Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Review - "Confederates from Canada: John Yates Beall and the Rebel Raids on the Great Lakes" by Ralph Lindeman

[Confederates from Canada: John Yates Beall and the Rebel Raids on the Great Lakes by Ralph Lindeman (McFarland, 2023). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:x,201/240. ISBN:978-1-4766-9278-4. $39.95]

In yet another one of those seemingly unlikely coincidences of Civil War publishing, two titles featuring the exploits, trial, and execution of Confederate maritime raider John Yates Beall were released in the same month last year. William C. Harris's Confederate Privateer: The Life of John Yates Beall (LSU, 2023) is the traditional biography of the two. As its subtitle suggests, Ralph Lindeman's Confederates from Canada: John Yates Beall and the Rebel Raids on the Great Lakes also devotes a great deal of attention to Beall but mainly in the context of the wider picture of clandestine operations based out of Canadian territory. Thus, there is significant overlap but also strong complementary elements between the two studies.

Obviously any military action on the Great Lakes would have significant diplomatic complications. The United States and Canada were subject to long-maintained treaty stipulations strictly limiting the militarization of the international border, including naval deployments on the Great Lakes. For much of the war, the Davis administration, still wishing to curry favor with the British Empire, shied away from using Canada as a base of operations for carrying the fight to the Union home front. However, as the war progressed with the South clearly losing and possibilities of international recognition and foreign intervention fading from view, those prior misgivings evaporated. As Lindeman shows, the green light to launch operations from Canada in 1864 sparked a number of new proposals ranging from cooperating with anti-war "Copperhead" allies (an example being the so-called "Northwest Conspiracy" led by former John Hunt Morgan raider Thomas Hines), seizing or purchasing vessels for commerce raiding and bombardment attacks on lakeside U.S. cities, and freeing Confederate POWs (the officer prisoners at Johnson's Island a frequent target of attention). Events outside the Great Lakes regions, such as the Vermont Raid and plot to burn New York, are outside the scope of this study and are mentioned only briefly. Canada also proved to be a convenient place to carry out more cooperative negotiations in secret, and Lindeman cites late-war cotton trading agreements that were forged across the border and away from the prying eyes of the American press and public.

The number of Copperheads who would have been willing to actually take up arms and involve themselves in the kinds of plots mentioned in the book (in particular, Hines's venture involving thousands of Sons of Liberty warriors converging on Chicago and coordinating with Confederate agents in an attack on Camp Douglas) has always been disputed, and there's wide disagreement among scholars when it comes to how serious the Copperhead threat was to the Union war effort. Lindeman's text seems to draw from both camps, frequently equivocating on the plausible strength and influence of the most radical and violent elements of the Copperhead movement. There are some brow-raising moments in the part of the book discussing links between Confederate activities and the Union home front opposition. For instance, the book labels both Horace Greeley and Rep. Thaddeus Stevens as being "anti-war," which certainly wasn't their overall stance (though use of the adjective might be a case of ill-advised shorthand for describing administration critics within Lincoln's own party who sharply and frequently objected to the way the war was being conducted).

Beall's irregular activities are described in depth. Lindeman's account of Beall's productive Chesapeake Bay maritime guerrilla attacks, and the Union response to them that eventually led to the capture of Beall and many of his men, reveals much about a part of the war not often mentioned in the literature. Lindeman's text also closely features the Johnson's Island, Ohio prison facility that would be targeted by the Confederates, providing a great deal of information regarding its curious location, construction history, design, guards, and defenses. A lengthy description of what life was like for POWs housed there is included as well. Perhaps most finely detailed is Lindeman's meticulous recounting of the renewal of Beall's ambitious older plan to appropriate a civilian lake steamer and use it to capture the gunboat USS Michigan, a joint effort that was to be coordinated with a POW uprising that would seize control of Johnson's Island and free the officers held there. The September 1864 operation, which was largely dependent upon an agent successfully bribing or drugging key members of the Michigan's crew, was a highly complicated endeavor that involved a rather astounding number of moving parts, all of which had to come together to perfection in order for the scheme to succeed. Of course, that didn't happen and the plan miscarried. Beall's high-risk career finally ended after a similarly desperate action in December 1864. This time, Beall's small group of agents would attempt to waylay a passenger train by threatening derailment, the Confederate general officer prisoners being transferred aboard it freed by the agents and secreted back to Canada. That scheme also failed and Beall was arrested, tried, and executed as a convicted spy and saboteur. All of these accounts of Beall's irregular activities exceed in detail the bit more cursory treatments found in the Harris biography, though Harris's coverage of the trial and widespread lobbying efforts aimed toward getting Lincoln to commute Beall's death sentence is much more extensive.

Lindeman's study effectively highlights many of the challenges and weaknesses of clandestine Confederate operations. Aside from the unrealistic 'shoot for the moon' nature of some of the plots, secrecy and information compartmentalization were badly handled on a routine basis and decidedly unreliable individuals (some of whom were turncoats) were frequently employed at key stages. Their foes also played a primary role in thwarting Confederate plans. As demonstrated in the book, U.S. and state authorities employed in the Great Lakes border region a combined effort of diplomatic pressure, policing, government detectives, and informer networks, the effective coordination of which countered a number of cross-border clandestine schemes and movements.

Both Lindeman and Harris (though in his book Lindeman presents the alleged supporting evidence in far more extensive fashion on the page) convincingly determine that the available hard evidence does not conclusively support claims made that there was a personal relationship between Beall and John Wilkes Booth, that they met in Canada, and that Beall's capital sentence (and Lincoln's refusal to commute it) was a major motivating factor behind the actor's assassination of the president. Lindeman, however, does not entirely dismiss the possibility. Given the tantalizing nature of some of the circumstantial evidence compiled through his research, the author believes that "the safest conclusion may be the axiom that 'absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence'" (pg. 192).

Confederates from Canada is worthy of recommendation through its strong contributions to our Civil War knowledge on several fronts. Combining Lindeman's writing with Harris's biography, we now have the most complete portrait of the life and Civil War career of one of the war's most infamous (though little-known today) behind-the-lines raiders. Lindeman's study significantly fleshes out both particular Confederate military activities in the Great Lakes region and more generally the connections between Canada and the American Civil War. The often delicate diplomacy involved in U.S.-Canadian relations throughout the war is also fruitfully explored.

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