Sea of Glory

Suggested by Brad Nelson • The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 set out to map the entire Pacific Ocean. It arguably discovered the continent of Antarctica and collected material for what would become the basis of the Smithsonian Institution.
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3 Responses to Sea of Glory

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I continue the voyage in the genre of sea adventures….another one by Nathaniel Philbrick, in this case.

    This is the seagoing travelogue I had hoped Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea would be which I found to eventually be a bore.

    Sea of Glory may also (in contrast to Verne) prove the truism that “fact is stranger than fiction.” The leader of this expedition, Charles Wilkes, is certifiably mental. And yet he is also the sort of driven character who likely is able to get things done where others might not have preserved. He’s Trumpish, in a way. He’s needlessly destructive, and yet the monomania and narrow skills (Wilkes was an expert surveyor) at least put things on the plus pile in the same measure, or more, as his self-destructiveness added to the minus pile.

    This is well-written by Philbrick with the exception of his description of the recriminations and courts martial at the end of the voyage. A better summarization would have added much.

    But the description of the voyage itself puts you right there with them, along with some nice maps, charts, and such, although there unfortunately are no photos (that I recall) of any artifacts.

    Where Verne tries to paint adventure and majesty with a sweep of often mind-numbing biological data, Philbrick captures some truly extraordinary moments. Two that stand out are some of the voyages near the coast of Antarctica within vast and dangerous fields of glaciers. It’s pleasing to hear reports of even hard-bitten sailors being awed by the sheer sweep and uniqueness of the beautifully monstrous landscape.

    Another wonderful stop on their travels is when Wilkes spends a few months on Mauna Kea. To go from tropical paradise (at sea level in Hawaii) to near hurricane-force winds of 18 degrees at the top is quite a story. And there are some wonderful anecdotes of not only going into the caldera to try to gather hot samples, but just sitting at the top of the world and admiring a view possibly unmatched anywhere else. This is a mountain so tall and so heavy (highest from base to top) that it has sunk several miles into the crust of the ocean.

    Much of this story, of course, is filled with the episodes of Wilkes’ abuse of his officers and crew. It’s almost amazing the man wasn’t murdered or set adrift in a boat a la Captain Bligh. Read past this next sentence if you don’t want a spoiler, but there is no satisfactory resolution to all the grievances. As you’d expect, Wilkes gets away with most everything. And yet he had sullied everything and caused few people to be his champion.

    Still, the voyage (and you’ll surely wonder how) was a success. A huge amount of information and artifacts were brought back, including especially information on the native cultures on the Left Coast of the American continent which would soon vanish. Parts of this travelogue were of particular interest to me because the latter part of their journey was exploring and charting Puget Sound and the Columbia River.

    Wilkes saw that the rugged nature of the Columbia River made it near useless as a port. He saw (rightly so) how Puget Sound would be the future of commerce. Philbrick writes:

    As the two vessels made their way through Admiralty Inlet and into Puget Sound, Wilkes marveled at the contrast between this inland waterway and the mouth of the Columbia. “Nothing can exceed the beauty of these waters, and their safety: not a shoal exists . . . that can in any way interrupt their navigation. . . . I venture nothing in saying there is no country in the world that possesses waters equal to these.” Today, there are no fewer than four U.S. Navy bases on Puget Sound; none exists on the Columbia River.

    Petty men are perhaps destined to wield power. You will not like Charles Wilkes. And his poisonous behavior sours and embitters some otherwise worthy junior officers. You’re left wondering how the U.S. Navy could have been so short-sighted as to appoint him as leader. The problem was, no other higher-ranking officer wanted to be in charge of this expedition because they thought it would be a blot on their careers. So eventually leadership fell to Lieutenant Wilkes. Exacerbating the problem was that the Navy did not promote him (even temporarily) to Captain. It is surmised by Philbrick that much of Wilkes’ behavior stems from not having clear authority-of-rank bestowed onto him. No problem, though. Wilkes promoted himself to captain and flew a commodore’s flag from his flagship.

    Being insecure in his rank perhaps explains some of it. But there are no accounts of officers, singly or in groups, actively working to undermine this guy. His young officers started this expedition literally idealizing Wilkes. The only explanation I find reasonable is that some men are not well-suited to handling power. It goes to their heads. Wilkes should have been no more than chief surveyor on this expedition.

    But despite all this, they did accomplish much. It’s just that Wilkes soured and spoiled everything his malignant hand touched. Despite all that — perhaps because of all that — the adventure of the Exploring Expedition makes for fascinating reading.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Note that Wilkes is also famous for the Trent incident, in which he grabbed a pair of Confederates diplomats (Mason and Slidell) from a British mail ship in late 1861 — and almost precipitated war between the US and Britain. He defended his action by claiming that the diplomats were the living equivalent of diplomatic dispatches, which could be legally seized. It didn’t persuade the British, and Lincoln (to the disappointment of many) let them go.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        If memory serves, that asshole, Wilkes, got lucky on this one. He was supposed to take his ship down to the Caribbean (or somewhere) in support of some mission. He decided to disobey orders and seek personal glory. He got lucky. The public loved it and it was a badly-needed bit of good news in this war that otherwise was not going so good.

        As you noted, perhaps wiser heads eventually prevailed and we decided to not piss off the British any more than we had to.

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