Oops! I guess I put the spoiler in the title. Oh, well. Hopefully, it makes you more curious. After-all, unless you’ve really researched Confederate spies, hangings, secret agents, or sabotage along the Great Lakes/Canadian border, you probably haven’t heard of John Yates Beall.
How did I discover this historical character? The McGuires. If you’ve been following Gazette665 for a while or check our photos on social media, you’ll know that I’ve been researching the McGuire Family of Winchester, Virginia, for about three years now. One of the McGuire boys (Edward) was involved in some secret agent or spy stuff with John Beall. In fact, Edward was so secretive that I’m still looking for clear information about his activities. That will have to be another story at another time.
Today, we’re talking about John Yates Beall, a Confederate spy. Why was he a spy? What did he do? How did he get caught? Let’s find out:
Life & War’s Beginning
Born on January 1, 1835, John Yates Beall grew up near Charles Town, Virginia (modern area of West Virginia). For his higher education, he attended the University of Virginia, studying law; he left the school in 1855 without completing his degree.
John eventually took over management of his family’s farm after his father’s death, and, in 1859, after John Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry, he joined the local militia. As a member of the local militia unit, known as “Bott’s Greys,” he witnessed the execution of John Brown and may have briefly met a fellow named John Wilkes Booth.
The Civil War began in April 1861, and the 2nd Virginia Regiment incorporated Bott’s Greys militia units as one of their companies. (The 2nd Virginia Regiment formed part of the Stonewall Brigade.) In October 1861, John was severely wounded and given medical leave. While recuperating, he became secretly engaged to Martha O’Bryan, a schoolteacher from Nashville, Tennessee. He rejoined his unit in the spring of 1862, but got separated at some point during the 1862 Valley Campaign, and, for one reason or another, gave up trying to find his unit (or maybe just quit?) and headed out west, joining a brother who’d settled in Iowa. (Sound a little odd to anyone else?)
Iowa was a Union state, so John dropped his last name and found employment using the name John Yates. Eventually, someone in the community figured out John’s story, and he fled to Canada. Travelling through Canada, he took passage in a ship and headed for Richmond, Virginia – capital of the Confederacy – in January 1863.
“Irregular Operations” On The Chesapeake
Arriving in Richmond, John managed to get Confederate President Davis’s attention, suggesting a form of sabotage and commerce raiding in the Chesapeake Bay. Interested in the idea, Davis approved irregular operations of this sort, and on March 5, 1863, John got a commission as acting master in the Confederate States Navy.
With about twenty men and two small vessels, he spent the next few months causing havoc and hiding to evade Union capture. They cut important cables, captured supply ships owned by civilians, and destroyed a lighthouse. (A lighthouse was/is federal property.)
Understandably, this upset the Union authorities. They managed to capture John and his crew on November 15, 1863, and hauled them off to prison. Treated as pirates instead of soldiers, the raiders ended up in irons within the walls of Fort McHenry and were later moved to a prison ship and still later to Point Lookout, Maryland.
In March 1864, John Y. Beall was exchanged and headed back to Confederate territory.
Off To Canada
He didn’t waste time searching for more destructive adventures. By August 1864, he’d said good-bye to his secret fiancee and head toward the Canadian border. John met with Lieutenant Colonel Jacob Thompson, who oversaw all official Confederate operations along the Canadian border.
The following month – September 19, 1864, to be exact – John and a group of armed men attempted a raid on Johnson Island Prison on Lake Erie, trying to free approximately 3,000 Confederate prisoners held there. Poor planning and some unforeseen circumstances caused this mission to fail.
You know, one of the problems with spies: we don’t always know exactly what they were doing. What type of spying was John doing? What information was he gathering? Who were his contacts? Who was he associating with? That fellow named John Wilkes Booth had contacts in Canada, and there’s a lot about Confederate secret agents in Canada and the north that we just don’t know.
Well, we do know for certain that John Y. Beall’s next major project was attempting to derail trains. But not just any trains – specifically trains carrying Confederate prisoners. This new brand of mischief didn’t endear him to the local or federal authorities.
Captured, Tried, Hanged
On December 16, 1864, John got captured near Niagara Falls, New York…and his captors weren’t inclined to be generously lenient. John was sent to Fort Lafayette, and his trial by military commission began in January 1865. The charges against him? The Lake Erie raid, spying, and attempted train wrecking.
Though denied communication with family or friends in the outside during his trial, John managed to get a lawyer from New York City who argued that John was a Confederate officer, acting under orders – not a spy or guerrilla. The military commission wasn’t impressed, convicted John, and sent him first to Fort Columbus, then to Governor’s Island Prison in New York Bay.
Friends worked for John’s pardon and release. They wrote to President Lincoln and Secretary of War Stanton asking for a pardon. They started a petition and collected ninety-two signatures from members of Congress. But the pardon never came.
On February 24, 1865 – less than two months before the surrender at Appomattox Court House – John Yates Beall hanged. Declaring his innocence and saying he died in the service of his country (Confederacy). Officially and federally convicted as a spy.