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John Yates Beall  - HIS PIRATICAL EXPLOIT ON LAKE ERIE

1913 text from reference (15) in the Bibliography

Go back to Middle Bass Club - 1913

Lying as they do on the boundary line of two countries, the Lake Erie islands are destined to figure conspicuously on the page of future history, and in time may rival in tales of war and romance the castled and fortressed shores of Germany's famed Rhine River and other renowned frontiers of countries and kingdoms. In the event of war with Great Britain these islands would fall an easy prey to British and Canadian cruisers, and would also afford convenient skulking places for spies and plotters. Already have they become historic, not only as the scene of Perry's victory in 1813, but also as the hatching ground of plots and conspiracies during the War of the Rebellion.

Old residents of Put-in-Bay and neighboring isles still take interest in an occasional review of reminiscences connected with the notable conspiracy of John Yates Beall and his abettors in 1864, the object of which was the liberation of rebel officers - 3,000 in number - confined as prisoners on Johnson's Island; the raiding and capture of Sandusky and other lake towns, and the devastation of Northern Ohio by armed Confederates and their allies. The plot, its attempted fulfillment, its timely discovery and subsequent failure, are facts of historic record, reiteration of which is not the object of the following narration, excepting so far as concerns their bearing on local incidents and reminiscence. From a local point of view, therefore, the event will here be considered, thus perhaps bringing to light matter of interest which has escaped the general delineator of history.

Very quiet for a summer resort was Put-in-Bay at the time of which we write - a fact due in part to the lateness of the season and consequent withdrawal of summer guests, and partly to a deficit in the island's male population occasioned by the absence of a large proportion of able-bodied men, then doing duty in the ranks of the Union army on Southern soil.

September 19th, 1864, dawned serenely over stretches of purpling vineyard and orchards full frujted. Old men and boys, women and children, were early at their work gathering the luscious clusters and heaping the measure with orchard fruits.

The morning steamer cleared from the wharves on her usual daily trip to Sandusky, and no suspicion of brooding danger threatened the peace of island homes or that of the nation entered the minds of island dwellers. True, there had been reported among visitors to the place, a few days before, individuals who had acted strangely and said some queer things concerning the war, its prospects and the relations of North and South, hinting darkly of what “might” happen. These individuals were spotted as “rebel sympathizers,” if not as genuine rebels. No special importance was attached to the circumstance of their presence on the island, however, until afterwards.

Late in the afternoon of the day above specified, the steamer Philo Parsons, of the Detroit, Island & Sandusky line, landed at Wehrle's dock, Middle Bass, distant a mile or so from the “Bay.” At the latter place the usual crowd of interested parties and dock loungers awaited the steamer's arrival, but as she showed no signs of putting off from Middle Bass some debate as to the cause of her detention was excited. A little later the steamer Island Queen, which had left Put-in-Bay in the morning, was seen threading her way through the channel to Wehrle 's and soon the two steamers lay side by side.

Darkness fell and the crowd on the docks at Put-in-Bay increased. Both the Philo Parsons and Island Queen were expected to touch, one on her way to Detroit, the other bound for Toledo. Both were long overdue. No telephone or telegraph cable connected the islands as now, and no messages could be exchanged. It was proposed to send a boat across with a committee of investigation, but nobody volunteered to go. Some were awaiting expected friends, others the evening mail or parcels from the city. Weary of delay, the less curious and anxious of the crowd finally dispersed to their homes and turned in for the night. Scarcely had they closed their eyes in slumber, however, when each in turn was startled by a thundering knock at his door.

To the query: “Who's there, and what's wanted?” came the astounding reply:

“Get up! The steamers Island Queen and Philo Parsons are in the hands of the rebels! Secrete your money and valuables, and if you have any firearms or ammunition in the house, get them together and hurry to the Bay.”

