The Narrative of a Blockade Runner

This is a book by John Wilkinson, who was a confederate sailor. He commanded an ironclad in New Orleans before hew as captured. After prison he was chosen to lead a raid to free confederate prisoners on Johnson’s Island, but the planning came to naught when the Union officials found out about it. He commanded the R. E. Lee, a blockade runner that made 21 voyages, the Whisper, running out of Wilmington, NC, and the Chameleon, also running out of North Carolina.

Those who would like to read the book can download it and read it for free here, here, or here.

Like many confederate narratives, this one is unreliable when it comes to certain issues surrounding the war. It’s steeped in lost cause nonsense such as, “Some facts should be borne in mind by those who denounce slavery as the sum of all villanies; for instance, that the slave code of Massachusetts was the earliest in America; the cruelest in its provisions and has never been formally repealed; that the Plymouth settlers, according to history, maintained ‘that the white man might own and sell the negro and his offspring forever;’ that Mr. Quincy, a representative from Massachusetts during the war of 1812, threatened the House of Congress that the North would secede ‘peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must’ unless their demands for peace were acceded to; and lastly that the abolitionists of a later age denounced the Constitution and canonized John Brown for committing a number of murders and endeavoring to incite servile insurrection in time of peace.” [p. 37] He commits the tu quoque fallacy by his mention of Massachusetts; beyond that, he ignores the fact that in Massachusetts slavery was overturned by the judiciary as being unconstitutional, therefore there was no need to repeal the slave code since it was null and void; he botches the story of Josiah Quincy, who uttered those words regarding the Louisiana Purchase, and whose threat was regarded as what it really was, merely empty hot air with no substance behind it; and he regards John Brown’s attempt to free slaves to be a bad thing.

He also claims, “but in justice to the Confederate authorities it should be borne in mind that they repeatedly proposed an exchange of prisoners upon the ground of humanity, seeing that neither provisions nor medicine were procurable; and, I believe, it is also a conceded fact that General Grant opposed exchanges.” [p. 73] He doesn’t mention that the reason there were no exchanges was the refusal of confederates to treat black soldiers and their officers as legitimate prisoners of war. Extending his claims about prisoners, he wrote, “the suffering of Confederate prisoners in Federal prisons was much greater than that of Federal prisoners in Confederate prisons.” [p. 75] He claims, “That is, the Confederate States held as prisoners nearly 61,000 more men than the Federals; and yet the death of Federal prisoners fell below those of the Confederates four thousand.” [Ibid.] These claims are simply untrue. “Based on the best available data, however, it appears that the Union army captured between 210,000 and 220,000 Southern soldiers during the period after general exchanges were suspended, while 200,000 to 210,000 Northern prisoners passed into Confederate hands. Using the most conservative estimates, Union prisons claimed the lives of 25,796 Confederates, or approximately 12 percent of the men incarcerated there, while Southern prisons claimed 30,218 lives, or slightly more than 15 percent of the inmates.” [J. Michael Martinez, Life and Death in Civil War Prisons, p. 46]

The death rates for the major Northern prison camps are:
Alton 11.8%
Camp Chase 8.7%
Camp Douglas 12.4%
Camp Morton 10%
Fort Delaware 7.6%
Johnson’s Island 2.7%
Point Lookout 5.6%
Rock Island 15.8%
Elmira 24.3%

The average death rate in Union prisons was 11.7% while the average in confederate prisons was about 15.3%
[Averages calculated by Michael Horigan in his book, Elmira: Death Camp of the North, pages 180 and 222]

“Until June 1864 Confederates in Northern prisons were to receive the standard Federal ration, which as has been pointed out, was quite generous if nutritionally sub-par. So generous were Federal rations that officials were getting reports that prisoners and soldiers were throwing significant portions of them away. To curb what seemed to Northern officials to be wasting money, money the government did not have to waste, rations were reduced for Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners [Italics in original] in June 1864. Federal soldiers’ cuts were not all that significant, declining from roughly 4,600 calories to a little over 4,400 calories, while the cuts were deeper for prisoners because they were nowhere near as active as combat soldiers. … Modern prisoners, beneficiaries of a slew of protective legislation and who are larger than their Civil War-era counterparts, receive between 2,500 and 2,700 calories per day.” [James M. Gillespie, Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners, p. 99]

