Monday, March 13, 2017

Monday Man of Mystery

William M. Bean (1832-1890) and Margaret Smith Perkins Bean (1826-1891)

William M. Bean Monday Man of Mystery

Many years ago, before they were ever published on the Internet, I ordered a copy of William M. Bean's Civil War military records. What looked very straightforward, was in fact something that became the mystery of the century.

After I received copies of all of his Confederate war records, I began searching for Union war records, as his granddaughter declared that her Pa told her that William had switched sides during the war and went to the Union side.

My first encounter was from an email I received from a hired researcher who had gone to retrieve the materials I requested, in person. However, she emailed me back that evening, and stated the records were sealed. I was in a bit of a shock when told that I wouldn't be receiving records on my great-grandfather. I argued that there was a legal right to see military records that were that old, and as his great-granddaughter I should have access to those records. The researcher apologized to me, and asked that I contact the National Archives myself.

And so I proceeded to sit down and fill out the necessary paperwork to order these records. I sent the request forms along with my fee and waited, as patiently as I could, for the records to arrive. (I was sure the researcher had just taken me for the fee I had paid her.)

About 4 months later, I received a manila envelope from the National Archives. I was beside myself with anticipation in finally getting the records! But when I opened the envelope, I found my copy of the order I had sent, along with a letter of explanation.

I was told that the military records for my great-grandfather were sealed, by Presidential order. Here is a transcript of the notice I received:

National Library of Congress
National Archives
Washington, DC
Dated: 10 April 2003
To: Cynthia Beane-Henry
Per your request please find attached what we are able to release concerning the enlistment of William M. Bean - birthplace Monroe County, Virginia
Enlisted from: Elmira, NY
Residence on Enlistment: Elmira, NY
Date: 2 Sep 1864
Regiment: Co A, 130th Infantry Regiment, Ohio
Records Stamped: Covert Operative, Records Sealed per Presidential Order 10 April 1865 signed by ABRAHAM LINCOLN, President of US of America
Records: Kept at National Library of Congress, Sealed National Archives, Washington, DC
Accessibility: Records remain sealed.

A Covert Operative? This was all very perplexing. And the puzzle pieces were too many to make any sense at this point.

From the Confederate records, we knew that William was taken prisoner on 13 July 1864 in Hagerstown, Maryland. He was sent to Elmira, New York as a POW (Prisoner of War) on 28 July 1864. And that was where the Confederate records left off.

Something happened between 28 July and 02 September. And I don't believe great-grandpa "switched sides". Let me continue and you'll see where this leads.

In October of 1864, a Union soldier was transferred from Elmira Prison to Johnston's Island, Ohio. We all know about the terrible conditions at Elmira POW prison. But few know the story of Johnston's Island. This was a Confederate POW camp, that catered to only Confederate officers. The men were housed in barracks that had warm winter stoves. They were clothed warm and comfortably. Often receiving gifts of sweets, or blankets, or mittens and scarves, from the local church ladies, or defenders of the Union cause. Their was much laughing and game playing.  In October, when a new Union soldier arrived, he was not given a regular guard post. But was instead required to report to the Commander of the Post. Here he divulged a secret that he had been told while he was held in the Elmira prison. When in reality, he was not a prisoner of war, but was working under cover for the Union Army.  The secret he told the Post Commander was that the Confederate Army was planning a raid on the Island prison. They were going to send tugboats and a flatboat down the river to Johnston's island and free the POW's in a surprise attack.

This soldier laid out a plan, which was received by the Post Commander, to meet the boats upriver, under cover of darkness, and blow them to bits with cannon fire. And that is what happened. The boats were loaded down with gun powder which they were going to use to break into the prison.

In the report, the Union soldier who gave this information was not named, due to his under cover work. However, the only soldier who arrived in the Johnston's Island post from Elmira at the time of the report was one William Bean from Monroe County, [West] Virginia.

So, now things are beginning to come together! The puzzle pieces were begin to slip one into the other.

But the big question was why wasn't the military records opened due to the Freedom of Information Act? We were talking some 150 years after the fact! Not something that just happened yesterday!

