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John Yates Beall, gallant soldier

Stands in foremost line of the heroes and martyrs of the Civil war.

Captured while on Raid—Kept in prison a year and then sentenced to death by a drumhead Court-martial.

by J. H. Crawford.
[For further matter as to the plan of Captain Beall to release the Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island, see Vols. VIII, XIX, XXVII and XXX, and ‘Why John Wilkes Booth Shot Lincoln’—the animus being revenge for barbarous treatment and what he believed the illegal execution of his personal friend, Captain Beall, Vol. XXXII.—Southern Historical Society Papers.—Ed.]

Captain John Yates Beall, who served in the Stonewall Brigade Second Virginia Infantry, before he entered upon his daring career as a Confederate naval officer, stands in the foremost line of the heroes and martyrs of the Civil War. He met his pathetic fate with that stern, yet gentle sense of honor that not unwillingly pays its price without repining or regret.

He was just 26 years of age in 1861. He had graduated in law at the University of Virginia. He had been right in the midst of the John Brown insurrection, and he was ripe for those services to his State by which he was soon distinguished.

He was badly wounded in a charge under Ashby in October, 1861, and possessing alike the mind, the nerve and the spirit which befit great adventure, he was soon singled out for ‘enterprises of great pith and moment.’

The story of his ill-fated endeavor to release the Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island, is told in the enclosed article by a loving comrade who cherishes and honors his memory, and who fitly says: ‘It is a sacred duty to defend those who sacrificed their lives in the God-given right of self-defence and preservation of home.’

Captain Beall stood for the principle which animates the pen of [72] his loyal friend, and that pen expresses also the duty which a loyal people owe to those who suffered and died for them.

Very respectfully,

The lamented John Y. Beall ranked as captain in the Confederate Navy, having been appointed by Hon. S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy, at Richmond, Va., in 1863. The integrity of Captain Beall's motives, the incorruptibility of his principles, and the injustice and illegality of his execution by General Dix, in February, 1865, on Governor's Island, N. Y., are well known. He was a devout Christian, a thorough gentleman, and an accomplished scholar. His home was in the garden spot of old Virginia-Jefferson county-now West Virginia. A few miles distant of Charlestown is ‘Walnut Grove,’ a fine farm owned by Captain Beall's father, and here the son was born January 1, 1835. His ancestors were of the best people in the South, and his father was a prominent citizen in that section. Young Beall was sent to the University of Virginia to study law, and in the course of due time he graduated in the legal profession.

It was in 1859 that John Brown and his gang of murderers and robbers invaded Harper's Ferry, a few miles distant from Mr. Beall's home, and it made a serious impression upon all who resided in that immediate neighborhood. It was but a prelude of the Civil War. Brown having been aided and abetted by Northern fanatics, and the irrepressible conflict was fast approaching. Virginia seceded in April, 1861, and John Y. Beall was one of the first volunteers in Virginia, enlisting in the Second Virginia Regiment, Stonewall Brigade. General Turner Ashby had a sharp engagement with the enemy at Falling Waters, in October, 1861, and John Y. Beall led a charge and was seriously wounded, the ball passing through his breast; but good nursing and strong will power enabled him to survive the injury.

Plan to relieve Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island.

It was during Beall's convalesence at Richmond, Va., that he conceived the plan to release Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island, and he subsequently made known his idea to President Davis, who referred him to Hon. S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate [73] Navy. Beall's interview with Secretary Mallory convinced him that the plan was feasible, but the project was held in abeyance.

Raids on the Potomac.

In the meanwhile Captain Beall organized a company to operate on the Lower Potomac, and he made several successful raids. His daring adventures on water caused much excitement in the North, and the Federals made extra effort to capture him, which occurred. He was put in close confinement with Lieutenant B. G. Burley and 20 men, all manacled with heavy irons. Captain Beall sent a note to Secretary Mallory, stating his case, and the Secretary of the Confederate Navy forthwith placed the same number of General B. F. Butler's soldiers in close confinement. It had the desired effect, and General Butler soon granted an exchange.

Capture of the ‘Philo Parsons’ and ‘Island Queen.’

Captain Beall yearned to release the Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island. September, 19, 1864, he and several Confederates boarded the Philo Parsons at Sandwich, Mich. When the vessel arrived at Amhertsburgh, sixteen men boarded her, with one trunk, containing arms. Very soon Captain Beall exclaimed: ‘I take possession of the boat in the name of the Confederate States. Resist at your peril!’ Quite a commotion prevailed, but when Captain Beall explained matters, the prisoners became reconciled to the situation. They were soon released, and not one cent taken from them. Another vessel, the Island Queen, met the same fate. Thirty Federal soldiers were aboard and all of them were parolled. One vessel was deemed sufficient for the purpose in view, consequently the Island Queen was scuttled and sent adrift.

