Shipwrecked: A True Civil War Story of Mutinies, Jailbreaks, Blockade-Running, and the Slave Trade

  • By Jonathan W. White
  • Rowman & Littlefield
  • 336 pp.
  • Reviewed by Paul D. Pearlstein
  • August 17, 2023

An ambitious, bloated tale of 19th-century derring-do.

Shipwrecked: A True Civil War Story of Mutinies, Jailbreaks, Blockade-Running, and the Slave Trade

The full title of Shipwrecked: A True Civil War Story of Mutinies, Jailbreaks, Blockade-Running, and the Slave Trade may be a partial spoiler. In the new book, historian Jonathan W. White takes a shotgun approach to chronicling the multifaceted life of a 19th-century adventurer, criminal, and ne’er-do-well renaissance man, Appleton Oaksmith.

Appleton was many things: “an oily gammon,” a published poet, a sea captain, a slaver, an expat, a traitor, an entrepreneur, an escaped prisoner, a Confederate blockade-runner, an elected (and bankrupt) state legislator, and finally, a pardoned felon. His progression from miscreant to redemption reminded me of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders: “Born in Newgate…was Twelve Year a Whore…a Transported Felon in Virginia…grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent.”

One of six children, Appleton was the favorite of his doting mother, Elizabeth Oakes Smith, who, along with her husband, was a nationally renowned writer. While Elizabeth garnered celebrity in the literary world, she was also deeply involved in the suffrage cause of the 1800s. Author White cannot resist intertwining Appleton’s and Elizabeth’s lives with many of the important events and characters of their time. Unfortunately, the barrage of collateral details causes the book to read like an account of everything that happened in America from the collapse of the international slave trade through to the end of the Civil War. A focus on just the mother or son would’ve made Shipwrecked a stronger, more readable, and more worthwhile volume.

The author’s name-dropping quickly becomes confusing and tedious. He references seemingly every prominent figure from the era and sprinkles in factoids both relevant and irrelevant about most of them. I counted over 40 such persons, including: Rousseau, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, Gideon Welles, Henry Clay, Horace Greeley, Toussaint L’Ouverture, Phillis Wheatley, Stephen A. Douglas, Davy Crockett, Andrew Jacksonenry , Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Sumner, and William H. Seward (and, anachronistically, Gloria Steinem).

But when is enough enough? Was White’s intended audience the Academy or lay readers? More emphasis on the topics outlined in the book’s subtitle would’ve made for a much clearer story.

Shipwrecked starts with an account of the impressive literary careers of Appleton’s parents. We then meet their adventurous son embarking on a voyage to China in 1843 at age 16. After evolving into an able mariner, and following Congress’ ban on the importation of slaves, Appleton decided to make slaving his calling. There was great profit to be had in the illegal trafficking of human beings.  

(Like his parents, Appleton was a wordsmith. He kept a journal throughout his life and wrote poetry. It’s unclear whether this served as a distraction or a salve for his immoral occupation. It’s also unclear why it was necessary to include his poems in this already scattered, overstuffed tale.)

Much of the book focuses on Appleton’s experiences at sea. The business model of the slaver was to purchase men, women, and children in Africa, transport the “cargo” to the U.S., and then move the enslaved people into the country. Prior to 1860, illegal slave trade was mostly ignored by the federal government. This changed when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. His Republican platform boldly called the enterprise a “crime against humanity and a burning shame to our country and age.” Stopping it became a priority for the new commander-in-chief, who also understood that fewer slaves made the South a weaker foe.

After Lincoln’s inauguration, cat-and-mouse maneuvers intensified between government patrols and the slavers. One of Appleton’s ships, the Augusta, was confiscated, and he was arrested for outfitting a slave ship (and not the whaler he claimed). His trial — during which his mother got involved in his defense — ended with Appleton being convicted of eight felonies. He was immediately sent to prison but soon escaped under suspicious circumstances. Readers next meet him hiding out in Cuba, running the Southern blockade, and trying to get back home.

The story concludes with Appleton’s divorce from his first wife, a long custody fight, the tragic drowning of four of his children, his election to the North Carolina statehouse, and, incongruously, an eventual full pardon from President Ulysses S. Grant. 

While the book’s front cover suggests a fast-moving tale of derring-do, that’s not what I found. White’s decision to begin his narrative by recounting Appleton’s parents’ literary prominence was perplexing and certainly not an attention-grabber. And the rest of the book reads like a recitation of the events of Appleton’s life, with several reprises of Mother Elizabeth’s exploits serving as a leitmotif.

Apparently, the author was unsure whether he was writing a biography of Appleton Oaksmith or a history of the era in which he lived. After finishing the promising but disjointed Shipwrecked, I’m unsure, too.

Paul D. Pearlstein is a retired attorney who lives in Civil War country and still finds the tragic history of that conflict fascinating.

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