Documents & Debates: Shipwrecked - A True Civil War Story of Mutinies, Jailbreaks. Blockade-Running, and the Slave Trade
December 13, 2023
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In the latest episode of The American Idea, we embark on a journey through the extraordinary life of Appleton Oaksmith, a figure who encapsulates the essence of 19th-century America. Professor Jonathan White, the author of Shipwrecked: A True Civil War Story of Mutinies, Jailbreaks, Blockade Running, and the Slave Trade, takes us on a remarkable exploration of Oaksmith’s captivating life.
The Oaksmith Family
Appleton Oaksmith’s roots lie in a family deeply entrenched in literature and politics. His mother, Elizabeth Oak Smith, was a renowned feminist writer and poet, while his father, CBA Smith, created the beloved character Jack Downing, who advised President Andrew Jackson. Despite their literary background, the Oaksmiths had diverse political views, yet they all shared a commitment to women’s rights and had connections to the abolitionist movement.
Appleton’s Love for the Sea
Appleton Oaksmith’s life was shaped by his profound love for the sea, leading him to his first commercial voyage to China at the tender age of 16. The maritime world had a profound influence on his life, stemming from generations of his family’s seafaring traditions. While many encountered tragic fates at sea, Appleton remained undeterred in his pursuit of a life on the water.
Following his voyage to China, the Oaksmith family settled in New York City. However, Appleton’s parents’ marriage hit turbulent waters, prompting him to flee the literary world of his mother in favor of a life at sea. During his adventures, he fell in love with Anne Lynch, a prominent literary hostess. Yet, circumstances led him on a journey along the coast of South America and eventually to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Appleton Oaksmith’s adventures took an unexpected turn as he arrived in San Francisco during the mid-19th century Gold Rush. However, the city was rife with crime and arson, leading to the rise of an extra-legal vigilance committee determined to restore order. While Oaksmith initially participated in these efforts, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with their methods and chose to resign.
A Perilous Voyage
In search of a cargo that would take him back to New York City, Oaksmith embarked on a perilous journey around the coast of South America. His quest was fraught with challenges, including strong currents and the complexities of maritime life. The journey eventually led him to Rio de Janeiro, where he encountered hostility from Brazilian authorities upon entering the port.
The Slave Trade
The mid-19th century marked a significant historical backdrop as the transatlantic slave trade was largely illegal. Yet, the British and Americans, despite their shared commitment to abolition, refrained from collaborating to combat the slave trade. This lack of cooperation laid the foundation for a critical turning point in Appleton Oaksmith’s life.
Encounter with British Ships
As Oaksmith sailed along the west coast of Africa, two British ships from the British Africa Squadron approached him. International law did not compel him to allow them onto his vessel, yet he extended this courtesy, suspecting he had nothing to hide. The British sailors inspected his ship for evidence of slave trading, a pivotal moment in the upcoming “Battle of the Congo.”
The Battle of the Congo
Oaksmith’s voyage took a dark turn when his ship faced a fierce attack by 3,000 African warriors near the Congo River. Stranded and vulnerable, he narrowly escaped death thanks to the British sailors’ intervention. This dramatic event garnered international headlines and captured the world’s attention.
Appleton Oaksmith’s life remained marked by involvement in international affairs, from diplomatic endeavors in Nicaragua to supporting Cuban independence fighters. These endeavors ultimately led to financial setbacks, leaving him flat broke by the end of the 1850s.
Complex Stance on the Civil War
With the outbreak of the Civil War following Abraham Lincoln’s election, one might expect Oaksmith, a man from Maine, to rally behind the Union cause. However, his stance was far from straightforward. While initially pro-Union, he held pro-slavery views that hindered cooperation with Republicans and eventually thwarted his efforts to support the Union.
Appleton Oaksmith’s life took a dramatic turn as he ventured into the whaling industry in the mid-19th century. Amid suspicions of ulterior motives, Oaksmith acquired old whaling vessels, eventually leading to his arrest due to allegations of involvement in the illegal slave trade. His arrest marked a pivotal moment in his life, with unexpected twists yet to come.
The Great Escape
In September 1862, while awaiting sentencing, Appleton Oaksmith pulled off an audacious escape from jail. Though the exact method remains shrouded in mystery, it likely involved subterfuge and the cooperation of guards. His escape led to a remarkable journey far from American soil.
A Confederate Blockade Runner
Resettling in Havana, Oaksmith transformed into a Confederate blockade runner, engaged in high-speed chases on the Gulf of Mexico, running cotton between Galveston and Havana. His actions drew the attention of various authorities, leading to international intrigue and clandestine dealings.
Mutual Kidnapping and the Final Escape
An astonishing turn of events occurred when Cuban and American authorities attempted a mutual kidnapping, an arrangement where one fugitive would be exchanged for another. The plan unraveled, allowing Oaksmith to evade capture. The details of this daring escape make for a riveting narrative.
A Fugitive Amid Changing Times
As the Civil War concluded in 1865, Oaksmith remained a wanted fugitive. However, his complex personal life and the influence of lax divorce laws in Indiana played a significant role in the events that would follow.
Unraveling the Intriguing Life of Appleton Oaksmith
Appleton Oaksmith’s journey was a testament to his ability to navigate treacherous waters and escape the clutches of various authorities, leaving an indelible mark on the tumultuous history of the 19th century.
A Controversial Path to Freedom
Oaksmith’s audacious mission, from divorcing his wife in secret to marrying his cousin and traveling to England, is nothing short of astounding. His cunning tactics to gain a divorce reveal his audacity and resourcefulness.
A Presidential Intervention and a Sudden Reversal of Fate
Andrew Johnson, the President of the United States, was on the verge of pardoning Oaksmith when an unexpected turn of events occurred. The jilted ex-wife thwarted Johnson’s decision, showcasing the unpredictable nature of politics during this era. Upon returning to the United States, Oaksmith took an unexpected turn, serving in the North Carolina State Legislature as an independent Democrat. His newfound advocacy for civil rights for African-Americans marked a stark contrast to his earlier pro-slavery stance.
The Tragic End and Legacy
Appleton Oaksmith’s life was marked by personal tragedies and a fight for pardon, culminating in Ulysses S. Grant granting him clemency in 1872. Oaksmith’s story reflects the restless spirit of many Americans during this turbulent period. Intriguing and enigmatic, Appleton Oaksmith’s life provides a window into the contradictions of 19th-century America, offering valuable insights into an era marked by swift changes and enduring legacies. Jonathan White’s book, “Shipwrecked,” serves as an exploration of this remarkable character and the historical backdrop of his time.