By Bob Hurst
The element of the Confederate Navy that was most glamorized by tales and lore were those vessels known as "commerce raiders". The role of these ships was to pursue and attack northern commercial vessels and either destroy them and their cargo or salvage that which could be useful to the Confederate Cause. Many of these conquests were reported upon and glamorized by Southern newspapers and the captains of some of these ships became as well known as many of the generals of the Confederate Army. Among these were Raphael Semmes, John Newland Maffitt and James Waddell.
There was another element of the Confederate Navy, however, which seems to me to be more essential to the war effort than the more publicized commerce raiders - these were the "blockade runners".
At the beginning of the War, Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, developed a plan for a blockade of Southern ports with the intent of adversely affecting the supply lines of the South which would, in turn, disrupt the Southern economy. This blockade extended 3500 miles along the coastline with special emphasis on major sites such as New Orleans, Mobile, Savannah, Charleston and the Virginia ports. This strategy became known as the "Anaconda Plan".
To get through the blockade the Confederate ships had to cruise undetected through the Union ships which were on patrol. This was often accomplished by making runs at night under the cover of darkness. Inbound Confederate ships generally carried needed supplies and mail and the outbound ships carried cotton, tobacco and other goods for trade and revenue plus mail and other communications to Confederate-friendly suppliers in Europe and the Caribbean.
Because of the size of the task for the Union ships and the effectiveness of Confederate ship captains, during the early phases of the War the Confederacy was able to maintain an almost constant supply of arms, other goods and mail from Europe while at the same time exporting commodities in return. Many Confederate blockade runners were quite adept at avoiding the blockade and the best of these ship captains, arguably, was John Wilkinson.
John Wilkinson was born into a seafaring family on November 6, 1821. His father was Commodore Jesse Wilkinson of the U.S. Navy and the family lived in Norfolk, Virginia. John was anxious to become a sailor and entered the navy as a midshipman in 1837. He served during the Mexican War and continued his career as a lieutenant.
In 1859 he was given command of a survey ship and did a comprehensive study of the waters around Florida and the Bahamas. Little did he know then how valuable that experience would be when he later became a blockade runner for the Confederacy. When Virginia seceded on April 17, 1861, John Wilkinson stood with his State and resigned from the U.S. Navy. He was quickly commissioned a lieutenant in the Confederate Navy.
His initial duties were along the James River and the Potomac River. In March of 1862, however, he was ordered to New Orleans and given command of an armed steamer which was followed by a tour as executive officer of the LOUISIANA, a 16-gun ironclad.
In August 1862 he was summoned by Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph to Richmond and given the assignment to travel to Britain and purchase a steamer that could be fitted for use as a blockade runner. He purchased a steamer, the GIRAFFE, in Scotland and after completing the conversion of the ship from a passenger vessel to one suitable for use as a blockade runner, he left for Nassau in the Bahamas. After more extensive modifications were completed there, he set out for the harbor at Wilmington, North Carolina in December.
This would be the first of 21 expeditions into and out of Wilmington by Wilkinson and his ship, now called ROBERT E. LEE. During this time he carried out approximately 7000 bales of cotton (worth about 2 million dollars) which was exchanged abroad for cargoes needed by the Confederacy for the war effort.
On the evening of October 10, 1863, Wilkinson left Wilmington for the last time in the ROBERT E. LEE. On board he had a group of 26 Confederate officers who were part of a secret mission to capture a Union gunboat that patrolled the Great Lakes which could be used in a plan that would free 3000 Confederate officers who were being held captive at the federal prison located on Johnson's Island in Ohio.
Wilkinson took the ROBERT E. LEE to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he sold the cotton on board and relinquished command of the ship before he met with some Confederate operatives who were in on the plan to free the officers from Johnson's Island. Before the plan could be implemented, however, word was received that Federal and Canadian authorities had somehow been given information about the plan so the entire mission had to be called off. John Wilkinson then headed to Bermuda where he obtained a blockade runner, WHISPER, and headed back to Wilmington.
By mid-1864, Wilmington had become of strategic importance to both the Confederates and the Federals. The port had become one of the last entry points for provisions and supplies for the Confederacy and the feds had subsequently beefed up the blockade of the port which hitherto had not been as intense as the blockades of many other ports.
