Nathaniel Philbrick is one of our most readable chroniclers of American history. While less well known than his breakout book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex and focused on a more obscure event than later works like Mayflower, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and 2013’s Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution, his book Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 is one of his best. The fact that the history of this expedition has mostly been forgotten by modern Americans only makes the book more astonishing.
The Exploring Expedition, often known as the U.S. Ex Ex, would journey down the U.S. and South American coasts, continue into Antarctic waters, then cross into the Pacific and chart South Pacific islands and portions of America’s Northwest coast, including the mouth of the Columbia River before returning via the reverse route over four years later. It would make contact with many native populations, create sea charts that would be used well into the 20th century, and bring home an astonishing number of scientific specimens that would ultimately form the start of the Smithsonian’s collection. It would do all of this in an era when propulsion was still by sail, cold weather gear was substandard, and navigation was hazardous. Pretty good for an expedition unknown to most modern Americans!
But what makes the story even more astonishing is that it succeeded despite the inept, self-aggrandizing leadership of young Charles Wilkes. Wilkes was barely 40 years of age, only a lieutenant, but won command of the expedition through diligent campaigning and the general opposition to the expedition of most of the Navy’s officers. When political wrangling back at home refused him the honor of a Captain’s rank even after he was away with the expedition’s five ships, Wilkes became ever more of a martinet, pretending to have achieved rank that he didn’t have so he could play the other young officers of the expedition against each other. He would often arrange the traveling order of the ships so that he could claim personal discovery of major sites or ignore the successes of other officers. He resorted to corporal punishments at the least offense and subverted the work of the expedition’s scientists.
I’ll let you discover the expedition’s many events for yourself, but I will hint at a bit of the ending. Wilkes returned home to find a different president than the one who backed his expedition, many dismissed officers waiting to level charges against him, a Navy determined to have him court-martialed, and powerful enemies in the country’s political leadership. The last part of the book considers the events of the case made against him. Wilkes may have been a disaster, but modern readers will be enthralled by the adventures of this little known expedition. This is an enthralling history that reads like a suspense novel.
Check the WRL catalog for Sea of Glory