So many of my regular readers have been enjoying my live-blog of The Winds of War that perhaps they forgot that I’m also live-blogging another book this summer, Edward Rowe Snow’s 1962 nautical pop history Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast. In my first installment I introduced you to the strange petroglyphs of Dighton Rock in Massachusetts, and in the second piece we investigated the mysterious 1841 disappearance of the steamship SS President. Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog has been providing wine suggestions both for this series and Winds of War. Tonight we go on another excursion into the mysterious lands and waters of New England, and this one is just pure adventure–both in the pages of Snow’s book and in the wine glass I drained while reading it. I think this will be the most fun installment yet!
In Chapter 7 of Mysterious Tales, Snow takes us to a small island in Boston Harbor called George’s Island, and the forbidding military facility there called Fort Warren. The way Snow describes it, Fort Warren is sort of the Alcatraz of the East Coast: a forbidding island of lost souls surrounded by swift-moving currents so daunting that most prisoners that end up there simply give up their dreams of escape. As if this isn’t enough, Snow piles on, in one intriguing paragraph, various other mysteries he says are connected with the island: the Grave of the Ghost of the Lady in Black, the Corridor of Dungeons, and the Cistern of Death. I am not making this up, it’s right there on page 79! With the benefit of post-1962 hindsight I’m wondering if the spooky ambiance of Fort Warren might have been an inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s 2010 psychological thriller Shutter Island, which also takes place on a gloomy escape-proof island off the Massachusetts coast.
Fort Warren, originally built in 1833, still retains much of its forbidding 19th century look. Today it is a museum you can visit.
Anyway, to the story. Snow is eager to tell us about a famous escape that occurred from the island during the Civil War, when Fort Warren was being used to house Confederate prisoners. Snow provides the first-person account of Lieutenant Joseph W. Alexander of the Confederate ironclad Atlanta. Of course we have to have a rousing battle scene even before Alexander gets to George’s Island. In June 1863 the Atlanta charges a Union fleet at the mouth of the Savannah River and after a pitched battle her captain capitulates and hauls down the stars-and-bars in an act of surrender. (Gee, isn’t that topical this week!) Alexander winds up in the stone dungeons of Fort Warren with several other Confederate naval officers: Reed, Thurston and Sanders. Naturally they decide to escape.
Unfortunately Alexander’s account isn’t very clear on exactly how they did it. Evidently there are holes in the walls of the basement dungeon called “musketry loopholes,” about six feet high, three feet wide and communicating with the outside of the walls. This seems like a pretty serious design defect in a high-security military prison, but whatever. Alexander and friends realize they can slip through the holes if they take their clothes off first. On the dark and stormy night (of course) of August 19, 1863, after a previous dry run, they begin the escape, aided by two additional men, Prydé and Sherman, whose role will be to swim for a nearby island, steal a boat and then come back for the rest of the men. Snow switches back and forth between Alexander’s first-person account of the escape and his own third-person paraphrase, which is a bit confusing, but it seems everything goes according to plan–until Prydé and Sherman swim off into the darkness and vanish without a trace, leaving the other four standing around on George’s Island wondering what the hell they’re going to do now.
The ship on which Lt. Alexander served was the CSS Atlanta, captured off Savannah in 1863. The Union later used the ship in their own navy.
After realizing that the swimmers are done for, Alexander and Thurston decide to float over to another island on a floating target used by Fort George troops for shooting practice. This escape is rather harrowing especially when they’re almost seen by a Union sentry–and also because some of their clothes are lost–but ultimately they make it, steal a boat from the other island and go back for Reed and Sanders–only to find they’re gone too. (In fact they’ve been discovered by Union guards and slapped into solitary confinement). Alexander and Thurston make for New Brunswick in their stolen boat, an ambitious journey all the way up the Maine coast. They’re spotted by a schooner off the coast that takes in their little boat. Alexander tells the captain they’re pleasure sailors who got out a little too far past Portsmouth, and some of their clothes were washed overboard when they went for a swim. The schooner captain buys it until one of his crew notices that Alexander and Thurston are carrying Confederate money. The jig is up. Soon the prisoners are cooling their heels in a Portland, Maine jail cell.
This is not the end of the story. Alexander and Thurston are eventually returned to Fort Warren, reunited with Reed and Sanders, and they endeavor to try to escape again. This time they’re going to deconstruct the partition between two adjoining chimneys in their cells, thus making the flue big enough for a man to wiggle through. During the daytime they install a false partition with fake bricks made of bread dough to fool the guards. Wow, there sure are a lot of sneaky ways to escape from this supposedly escape-proof prison, eh? This latter scheme is foiled when the men realize the Yankees have put a sentry on the roof, possibly to guard against this very form of escape. Ultimately Alexander and the others are exchanged for Union prisoners, and the chapter ends somewhat anticlimactically. But, insofar as good old fashioned adventure tales are concerned, “An Escape From Fort Warren” delivers on its promises.
And now, the wine! When I told Michelle the next chapter was about pure adventure, she unhesitatingly recommended the Michael David Petite Petit. It has one of the coolest wine labels I’ve seen in a long time. I was able to find this wine pretty easily, a first for this series! Here are Michelle’s tasting notes:
Michael David Petite Petit: This adventurous red wine was crafted of 85% Petite Syrah and 15% Petit Verdot. It poured a seductive dark purple into the glass and opened with a deep aroma of dark black and red berries, licorice and spice notes. On the palate this mouth coating wine delivered energetic flavors of blackberry jam, ripe black plums, black cherry compote and black raspberries, with deep smoky notes, licorice, black pepper and touch of vanilla on the back of the palate. This full-tilt red wine is rich and round on the palate yet beautifully structured with well integrated tannins and firm acidity. Michael David Petite Petit is always a crowd pleaser. SRP $16.
Personally I found this to be an absolutely delightful wine. It’s definitely adventurous, bold and fun, just like this chapter of Mysterious Tales. For a $16 wine you can’t go wrong. Fantastic choice, and I can’t wait for the next bold frontier to which Edward Rowe Snow and Michelle will take me.