A Scottish Blockade Runner in the American Civil War – Joannes Wyllie of the Steam Ad-Vance, John F. Messner

A Scottish Blockade Runner in the American Civil War – Joannes Wyllie of the Steam Ad-Vance, John F. Messner

Although Wyllie’s story isn’t terribly well known, he was fairly well documented. Later in live he gave repeated talks on his experiences, normally to raise money for local charities. He appeared in contemporary newspapers and in plenty of documents in North Carolina. However one of the best sources was an article written by a friend and published in The People’s Friend, in 1889 (when it must have been publishing rather more hard hitting material than now). As a result Messner has been able to produce a detailed biography of Wyllie, with a great deal of material on his time as a blockade runner.

Wyllie certainly had a varied life. He attended St. Andrews university (when it was a very small institution, with only 200 students!), although didn’t finish his degree. He then worked as a teacher, before going to sea. Once he was at sea he rose impressively rapidly through the ranks in the Merchant Navy, putting him in the right place to benefit from the urgent need of the Confederates for blockade runners. He ended up working on the Ad Vance, a Scottish build paddle steamer purchased by North Carolina, and run by the state. On some of the blockade runs he served as the first officer for North Carolinian captains, but eventually as captain in his own right.

Wyllie led the Ad Vance through the Union blockade fifteen times (eight and seven out), often coming under fire from Union ships. His ship was somewhat larger than some, and ran aground in the difficult waters off Wilmington more than once, adding extra drama to the affair. We have one unusual eyewitness account of the stresses involved, from the diary of Mary White, the daughter of a North Carolina official who had decided to get his family out as things started to turn against the rebels. Although she didn’t take part in the eventual attempt to run the blockade, which turned out to be the Ad Vance’s last, but she did spend some time onboard waiting for the circumstances to be right for an attempt to escape, giving us an idea of how difficult it was to get out past the natural barriers.

There is a tendency to rather ignore the moral side of Wyllie’s time as a blockade runner. There are sections on how much material he managed to slip through the blockade into North Carolina, but no acknowledgement that this would have helped the Confederacy stave off defeat for a little longer, thus causing deaths on both sides and delaying the end of slavery in the south. There are some brief mentions of slavery, but only in the context of British public opinion. There is no discussion of any contact Wyllie might have had with slaves, who he must have seen in the Confederate ports he visited, and whose forced labour produced the cotton bales that he transported out of the blockage. 

This is a fascinating, well researched account of Wyllie’s life at sea, recreating the excitement and greed that accompanied the blockade runners, transforming formerly quiet ports in the Caribbean into temporary wartime boom towns. Perhaps the most unusual feature of it is the stark contrast between the two parts of Wyllie’s life – his later life as a farmer farm must have felt very quiet compared to his civil war exploits. 

1 – John Wyllie’s Early Life, 1828-1852
2 – Wyllie’s Career at Sea Begins
3 – Beginning of the Blockade
4 – Onto the Blockade
5 – Wyllie Takes Command
6 – Return to the Blockade: Wyllie’s Last Two Runners
7 – Final Years at Sea
8 – Ploughing the Soil: Wyllie as Farmer and Neighbour

Author: John F. Messner
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 264
Publisher: Whittle
Year: 2021

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