"A Scottish Blockade Runner in the American Civil War - Joannes Wyllie of the steamer Ad-Vance" by John F. Messner is a book that shows just how good a modern biography can be. I'd never heard of Joannes Wyllie before picking this volume up and I suspect that many others will never have heard of him either. Yet he lived a long and exciting and absolutely fascinating life and author John F. Messner can be congratulated in bringing Wyllie to the page in a way that is beautifully and compellingly written and makes him seem very real indeed; and in a way that illuminates an intriguing corner of the story of the American Civil War.
So who was Joannes Wyllie? The blurb on the back cover of the book gives a nice summary: "Born in 1828 near Kelso in the Scottish Borders, Wyllie went to sea as an apprentice seaman in 1852 and quickly rose through the ranks. By 1862 he had gained his master's certificate in Liverpool, and there he took command of his first vessel... He sailed for Nassau, then a booming port involved in running contraband through the Union blockade of the Confederate States, at that time fighting in the American Civil War. Sailors from Britain rushed to man these vessels as great fortunes could be made if a successful run was made into a Confederate port... This set Wyllie's career as a blockade runner on course.... until capture in 1864. Two more commands of blockade runners followed; he was then captured again and then evaded the American authorities through an ingenious and sometimes incredible escape to Scotland."
The book draws on a wide range of sources, including contemporary passenger diaries; personal recollections from crew; letters, telegrams and official documents; and newspaper reports. The result is an extremely impressive book. further brought to life by maps, drawings and mainly black and white illustrations, albeit with a colour section in the middle. The appendices add considerable detail to the book, including a list of voyages of the Ad-Vance; crew lists; legal documents; the history of a the most notable painting of the ship; and even a list of lectures given by Joannes Wyllie in Fife between 1869 and 1902.
We'd highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in nautical history and Scotland's place within it.