Bay attacks spark Union raid on Mathews

For the first two years of the Civil War, the far reaches of the Middle Peninsula remained a Confederate sanctuary largely unmolested by Union forces.

Though occasional patrols ventured inland from the Federal stronghold at Gloucester Point in search of livestock, grain and other supplies that might be used to help Richmond, the blue-clad soldiers seldom went out in force. Rarer still were marches across the Gloucester County line into neighboring Mathews.

All that changed in the fall of 1863 when Confederate commerce raiders began exploiting the remote waterfront region's unique geography as a base for increasingly ambitious and destructive attacks on Northern shipping in the Chesapeake.

Sailing in log canoes from the neck of land that jutted farthest into the bay, the "Volunteer Coast Guard" of former Confederate infantryman John Yates Beall struck hard at lighthouses and submarine telegraph lines as well as merchant vessels, disrupting Union supply and communication lines with an ease that set off alarms from Yorktown and Fort Monroe to the Eastern Shore and Washington, D.C.

In response, the Federals moved in with more than 1,000 soldiers as well as 11 gunboats to seal the county off, then conducted an exhaustive house-to-house search that left one prominent Mathews man hanging from the end of a rope and a hundred others arrested.

A century and half later, the punishing counter-insurgency expedition known as "Wistar's Raid" is still remembered.

"This was no small operation. The Union cut Mathews County off at the neck — then went through it like a dose of salts, turning over every flower pot — every crab pot — in a 72-hour search for people who didn't blend in," says historian J. Michael Moore, who conducts tours of the Mathews raid for the historic Civil War museum at Lee Hall Mansion in Newport News.

"Hangings like this were a rarity. You didn't see them very often. But after that, things in Mathews started to settle down pretty quick."

An unlikely privateer

Few people may have seemed less likely to lead the Confederacy's 1863 Chesapeake Bay campaign than Beall — a native of what is now the West Virginia highlands — who was seriously wounded in the chest in late 1861.

Even after a long recovery, the former member of the Stonewall Brigade suffered from respiratory ills that made him unfit for regular duty. But he wasn't ready to stop fighting.

Meeting in Richmond with President Jefferson Davis in early 1863, the 28-year-old former University of Virginia law student won approval to begin conducting irregular naval operations on the bay, for which he was commissioned an acting master in the Confederate navy.

Soon he had recruited and armed some 20 men in addition to outfitting the Raven and the Swan — two small sailing craft with which he planned to sneak up on larger vessels in the dark of night before any threat could be detected.

"Beall didn't have any kind of naval background. But he had this vision of what could be done with very limited resources to harass the Union along the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay — and what he starts to do with two small boats and less than a couple of dozen men attracts a lot of attention," Moore says.

"Mathews is the closest part of Virginia to the Eastern Shore. It has more miles of coastline in which to hide than any other county. So it provides him with a natural base — and a natural hiding place — for what was essentially a band of privateers."

On the attack

Working closely with sympathetic landowners at Horn Harbor — including Sands Smith II and his brother Thomas, in particular — Beall launched his first attack in early July 1863 but arrived at Cherrystone Inlet on the Eastern Shore about 20 minutes after his intended target had departed.

Undeterred, he and his men cut the submarine telegraph cable between Cherrystone and Old Point Comfort, then sent a portion of the cable to Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory as proof of how easily he could disrupt Union communications with Fort Monroe.

A month later, Beall disabled the Smith Island lighthouse in the middle bay after tricking the keeper into giving him a tour.

"My friend, I am highly pleased with the light-house, and your management of it," he's reported to have said in an 1865 biography that drew upon his correspondence and diary.