An exploration of misfortune

William Goetzmann is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Exploration and Empire."

On Sunday, Aug. 18, 1838, a grand flotilla of six U.S. naval vessels departed from Norfolk, Va., on an exploring expedition around the world. It was the largest number of ships sent on such an expedition since the ancient Chinese voyages of Adm. Chen Ho in 1431 and America's greatest sea venture of the 19th century. In the harrowing icy seas of the far southern latitudes of the globe, the expedition made the discovery that Antarctica was a new continent -- a feat not admitted by British naval historians to this day.

Even in its own day and since, the Great United States Exploring Expedition, or Ex. Ex. as its officers and men called it, was obscured by courts-martial, dissent and the much-publicized deeds of Lt. John C. Fremont, who circumnavigated not the world but the West (which was much more relevant to the immediate aims of a people bent on North American continental expansion than an icebound continent at the end of the Earth). Even so, on an expedition following the Ex. Ex., Philadelphian Dr. Elisha Kent Kane presented a harrowing tale of his four years in the Arctic seas and claimed to have discovered an "open polar sea" in the far north that made him an even greater national hero than Fremont (his funeral cortege stretched from Mobile, Ala., to Washington, D.C.).

Lt. Charles Wilkes, commander of the Ex. Ex. on its amazing four-year voyage around the world, received only scorn from his countrymen and his government. And thereby hangs a tale so brilliantly told by Nathaniel Philbrick that "Sea of Glory" has to be among the best nonfiction books of this or any other year. Indeed, it ranks with the late Stephen Ambrose's story of Lewis and Clark, "Undaunted Courage," and surpasses it as a story of heroism, sheer terror and significance.

Following Ambrose's approach, Philbrick focuses his story on the young commander of the Ex. Ex., Wilkes, who, despite his lowly rank, was given command of the venture when none of the senior officers would accept the mission, which had been delayed since 1825. At the outset, Wilkes was both elated and disappointed. He was elated with his appointment (largely the result of his attainments in hydrography and coastal mapping) and disappointed that neither Joel Poinsett, the secretary of war, nor President Van Buren would promote him to captain and commodore of the squadron as traditional naval etiquette required. Thus, though he did his duty in remarkable fashion, Wilkes was from the beginning in a rage of insecurity and insult, and by the time the flotilla reached Cape Horn, he was taking it out on his officers. Once an affable officer who regularly fraternized with his fellow officers and crew, Wilkes became a rival to Melville's Capt. Ahab or the Bounty's Lt. Bligh.

He dismissed at foreign ports a whole set of officers not selected by him and broke naval regulations by ordering far more lashes to his marines than regulation allowed. He was insulting to his men and alienated almost all of them except old William Hudson, who captained the second largest ship, the Peacock. And finally, once in the vast Pacific, as a scornful salute to Poinsett and the Navy, he dressed up in a captain's uniform and unfurled a commodore's pennant at the mast of his flagship, the Vincennes, to his officers' astonishment.

Wilkes did not provide all the drama of the story. The heroic feats of his men more than rivaled his rage. They braved the icy seas of the Antarctic, where Hudson miraculously saved the Peacock and two of his men, Lts. William Reynolds and Henry Eld, first sighted land -- mountains on Antarctica -- on Jan. 16, 1840. The two men were filled with "disappointment and mortification" when Hudson doubted their sighting and refused to enter it in his logbook, which threw into question the claim of the Ex. Ex. in sighting the southern continent before the rival expeditions of Frenchman Dumont D'Urville and the English Capt. James Ross (who claimed the honor even after Wilkes had given him a map of 1,500 miles of the continent's coastline).

Wilkes, however, had also ignored a sighting of land by gunner John Williamson on Jan. 18. It was not until Jan. 28 that Wilkes realized that they had sighted the continent at last, a feat not accomplished by even the mighty James Cook. However, by Jan. 28, D'Urville had landed on Antarctica. Sometime after Wilkes learned this, and after talking to his lieutenants on the Peacock, he and Hudson changed their logbooks to Jan. 19. Only Lt. Eld's journal confirmed that Antarctica was sighted on both Jan. 16 and 18, 1840.

