Book Reviews

Victim of Honor: The Story of John Y. Beall and the Northwestern Conspiracy
Review written by Charlie Koenig and appeared in the Mathews, Virginia Gazette-Journal July 5, 2007

Was John Yates Beall a marauding pirate or an honorable soldier fighting for the Confederacy behind enemy lines? From the title of his work of historical fiction, it's pretty obvious where author James Duffey stands on that question.

While Victim of Honor focuses mainly on Captain Beall's adventure on Lake Erie, where he captured two steamers and threatened to take the only U.S. warship patrolling the Great Lakes, the book does contain a fascinating bit of local history, that of the Confederate Coast Guard.
Steamer Island Queen

Operating out of Horn Harbor in Mathews, Beall's Confederate Coast Guard harassed shipping, captured Union prisoners, and severed the telegraph line from the Eastern Shore. His success led to Union General Isaac Wistar's October 1863 raid into Mathews County, specifically to apprehend the renegade and his crew. Duffey did some of his research in Mathews to write the chapter titled Privateers on the Chesapeake.

In that chapter, Duffey tells of Beall's success in plying the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in his white-hulled Swan and the black companion vessel, Raven. He also talks about Wistar's raid and the drumhead execution of Mathews County civilian, Sands Smith.

However, much of the action in Victim of Honor takes place in Canada (where the plots were laid) and the northern U.S. The book follows Beall's capture and eventual hanging as a spy. Through it all Duffey portrays Beall as an honorable soldier acting under orders from his superiors, and his death as an unavoidable tragedy carried out by a vengeful General Dix.

Duffey has an ear for realistic dialogue and a talent for keeping the story moving. Victim of Honor is a good read and an exciting tale of a forgotten chapter in Civil War history.

Victim of Honor Retells Beall's Story
Review written by Sandra Fahning for the Medina Gazette , May 12, 2007

When is a book about history not a history textbook? When it is told in the form of an historical novel, as is the case with Victim of Honor (Rion Hall Publishing; $17.95), by author James E. Duffey. This is the story of John Yates Beall and the Northwestern Conspiracy that took place during the Civil War. This is not a work of fiction.

Duffey, an historian and educator currently serving as adjunct professor of American history at Kent State University, spent seven years researching and writing the story of Beall's Civil War activities and his subsequent execution. In the book's forward Duffey states:

When I began, I had hoped to write a biography of Captain John Yates Beall that would tell his story in a more accurate and honest way than it had been reported in his time.

Although information was hard to find and some of it is gone forever, the author forged ahead believing that the story needed to be told, that Beall deserved to get the justice denied him more than a century ago. Duffey states up front that much of Beall's story has been reported inaccurately, even by his contemporaries, and he has tried to correct those inaccuracies but admits that he had to make some educated and hopefully sound judgments. He also created dialogue and scenes with the hopes of providing insight for the readers.

I have in every case been as true to actual facts as was humanly possible, writes Duffey.

This is a well-written book not only about the life of John Yates Beall, but also of the subterfuge and politics of the Civil War. For the most part, readers are not taken to the battlefields. They are instead introduced to the people of the North and of the South who were involved in the war.

Because this is a true story, we know from the very beginning that Beall is executed. It's the events that lead up to his death that are compelling and will make readers wish they could change history that there was a happy ending to this story. Beall was a thorn in the side of Union authorities. Among the many reasons they wanted him stopped were his disruptions of cargo shipping on the Chesapeake Bay and his attempts to free prisoners held at Johnson's Island Prison in Sandusky Bay.

When he finally was captured, Beall was true to his own code of honor and he refused to implicate others. Unfortunately, there were those who were not as honorable and saved their own lives. The last chapters of the book deal with his imprisonment and execution and they are moving. Duffey has somehow captured Beall's personality and his awful plight with a kind of dignity and grace.

The author has received the Madeline Blum Award for his study of the Irish immigrants in Youngstown, Ohio 1890-1930, and is currently working on two other books on the lives of Bennet Graham Burley (Beall's second in command) and Martha O'Bryan (Beall's fiancé) after the Civil War years.

Victim of Honor: The Story of John Y. Beall and the Northwestern Conspiracy
(August 2011 Civil War News - Web Exclusive) Reviewer: Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor is an award winning author of five Civil War-era books, the most recent being Orlando M. Poe: Civil War General and Great Lakes Engineer. His website is

The story of Confederate Capt. John Yates Beall and his clandestine efforts to bring war onto the Great Lakes in September 1864 has been often told yet in many ways remains a mystery to Civil War students. It is a tale of Confederate desires for revenge and desperate attempts to bring the horrors of war into the North in the hope that, if successful, peace and Southern independence might soon follow.
Beall’s scheme was similar to several proposed previously, but his was the only one put well into motion. The plot was that Beall and about 20 other well-armed Confederates, clad in civilian clothes, would seize a passenger steamer and then sail toward Johnson’s Island at the mouth of Sandusky Bay off the Ohio coast.
That island was home to a Union prisoner-of-war camp that held about 2,500 Rebel captives, many of them officers. Helping to guard the island was the USS Michigan, a 14-gun paddle-steamer, the only Union warship on the Great Lakes.
Beall and his men developed plans to surprise the Michigan as she lay at anchor and subdue the crew. Meanwhile, through previous covert communications, the prisoners were to revolt at a predetermined time and overpower the small guard force on Johnson’s Island.
From there, Beall and his men would sail the Michigan unabated throughout the Great Lakes and lay waste to Northern lake cities or, at the very least, demand heavy ransom from them.
The plot, however, was uncovered by Union authorities who quickly warned the Michigan, which then eagerly awaited the arrival of Beall and his crew. Sensing that their ruse had been uncovered, Beall’s men forced him to call off the attack at the last moment.
The young captain was captured several months later and brought to trial as a spy and guerilla. Despite his defense that he was a legitimate Confederate soldier engaged in a lawful military operation and therefore deserving of prisoner-of-war rights, Beall was found guilty in a predictable verdict that was far more political than legal. Following the decision, Beall was hanged on Feb. 25, 1865.
In this rigorously researched historical novel, author James E. Duffey presents Beall’s story from a perspective that is openly sympathetic toward his subject. Pointing out that history is usually written by the winning side, Duffey reminds us that the heroic actions of one side are often portrayed as villainous by the other. The author argues that Beall was a “victim of honor” and asks the reader to consider the motivations and actions of all those involved.
Duffey writes that his research took place over an eight-year period with dozens of visits to various archive repositories. As one who has also researched Duffey’s subject, this reviewer believes the author certainly did his homework. Just like James Michener of yesteryear and Dan Simmons today, Duffey weaves a compelling tale well-grounded in the historical record while building the case for Beall’s “innocence.”
But the reader should make no mistake; this is indeed a novel. As he unabashedly states in his foreword, Duffey admits that he created scenes and dialogue that are figments of his imagination. But like any good novel based on fact, those creations provide insight into the historical characters based on what is already known.
With that understanding, this work is indeed a success that devotees of espionage, spy thrillers, and good old Civil War fiction in general should enjoy.
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