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A Scottish Blockade Runner in the American Civil War: Joannes Wyllie of the steamer Ad-Vance

Book Review by Jeff Fuller

I was delighted to receive a copy of John Messner’s book not least because the blockade of the Confederate ports was a subject of which I was aware but had no great knowledge of, so I approached this book hoping to be enlightened. I was not to be disappointed. However, this book is more than an exposition of a blockade runner it also tells the story of a fascinating life lived by John ‘Joannes’ Wyllie.

Born in 1828 in the Scottish Borders, John Wylie was destined for an unremarkable life as the son of a gardener from Fife. He assisted his father with his gardening duties before attending school in the evenings where he developed a love of literature. Bored of his gardening duties Wyllie’s adventurous spirit led him and a friend to go to sea and then to join the army.

Thereafter Wyllie determined upon a new profession as a teacher and was appointed at the age of 17. After a year of successful teaching Wyllie set his sights on obtaining formal qualifications and was accepted by the University of St Andrews, enrolling in 1847. Signing the handwritten matriculation roll students traditionally adopted the Latin version of their Christian name and although Wyllie signed John, he would now have the alternative name of Joannes. Wyllie did not complete his university education but returned to Fife to teach at Coaltown where he enjoyed a successful three years, founding a library and developing a gift for public speaking.

A curious turn of events occurred in January 1851 which culminated in Wyllie leaving the teaching profession after the examinations of 1852 and heading to Glasgow where he signed on as an apprentice mariner and for the second time began a life at sea.

Messner describes Wyllie’s career travelling the world and the life-forming events he would experience until 1862 when he returned to Liverpool. Here he would learn of the exploits of the early blockade runners and the rewards that could be attained from a successful run prompting him to qualify as a ship’s master. The book concludes with chapters on Wyllie’s post blockade time at sea and his later life. Wyllie’s life before and after the blockade is undoubtedly interesting but it is the blockade running core of Messner’s book that brings his story to life.

The dangers of blockade-running and the associated drama are vividly described and brought to life by a series of personal accounts from both crew members and passengers supported by contemporary reports and communications. All of this is interwoven with detailed descriptions of the process of blockade running from the commissioning and financing of suitable vessels through to the nature of cargoes and rewards available. The implementation and effectiveness of the blockade are covered so too an examination as to why Clyde steamers such as the Ad-vance were so well suited to the task of blockade running.

The importance of running the blockade to the Confederacy and the economic impact of the blockade on both sides of the Atlantic are examined and Messner’s concentration on the port of Wilmington and the effects of the blockade on the town and its population also add an interesting perspective.

This book is impeccably researched and when there is no primary research to support a view Messner is at pains to explain this and where forced to make assumptions these are generally well argued and sensible conclusions are arrived at. The narrative is occasionally overwrought by facts some of which might be better included in the appendices, but this does not overly detract from the reader’s experience and makes the book a useful reference source as well as an informative and enjoyable read.

Highly recommended.

Published in paperback by Whittles Publishing Ltd. July 2021

ISBN 978-184995-482-2


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