From house to house swiftly sped the messenger, and silently stealing through the night from every part of the island flitting shadows might have been seen of men and often of women and children with frightened faces, all hurrying toward the bay center. The news which had thus aroused the island from center to circumference was communicated by Capt. George Magle, a passenger of the Island Queen, who, under cover of darkness had crossed from Middle Bass. Capt. Magle stated that a large force of men, armed to the teeth, had taken possession of both steamers, and that the officers, crew and passengers were held as prisoners, though the latter were finally allowed to go ashore at Middle Bass, after a promise had been exacted from each to divulge nothing concerning the occurrence for twenty-four hours - a promise which in numerous instances was quickly broken.

Certain of the passengers had gathered from words let fall by the conspirators, that their object was the capture of the United States gunboat Michigan, then lying in Sandusky Bay, and the liberation of the prisoners on Johnson Island. These movements, together with the uncertainty of their results, filled with foreboding the minds of island dwellers. By common impulse, people gathered to the Bay from Middle Bass and Isle St. George, and excitement knew no bounds.

A military company was hastily organized, and Capt. John Brown, Jr., son of old John Brown, of Harper's Ferry fame, who resided on the island, was chosen its commander, and every available man was enrolled within its ranks. The members of this brigade were variously accoutered. Captain Brown possessed in his own right quite an arsenal of weapons, some of which had been used by his father and other members of the Brown family in their raids and skirmishes. These were distributed among the men, together with a nondescript assortment of muskets, breechloading rifles, Springfield rifles, shot guns, revolvers and horse pistols.

The old “Perry victory” cannon - which ever since the War of 1812 had kept watch and ward over the island - was wheeled into position, commanding the wharves and heavily charged with powder, gravel and old iron.

Meantime, wagons were driving about like “Jehu,” conveying goods from stores and private dwellings to the thick woodlands of the west shore, where they were secreted. Old stumps and hollow logs were utilized as banks of deposit for money, jewels and valuables of all sorts, while the numerous caves which perforate the island's sub-strata of limestone afforded refuge for the weak-kneed and faint of heart. Into these retreats, it is said, crowded the “Copperheads”, as the Southern sympathizers were then called - and so demoralized with fright were they, it is averred, that they did not emerge for three days.

To the inhabitants of Put-in-Bay the night which followed the first news of the plot was fraught with all the tragedy of war. The air was filled with flying and exaggerated rumors; the suspense was painful; women grew nervous with apprehension and no thought of sleep was entertained.

As soon as practicable, news of the capture was sent to the commanding officer of the guard on Johnson's Island  - a deputation selected for the purpose bearing the message and proceeding by boat across to the peninsula, and thence to the island lying just beyond in Sandusky Bay.

During the time that Put-in-Bay was under arms, two alarms were reported. The first occurred at the old  “South dock.” In the distribution of guards, two men had been picketed at that place. One was armed with a rifle, the other brandished an old musket. The men had been lying under a tree, when they perceived a squad of men approaching. One of the guards grew alarmed and wanted to run, but was rallied by his comrade. Together they faced the marauders, and in true military style demanded the countersign. The strangers couldn't give the countersign, but the spokesman of the party reported as captain of a small trading vessel anchored off shore, accompanied by his crew, and the newcomers were allowed to pass without molestation.

The second alarm occurred in the early dawn of morning, when a vessel entered the bay and cast anchor under the shadow of Gibraltar Island. Imagination had played wild pranks during the night, and become highly wrought. By its aid in the dim, uncertain light, the strange craft was readily resolved into a piratical cruiser upon evil intent. The shore battery was brought to bear upon her, and other preparations made for a gallant defense. The guards felt shaky, but anxious to ascertain the intruder's designs, a boat was manned and sent out to hail her. The first countenance that appeared over the “cruiser 's” railing as they approached was that of a well-known sailor and fisherman - Meachem by name - a resident of the island. By this sign they knew that their fears were groundless, and that the vessel was an unoffending frequenter of the island waters.

With the approach of day, all eyes were turned expectantly in the direction of Johnson's Island and Sandusky, and at 6 a. m. a report gained circulation that during the night the steamer Parsons had been sighted, heading for the Detroit River; and from the way that her chimneys threw smoke it was evident that steam was being crowded. From this circumstance the islanders judged that the plot had failed, and the conspirators were trying to make good their escape.

