Lt. John Wilkinson
Following is the text of a presentation I made to the Celina, Ohio Civil War Round Table on July 10, 1997.
(Sources follow below.)
-- Mark F. Jenkins
By tradition and habit we ordinarily look upon "stern and rock-bound New England" as the seat of families with a naval heritage dating from before the Civil War. Nevertheless, from the very beginning the tidewater regions of the Carolinas, Virginia, and Maryland also had their naval families, whose names were often heard in frigate wardrooms long before 1860. John Paul Jones was appointed to the infant navy of the Republic through the influence of Southerners in the Continental Congress. The famous Rodgers family came from near the broad stretches of the Chesapeake, as did the Whittles, the Goldsboroughs, the Lees, and the Buchanans. Also from this region hailed John Wilkinson, the most elusive blockade runner yet produced... (Jim Dan Hill, Sea Dogs of the Sixties, 128)John Wilkinson was born in Amelia County, Virginia on November 6, 1821 while his father, Jesse Wilkinson, was at sea in the sloop of war Hornet. John grew up mostly without his father; in fact, Jesse only learned of his sonís appointment as a midshipman in the Navy when he returned from a cruise in the Mediterranean as captain of the frigate United States.
John apparently did not particularly excel in his onboard studies -- this was prior to the founding of the Naval Academy, so education of midshipmen was carried out on board active Navy vessels Ė but neither was he a troublemaker. However, he does seem to have read more than was normal, as in later life he was often known to vent Cicero or Vergil at unexpected moments. He was a fan of Thackeray and Dickens, though he does not seem to have read much literature of American origin. One of Wilkinsonís skippers on board the Saratoga in the late 1840s was one Captain David G. Farragut. In 1850, John received the enviable promotion to lieutenant.
Wilkinson did not share the general Old Navy distrust of steam propulsion, and he served on several of the Navyís new steamships. During the 1850s, he performed coast survey duty along the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. As Jim Dan Hill notes,
His first duty was the training of "young gentleman privates" at Fort Powhatan on the James River, and then the Aquia Creek batteries on the Potomac. Soon detached from this station, he was ordered to New Orleans to become the first officer of the unfinished ironclad Louisiana. He was not fond of the vessel and had no confidence in its capabilities; he usually referred to it as the "cursed bowl of Gotham."
As Farragutís and Porterís forces crept up toward Forts Jackson and St. Philip below New Orleans in early 1862, it is recorded that Wilkinson openly admired the accuracy with which Federal mortars bombarded the forts. It seems that his personal allegiance could sometimes be over-ridden by his pride in his profession. He was sent on an errand to the Federal fleet under a flag of truce, where he met Captain de Camp, an old shipmate.
...[I] was informed that the Federals "could force the obstructions across the river whenever they pleased, and intended on doing so when they were ready. The interview took place in his cabin; and although I [Wilkinson] indignantly repudiated the idea, I could not help feeling how confidently I would stake life and reputation upon the issue if our situations were reversed... Every one was at his station; the guns cast loose for action; and it was in the nature of things that I should contrast the gallant man-of-war and all its efficiency and discipline with the iron bound box and its crew of 'horse marines' which I had just left. But it was in no spirit of depreciation of the gallantry of my comrades, for I was quite sure that they would stand to their guns." (Hill, 134)When Farragutís fleet forced its way past the forts to New Orleans, the immobile Louisiana was caught behind the lines. Though the forts were in surrender negotiations with the Federal fleet, the ironcladís officers decided to blow her up rather than hand her over. The Federals were incensed by this, both because of the apparent breach of faith, and also because the burning hulk of the ironclad endangered their supply vessels. As a result, when Wilkinson and the other officers were incarcerated in Fort Warren near Boston, they received none of the privileges normally given prisoners of war. Some sharp correspondence followed between Wilkinson and the authorities, and the harsh treatment was relaxed.
John was familiar with Boston, having visited frequently in the old service, and he had a constant stream of visitors who brought him newspapers, gifts of food, and chit-chat about the old Navy. He spent a little over three months in captivity until he was exchanged.
He arrived in Richmond shortly after the battles of the "Seven Days," and Richmond was fairly glowing with exultation. He had little time to enjoy this, though, for he was quickly ordered to Britain to purchase a fast steamer that an agent had reported was up for sale at Glasgow.
When he reached England, however, he discovered that the steamer, named the Giraffe, had already been sold to Alexander Collie and Company, which had by this time assembled a fleet of some twenty blockade runners, mostly commanded and manned by Englishmen operating under assumed names. Wilkinson convinced Collie of his official status, and the firm agreed to sell the Giraffe for the same amount they had paid for her, with the provision that if the Confederate government ever decided to sell her, Collie would have the right of first refusal to purchase her back.
