A Scottish Blockade Runner in the American Civil War: Joannes Wyllie of the Steamer AD-Vance
John F. Messner
Offering a view to an often-written period in American history, John Messner explores the American Civil War from a foreign perspective. Similar to Joannes Wyllie, Messner was not born in the country that his story impacts. Instead, Messner, an American living abroad, writes about a Scottish mariner impacting American history. This book takes a deep dive into this mariner, his life before going to sea, life on the water, and the quiet life after returning to land through many secondary sources.
It is unfortunate that some important local information is left out or misrepresented. The omission of Fort Anderson, its important use as the Quarantine Fort in the Lower Cape Fear region of North Carolina, and the few unquantified statements of Wyllie as the greatest blockade running captain shows the author's limited knowledge of local history. No question researching a person during a conflict with limited surviving records is a tall order to fill. Messner took a major undertaking in writing this book. Starting from a note on the back of a painting is an incredible launching point and the quintessential historian "rabbit hole" research project.
Much of Messner's research was based on newspaper articles, some published during the American Civil War. However, many were published much later. The limited access to records to corroborate the reports leaves space for speculation. Being an American living in the American South, reading this book raises many questions of validity from Confederate records and the personal papers of Governor Vance and hopes of seeing equal information pulled from Union records. This, combined with heavy references to the writings of Wyllie's friend or Wyllie's recollections late in life, creates more questions of biased writing. Messner acknowledges the questionable validity and conflicting perspectives; however, does not offer definitive analytical explanations. Between the changing names of vessels and varieties of spellings common throughout, it is hard to trust that this book follows the same person and vessel. He even goes as far as to note all the other J. Wyllie's in active service with Joannes Wyllie. Combined with the age discrepancy stated early on, it lingers that there may have been a mix-up. In addition, offering so much leverage to Wyllie's recollections but not utilizing his spelling of the vessel he served on is an interesting choice.
Civil War historians looking for varied sources and deep analysis may want to prioritize another work. While the approach of American history from a foreign perspective is fascinating, the long form block quotes take up several pages, and the heavy reliance on newspapers creates a concern. Readers choosing to add this book to their reading list will greatly appreciate the care Messner takes to explain terminology and geographic locations for those not too familiar with Scotland.
- Dunbeath: Whittles Publishing, 2021
- 6-3/4” x 9-1/4”, softcover, xxiv + 258 pages
- Illustrations, maps, appendices, notes bibliography, index. $24.95
- ISBN: 9781849954822
Reviewed by Caitlin Menne, North Carolina Maritime Museum at Southport