In response to this, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory assigned John Wilkinson to special duty at the port to develop a mechanism that would aid Confederate ships in navigating the narrow channels more effectively. Wilkinson implemented a plan utilizing lights and signal stations at strategic locations and also required that experienced river pilots accompany each ship entering the port.
While this was happening in Wilmington, the Confederate commerce raider TALLAHASSEE, under the command of John Taylor Wood, had just made a highly successful cruise off the upper Atlantic coast during which 25 Union vessels had been taken out of commission. The Confederate Navy command was so pleased with this success that it armed a blockade runner at Wilmington, commissioned it the CHICKAMAUGA, and placed it under the command of John Wilkinson.
John Wilkinson was now commanding a commerce raider rather than a blockade runner and he was anxious to see what he could do to northern shipping in this new role so, in late October, he attempted to slip out of Wilmington and head north. He was spotted, though, by a Union blockader which sounded the alarm. He was quickly pursued by several blockaders so he called on his intelligence and quick mind to solve this dilemma. He imitated the blockaders practice of sending up signal rockets to communicate only he sent up false signals which so confused the Federals that he was able to escape. This man was smart.
The very next day, heading north along the Atlantic coast, he took his first prize as a commerce raider. Over the next week he took six more prizes . Most of these he burned but some he bonded and let them go. He did this with one vessel because the captain's sister and a small child were aboard and both were ill. Among other things, John Wilkinson was a kindhearted man.
His next plan was to enter Long Island Sound and wreak pure havoc on the shipping there. An approaching storm and the fact that he was running low on fuel, however, convinced him that the wiser course of action was to head south instead. He decided to head to Bermuda and stock up on fuel. Upon reaching Bermuda he encountered two major problems: neutrality laws only allowed a brief stay and he could only take on enough coal to reach the nearest Confederate port. He resolved these issues by claiming that his engines needed repairs and so was allowed to stay a week and then he bribed a British official and was allowed to purchase as much coal as he desired.Among other things, John Wilkinson had a quick mind and knew how to get things done.
Although his brief experience as a commerce raider had been very successful, John Wilkinson still believed that blockade runners should be given top priority over commerce raiders. In fact, he went to Richmond to make the argument to the Confederate government that the use of commerce raiders was causing the Federals to strengthen the blockade resulting in more blockade runners being captured.
In late December of 1864, Wilkinson took a new blockade runner to Bermuda to obtain provisions for General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia which was almost to the point of starvation. Upon returning to Wilmington some three weeks later, John Wilkinson approached the friendly and familiar outline of Fort Fisher in the darkness of night and was surprised when he got no answer to his signal lights. Confused, he returned to sea. The next night he returned in clear weather and barely avoided being captured by two Union gunboats. He was unaware that the fort had been captured a week earlier.
Realizing that Wilmington was no longer available as a port, he took his ship to Charleston but was unable to make it through the blockade. He then decided to return to Nassau to unload his cargo. While in Nassau he received orders to take his ship, CHAMELEON, to Liverpool, England. On April 9, 1865, he turned over his ship and all his Confederate funds to the Confederate agent in Liverpool. On April 9, 1865, in Appomattox Court House, Virginia, the War Between the States was coming to an end.
With the War over, John Wilkinson became part of a small exodus of Confederates to the Confederate-friendly town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He soon formed a business partnership with John Taylor Wood who had been in command of one of the most successful Confederate commerce raiders of the War - the TALLAHASSEE .Their business - Wilkinson, Wood and Company - became a successful merchant commission house. Their office building was easy to locate since they always flew a Confederate Flag on site.
Unlike his business partner who chose to spend the rest of his life in Halifax, John Wilkinson yearned to return to his native state and eventually relocated to Amelia County, Virginia. He later published a book, NARRATIVE OF A BLOCKADE RUNNER, about his experiences.
John Wilkinson died two days before the end of 1891. He had lived a successful, productive and exciting life and had been a True Confederate until the very end. What better epitaph could be written for a man of adventure!
Bob Hurst is a true Son of the South who has special interests in the Confederacy and the antebellum architecture of the South. He is Commander of Col. David Lang Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Tallahassee and also 2nd Lt. Commander of the Florida Division, SCV.