“The Official Records and The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion both show that mortality among Southern prisoners clearly declined over time at Rock Island. Between February 1864 and June 1865, 1,589 prisoners died of some disease, many of them during the first months of the camp’s existence. Between February and April 1864 the Official Records show that 770 prisoners died at Rock Island, which constitutes 48.45% of the 1,589 deaths enumerated in The Medical and Surgical History. From April 1864 through the end of the war disease mortality declined. It is significant to note that just at the time most writers argue that Union prison policies got significantly harsher, Confederate mortality at Rock Island declined. In fact, virtually the same number of prisoners died in the three-month period between February and April 1864 (before the retaliation program was officially discussed and implemented) as perished during the period between May 1864 and June 1865. The prison’s population throughout its history remained fairly constant at between 6,000 and 8,000 prisoners until it dropped to just below 3,000 in April 1865 for obvious reasons. … Most of the mortality occurring at the depot was recorded in the first five or six months of operation. A lot of the deaths were attributable directly and indirectly to smallpox problems that erupted almost as soon as the gates opened. Records from February 1864 indicate that prisoners were transferred from the military prison in Louisville, Kentucky, who had the dreaded disease. The surgeon there, J. C. Welch, and his commanding officer, Captain Charles B. Pratt denied that prisoners were sent to Rock Island carrying smallpox–at least they were not sent there deliberately. No doubt they were telling the truth when they said that all prisoners were examined by the doctor before leaving Kentucky. The problem is that victims in the first phases of the disease, though highly contagious, often do not appear to have the disease at all.” [James M. Gillespie, Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners, p. 145]

“With some 45,000 Union prisoners of war being incarcerated at Andersonville, the camp’s death rate is generally agreed upon at 29 percent.” [Michael Horigan, Elmira: Death Camp of the North, p. 193] “Elmira, with its 24.3 percent death rate, was irrefutably the worst camp in the North.” [Ibid.]

What the book does well, though, is provide us stories of Wilkinson’s life. While he doesn’t go into great detail about how blockade running worked, he does give us some glimpses that we can find useful: “The natural advantages of Wilmington for blockade-running were very great, chiefly owing to the fact, that there are two separate and distinct approaches to Cape Fear River, i.e., either by ‘New Inlet’ to the north of Smith’s Island, or by the ‘western bar’ to the south of it. This island is ten or eleven miles in length; but the Frying Pan Shoals extend ten or twelve miles further south, making the distance by sea between the two bars thirty miles or more, although the direct distance between them is only six or seven miles. From Smithville, a little village nearly equi-distant from either bar, both blockading fleets could be distinctly seen, and the outward bound blockade-runners could take their choice through which of them to run the gauntlet. The inward bound blockade-runners, too, were guided by circumstances of wind and weather; selecting that bar over which they would cross, after they had passed the Gulf Stream; and shaping their course accordingly. The approaches to both bars were clear of danger, with the single exception of the ‘Lump’ before mentioned; and so regular are the soundings that the shore can be coasted for miles within a stone’s throw of the breakers. These facts explain why the United States fleet were unable wholly to stop blockade-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.” [pp. 130-131]

The book is sparse regarding the technical aspects of blockade running, but it does contain some gems: “The most suitable coal was procured with difficulty throughout the war, all of the British coals, although excellent for raising steam, making more or less smoke, and objectionable on that account. Exportation of the American anthracite, which would have been almost invaluable, was prohibited by the Government. This is, I believe, the only accessible, or at least available nonbituminous coal in the world; but the best substitute for it is the Welsh semi-bituminous coal, and this was chiefly used by the blockade-runners.” [p. 159]

Overall, the book is an excellent glimpse into the world of the blockade runner, is a quick and easy read, and is a useful resource for the student of the war. I recommend it for those who are interested in the world of the blockade runner and in the naval war in general.


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