Captain Bealls Scheme of operation.

The United States gunboat, Michigan, guarded Johnson's Island, Lake Erie, and its capture was necessary before Captain Beall could release the Confederate prisoners. So it was arranged with Captain C. H. Cole to have the officers of the Michigan at a banquet in Sandusky, Ohio, on the night of the proposed attack and a signal rocket was to be exploded to inform Captain Beall that the officers of the Michigan were absent. There were more than 3,000 Confederate officers on Johnson's Island, where they received bad [74] treatment. Proper food and water was denied them. Several rods from the main prison were dungeons, each a little larger than an ordinary coffin, in which were confined Confederate soldiers who had been sentenced to death by drumhead courtmartials.

They were chained hand and foot, with additional iron ball, weighing sixty pounds chained to their ankles.

Signal of attack fails. Meeting.

On the night of September 19, 1864, Captain Beall steered the Philo Parsons within distance to observe the signal when given for his attack on the Michigan. Anxiously he stood upon the deck of the Philo Parsons, looking for the signal rocket. But in vain he looked for an hour—no signal. Yet he may still win, though the rocket's red glare failed to beckon him onward, and he bore on his course cautiously until the lights of the Michigan were seen making her length on the placid lake. Voices of men could be distinctly heard upon the Michigan's deck, and the contour of her fourteen guns could be seen in the moonlight. But at this critical moment a new danger beset him where least expected—his men meeting. Lieutenant Burley and two others only stood by him. The remainder positively refused to go farther, alleging that the signal failed to appear as agreed upon, and that the enterprise must have been detected. Captain Beall, pleaded, argued and threatened in vain. Then he ordered them go to the cabin, and exacted their resolution to be reduced to writing as a vindication of himself and Lieutenant Burley and two men who were faithful to the last. This being accomplished, he took possession of the document. There was no other alternative but to retreat and Captain Beall returned to Sandwich, where the Philo Parsons was scuttled and sent adrift, the Confederates retiring to Canada. Captain Beall was of the opinion, had it not been for the mutiny at the critical moment of the adventure, he would have been successful in releasing the Confederate prisoners on Johnson's Island.

Was Captain Beall betrayed?

Whether Captain Beall was betrayed or the plot otherwise discovered, it has never been definitely ascertained. Captain Cole was arrested by the Federals on the afternoon of the day, when the proposed attack was to have been made. He was imprisoned at [75] Fort Lafayette until February, 1866, when a Brooklyn judge released him on a writ of habeas corpus, and since then nothing has been heard about him.

War Department records show that the number of Federal prisoners in Confederate hands were 270,000 during 1861-65, and the number of Confederates in northern prisons numbered 220,000, the same period, and yet 32,000 Confederates died in northern prisons, many of whom were shot for slight provocations. During the same time there were but 22,750 deaths of Federal prisoners in southern hands, that is to say, more than twelve per cent. of the Confederates died in northern prisons, and less than nine per cent. of Federal prisoners in Confederate hands died in southern prisons. The North had unlimited means for medical aid, but the South was badly in need of medicine and comforts. The Federal Government declared medicine a contraband of war, which is the only government ever known to have resorted to such harsh means.

The Confederate Government urged an exchange of prisoners, which would have relieved much suffering, but the Federal government declined. General Grant asserted in 1864, that an exchange of prisoners would defeat his plan of attrition, depleting Confederate ranks; that when a Confederate was captured his place could not be replenished, whereas the North could easily furnish two men for every Federal soldier captured by Confederates. Clearly the responsibility rests with the North in regard to the long confinement of prisoners. Prison life is not pleasant under the best conditions. The South gave the prisoners what the Confederate soldiers received. It was impossible to do more.

Captain Wirz was hung in Washington, 1865, the charge being that he maltreated Federal prisoners at Andersonville, Ga. He was offered pardon if he would certify that Jefferson Davis prompted cruelty to prisoners; but he spurned the bribe to defame an innocent man to save his own life. A man possessed of such nobility of character, could never be guilty of inhuman treatment of prisoners.

Capture of Capt. Beall and Court martial.

Capt. John Y. Beall was captured in December, 1864, while on a raid to release Federal prisoners en route to Fort Warren. He was kept in close confinement for more than one year, and when [76] the Confederate cause was nearing dissolution, General Dix appointed a drum-head court-martial to condemn Captain Beal to death. James T. Brady, of New York, counsel for defense, served his client faithfully; but drum-head court-martials sit to condemn, and not to do justice.

