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.
"And I have a party of friends belonging to the Confederate States Navy, who, I think, would like to look at it!"
Emboldened by these easy successes — and by the lucrative sale of 300 gallons of scarce whale oil from the lighthouse on Richmond's wartime market — the raiders struck a still more serious blow in a series of late September attacks off the Eastern Shore.
In four days, they captured a sloop, several fishing scows and four schooners, including one vessel loaded with $200,000 worth of sutler's stores. Then they stripped all but one of their prizes of prisoners and goods, setting them adrift on the bay as hazards to Northern shipping.
Sailing the largest ship back toward Mathews, the raiders were nearing Milford Haven when they ran aground, forcing them to set their trophy ablaze and then flee from an untimely cannon barrage fired by the fast-approaching USS Thomas Freeborn.
"This kind of Confederate raiding was very disruptive — but the Federal gunboats just can't chase them down," historian John V. Quarstein says.
"This was riverine guerrilla fighting — and Beall's small boats had the advantage because they were very elusive and very hard to detect."
From his base at Yorktown, Lt. Cmdr. J.H. Gillis sent his superiors at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off Fort Monroe a report filled with frustration.
"It is impossible for three vessels to keep such a watch on all the little inlets between Fortress Monroe and Piankatank River as will at all times prevent small boats from shipping in and out," he wrote.
The Union strikes back
Alarmed by the increasingly ambitious attacks from Mathews — plus some confusion with another Southern naval unit that had captured two Union gunboats on the Rappahannock River just the month before — the North responded with a combined army and navy operation that dwarfed all its previous expeditions on the Middle Peninsula.
Commanded by newly arrived Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar, a large strike force made up of the 4th U.S. Colored Infantry, 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry and 1st New York Mounted Rifles as well as three artillery batteries left Yorktown on Oct. 4 and marched from Gloucester Point toward Mathews.
Six Navy gunboats joined with five army vessels to blockade the coastline, taking up positions in a long arc that stretched from the North and East rivers, Mobjack Bay and New Point Comfort on the southwest to Horn and Winter harbors, Milford Haven, Gwynn's Island and the Piankatank River on the bay.
Sealing the county off at the neck with his infantry and artillery, Wistar then sent his cavalry on a three-day sweep that turned the countryside upside down.
"Every nook, corner, creek and landing place was visited," he reported.
"About 150 boats and sloops were destroyed, some 80 head of beef…captured and brought in. A few horses and arms were taken and about 100 prisoners…arrested."
Several Union gunboats sent landing parties ashore, too, and some treated the residents in ways that Wistar described as "shameful and disgraceful."
But the most serious incident took place when a cavalry detachment rode up to search Sand Smith II's property at Horn Harbor.
Sunken with sand offshore Smith's home, Beall's boats remained undetected — and the Confederate raider and his men managed to escape to Dragon Run Swamp by hiding in a ditch until they could elude the Union sentries under the cover of darkness.
But Smith was beaten and hanged after he emptied a shotgun barrel into the body of a blue-clad trooper, then misfired while trying to shoot another.
Union soldiers had raided the elderly man's home before, the Richmond Enquirer reported on Oct. 10. And according to family lore, the Federals uttered "something discourteous" that made the half-deaf patriarch lose his temper.
"He had to have been nervous. He had to have known he was putting himself at risk," Quarstein says. "And he paid the price."
Tied up behind his buggy, Smith was pulled down the road four miles beyond Mathews Court House, with his captors cursing and abusing him the entire way.
Eventually, the macabre parade stopped at an old persimmon tree, where — by the order of Col. Samuel Spear — Smith was hanged and then shot to death after the drop failed to kill him.
Buried in a shallow grave with his feet sticking out of the ground, his remains were marked with the following inscription:
"Warning to damn bushwhackers. Every damn man we catch with arms in the woods, we will hang so high that the birds will build nests in them.
"So take warning, such will be your fate, you damn cowards. Here lies the body of an old bushwhacker."
Six weeks later, Beall and his band returned to Horn Harbor, refloated their boats and set out again to attack Northern shipping.
But this time they were intercepted and captured off the Eastern Shore by an alert Union commander.
"Apparently, they tried to pass themselves off as duck hunters from Baltimore," Moore says.
"But no one believed it."
Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.
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