Sea of Glory

Writer: 
January 31, 2004

 

Sea of Glory
By Nathaniel Philbrick '80.
Viking Press, 2003.
416 pages. $27.95.
Sea of Glory

n the rich annals of nineteenth-century exploration, the voyage of the United States Exploring Expedition from 1838 to 1842 stands alone for its accomplishments, not the least, confirmation of Antarctica as the seventh continent. Yet today the Exploring Expedition--Ex.Ex., as it was called--remains almost forgotten except by historians and scientists.

In the minds of its planners, the Ex.Ex. was the nautical extension of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The expedition would be that and more. When the Ex.Ex. fleet of seven ships and 246 men hoisted sail at Norfolk Navy Yard on August 18, 1838, their departure was a belated acknowledgment by Congress and the Van Buren administration of an admonition from the Founding Fathers. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe had all urged Congress to dispatch American expeditions to collect specimens from foreign shores that might be useful for agriculture and other commercial purposes. Thus the Ex.Ex., like the pioneering expeditions of Britain's Captain James Cook in the South Pacific fifty years earlier, was expected to bring home new knowledge for more than its scientific value alone.

When the Ex.Ex. returned, sailing into New York harbor in 1842, it had logged 87,000 miles, most of them in Antarctica, in the South Pacific, and along the coast of the Oregon territory. (The northwest voyage had covert political implications, for the Oregon territory, then under British hegemony, would soon join the United States under the Polk administration's "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" interpretation of Manifest Destiny.) The expedition's corps of scientists had gleaned 10,000 plant specimens; some would be a part of the founding collection of the United States Botanic Garden.

Three artists--among them Titian Peale, son of the painter Charles Willson Peale--disembarked with an abundant portfolio depicting strange birds, reptiles, fish, and mammals. James Dana, the expedition geologist, expanded on Charles Darwin's pioneering work on coral-reef formation with studies in the Fiji Islands. The expedition's surveys of 280 South Pacific islands were so precise that the U.S. Navy would use them in World War II.

Thus, by many measures, the Ex.Ex. was a resounding success. The United States came late to exploring on a grand scale, but this single voyage, one of the great achievements of nineteenth-century science, erased the deficit. From that point on, American science and seamanship were considered among the best in the world.

Logically, the naval officer in command of the expedition, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, should be as celebrated today as William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. Why Wilkes quickly faded into the shadow lands of American history is the story that Nathaniel Philbrick tells in Sea of Glory. Wilkes' personality had much to do with it. He was unstable, obsessive, and vainglorious. He erupted into paranoid outbursts at the slightest provocation. He believed in the lash, and he used it. Wilkes' reputation for such harshness toward his men was known to Herman Melville, who is thought to have modeled aspects of Captain Ahab on him.

In Philbrick's narrative, Wilkes emerges full-blown as a man of dramatic contrasts. At home with his wife, Jane, Wilkes was a devoted, loving husband and father. Yet as a commander, he was seemingly incapable of revealing a modicum of humanity to his subordinates, who quickly grew to hate him with a passion that colored the experience of every member of the expedition, whatever his rank or station.

Wilkes was not the first choice to lead the Ex.Ex., which was a hotbed of political intrigue from its inception in 1828. The Van Buren administration made an egregious error by virtually forcing command of the expedition upon him. In fairness, Wilkes was promised a promotion, but it never came through. Some of his junior officers had more experience at sea than Wilkes did, and, for a man whose self-esteem and leadership left much to be desired, leaving Norfolk without his promotion was more salt in the wound. Obsessed with the rank issue, Wilkes promoted himself to captain in a tragicomic attempt to boost his authority.

Much of what we know about Wilkes comes from an unauthorized journal kept by one of the expedition's junior officers, William Reynolds. In the first days at sea, the twenty-two-year-old Reynolds was among the officers who held Wilkes in awe. This good feeling soon dissolved into contempt as Wilkes was revealed for what he really was, a martinet. The wonder is that he never confronted a mutiny.

Sea of Glory is, on one level, superb blue-water history made all the more gripping by Philbrick's economical prose and meticulous research. He brought these same qualities to In the Heart of the Sea, his National Book Award-winning account of the Essex, a Nantucket whaler sunk by its enraged prey and said to be Melville's inspiration for Moby-Dick.

On a deeper and more introspective plane, Sea of Glory is a treatise on leadership. The Ex.Ex. succeeded in spite of Charles Wilkes, not because of him. Civil engineers say they learn more from failure than from success, and the same may be said of the art of leadership. Wilkes is a vivid example of how one man, given the world to win, loses it. When the six ships of the Ex.Ex. returned home--Wilkes lost a ship and twenty-eight men during the four years at sea--he was greeted not with hurrahs but with a court-martial, for charges including excessive punishment and an alleged massacre in Fiji.

Wilkes got out of it with a reprimand. He remained in the Navy, sitting out the Mexican War in Washington but able to wangle command of a ship with the outbreak of civil war. Wilkes never overcame the self-inflicted damage to his reputation. The years since have done little to revive it.

Perhaps Wilkes' most important contribution to the Ex.Ex. lies in his impressive six-volume Narrative of the United States

Exploring Expedition, published in 1845. Congress authorized the printing of only a hundred copies. Not to be denied his due, Wilkes acquired publication rights and, at his own expense, reprinted Narrative thirteen times. In Sea of Glory, Nathaniel Philbrick melds both into a page-turning adventure so incredible that it could be the stuff of fiction.