John Wilkinson CSN

Lt. John Wilkinson

John Wilkinson was born in Norfolk, Virginia on 6th November 1821. At the time of his birth, his father Jesse Wilkinson, a Master Commander was at sea in the sloop of war, ‘Hornet’. As Jesse spent much of his time at sea, John grew up mostly without his father’s guidance and Jesse only learned of his son's warrant as midshipman on returning from a cruise of nearly three years in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, as commander of the frigate ‘USS United States’.

Prior to the founding of the Naval Academy, the induction and education of midshipmen was carried out on-board, active Navy vessels. As it turned out Wilkinson was adept in his studies; but remained quiet and unassuming, preferring his books to the company of others. As a result of this love of reading, he became extremely knowledgeable on both legal and literary affairs, an attribute that earned him the nickname, ‘the librarian’. Reading remained his lifelong passion, preferring the works of European authors to those of his fellow countrymen; and in later life he was often known to quote Cicero or Vergil verbatim in moments of anger or frustration.

Curiously, one of John Wilkinson’s commanders during his time aboard the ‘USS Saratoga’ was one, Captain David G. Farragut, later destined to command the Federal Naval forces in several actions against the Confederacy. In 1850 John finally earned his promotion to lieutenant.

When Virginia seceded, Wilkinson submitted his resignation and offered his services to the new Confederate Navy. A lack of ships and a surfeit of suitable officers however, determined his first assignment was at Fort Powhatan on the James River. Here he was tasked to train new recruits from ‘wealthy families’ and earmarked for speedy promotion! (A policy that was quietly dropped following Lee’s stated wish, to see all his commanders meet a minimum standard of education and intelligence). Within a relatively short period, Wilkinson moved on to the Aquia Creek Batteries on the Potomac; but within weeks he was removed back to New Orleans and appointed, First Officer of the as yet, unfinished ironclad, CSS Louisiana. As construction of his new vessel continued, Wilkinson was quick to express his disappointment in the materials and building techniques being used by the mainly civilian workforce. Not for the last time in his career would he be seen to openly challenge the wisdom of his superiors by claiming on more than one occasion, ‘this curse(d) bowel of Gotham is not fit for active duty!’ 

As it turned out, as his former commander’s fleet forced its way past the forts to New Orleans, the barely completed ‘CSS Louisiana’ was caught behind the lines. Knowing the forts were in surrender negotiations with Farragut, the ironclad’s officers decided to blow her up rather than relinquish their ship. Wilkinson argued against this, saying the ship would be better scuttled as part of a blockade; but in the end agreed time was against this latter course of action. Farragut was infuriated by the burning hulk, claiming the ships officers were in ‘breach of good faith’ by taking such actions during surrender negotiations. He was also fearful the ironclad, if cut loose, would endangered the Federal supply vessels making their way upstream. 

A direct result of Farragut’s displeasure saw Wilkinson and his colleagues incarcerated in Fort Warren near Boston; but denied the privileges normally given to officers who were prisoners of war. Here, Wilkinson’s learned readings paid off. A flow of vigorous correspondence ensued with his captors who, surprised by his knowledge of both military and civil law, finally conceded defeat and relaxed the restrictions of their captives' imprisonment.

John Wilkinson’s incarceration lasted little over thirteen weeks until, through the pressure of friends and others he was exchanged, arriving back in Richmond within days of his release. It is unclear what prompted Secretary Mallory to single Wilkinson out, but orders were quickly relayed for him to sail for England to purchase a steamer, readily for sale in the Port of Glasgow, north of the Scottish border.

To his dismay, on arrival he discovered the steamer, named the ‘Giraffe’, had already been purchased by Alexander Collie & Co., which had assembled a fleet of some twenty blockade runners, mostly commanded and manned by Englishmen operating under assumed names. Undeterred, Wilkinson persuaded Collie to sell the ‘Giraffe’ for the same amount originally paid for her, on the assurance if the Confederate government ever decided to sell the vessel, Alexander Collie would have the first option of purchase.

Within the month Wilkinson in the ‘Giraffe’ had set sail for the West Indies with a cargo of munitions, medical supplies, and twenty-six Scottish lithographers, who would assist help the Confederate Treasury design and print a new currency. Calling briefly at Puerto Rico to deliver mail, he then continued on to Nassau in the Bahamas. At Nassau, he recruited a new crew and immediately set course for Wilmington in North Carolina. On the evening of 28th December 1862, Lt. John Wilkinson made his first run in command of a ship through the blockade. On arrival at Wilmington, he ordered the former ‘Giraffe’ to be renamed, ‘Robert E. Lee’.