After their Antarctic adventures, Wilkes took his men on their next big task. Using longboats and his shallow draft schooners, the Flying Fish and the Porpoise, the men of the Ex. Ex. carefully mapped the 360 islands that made up the Fiji group and also won a pitched battle with the cannibal Fijians at Malolo Island. No one had mapped this vast section of the Pacific before, and Wilkes' charts were so accurate that they were copied by the Europeans and used by the U.S. Navy in World War II.

From the Fijis, the Ex. Ex. sailed to Hawaii, where the ships were re-outfitted while Wilkes and some of his men climbed to the summit of the huge volcano, Mauna Loa, a feat that no other white men (and few natives) had done before. He had matched the great Alexander von Humboldt's celebrated ascent of Mt. Chimborazo in Ecuador. Then the squadron sailed for the mouth of the Columbia River, where they met men of the Hudson's Bay Co., rivals for the Pacific Northwest, while the intrepid Hudson lost the Peacock on the bar at the river's mouth. Wilkes and his men also mapped the Northwest coast, Puget Sound and the Columbia and Willamette rivers while a detachment of officers and sailors marched 1,500 miles overland to San Francisco Bay, mapping the coast and Oregon country, filled with potentially hostile Indians. The knowledge Wilkes brought home helped to settle the Oregon Boundary Treaty with Britain at the 49th parallel, thus giving the United States the Columbia River as well as Puget Sound, the site of Seattle.

The route home took the Ex. Ex. to Hawaii, the Philippines and Singapore before it headed for the Cape of Good Hope. Once in the Atlantic, Wilkes sent most of his fleet and Hudson to map the harbor of Rio de Janeiro so that he could proceed to gain sole glory for the Ex. Ex. Soon he became aware that his officers and men were preparing a court-martial against him, and as the Vincennes reached New York Harbor, Wilkes slipped ashore to avoid arrest. There was no glory for these "magnificent voyagers," especially not for Wilkes.

Like scholar William Stanton before him, Philbrick tells how the massive collection of artifacts and other specimens brought back from the Ex. Ex. forced Congress to use James Smithson's gift to build a national museum that became the main focus, along with Harvard, of early American science. Meanwhile, Wilkes, having miraculously survived all the seamen's charges, became, thanks to his wife, a lion of Washington society and an author. He had commandeered all the logbooks and journals of the expedition, as well as the numerous charts, drawings, paintings and scientific reports. With these at hand, as well as his own journal, writing furiously so as to recover some of the glory, Wilkes turned out five large but dull volumes, replete with copious illustrations made by himself and his men. "Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition" was such a lavish production that Congress voted to publish only 100 copies, as opposed to 10,000 copies of Fremont's 1845 report.

Wilkes, still grasping for success, secured the copyright to his narrative and published it privately (complete with a small atlas) -- it sold well. He also produced a two-volume atlas of his charts and thick volumes on meteorology, hydrography and physics (unpublished) while overseeing the publication of 14 reports by scientists of the Ex. Ex. and scientists who studied the massive collections. (Yale professor James Dwight Dana wrote three of the volumes, arguing that most Pacific island groups were ancient volcanoes that had subsided within a ring of coral in a line arising from fractures in the ocean floor, thus laying the groundwork for the plate tectonics revolution.)

Philbrick's fascinating narrative "Sea of Glory" does not end with the Ex. Ex. but goes on to record Wilkes' blunders during the Civil War that almost brought England to the Confederate side; his second marriage after the death of his first wife, Jane; and the fate of his children and of his officers. Wilkes' publications ended with a huge vindictive autobiography that remained unpublished until 1978, almost exactly 100 years after he died at his home on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. Others have written about what came to be known as "the Wilkes expedition," but none with the verve, detail, knowledge of seamanship, array of newly discovered sources or insight of Philbrick in his wonderful book.

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