John Yates Beall, was born on January 1, 1835 on his family’s farm at Walnut Grove near Charlestown, Virginia (now Charles Town, West Virginia). When the war started, he enlisted in Bott’s Grays, local Company G of the 2nd Virginia Infantry, part of the famous Stonewall Brigade.
In late 1861 in action at Bolivar Heights, a bullet wound injured his lung and ribs, rendering him incapable to ordinary service in the army. However, it didn’t stop Beall from wanting to contribute to the cause.
He presented a plan to Confederate officials to act to operate as a privateer in the Great Lakes. He recruited 18 men, all former members of the Confederate cavalry, and all first time seamen. His private navy commandeered two ships and Beal ran his own privateering operation. While operating there, he was captured and sent to Fort McHenry where he was held in shackles. He was eventually exchanged.
Beall and his men returned to the Great Lakes where he developed a new plan. He and his men were attempting to derail a train near Buffalo, New York to free Confederate officers who were prisoners of war. They were being transferred from the prison at Johnson Island, near Sandusky, Ohio to Fort Warren, in Boston. His new plan was scuttled and he was arrested again on December 16, 1864 in a train station near Niagara Falls, New York.
He was charged with violations of the laws of war and acting as a spy. At his trial he was found guilty of capturing the steam boat Philo Parson, sinking the steam boat Island Queen, acting as a spy at Kelley’s Island, and at Middle Bass Island, both in Ohio and at Suspension Bridge in New York.
Beall was found guilty of ten specifications and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead.
The trial and sentencing made headlines in the newspapers. Prominent people took up his cause, calling on President Lincoln at the White House to argue their case. Six U.S. Senators and ninety-one members of the House of Representatives even signed a petition asking President Lincoln to intervene.
Lincoln has been known to be empathetic to many Civil War prisoners, actually commuting sentences of over a thousand during the Civil War. In the John Yates Beall case, the president refused to get involved.
John Yates Beall was hanged on February 24, 1865 at Fort Columbus, on Governor’s Island in New York.
.John Yates Beall is buried in the Zion Episcopal Church Cemetery in Charles Town.
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