The Narrative of a Blockade Runner
by Captain John Wilkinson (1877)
paperback; 252 pages
With a plethora of books — written from both sides of the conflict — that instill glory and valour into the myriad aspects of the War Between the States, it is refreshing from time to time to read something that does not insist upon forcing us to endure the dogma that often accompanies the heroism.
The Confederate navy certainly had its share of valiant heroes. Semmes and Wood of the raiders Alabama and Tallahassee immediately come to mind, but there were other captains who did equally dangerous work and seen to have been ignored by the messianic appetite of the press both contemporary and modern.
John Wilkinson may not have been altogether concerned about being overlooked. Indeed, his narrative is a workaday journal of his job, told without embellishment or pretense. In his introduction Wilkinson notes this was his intent from the start; to take away any bitterness, to set the war in its proper perspective, and to inform and perhaps amuse his readers at a time – more than ten years after the conflict — when emotions were still somewhat raw.
Born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1821, John Wilkinson entered the U.S. navy as a midshipman in 1837. He resigned his commission as a lieutenant in April 1861, and accepted the same rank in the Confederate service. Captured in the fall of New Orleans, Wilkinson was exchanged in August 1862, and he writes kindly of his treatment in the time before the Union stopped the exchange program.
On his parole, Wilikinson went to England to command the blockade-runner Robert E. Lee, one of the most successful of the war. Many of his deceptive tactics were adopted by other blockade-runners, and became standard practice. He later commanded the raiders Chickamauga and Chameleon. He lived in Nova Scotia for a while after the war before returning to Virginia, where he died in 1891.
Clearly it is not because his career lacked the derring-do of his colleagues that Wilkinson chose not to gild his story. He describes a variety of engagements that stretched from New Orleans to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as he attempted to get supplies through the Union naval blockade. He was the leader of a daring raid to free thousands of Confederate prisoners of war on Johnson's Island, in Lake Erie, and was often within sight of the shores of Long Island when he raided enemy merchant ships.
He takes a matter-of-fact approach that makes a lie of many of the modern accounts of blockade running:
These facts explain why the United States fleet were unable wholly to stop blackade-running. It was, indeed, impossible to do so; the result to the very close of the war proves this assertion; for in spite of the vigilance of the fleet, many blockade-runners were afloat when Fort Fisher was captured. In truth the passage through the fleet was little dreaded; for although the blockade-runner might receive a shot or two, she was rarely disabled; and in proportion to the increase of the fleet, the greater would be the danger (we knew) of their firing into each other (page 131).
This honesty makes it easier to read of the war without the proverbial "pinch of salt" or cynicism that must be afforded to other writers. In turn, this casts Wilkinson in the ranks of the "professional" soldier, the man who saw war as job, however temporary, and a necessary task that often called for immediate and sometimes fatal action. As an author and soldier, he might be seen as the Schwarzkopf or Powell of his era.
— reviewed by Jay Underwood