade. He then led a company of General Turner Ashby's cavalry in the Shenandoah Valley until he was severely wounded in the chest while leading a charge on October 16, 1861. Beall was given a medical discharge from the army during his long convalescence, but he was not ready to stop fighting.

In spring 1863, Beall won the War Department's approval of a daring plan for raiding Union shipping vessels in the Chesapeake Bay. He was appointed an acting master in the Confederate navy and was authorized to raise a band of partisan raiders. The group would have to provide its own ship, and the raiders' only payment woud be a share of the booty they captured from Northern vessels.

On the evening of September 17, 1863, Beall and 18 men set out into the bay in two ships and quickly captured a Union sloop and two fishing scows. The next night, Beall's men captured a Yankee sloop carrying $200,000 worth of sutler's stores that was bound for Port Royal, S.C. Three more ships were captured by September 21, and then the raiders returned safely to their Mathews County base. Union response to the first raid was slow and ineffectual. But when Beall's crew set out again in November, they were quickly captured, strapped in irons in old Fort McHenry, Md., and held as pirates. Southern authorities ordered the same number of Union prisoners to be held in similar conditions, eventually forcing the federals to treat the raiders as prisoners of war.

After being exchanged on May 5, 1864, Beall found approval to continue his partisan activities slow to come and went to Canada to look for other opportunities to strike the enemy. The commander of Confederate secret operations in Canada, Jacob Thompson, recruited Beall to form a force of refugees and escaped Confederate prisoners who were in Canada to disrupt Northern trade on Lake Erie.

Specifically, Beall was to free Confederate prisoners of war being held on Johnson's Island, off Sandusky in Lake Erie, as well as those at Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio. If successful, the enterprise was supposed to result in the establishment of a Confederate Department of the Army on Lake Erie.

With the aid of Charles H. Cole, fresh from Nathan Bedford Forrest's cavalry, Beall made plans to capture two Union ships. He hoped to use the ships to overpower the USS Michigan, which was protecting the area, free the Rebel prisoners on Johnson Island, and begin an overland route to Columbus by a commandeered train. Meanwhile, in preparation, Cole had endeared himself to some Union officers and became a guest aboard the Michigan, from which he intended to send important signals to guide Beall's attack.

On September 19, 1864, Beall and his men captured the passenger ship Philo Parsons, which was on a trip from Detroit to Sandusky, Ohio. Then, Beall and his crew quickly took the Island Queen and moved into posistion near the Michigan, close to Johnson's Island, to await the signals from Cole.

As night fell, Beall's crew peered through the darkness, looking for Cole's messages, but none came. Unknown to the raiders, Cole had been discovered and word had been sent to the Michigan's captain, who arrested Cole. As time passed, Beall's crew became increasingly concerned, until they mutinied and forced Beall to pull back and to destroy the Philo Parsons at Sandwich, Canada.

While Beall's plan had failed, his mere attempt, along with his reputation, sent shock waves through Lincoln's cabinet and left Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in a state of "excited panic." News traveled to Buffalo, where the locals were expecting "piratical craft sailing boldly in and firing upon their defenseless houses."