Captain James Byers
In 1862 he was the hero of a daring exploit which saved a vast amount of government property, and won for him the hearty thanks of President Lincoln. A short time before the Civil war opened he went to Virginia with the little steamer J.P. White to fill a contract he had made with ex-Mayor Barton, of Buffalo. While he was in Norfolk, Va., the struggle commenced in earnest, and the Captain's vessel was seized, he being suspected as a Northern sympathizer. In 1861, therefore, he was not permitted to sail his steamer, but early in 1862 the Confederacy was in need of his services, and he was again placed in charge of the White. The Rebels, who were preparing to evacuate Norfolk and Portsmouth, Va., had mined all the government buildings, preparatory to blowing them up. The navy yard, as well as the government hospital at Portsmouth was to be burned at the same time, and Captain Byers, learning this, determined to make the attempt to save this property by running the forts and batteries and informing the authorities of the Northern army stationed at Newport News under the command of General Mansfield. He took into his confidence two trusty friends, George W. Griggs and John Nolen, and on May 6, 1862, the three men took possession of the steamer, and flying the Confederate flag, steamed down the river past the Rebel forts and batteries and landed at Newport News, where they surrendered the White to General Mansfield. President Lincoln, Secretary Stanton and General Wool were at Old Point Comfort, a few miles away, and thither Captain Byers was directed, that he might impart his startling information in person. A letter from President Lincoln to Congress tells the rest of the story: "On the morning of May 7, 1862, I was at Fortress Monroe, Va., when two or three men came there and said that they had just come from Norfolk, and that Norfolk was being evacuated by the enemy. This information proved true, and to a great extent led to the movements which resulted in our occupation of that city and the destruction of the Merrimac. It was said, and I believe truly, that they came on a tug, which they surrendered to the United States authorities." The unexpected descent of the Union troops had defeated the plan of blowing up and burning the government property at Norfolk, and enabled the government forces to blow up and ram Merrimac. The steamer J.P. White, which had been brought over from the enemy by Captain Byers and his comrades, was used in the Federal service until again captured by the enemy and destroyed. It would seem that according to the usage of war these men were entitled to the price of the vessel thus surrendered to the government, and also compensation for the value of the intelligence given. They at one time had a bill before Congress asking for some recognition of these claims, and it was in support of this measure that President Lincoln wrote the letter above quoted; but Captain Byers, not being an expert in the art of "lobbying," never realized the money value of his steamer or recompense for his courageous action. He served all through the war, and was honorably discharged in 1865.
Before taking the steamer J.P. White down to Virginia Captain Byers had thoroughly learned the duties of pilot and master of lake craft, having sailed the George W. Tift and F. L. Danforth, and was a captain on the lakes before he was twenty years old. After his discharge from the Navy he returned to Buffalo, and, with his brother, Robert L. Byers and James Ash, engaged in the tug and vessel business. He sailed the tug L.P. Dayton, and did the towing for the water-works crib for the contractor, John Heckles. This tug was purchased and put into the association. He also sailed the tug Compound. In 1886 he took the tug International, and sailed her for the International Bridge Company, until he was prostrated by a stroke of paralysis which terminated in his death on April 8, 1894. He left a widow, Mrs. Rosa M. (Stevens) Byers, who resides on Fargo Avenue, Buffalo, New York.
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.