Reviewed by Neil P. Chatelain
The mid-nineteenth century produced a number of larger-than-life figures who seemed to be practically everywhere during crucial times in the expansion of the United States and the Civil War that nearly tore it apart. Appleton Oaksmith, perhaps as well as any one individual, personified this pervasiveness. Jonathan W. White’s new biography, Shipwrecked: A True Civil War Story of Mutinies, Jailbreaks, Blockade-Running, and the Slave Trade, uses Oaksmith’s life story and his family as a lens to view some of the Civil War era’s many complexities.
Appleton Oaksmith’s involvement in major events of the mid-nineteenth century spanned North America, South America, Africa, and Europe. Much of Oaksmith’s ubiquity came by way of his mobility and centered on his position as master of several ships. Born in Maine but raised in Charleston, South Carolina, and New York City, part of Oaksmith’s career involved providing transportation for people sailing from the Panama isthmus and Nicaragua to California during the height of the Gold Rush. At another point, he sailed to Africa, and in doing so came under suspicion of participating in the transatlantic slave trade. In addition, Oaksmith’s name also ended up tied to William Walker’s ultimately unsuccessful filibustering activities in Nicaragua.
Purchasing a whaler at the start of the Civil War, Federal authorities detained Oaksmith’s vessel, which they believed he used as a slaver. Arrested and incarcerated, and then formally convicted in Boston, Oaksmith soon escaped from prison, made his way to Cuba, and ultimately took up blockade running between Havana and the Texas coast. In an attempt to recapture him, United States authorities went so far as trying to kidnap Oaksmith during a stop in Havana, which violated international agreements. At the war’s end, Oaksmith went into exile in England until he finally secured a pardon from President Ulysses Grant. He then moved to North Carolina and became a member of the state legislature.
A lifelong Democrat, Appleton was never truly successful at any of his ventures. However, he provides an interesting example of how complicated times can create complex situations that potentially channel individuals in unexpected directions. As one might imagine, Oaksmith’s transition from an anti-abolitionist Northerner, who ended up cooperating with the Confederacy and ultimately moving to the South, but during Reconstruction opposed the Ku Klux Klan, makes for an exciting story. His is a fascinating case study of how one’s deeds can back a person into a corner and potentially change their future.
White’s book makes for easy reading. Its chapters are relatively brief, and the well-written active storyline encourages readers to keep turning to the next page. However, prospective readers should be aware that a significant amount of the book focuses on Elizabeth Oakes Smith, Appleton Oaksmith’s mother. White references her diary heavily, and he chronicles in detail her effort to lobby on behalf of her son. Although this secondary focus on Oaksmith’s mother may detract from the story for some readers—especially when one considers that the book’s promotional materials do not hint that she plays a major role in the story—her inclusion actually makes a valuable contribution to the narrative. There is also an occasional chapter that shifts attention away from Oaksmith and instead examines a similar individual who was involved in comparable controversial deeds. For example, White covers the conviction and execution of transatlantic slave trader Nathaniel Gordon as a parallel to Appleton’s conviction for the same crime.
Blessed with a plethora of Oaksmith family letters and documents, White makes good use of a host of sources. Legal documents connected to Oaksmith’s trials, prison records, and applications for pardon receive particular attention. Appleton was a lifelong poet, and many of his poems are included in the text with explanations about his motivations for writing each piece. Where Appleton’s own documents fall short in helping to craft the narrative, his mother Elizabeth’s diary and autobiography assists in filling in the gaps. White’s treatment of Appleton Oaksmith is in large part a double analysis. On one hand the book details how Oaksmith’s actions associated with the slave trade ran afoul of the Lincoln administration; while on the other hand it also explains how the United States Government’s policies and actions toward Oaksmith created tremendous distress in his mother’s life.
Shipwrecked provides an excellent lens through which we are able to see the complexities of life during the Civil War era. White’s book shows how the Lincoln administration’s policies regarding the slave trade impacted individuals, and how even those who remained far from any battlefield could still have their lives substantially changed due to the circumstances created by America’s internal conflict. Shipwrecked is a great story about a flawed and controversial man that will engage anyone with an interest in Civil War history. But readers who are particularly fascinated with President Lincoln’s political policies, the conflict’s impact on social issues, maritime connections to the war, efforts to end the international slave trade, and the postwar relocation of Confederates in exile abroad will find this study especially insightful. There is virtually something for everyone in Shipwrecked.