Judge Daniel B. Lucas, of Charlestown, West Virginia, the late James L. McClure and Albert Ritchie, of Baltimore, were all college mates of Captain Beall, and they were untiring in their efforts to secure a fair trial for Captain Beall; but it was of no avail. Secretary Seward's edict had gone forth that ‘Beall must hang.’ Mrs. John I. Sittings and Mrs. Basil B. Gordon, of Baltimore, interceded in behalf of the heroic Beall. Numbers of Congressmen signed a petition for Beall's pardon, but President Lincoln turned a deaf ear to all appeals for clemency.

Execution; heroic bearing of Captain Beall.

So the fatal day, February 24th, 1865, came, and as Captain Beall mounted the platform, General Dix's order was read, denouncing Beall's heroic effort to release Confederate prisoners, which elicited a smile from Captain Beall; but when unjustly accused of being a spy and guerrilla, he shook his head in denial. General Dix's homily on the proprieties of war also provoked a smile, because General Dix's military achievements were confined to burning William and Mary College in Virginia, and administering the oath of allegiance to the inmates of an insane asylum and treating them with cruelty. Beall well remembered the ashes and ruins of thousands of homes in Virginia, which marked the pathway of Federal invasion, and he also remembered the brutal treatment inflicted by Federal soldiers upon his mother and sisters. Captain Beall knew that General Dix's utterance was in default of the penalty which he himself attached to the violations of the laws of civilized warfare.

Rev. Joshua Van Dyke, of New York, visited Captain Beall the day preceding his execution, and he said: ‘I found Captain Beall in a narrow, gloomy cell, with a lamp burning at midday, but he received me with as much ease as if he were in his own parlor. Captain Beall's conversation revealed at every turn, the scholar, the gentleman, and true Christian. There was no bravado, no strained heroism, no excitement in his words or manner, but a quiet trust in God and a composure in view of death, such as I have read of, but [77] never beheld to the same degree before. He introduced the subject of his approaching end himself, saying that while he did not pretend to be indifferent to life the mode in which he was to depart had no terror or ignominy for him; he could go to heaven, through the grace of Christ, as well from the gallows as from the battle-field; he died in defence for what he believed to be right; and so far as the particular charges for which he was to be executed were concerned, he had no confession to make or repentance to exercise. He calmly declared he was to be executed contrary to the laws of civilized warfare.’

His mother's visit and letter to his brother.

His mother visited him several days preceding the execution, and as soon as he saw her expression, he said: ‘I knew mother would endure the terrible sacrifice with courage.’ Captain Beall was betrothed to an accomplished lady in the South.

In the last letter to his brother, William Beall, who belonged to the ‘Stonewall Brigade,’ he said: ‘Be kind to prisoners-they are helpless. Vengence is mine saith the Lord. I will repay.’ Captain Beall, illegally executed, and in defiance of, civilized warfare, was one of the most heroic characters of the South. He was inspired to serve his State, Virginia, by the God-given right of self-defense and the preservation of home, and his record as a soldier is without stain or reproach. After the war his remains were taken to his old home, Walnut Grove, Jefferson County, W. Va., and buried in accordance with the rites of the Episcopal Church. He requested to be engraved on his tomb: ‘Died in Defence of My Country.’

Illegality of Captain Bealls execution.

The next ranking officer to Captain Beall was B. H. Burley, who was associated with him in all his daring adventures, hence guilty of the same ‘offense.’ Yet Lieutenant Burley was allowed to go unpunished by the Federal government. Burley was arrested by Canadian authority and surrendered on extradition papers, demanded by Mr. Henry B. Brown, then assistant United States attorney for the Detroit District, now one of the associated justices of the Supreme Court. Burley's chief defense was his commission as an acting master in the Confederate navy, signed at Richmond, Va., September 11, 1863, on which was an endorsement, dated Richmond, December 22, 1864, in the form of a proclamation by [78] President Davis (which referred especially to Captain Beall's adventure), declaring that the Philo Parson's enterprise was a belligerent expedition, ordered and undertaken under the authority of the Confederate government, and for which that government assumed responsibility.‘July 10, 1865, Burley was brought to trial. Judge Fitch charged the jury’that a state of war had existed between the Federal government and the Confederate government, so called, and it made no difference whether the United States admitted it or not.‘He held that the prisoner and other persons connected with him in the capture of the boat,—acting for and under orders from the Confederate government, would not be amenable to civil tribunals for the offense—the charge was robbery. If the parties who took the boat and money belonging to Captain Atwood, intended to appropriate it to their own private use, then the prisoner would be guilty of the offense; but in carrying out the expedition the parties had the same right, in a military point of view, to take other articles of property, or even money, that they had to take the boat.’

The jury disagreed, standing six to six. Burley was returned to prison, but allowed to walk out of jail in broad day-light. The The case was nolle prossed by the prosecution.

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