The contract signed, Wilkinson left the outfitting of the ship to a subordinate and spent a pleasant month in London. Once she was ready for sea, he set sail for the West Indies with a cargo of munitions, medical supplies, and twenty-six Scottish lithographers, who were enroute to the Confederacy to help the struggling Treasury Department print more money. He touched at Puerto Rico and continued on to Nassau in the Bahamas. At Nassau, he recruited a new crewóthe former crew had only signed up for the Atlantic passageóand he set a course for Wilmington, North Carolina. On the evening of December 28, 1862, Lt. John Wilkinson made his first run through the blockade. He briefly grounded his ship in the process (terrifying the Scottish lithographers); it was the first and also the last time he would ever do so. Upon arrival at Wilmington, the Giraffe was re-christened the Robert E. Lee.
At this point, the beginning of his blockade-running career, John Wilkinson was forty-one years old. He was stockily built, broad-shouldered and thick-necked. He wore a heavy brush moustache and he wore his hair curly and rather long, generally to his collar. His hairline was just beginning to recede. He was old and seasoned enough to be experienced in the ways and wiles of the sea, and yet young enough to be willing to take chances.
The Lee, with Wilkinson in command, ran through the blockade no fewer than twenty-one times. Along the way, he practiced all the ruses known to the trade, and introduced a few of his own. Along with fellow blockade-running captains, Wilkinson considered the cruisers prowling some distance off the shore to be a greater menace than the blockaders close up to the harbor mouth. He was known to take the Lee boldly through the center of the inshore blockading squadrons, since they were generally reluctant to fire unless they were sure of their target (and nearly every run was made at night, usually in moonless conditions).
Along with the blockaders were the traditional enemies of the sailoróthe land, the sea, and the wind. On one occasion, Wilkinson was closing in on the shore when a strong gale swept down the coast. He managed to make it all the way to the Wilmington harbor mouth, feeling his way almost blind through the storm. Realizing that the rough seas made it impossible to enter the harbor, he dropped anchorówithin rifle shot of half a dozen blockaders. However, they were having as many problems dealing with the storm as the Lee was. As soon as the weather calmed, he cut his anchor chains and steamed into the harbor for safety.
Wilkinson noticed a pattern after a few runs; when a runner was sighted, the vessel spotting her would fire a gun and send up a rocket in the direction of the runnerís course. Somehow, Wilkinson ordered a set of variously-colored rockets from a New York pyrotechnics firm, and he would detail an officer to stand watch with these rockets nearby. Once a blockader sent up a rocket, he would send up another one of the same color at an angle to the course he was following. The resulting signal confusion always aided his escape.
Wilkinsonís closest call on board the Lee came in the summer of 1863. The Lee happened to be in the port of Bermuda at the same time as the raider CSS Florida, commanded by former blockade-runner John Newland Maffitt. The Florida was having difficulty obtaining permission in loading coal from the neutral port, and it was known that the cruiser USS Wachusett was in the vicinity. Wilkinson gave Maffitt most of his good English coal. As a result, after the Lee returned to Wilmington, her bunkers had to be filled with inferior-grade North Carolina coal. Just as the ship got out to sea, the cruiser USS Iroquois, one of the fastest blockaders, was spotted. The engineer couldnít get more than half speed out of the Leeís engines, while the cruiser was making better than eleven knots under full steam and all sails.
The Lee began the race of her life. Wilkinson ordinarily would have turned directly into the wind to minimize the sail power of the pursuer, but then he would have been heading the wrong direction, back toward the main blockading squadron. Instead, he turned directly away from the wind, which happened to be at the cruiserís steaming speed, so the Iroquoisí sails hung limp and useless. Even so, the cruiser continued to close the distance. The frantic Confederates chopped up all manner of woodwork and wooden furniture and threw it into the furnace. By midafternoon, the cruiser was so close that the white water under her bow was plainly visible, and Wilkinson was beginning to consider throwing overboard the chests of gold that he was carrying for transshipment to England.
Then he remembered that part of his cargo was turpentine. It occurred to him that cotton, dipped in turpentine, might blaze hotter than anything else he had available. Soon, all available hands were passing dripping wads of cotton down to the engine room, and within an hour, the Lee was making thirteen and a half knots, rapidly drawing away from her pursuer. Wilkinson breathed a sigh of relief, but it was only temporary. The engineer came on deck to report that burned cotton lint had choked the flues of the furnace, and speed was falling off again. As twilight began to fall, the Iroquois was once more plainly gaining on the runner.
