Today my kids and I looked through my old comic book collection. Among the many GI JOE’s, Spiderman’s, and Avengers was a thin comic printed on old high-fiber paper titled, “Captain D’s Exciting Adventures: The Blockade Runners.” I instantly remembered getting it from a restaurant while on one of my childhood family vacations.
Like many Civil War enthusiasts, my interest was triggered by stopping at battlefields on family trips down to warm places like Florida and the Gulf Coast. As a young boy, there was something very mysterious, exciting and even intimidating about traveling through the South. In addition to possessing most of the war’s battlefields, the South also hosted other distinguishing roadside markers. For example, the fireworks stores in Tennessee and restaurant chains like Shoney’s were clear signs to my brothers and I in the back of our van that we were no longer in Wisconsin or the familiar confines of the Midwest.
Shoney’s apparently started the Captain D’s restaurant chain as their entry into the sea food dining market. And I recall Captain D’s briefly became my restaurant of choice after receiving a copy of their complimentary “Captain D’s Exciting Adventures: The Blockade Runners.” What I loved is that the South seemed to remember the war more than we did in the North and this comic offered more proof.
A major let down occurred the next time we stopped at a Captain D’s (upon my insistence) and the complimentary comic depicted talking dolphins. I discovered today that the Shoney’s company issued at least twenty-four issues of “Captain D’s Exciting Adventures” that covered a wide-range of historical and oceanic topics. My childhood instincts were correct in that there were at least two other issues that pertained to the Civil War. One covered the Ironclads at Hampton Roads and the other depicted WIlliam B. Cushing, a Yankee from Delafield, Wisconsin whom Captain D states, “Out He-roed Every Hero in the Civil War.” Imagine getting the the Cushing comic back then? I may have moved next to a Captain D’s if that would have happened.
Reading “The Blockade Runners” again this weekend was a lot of fun as was taking a few moments to track down some historical images and do a little of historical research based on the story. As a thirteen year old, I don’t remember if I thought a restaurant chain’s comic book would or would not lack historical accuracy. I just enjoyed the novelty of it. Today, I admit I had my doubts but I stand corrected. Captain D follows the Confederate Captain John Wilkinson and his efforts to carry armaments through the Union Blockade. Wilkinson sailed the, the Robert E. Lee, and I included a historical photograph of the actual ship by that name along with the comic representation below.
Indeed, “Frazer and Trenholm Co.” (read comic below) was a Charleston, SC based shipping and financing company operated by George Trenholm. Trenholm helped gain foreign investments for the South and finance a fleet of blockade runners and even ended the war as the Confederacy’s Secretary of the Treasury. I could not find historical evidence of the “pretty… har-u-u-mph” nurse, Sarra Birk, but in his memoirs, Wilkinson writes of stoic members of the “fair sex” (163) who were on board when the Lee escaped a near capture that closely matches the comic’s depiction. And clearly the South was in need of medical equipment and expertise during the war.
I was also surprised to learn that Wilkinson almost brought some Civil War history quite close to Wisconsin. He had planned an extraordinary rescue of Confederate prisoners (which was foiled at the last moment) in the Great Lakes at the prison located on Johnson’s Island in Lake Erie.
This comic is an exciting discovery in many ways. I found an artifact that helped foster my interest in this era of history and to recall that excitement is wonderful. Back in 1987, I was intrigued by the fact a restaurant wrote Civil War comic books. Twenty-six years later, I found it is an interesting vehicle to research blockade running and Confederate finances during the war. I am pleasantly surprised that at least some of the comic is based on primary source material like WIlkinson’s memoirs. Was my surprise based on the format of this story or its source? I have used graphic novel excerpts in class before and this showed that even comic books distributed by a restaurant chain can be used to spark investigation and learning. Either way, this adventure down memory lane has been truly enlightening.