Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Review - " Confederate Privateer: The Life of John Yates Beall " by William Harris

[Confederate Privateer: The Life of John Yates Beall by William C. Harris (Louisiana State University Press, 2023). Hardcover, photos, notes, source essay, index. Pages main/total:x,150/192. ISBN:978-0-8071-8025-9. $45]

Virginian John Yates Beall (1835-1865) remains an obscure historical figure today, even to ardent Civil War readers, but during the war years he was an irregular combatant widely known to newspaper readers of both sections. To southern supporters his exploits as a maritime guerrilla raider and privateer were stirring news, but northerners saw those same activities as mere piracy. Indeed, the Union position regarding Beall's operations along the Great Lakes border between the United States and Canada would, upon his capture and trial by military commission, lead to his hanging in February 1865. The full range of events associated with his life and death are recounted in William C. Harris's slim yet still highly informative biography Confederate Privateer: The Life of John Yates Beall.

Unlike many other Confederate partisan captains, Beall has never reached household name status among Civil War readers. Whatever his postbellum fade from public awareness might be attributed to, it did not stem from a lack of sources. According to Harris, Beall's Civil War career is very well documented. As explained in the volume's helpful source essay, the best single resource, and a key one in the creation of Harris's biographical treatment, is the Beall diary, letter, and 1865 trial transcription collection compiled by friend Daniel Lucas and published under the title Memoir of John Yates Beall. But that's not all, as others associated with Beall's wartime activities also produced valuable publications that further our understanding of the man and the context of his actions.

Beall's stint in the conventional armed forces of the Confederacy was very brief. Though he would return for short spells, Beall's continuous army service essentially ceased after he was shot through the lung at Bolivar Heights in October 1861. The wound required extensive recovery time and, by all accounts, never fully healed. The oddest interlude from Beall's lengthy recuperation was the several months he spent in Iowa operating a mill, observing the war from afar and commenting on its progress in his diary. However, returning to the war was never far from his mind. Though his initial proposal for conducting Great Lakes raiding operations centered around freeing Confederate POWs held at Johnson's Island was rejected by Richmond, Beall still sought to serve the Confederacy through some means. Discharged from the army and newly armed with a naval commission as acting master, he found it through privateering.

Harris's account of the Chesapeake Bay privateering phase of Beall's Civil War career offers a brief yet illuminating window into an aspect of the Confederacy's irregular war vastly overshadowed by those more firmly planted on terra firma. As Harris shows, Beall's series of small-boat operations, conducted with just two tiny sail-supplemented rowboats, brought him instant notoriety. Employing minimal manpower, equipment, and supply expenditures to inflict notable losses upon the enemy (ex. through captured shipping, a lighthouse raid, and cutting an underwater telegraph cable) that in turn drew heavily disproportionate enemy resources in response, Beall's operations demonstrated how small-scale, almost self-sustaining irregular forces could be cost-effective threats to federal waterborne communications and supply lines. In the process, however, the attention Beall and his men drew to themselves in becoming the "Terror of the Chesapeake" proved to be their downfall. The raiding command was ultimately dispersed by large Union forces assembled for that purpose, and in November 1863 Beall himself was captured. Initially charged with piracy, Beall was eventually given POW status, and he was regularly exchanged in the spring of 1864.

Upon release and a brief period of rest, Beall returned to his prior Great Lakes scheming, once again hatching a plan to free the Johnson's Island prisoners from bases in Canada. This time the operation was approved. Unfortunately for the Confederates, the final plan was a complicated one with numerous moving parts and questionable characters involved (all of which Harris explains), and the venture was abandoned after the dramatic capture of the civilian ferry Philo Parsons and the men's refusal to go forward from there with an attack on the U.S. gunboat Michigan. Undaunted by the failure, Beall returned once again to American soil from his Canadian haven, this time with the goal of seizing a passenger train. Not finding the expected Confederate general officer POWs present, the project was abandoned and Beall was soon after arrested in Niagara, New York on his way back to Canada.

Tried by a military commission set up by department commander Major General John A. Dix, Beall was convicted of being a spy and guerrilla saboteur (he was accused of attempting to derail the train) and sentenced to death by hanging. Helped by the fact that no one was killed or seriously harmed during either clandestine operation, an extensive and quite fascinating campaign to commute Beall's sentence from death to life imprisonment was undertaken. One petition was even signed by half of the U.S. House of Representatives and six senators. Even some of the most hardened radicals, among them Thaddeus Stevens, proved to be unlikely allies in the matter. All of this is well explained in the book. In the end, though, Dix's hardline stance prevailed and the swarm of White House lobbyists and visitors could not sway Lincoln's final decision to uphold the verdict. Lincoln, who had a well-earned reputation for dispensing mercy in similar cases, was not disposed toward challenging Dix on the matter and sincerely felt that the government needed to make an example of Beall, one that would dissuade others from any future actions that could threaten the lives of civilians residing far from the fighting front. By way of further explanation, Harris also suggests that the president, even though the trial thoroughly disproved earlier notions that Beall was somehow involved in the plot to firebomb New York, still seemed to associate Beall (who actively opposed the scheme) with those bitterly detested plotters.

It has been argued by both contemporaries and later writers that Beall's execution and Lincoln's refusal to commute it was a contributing factor behind John Wilkes Booth's final determination to end the president's life. The author recognizes the evidence cited in support of that interpretation, but cautions readers against making too much of it, downplaying the relationship and alleged impetus. The pair had met in Charles Town before the war, when both were associated with the militia raised there in response to John Brown's Raid and subsequent trial, but Harris could find no evidence of any further connection, in person or through correspondence.

William Harris's Confederate Privateer serves as a shining example of not every topic requiring 300-plus pages of text for proper, insightful coverage. At "only" 150 pages of principal narrative, Harris's biography demonstrates admirable scholarly economy. In addition to documenting the life of John Yates Beall to much satisfaction, Harris's book offers useful reminders of lesser-known features of the Civil War's continent-wide irregular conflict. The volume also gainfully supplements the already substantial literature surrounding clandestine Confederate operations based in Canada and their three-headed diplomatic complications.

No comments:

Post a Comment

***PLEASE READ BEFORE COMMENTING***: You must SIGN YOUR NAME when submitting your comment. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties, anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be removed. Thank you for your cooperation.