Now aged forty-one years old, John Wilkinson in command of the ‘Robert E. Lee’ ran the Federal blockade no fewer than twenty-one times. Blockade running had quickly become an art and many guises and tactics were used by those ships engaged in doing so. Wilkinson shared the opinions of many like-minded captains that the cruisers prowling some distance off shore provided a greater danger than the actual blockaders, usually at anchor, did themselves. As such, he used the cover of night on most occasions to slip by the Federal forces.

In the summer of 1863, the ‘Robert E. 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 this neutral port and it was feared that the cruiser ‘USS Wachusett’ was in the vicinity. Wilkinson gave Maffitt most of his good English coal. On their returned to Wilmington, Wilkinson was forced to refuel with inferior, North Carolina coal. This forced action would almost be his undoing.

Almost as soon as the ‘Robert E. Lee’ gained open water, the ‘USS Iroquois’, one of the fastest cruisers of the Federal navy was spotted bearing down on their position. Given the inferior coal being used Wilkinson’s engineer could only coax the ships speed to less than half while the cruiser was making better than eleven knots under full steam and all sails.

The ‘Robert E. Lee’ began the race of her life. Wilkinson used every tactic in the book to evade the pursuing Iroquois but the cruiser continued to close distance. Wilkinson ordered his crew to chop up all manner of woodwork and wooden furniture for the ship’s furnace but by mid-afternoon, the cruiser was closer than ever. Now Wilkinson had to consider throwing overboard the chests of gold that he was carrying in payment to England.

In what many consider a stroke of genius, Wilkinson ordered his crew to soak much of his cargo of cotton with turpentine, making a highly combustible fuel for his engines. This worked well and within an hour, his ship was drawing away from her pursuer but any relief was short lived. The burning cotton quickly chocked the flues of their furnace and the improved speed could not be maintained. As a result the ‘Iroquois’ (See photo) once more started gaining on them. Luck however had not deserted them and under cover of night and venting thick black smoke, the ‘Robert E. Lee’ finally made good her escape.

John Wilkinson’s accomplishments attracted the attention of the Confederate Military Command. Within two months of his escape from the ‘Iroquois’, Mallory assigned Wilkinson the task of capturing the Union sloop, ‘Michigan’ and effect the escape of a large number of prisoners held on Johnson’s Island. However, the plan failed for various reasons, though most likely due to leaked information on the proposed operation, forcing Wilkinson to flee Halifax for Bermuda where he learned with some dismay, of his former command’s capture by the Federal forces and its renaming as the ‘USS Fort Donelson’.

Wilkinson was offered command of the ‘Whisper’, an English owned vessel loaded with munitions and medicine and in due course, with five others in their fleet, set sail for Wilmington. En route the ships encountered heavy fog and unusually strong currents, driving all six vessels towards the western bar inlet. The ‘Whisper’ finally made it to port but the remaining vessels were either wrecked or captured resulting in a total loss of their cargos.

Three more commands followed but in late December 1864, Wilkinson set off on his final voyage aboard the ‘Chameleon’, determined to bring back food and supplies from Bermuda for Lee’s desperate army. On his return a month later, he discovered with the fall of Fort Fisher, any passage was now impossible. Returning to Nassau he met up once more with John Maffitt; but after an abortive attempt at getting through to Charleston, both captains decided to head for England and the relative safety of Liverpool. The ‘Chameleon’ arrived there on 9th April 1865.