The island military now grew brave, and disbanding, went home to breakfast, which was dispatched with a relish. Later in the day a tug arrived from Sandusky, bringing definite news of the plot and its failure, and bearing dispatches stating that the officers of the Island Queen, who had been carried away as prisoners on the Parsons, were safe landed and on their way home.

Concerning the capture of these boats, the late Capt. Geo. W. Orr, master of the Island Queen, told an interesting story. The captain made a spirited resistance of the raiders to whom, at the point of a revolver, he was finally forced to yield. Following this episode, and up to the time of his death, Captain Orr was a summer resident of Put-in-Bay, owning and occupying with his family a pretty cottage environed with shrubbery, orchard and vineyard. Following is his account, verbatim, as furnished the writer:

"I had no personal knowledge of the capture of the steamer Philo Parsons by the same men a few hours before the taking of the Queen, but according to the statement made me by Captain Atwood, master of the Parsons, the latter left Detroit on the morning of September 19th. On her way down she stopped at Sandwich, on the Canadian side, when some ten or twelve men got on board as passengers for Sandusky. Leaving there she touched at Amherstburg on the same side, and there twelve or fifteen more men got on board, also as passengers for Sandusky. Amongst the baggage here taken on was a large, old-fashioned trunk covered with sole leather, which afterwards proved to contain a quantity of revolvers, hatchets, pistols and bowie knives. Leaving Amherstburg the steamer came direct to Put-in-Bay, then to Middle Bass, where Captain Atwood got off, leaving the boat in charge of the mate, his son-in-law. Continuing the trip to Sandusky, the Parsons stopped at Kelley’s Island. Leaving Kelley's she had got about three-fourths of the distance between that place and Cedar Point when the men who came as passengers from Canada opened the leather trunk and arming themselves at once took possession of the steamer, made prisoners of the crew, and compelled them to navigate the boat as their captors directed. Under their orders the Parsons passed into Sandusky bay a little beyond Cedar Point to where a fair view could be had of Johnson’s Island. A short stoppage was made, then without proceeding further, for some reason, they put about, and returned to Middle Bass. Before reaching there they threw overboard several tons of pig iron which had been consigned to Sandusky. At Middle Bass, when wooding, the steamer Island Queen came alongside on her way from Sandusky to Put-in-Bay and Toledo. Forty or fifty soldiers - 100 day men - who were going to Toledo to be mustered out, were on board the Queen, together with a large number of island people, making nearly 100 passengers. Here the Queen was taken possession of by the armed conspirators, who leaped aboard from the Parsons’ upper decks. The men comprising crew and passengers of the Queen were compelled to go into the Parsons’ hold, while the ladies and children were all ordered into her upper cabins.

“Engineer Henry Haines was ordered out of the engine room, and told that if he did not come they would shoot him. He refused and they shot him in the face, causing a flesh wound and filling his face with powder.

“Several shots were fired indiscriminately into the crowd, Lorenz Miller of Put-in-Bay sustaining severe injuries, while the women were nearly frightened into hysterics.

“A few minutes later I was ordered up from the hold and taken on board the Queen, where the leader of the gang demanded the boat ‘s papers.

“’Whom am I giving them to ?’ I inquired.

“’I am Lieutenant Beall of the Confederate Navy.’

“’What do you want with the papers?’

“’We want to send them as trophies to Jeff Davis’

“’You can't run the boat without the papers,’ I then said.

“’The boat isn't going to run much longer,’ was the reply.

“I told him that the papers were in the office, which when we reached, we found had been broken open, the papers scattered about the floor and the money drawer rifled.

“I asked him what he was going to do with the women and children who were up in the Parsons’ cabin. He said that they would be put ashore on Middle Bass, and that he should require of them an obligation not to divulge anything in regard to the matter for twenty-four hours. I told him that I had three children in the cabin, that I knew most of the others, and would like to go up and see them, and he went with me.