Gambling on the approach of nightfall, Wilkinson ordered two officers at the stern of the Lee to report when the Iroquois was just lost in the growing darkness, and he ordered great mounds of the poor North Carolina coal and coal dust heaped into the furnace, producing billows of thick, black smoke from the runnerís funnels. The officers reported that the cruiser was indistinguishable, and Wilkinson immediately ordered the dampers closed, cutting off the flow of smoke, and swung his helm hard over and shot away at right angles to his previous course. The ruse worked; the Iroquois barreled away on her old course, and the crew of the Lee could breathe easier. It was at this point that Wilkinson became aware of how hot the deckplates had become; he had been standing almost directly above the furnace for some time, and his feet were suffering. He sat in a comfortable armchair in his cabin, kicked off his shoes, and stuck his bare feet out the porthole. While he was in this position, the daughter of Senator Gwinn, who was a passenger aboard, came by and tickled the bottom of his feet to express her congratulations on the narrow escape. Lieutenant Wilkinsonís reaction is not recorded.
After a couple more successful runs, a dispatch from Richmond assigned Wilkinson to a bizarre duty: he was to assume command of a group of Confederate agents and military officers who were planning to capture the federal steam sloop Michigan, operating on Lake Erie, and using that, to effect a mass escape of prisoners held on Johnsonís Island at the entrance to Sandusky Bay. Wilkinson never claimed to have come up with the idea for this mission, yet the Official Records, Navies indicates that Secretary of the Navy Mallory chose him for it because of a similar idea Wilkinson had submitted in a letter to the Secretary.
Wilkinson, with his detachment aboard, ran the Lee through the blockade off Wilmington for what was to be his last time, late on October 9, 1863. He ran into Halifax, Nova Scotia on October 16, and his band rendezvoused in Montreal. Passage was booked through a Canadian shipping manager (who apparently knew the full plan) on an American lake steamer, ostensibly to Chicago, and two small cannon and ammunition were hidden in crates marked "Machinery." Once aboard, Wilkinson planned to overpower the crew, break out the armament, and surprise the Michigan at dawn. With the Michigan the only warship on the Great Lakes, Wilkinson anticipated an easy time of liberating the Johnsonís Island prisoners, and possibly touching off a reign of terror as a one-ship blockade of a Northern coast.
However, there had been a leak. There was a sudden announcement that the Governor General of Canada would permit no armed expeditions to interfere with British neutrality, and a detachment of British colonial troops were being sent to inspect and arrest any steamer carrying a suspicious number of passengers. An open telegram from Secretary of War Stanton appeared in American newspapers, containing exact details of Wilkinsonís plans, and one of his contacts reported that Johnsonís Island was being reinforced. The jig was up. As near as can be determined, the Canadian shipping manager who had sold them passage had mentioned the occurrence to a member of Ontarioís provincial cabinet, and the word had been passed on from there. Additionally, one of Wilkinsonís band had failed to show up at the Montreal rendezvous, though it is not known if he was a Federal agent or if he simply deserted.
In the meantime, the Lee returned to Wilmington from Halifax. The new commander was nothing like the daring and crafty Wilkinson, and while he argued with his pilot over which one of them should direct the vessel into the harbor, a Federal blockader swept down and captured the notorious runner. Taken into Federal service, she became the USS Fort Donelson, and gave good service chasing her former blockade-running comrades.
Wilkinsonís band managed to escape back to Halifax, where they booked passage on a ship bound for Bermuda. When they arrived, they found the harbor crowded with blockade runners. An English company at once offered Wilkinson command of one of their vessels, the Whisper, loaded with munitions and medicine. The runner, along with five others, set course for Wilmington.
The passage was stormy. A strong, cold wind blowing over the warm Gulf Stream kicked up an extremely dense fog, but Wilkinson managed to make reach the coast with his usual accuracy. He was among the blockaders at Western Bar Inlet around midnight, but the heavy seas prevented them from opening their gunports; the same seas swept away the Whisperís lifeboats and severely damaged her wheelhouse, but the battered vessel managed to cross the bar and limp upriver to Wilmington. She was the only one of the six that made itóall the others were wrecked on the coast or captured by blockaders.
At Wilmington, Wilkinson was briefly assigned to an ironclad under construction, but his experience with the hapless Louisiana soon drove him in another direction. He quickly became involved in a scheme to free Confederate prisoners confined at Point Lookout in Maryland, but as before, the Federals were tipped off and the expedition was cancelled.