Wilkinson intended resigning his ship and all monies in his possession to Commander James Bulloch, the senior Confederate naval officer in Europe; but the 'Chameleon' (See photo) was seized on arrival and subsequently sold by the British authorities. She was about to enter the merchant service when the United States instituted a legal suit for possession. She was awarded to the United States Government and handed over to Thomas Dudley, the US Consul in Liverpool, on 26th April 1866 .
With the war lost, Wilkinson was reluctant to return to the United States and lived for a number of years in Nova Scotia. Sometime later he did return to his old home in Amelia County, Virginia. In his later years, Admiral David Porter of the US Navy persuaded John to open a preparatory school for young, prospective midshipman hoping to enter the Naval Academy. Wilkinson went on to write and published a book of his experiences, Narrative of a Blockade Runner in 1877, living peacefully until his death on 29th December 1891 in Baltimore Md.
Personal narrative (extract) of Capt. J. Wilkinson on his exploits of running the blockade of Confederate Ports, specifically Wilmington, NC during the U.S. Civil War. He tells of sitting off the coast in heavy weather and traversing New Inlet with the help from "The Mound's" protection and distinction among the flat ground along the coast. He continues to tell of his exploits of going back and forth between Wilmington and Bermuda and The Bahamas.
After discharging our cargo of cotton and loading with supplies for the Confederate Government, chiefly for the army of Northern Virginia, we sailed for Wilmington in the latter part of the month of March. Our return voyage was uneventful, until we reached the coast near Masonborough Inlet, distant about nine miles north of the "New Inlet" bar. The weather had been pleasant during the voyage, and we had sighted the fires from the salt works along the coast, but before we could get hold of the land, a little before midnight, a densely black cloud made its appearance to the north and east; and the rapidity with which it rose and enlarged, indicated too surely that a heavy gale was coming from that quarter. We had been unable to distinguish any landmark before the storm burst in all its fury upon us, and the rain poured in torrents. Our supply of coals was too limited to enable us, with prudence, to put to sea again; and of course, the marks or ranges for crossing the bar would not be visible fifty yards in such thick weather. Being quite confident of our position, however, I determined to run down the coast, and anchor off the bar till daylight. Knowing the "trend" of the land north of New Inlet bar, the engine was slowed down and the lead kept going on both sides. The sounding continued quite regular three and three and a quarter fathoms, with the surf thundering within a stone's throw on our starboard beam, and nothing visible in the blinding torrents of rain. I knew that if my calculated position was correct, the water would shoal very suddenly just before reaching the bar; but a trying hour or more of suspense had passed before the welcome fact was announced by the leadsmen. The course and distance run, and the soundings up to this point proved, beyond doubt, that we had now reached the "horse shoe" north of New Inlet bar. At the moment when both of the leadsmen almost simultaneously called out "and a quarter less three," the helm was put hard a-starboard, and the Lee's bow was pointed seaward. We could not prudently anchor in less than five fathoms water, as the sea was rising rapidly; and that depth would carry us into the midst of the blockading fleet at anchor outside. It seemed an age before the cry came from the leadsmen "by the mark five." The Lee was instantly stopped, and one of the bower anchors let go, veering to thirty fathoms on the chain. The cable was then well stoppered at the "bitts," and unshackled; and two men stationed at the stopper, with axes, and the order to cut the lashings, instantly, when so ordered; the fore-staysail was loosed, and hands stationed at the halliards; and the chief engineer directed to keep up a full head of steam. The night wore slowly away; and once or twice we caught a glimpse, by a flash of lightning, of the blockading fleet around us, rolling and pitching in the heavy sea. The watch having been set, the rest of the officers and crew were permitted to go below, except the chief engineer and the pilot. We paced the bridge, anxiously waiting for daylight. It came at last, and there, right astern of us, looming up through the mist and rain, was the "Mound." We had only to steer for it, to be on our right course for crossing the bar. The stoppers were cut, the engine started ahead, and the fore stay-sail hoisted. As the chain rattled through the hawse-hole, the Lee wore rapidly around, and the Confederate flag was run up to the peak as she dashed toward the bar with the speed of a greyhound slipped from the leash. The bar was a sheet of foam and surf, breaking sheer across the channel; but the great length of the Lee enabled her to ride over three or four of the short chopping seas at once, and she never touched the bottom. In less than half an hour from the time when we slipped our chain under the guns of the fleet, we had passed beyond Fort Fisher, and were on our way up the river to Wilmington.

The "Mound" was an artificial one, erected by Colonel Lamb, who commanded Fort Fisher. Two heavy guns were mounted upon it, and it eventually became a site for a light, and very serviceable to blockade-runners; but even at this period, it was an excellent landmark. Joined by a long low isthmus of sand with the higher main land, its regular conical shape enabled the blockade-runners easily to identify it from the offing; and in clear weather, it showed plain and distinct against the sky at night. I believe the military men used to laugh slyly at the Colonel for undertaking its erection, predicting that it would not stand; but the result showed the contrary; and whatever difference of opinion may have existed with regard to its value as a military position, there can be but one as to its utility to the blockade-runners, for it was not a landmark, alone, along this monotonous coast; but one of the range lights for crossing New Inlet bar was placed on it. Seamen will appreciate at its full value, this advantage; but it may be stated, for the benefit of the unprofessional reader, that while the compass bearing of an object does not enable a pilot to steer a vessel with sufficient accuracy through a narrow channel, range lights answer the purpose completely. These lights were only set after signals had been exchanged between the blockade-runner and the shore station, and were removed immediately after the vessel had entered the river. The range lights were changed as circumstances required; for the New Inlet channel, itself, was and is constantly changing, being materially affected both in depth of water, and in its course, by a heavy gale of wind or a severe freshet in Cape Fear River.