“He then placed the clerk, William Hamilton, Engineer Haines and myself under guard, and calling together all the prisoners, made them promise to say nothing of the affair until after the time specified. I wanted to go ashore with the others, but the guard would not let me off

“The leader then ordered the Parsons to get under way, the Queen lashed to her side. When about half a mile southeast of Ballast Island the boat came to a stop. Lieut. Beall then ordered the Queen ‘s yawlboat lowered and taken in charge of the Parsons; this done he ordered the former scuttled.

“I asked permission to go and get the Queen’s books, as they would be of use to the owners.

“’The books are all right where they are,’ was the reply.

“’They are going to destroy the boat,’ I insisted.

“’I guess not,’ answered the guard.

“A man then came up out of the hold and said that he had cut the steamer’s feed pipe, and that the water was coming in fast. Then they cast off her lines and let her go adrift in the darkness, and the Parsons was headed for Sandusky. When within a mile of the outside channel buoy, at the mouth of the bay, we hove to. I was called out of the cabin and Lieut. Beall asked me whether I had heard of any report that a raid from Canada was going to be made on Johnson’s Island. I told him I had not

“It was then about 10 p.m. The U. S. gunboat Michigan lay off Johnson’s Island, her black hull glooming through the night. The plotters were awaiting signals evidently which failed to appear. Three or four of the leaders went aside and held a consultation, and I overheard Lieut. Beall say to the men:

“’I have a notion to make the attempt, anyhow.’

“They waited about a half an hour longer, and then headed back up the lake, and the Parsons was put under crowded steam. There were lots of old coal oil barrels aboard, and the boiler was kept in a tremendous heat. The first halt was made in the Detroit River just above Amherstburg; off that place a number of men got into the Queen’s yawl and went ashore. The next stop was made about daylight at “Fighting Island”, a marshy strip of land about four or five miles long, uninhabited at the time. There they put us ashore.

“I told them we had rather be landed on the main shore. They said they had rather we wouldn’t.

“Leaving us, they continued on up the river to Sandwich, where, after removing the piano and other valuables, the Parsons was set adrift, but was afterward picked up by a tug. The raiders then scattered into Canada as fast as possible.

“Hamilton, Haines, and myself remained on Fighting Island about two hours, when a fisherman passed in a boat. We signaled him in, and got him to set us across upon the American side, where we took the car for Sandusky, going by the way of Monroeville, at which place I learned on arriving that the Island Queen had grounded upon ‘Chickanola reef’. I at once telegraphed to Detroit for a tug and steam pump.

“When we reached Sandusky, we found the place wild with excitement. While waiting there, I had a plug made three feet long, four inches in diameter, and tapering to a point. Next morning we boarded the tug Louise and started for ‘Chickanola’ reef, where we found the Queen sunk in about ten feet of water, which just covered her lower decks. Had the steamer gone down in deep water her whereabouts would never have been known. The tug and pump arrived from Detroit, and at once they began to lower the water. When low enough so that I could get under the deck, I went with the plug - knowing just where to find the pipe - and driving it in, stopped the leak. After that we soon had her pumped out and towed to Kelley’s Island, and none too soon, for in an hour after reaching there it began blowing a lively gale from the west.”

As described by Capt. Orr, John Yates Beall - who was afterwards captured at Toronto, sentenced arid shot as a spy on Governor’s Island, New York - was a youth of courageous and courteous bearing, aged at the time of his execution twenty-two years.

A paper dropped by a rebel prisoner, Col. Johnson, of Kentucky, containing plans of the conspirators, thus putting on guard officials at Sandusky, and Col. Hill in command at Johnson’s Island, was the agency that frustrated, at the last moment, one of the deepest-laid plots of the Civil War - a plot, the success of which would undoubtedly have caused devastation to Northern homes, and turned perhaps the chances of war in favor of the Southern Confederacy.

 In view of this projected uprising, thirty thousand stand of arms had been secreted, it is said, on the Canadian shore; also an armament wherewith to fit out the propeller, “Georgian.”

(Note: In the text of this article in both the 1898 and 1913 editions, Lydia Ryall had spelled "Beall" incorrectly everywhere within the article as "Beale", even though the name was correct in the title.)

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