Knickerbocker Commodore

The Life and Times of John Drake Sloat, 1781-1867

By Bruce A. Castleman

Subjects: Biography, American History
Series: Excelsior Editions
Imprint: Excelsior Editions
Hardcover : 9781438461519, 340 pages, September 2016

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

1. Indecision at Monterey?

2. Upstate Knickerbocker

3. Mr. Midshipman Sloat

4. Schooner Skipper

5. Sailing Master

6. Blockaded Lieutenant

7. The First Luff

8. Pirates in the Caribbean

9. New York Interlude

10. South American Cruise

11. Beached in New York

12. Portsmouth Commandant

13. Mexican California

14. Squadron Command

15. Norfolk and Retirement

Appendix A. General Order to Men Landing at Monterey
Appendix B. Proclamation of the Annexation of California to the United States


Explores the life and times of John Drake Sloat, the US Navy Pacific Squadron commander who occupied Monterey and declared the annexation of California at the beginning of the war with Mexico.


Knickerbocker Commodore chronicles the life of Rear Admiral John Drake Sloat, an important but understudied naval figure in US history. Born and raised by a slave-owning gentry family in New York's Hudson Valley, Sloat moved to New York City at age nineteen. Bruce A. Castleman explores Sloat's forty-five-year career in the Navy, from his initial appointment as midshipman in the conflicts with revolutionary France to his service as commodore during the country's war with Mexico. As the commodore in command of the naval forces in the Pacific, Sloat occupied Monterey and declared the annexation of California in July 1846, controversial actions criticized by some and defended by others. More than a biography of one man, this book illustrates the evolution of the peacetime Navy as an institution and its conversion from sail to steam. Using shipping news and Customs Service records from Sloat's merchant voyages, Castleman offers a rare and insightful perspective on American maritime history.

Bruce A. Castleman served in the US Navy for twenty-four years and held the rank of Commander at the time of his retirement. He then trained as a historian and lectured in history at San Diego State University. He is the author of Building the King's Highway: Labor, Society, and Family on Mexico's Caminos Reales, 1757–1804.


"This book is much more than a well-researched and thoughtfully written biography of Commodore Sloat; it is a social history of the U.S. Navy during the years 1812–1857. Commodore Sloat is but the lightning rod used by the author to illuminate the character of the Navy during this period." — Naval Historical Foundation

"…a worthy contribution to the literature of the period … gives a balanced view of American naval leadership in the age of sail … The book is well researched and a brisk read, and would benefit both interested general readers and academic historians focused on early nineteenth-century naval history alike." — Mariner's Mirror

"Drawing from his own twenty-four-year naval career, the author ably guides the most land-borne reader through the complexities of ship operations and naval officer development in the age of sail … Knickerbocker Commodore is well worth the time, especially for those interested in United States' naval and commercial shipping history. Castleman not only provides a biography of an almost-forgotten commodore; he contributes a worthy addition to the historiography of antebellum America." — Journal of Military History

"…Castleman does an outstanding job of contextualizing the institutions, events, and personalities that impacted Sloat's life … Knickerbocker Commodore is both enjoyable and illuminating." — Western Historical Quarterly

"Knickerbocker Commodore is a first-rate scholarly biography of John Drake Sloat. In his study, Castleman presents a persuasive assessment of this important naval officer and his role in the controversial early days of the Mexican War in California." — John H. Schroeder, author of Matthew Calbraith Perry: Antebellum Sailor and Diplomat

"Written by a scholar and a former naval officer, Bruce Castleman has given us not only a well-balanced biography of John Drake Sloat but also a history of the US Navy from the time of the War of 1812 to the Civil War. In addition, his well-researched book provides an important contribution to the war with Mexico and the American conquest of Alta California through the actions and decision making of this 'Knickerbocker Commodore.'" — Gary F. Kurutz, Curator Emeritus of Special Collections, California State Library

"The Mexican-American War of 1846–47 was a war of foundational importance to the United States. Bruce Castleman's biography of an important but little-known participant deftly captures the critical moment when America defeated its major continental rival. Even better, by thoughtfully tracing the entirety of Sloat's life, the book winningly tells the story of the early American Navy from its tremulous beginnings in the Revolution to its steam-powered modernity in the Civil War. Castleman's biography is of more than just a man; it is of an entire time in American history, and all the more useful for it." — David J. Silbey, author of A War of Frontier and Empire: The Philippine-American War, 1899–1902