The "Lee" continued to make her regular trips either to Nassau or Bermuda, as circumstances required, during the summer of 1863; carrying abroad cotton and naval stores, and bringing in "hardware," as munitions of war were then invoiced. Usually the time selected for sailing was during the "dark of the moon," but upon one occasion, a new pilot had been detailed for duty on board, who failed in many efforts to get the ship over the "rip," a shifting sand bar a mile or more inside the true bar. More than a week of valuable time had thus been lost, but the exigencies of the army being at that time more than usually urgent, I determined to run what appeared to be a very great risk. The tide serving at ten o'clock, we succeeded in crossing the rip at that hour, and as we passed over New Inlet bar, the moon rose in a cloudless sky. It was a calm night too, and the regular beat of our paddles through the smooth water sounded to our ears ominously loud. As we closely skirted the shore, the blockading vessels were plainly visible to us, some at anchor, some under way; and some of them so near to us that we saw, or fancied we saw, with our night glasses, the men on watch on their forecastles; but as we were inside of them all, and invisible against the background of the land, we passed beyond them undiscovered. The roar of the surf breaking upon the beach, prevented the noise of our paddles from being heard. The Lee's head was not pointed seaward, however, until we had run ten or twelve miles along the land so close to the breakers that we could almost have tossed a biscuit into them, and no vessel was to be seen in any direction. Discovery of us by the fleet would probably have been fatal to us, but the risk was really not so great as it appeared; for, as I had been informed by a blockade-runner who had been once captured and released, being a British subject, the vigilance on board the blockading fleet was much relaxed during the moonlit nights. The vessels were sent to Beaufort to coal at these times. My informant was an officer of the British Navy, and was the guest, for a few days after his capture, of Captain Patterson then commanding the blockading fleet off the Cape Fear. Speaking of the arduous service, P. remarked to him, that he never undressed nor retired to bed, during the dark nights; but could enjoy those luxuries when the moon was shining. On this hint I acted.

It was about this time that I adopted an expedient which proved of great service on several occasions. A blockade-runner did not often pass through the fleet without receiving one or more shots, but these were always preceded by the flash of a calcium light, or by a blue light; and immediately followed by two rockets thrown in the direction of the blockade-runner. The signals were probably concerted each day for the ensuing night, as they appeared to be constantly changed; but the rockets were invariably sent up. I ordered a lot of rockets from New York. Whenever all hands were called to run through the fleet, an officer was stationed alongside of me on the bridge with the rockets. One or two minutes after our immediate pursuer had sent up his rockets I would direct ours to be discharged at a right angle to our course. The whole fleet would be misled, for even if the vessel which had discovered us were not deceived, the rest of the fleet would be baffled.

While we were lying at anchor in the harbour of St. George's, during one of our trips, I was notified by the Governor of the island, that an officer of the Confederate Navy, then held as a prisoner on board one of H.B.M.'s ships of war at the naval anchorage, would be delivered up to me for transportation to the Confederacy, if I would assume the charge. This officer was charged with the murder of a messmate on board the Confederate States steamer Sumter, while lying at Gibraltar. The demand for his extradition, made by the Confederate Government, had been complied with by the British Government after much delay; and he was turned over to me for transportation to the Confederacy. Although the crime appeared to have been committed under circumstances of peculiar atrocity—it being alleged that the victim was asleep at the time he was shot—I so far respected the commission which the criminal bore, as to place him upon parole. Upon reporting his arrival at Wilmington to the Secretary of the Navy, the latter directed me to release him, upon the ground that it would be impossible to convict him by court-martial, all of the witnesses to the transaction being abroad. The man, Hester, was therefore released, and was never heard of again, I believe, during the war; but he has added to his evil reputation since its close, by plying the infamous trade (under the guise of United States Secret Service agent) of false informer and persecutor in several of the Southern States. The General Government failed to exercise its usual careful discrimination in making this appointment! The base renegades are many degrees worse even than the unprincipled adventurers from the North who have so long preyed upon the South.