Now assigned to shore duty, Wilkinson established a new system of navigation lights and recognition signals for the blockade runners. He also opened an Office of Orders and Detail in the port to assign pilots and signalmen to vessels inward or outward bound from Wilmington. In doing so, he aroused the ire of several successful blockade-running companies who had managed to hire the best pilots and were reluctant to share them with competitors. In the cut-throat world of the blockade runners, companies were entirely willing to see their competitorsí ships captured, since that made for higher prices in the Confederacy, and therefore greater profits.
By this time, Mallory had devised a new plan for luring Yankee blockaders from their stations. Some of the sturdier blockade runners were fitted as raiders; it was felt that their operations near the coast would disrupt the blockade in the same way that the high-seas raiders were disrupting the Union ocean cruisers. The blockade runner Edith was fitted as a raider, rechristened Chickamauga, and Wilkinson took her out, looking for coastal shipping.
It was not to his liking. The Edith was a poor sort of ship to use as a raider, and Wilkinson didnít care for taking small coastal vessels, which were frequently the property of their skippers instead of being owned by a large Northern shipping company. After a short cruise up the coast, he went to Bermuda, where half of his crew promptly deserted. He then returned to Wilmington and was ordered to Richmond for a conference; after this, he returned and assumed command of the Olustee. He put this ship through a fake sale and renamed her Chameleon, and was ordered to bring in a cargo of food supplies for Leeís struggling army. His departure was delayed by the Federal attack on Fort Fisher on Christmas Eve, 1864, but when it was beaten off, he set sail once more for Bermuda.
The governor of Bermuda, remembering that he had been there in charge of a raider, at first blocked his efforts to obtain a cargo, but seeing it was only food, he relented. Wilkinson arrived off Wilmington in late January. But he saw there were no range lights lit there. Uncertain, he put back to sea and approached again the next night. The lights were lit this time, and he put in close to shore and entered the outer harbor. The signalman immediately got a response from shore but reported with dismay that the man answering him was not a Confederate, and Wilkinson suddenly realized that Fort Fisher had fallen in his absence and that the ships all around him were Union gunboats. He rapidly put back to sea, shook off two or three pursuers, and headed for Nassau, where he met John Newland Maffitt, who had received a similar reception at Wilmington. The two decided to try for Charleston, but both were chased away by Union cruisers, and they were back at Nassau when they learned of the fall of Charleston. By March 22, no orders had come from Richmond and the news was so disheartening that they decided to go to England and report to the senior Confederate naval officer there. The Chameleon reached Liverpool on April 9, 1865.
Knowing the end was at hand, Wilkinson turned the ship and all public funds in his possession over to Commander James Bulloch, the senior Confederate naval officer in Europe.
Reluctant to return to the United States, Wilkinson lived for a number of years in Nova Scotia, but eventually homesickness overtook him and he moved back to his old home in Amelia County, Virginia, where he spent his last years. He published a book of his experiences, Narrative of a Blockade Runner, in 1877. He died on December 29, 1891.
Addenda: According to the editors of Time-Life Books in an insert provided with Wilkinson's Narrative: "For several years Wilkinson pursued various business interests in Nova Scotia. Then he returned to Virginia and settled at Woodside, the family homestead near Richmond. Later, drawn again to the sea, he moved to Annapolis, Maryland, and established a highly successful school to prepare candidates for the U.S. Naval Academy. There, on December 29, 1891, Wilkinson, a lifelong bachelor, died at his home at the age of 70."
The text of Wilkinson's Narrative of a Blockade Runner is available online.
Campbell, R. Thomas. Grey Thunder: Exploits of the Confederate States Navy. Shippensburg PA: Burd Street Press, 1996. ________________. Southern Thunder: Exploits of the Confederate States Navy. Shippensburg PA: Burd Street Press, 1996.
Hill, Jim Dan. Sea Dogs of the Sixties. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota, 1935. Reprint by New York: A.S. Barnes & Company, 1961.
Scharf, J.T. History of the Confederate States Navy, from its Organization to the Surrender of its Last Vessel. Baltimore MD, 1887. Reprint by Fairfax Press, New York, 1977.
Soley, James Russell. The Blockade and the Cruisers. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1887. Reprint by Broadfoot Publishing, Wilmington NC, 1989.
Stern, Philip Van Doren. Pictorial History of the Confederate Navy. Garden City NY: Doubleday,
1962. Reprint by Da Capo Press, 1992.
Copyright © 1997 Mark F. Jenkins