Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842
New York: Viking, 2003.
$27.95, 452 pages, ISBN-0-670-03231-X.
In Sea of Glory, Nathaniel Philbrick tries to bring back from obscurity a four-year American cruise of exploration, inelegantly short-titled the “Ex. Ex.” and to rehabilitate Charles Wilkes, its Queegish leader. A gifted writer and careful researcher, he needs all of his craft, for, not surprisingly, the story insists on making off in all directions.
Boasting six sailing vessels and around five hundred men, the Ex. Ex. logged 87,000 miles, mapped the Oregon coast, innumerable Pacific Islands, and much of the Antarctic shore. The loot brought back by its scientists formed the basis of the Smithsonian’s collections. The Navy was still sailing on its charts when it raised Tarawa in November 1943. In short, Ex. Ex. compares with Cook’s and other major explorations.
Nathaniel Philbrick, director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies at Nantucket and winner of the National Book Award for In the Heart of the Sea, attests that the wonder of the Ex. Ex. is that it ever happened at all; that it ever got to sea. The original impetus was a demand for charts of the Pacific where American merchantmen—whalers, sealers and sea-otter traders—were fetching up on reefs and shoals. The project was kicked around for years. Unbelievably, the Navy was mostly opposed, and a Secretary of War gave it the final push, but no one gave Lieutenant Wilkes the rank to go with his responsibilities. Therein lay the main root of his troubles.
As to the state of American science at the time the Ex. Ex. took off, it was only three years since the New York Sun had pulled off the famous hoax announcing that a new telescope had discovered batwing humanoids on the moon, bringing a delegation of Yale scientists hurrying into town to view the "evidence." Then there was John Cleves Symmes with his Holes in the Poles who believed that beyond the Barrier Ice, warm seas led to the earth’s hollow interior.
Charles Wilkes was very much a faute de mieux choice for the command, his chief qualifications being his skill at surveys and energy in preparing the expedition in the face of the efforts of many naval officers to sabotage it. Not an expert sailor, and unsure of himself, during the voyage he deliberately chose the dominant management style: that of a martinet. Philbrick, an accomplished sailor himself, goes on to relate how Wilkes drove to a successful conclusion a national effort. Philbrick makes it all come alive: from the half-naked Yahgans canoeing at Cape Horn to the fierce “Feejee” warriors; ships clawing off shoals and icebergs in freezing weather. One of Wilkes’s ships unaccountably missed exchanging courtesies with one of French explorer Dumont D’Urville’s in an encounter in an ice-filled sea. Arriving off Sydney one evening, Wilkes simply sailed in. The citizens awoke to the sight of strange vessels in the harbor. Wilkes laboriously climbed Mauna Loa but his observations there were worthless. His savage reprisal for a Fijian attack on a shore party was SOP at the time.
Ex. Ex. would be the last major exploration depending solely on sail. By the time Wilkes returned, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Western steamer had established regular transatlantic service. The Democrats, who had made some political capital out of the Ex. Ex., had given way to the Whigs who cried it down. Instead of being acclaimed, Wilkes was court-martialed but got off with a reprimand for excessive flogging. After Wilkes’s shortcomings, cruelties, and handicaps had been fully aired, James Gordon Bennett gave the definitive verdict in the New York Herald, to wit: that in the circumstances he had done as well as could be expected.
Wilkes personally wrote a five-volume official report on the Ex. Ex. and oversaw the care of its collections. He was always a prickly, headstrong officer. During the Civil War, acting on his own, he removed Confederate emissaries Mason and Slidell from a British steamer. Abraham Lincoln enjoyed the coup and Karl Marx, in his journalist mode, defended it (1). But it provoked a diplomatic crisis.
Briefly a popular hero, later on Wilkes was court-martialed for, among other things, taking blockade runners instead of hunting down Confederate commerce destroyers. The Mason-Slidell incident earned him a bad rap in the history books.
Otherwise he is forgotten. Philbrick’s use of the massive literature, including a recently discovered journal bearing on the expedition, is detailed in thirty-eight pages of endnotes. The book, with its careful narrative, is handsomely got up, with excellent maps. Depending on the reader’s taste he can enjoy such topics as exploration, contemporary science, cannibals, dusky maidens, massacres of natives, the Oregon Question. Who first saw Antarctica? And many more.
Four years of the Ex. Ex. were too much to fit conveniently into a single volume. The reader may at times bog down, even though the author writes easily and without jargon. Philbrick shows fine judgment and sensitivity in depicting what to us moderns is an era of incredible hardships, and heartlessness. In a well-worn phrase, Philbrick “tells it like it was.” His is a tale of extraordinary richness.
1. Die Presse, No. 331, Dec. 2, 1961.back