Several of us got together and began trying to work through this information. The most interesting was that the records were sealed under Presidential Order on 10 April 1865. Just one day AFTER Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Virginia. And just 4 days prior to President Lincoln's assassination.

What was so important that even 150 years later, the records remained sealed?

A good guess would be that there was something in his records that would change how America looked at the Civil War. William's son, John, knew what it was. But a team of horses could never pull it from his lips. He would die with the secret held tight.

In 1890, William, who was a U.S. Marshall, was shot in the back of the head by a Constable and died. When the Justice Department tried to get his widow to pursue her rights to also bring the killer to trial, and not just the county's right to, she declined. She stated "I still have to live in the county with these people. My children and grandchildren still have to live here. I won't put my family in danger!"

Why would she use those terms? 'I won't put my family in danger!' What was she afraid of?

William, according to all records, became a Union soldier after "defecting" from the Confederacy on one record, and being taken "prisoner of war" on another record. What makes this so unusual is that William never took the oath for the Union Army. There is no record of this. Neither did he do so after the War. He held some political clout within his county. Odd for a "Union sympathizer", as the county was die-hard Confederates. He also became a U.S. Marshall, and never took the oath of office.

The Justice Department declined to comment after I requested a copy of his records of having served as a U.S. Marshall, and was told they had no such records. Yet his obituary states he was a U.S. Marshall, as does his death certificate.

A few years ago, I spoke with a very lovely lady at the National Archives, who assured me there was no reason on earth that I could not get copies of William's Union military records, because of the Freedom of Information Act, and she would be the lady to go get those.

Well, here's where the plot thickens....she returned to tell me that there are no traces of William Bean of Monroe County, Virginia ever having been in the Union Army. There were no records of him having been sent from Elmira to Johnston's Island. (Yet his son John was born just a couple of miles from there.)

Yes, great-grandma crossed the battle lines, in a covered wagon with four young children, and two of her brothers as escorts, to join William in Ohio. But the records have vanished of great-grandpa's service.

Oddly enough, the records vanished AFTER I had made inquiry of them. There are no records in the Justice Department of him having been a U.S. Marshall. I could put that down to family folklore, except two different documents state he WAS a U.S. Marshall.

Okay, let's put all of this information together. And what do we have? Well, I'll tell what we have, it sounds like a James Bond 007 novel! (Thank you Mr. Ian Fleming for assisting us with our ideas!)

Well, we said it sounded like a James Bond novel, quite jokingly. But then, suddenly we weren't laughing. And we weren't kidding.

The clues had been in the letter I had received from the National Archives. In bold letters, COVERT OPERATIVE.

William had been a double agent. It was the only thing that made sense! He never took the Oath of Allegiance after the War. Yet every man who had served in the Confederate Army had to take it in order to vote, to buy property, or to have business dealings.

William didn't take an oath. Why? Because he was already working in the Union Army. Under cover. He was sent to spy and report to the Union officials regarding bridges, and planned raids and attacks. The bridge at Caldwell crossing the Greenbrier River was occupied by the Confederate Army. It was captured for a short time during the War. William was stationed there as a Confederate soldier.  Yet, when the bridge was captured by the northern army, William was home on a leave from duty.

William was "captured" in Hagarstown, Maryland according to Confederate records. But within days he was no longer a POW, but a traitor who had "switched sides". These documents are dated after the raid at Hagarstown, but before William had ever arrived at Elmira, where a POW list was first written of his arrival and sent to the enemy. How did the Confederate Army know he was Union, if it hadn't even happened yet?

Why did his name suddenly disappear from the Johnston Island records? The National Archives? And the Justice Department? And only after hard inquiries had been made about him?

I personally searched the National Archives for William's Union war records. And there is no trace of them. His military records do not reflect anything but the Confederate records. And the last two are contradictory, as the one lists him as a POW, and the other as a defector who enlisted in the Union army.

What could possibly be so important that records were sealed one day, and had vanished the next?

What REALLY happened?

We will probably never know. But whatever it was, it was important enough that 150 years after the fact, someone made the records disappear. Forever? Who knows. I doubt I will ever know, until that day I meet my Maker, and am able to look great-grandpa in the face and ask "Can you finally tell me what happened? Cause I'm dying to know?" (no pun intended).

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