Shore Found Complicit in Cape Charles Lighthouse Raid

Civil War-era encampment outside Cape Charles Museum (pay no attention to the power lines). (Wave photo)

Civil War-era encampment outside Cape Charles Museum (pay no attention to the power lines). (Wave photo)

By MARION NAAR
Cape Charles Museum

August 11, 2013

Were Shore people complicit in John Beall’s August 3, 1863, raid on the Cape Charles Lighthouse? Exactly 150 years later to the day, a majority of the more than 120 people attending Kellee Blake’s lecture at the Cape Charles Museum voted “yes.”

Blake, a noted Civil War historian, drawing on primary sources – letters, military documents, and news accounts — provided abundant detail of the highly successful operation, which was commissioned to Beall, then only 28 years old and at his request, by Confederate high command.

The Confederacy desperately needed supplies, and had information that valuable supplies were being stored on Smith Island at the mouth of the Bay where the new (second) lighthouse was under construction.

Beall and a crew of nine men started from Mathews County and on the morning of August 3, paid a surprise visit to lighthouse keeper William W. Stakes. Posing as fishermen, Beall and three men pressed Stakes for a detailed accounting of security, supplies, and citizenry on the island before summoning the remainder of his crew.

The full Beall force secured Stakes and his family, as well as any islanders who happened by, then worked for six hours dismantling the light and gutting the working lighthouse, as well as one under construction. It was well worth the trouble.

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They carried the lantern, lights, reflectors, instruments, and a reported 400 barrels of good New Bedford sperm oil down to their waiting vessels watching the horizon all the while.

When the loading was finished, at Beall’s “request,” Mrs. Stakes cooked lunch for the entire crew.

In exchange for their safety, Stakes and the other islanders promised not to disclose Beall’s visit for 24 hours after they watched Beall’s vessel sail westward with a cargo worth more than $10,000.

Beall raided the Shore twice more: the following September off Wachapreague, then again in November when he was captured in Tangier Sound.

Ultimately, the raider was exchanged and involved in other operations around Lake Erie. In December 1864, Federal authorities again captured Beall and hanged him as a spy in February 1865.

As for the Shore people, Federals believed them culpable in the attack and they were taxed for the value of the raided goods, a total of $7,500. Many had paid before the order was rescinded – but it appears no refunds were forthcoming.

The Cape Charles Historical Society was delighted to sponsor this lecture and especially gratified at the local history interest evidenced by the large and enthusiastic turnout both for the lecture and the encampment by “Eastern Shore Refugees,” a local Civil War enactment group, who chatted with visitors throughout the day, offering coffee and homemade cornbread from their fire and cookware.

Inside the Museum, lecture attendees were treated to punch and breads from authentic cornmeal grown and milled at Pungo Creek Mills in Pungoteague.

Another lecture on the exploits of raider Thaddeus Fitzhugh at Cherrystone is planned for March 2014.

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One Response to “Shore Found Complicit in Cape Charles Lighthouse Raid”

  1. Kearn Schemm on August 11th, 2013 11:17 am

    I wish I had been at the lecture. Why wouldn’t the Shore people have been complicit? They were Virginians and their state had (in their view) exited from the union. For many of them, US forces were outside occupiers. I believe many Shore people voluntarily crossed to mainland Virginia and fought for the CSA. As in all southern states, there were also Union sympathizers, but only a minority.

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