Exploration! Adventure! See the world! The U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 offered all that. With a task force of six sailing ships and 346 men, the Expedition discovered Antarctica, mapped much of the South Pacific and the Pacific Northwest, and circled the globe. It returned with materials that formed the basis of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Botanic Garden, and sparked the formation of the U.S. Hydrographic Office and the Naval Observatory.
Why is this Expedition not ranked alongside Lewis and Clark in our history? Nathaniel Philbrick, noted for histories of Washington, Custer, and the whaling ship Essex, takes on that question through a review of the journals and correspondence of the principal officers of the Expedition and other historical records.
Those records revealed a corking tale of the inner turmoil of the commander of the Expedition, Charles Wilkes, and the resulting tension among the officers and crew. Throughout the voyage, Philbrick traces the deteriorating relations between Wilkes and his officers, particularly William Reynolds, who started as an admirer of Wilkes and by 1842 was his adamant opponent. Wilkes was at once supremely self-confident and supremely insecure. This internal tension (Philbrick quotes Thoreau’s description of “the private sea”) was reflected in inconsistent and ineffective leadership of the Expedition’s officers and crew, unwarranted transfers, unnecessary and brutal floggings.
Our group’s discussions kept coming back to Wilkes’s tragic character flaws. Was it arrogance and self-conceit? Yes, but the accomplishments of the Expedition deserved high regard. Would Wilkes have been better balanced and more tolerant if he had been given the recognition he thought was deserved? Melville is quoted: “All mortal greatness is but disease.” Could another commander have managed the personnel better? Maybe, but no senior officer of the Navy wanted to take this command. And maybe a more collaborative commander would not have achieved as much as Wilkes did. The title “Sea of Glory” comes from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII as Cardinal Wolsey laments his loss of office: “I have ventured . . . this many summers in a sea of glory, but far beyond my depth.” These are universal questions, but they are magnified by small ships, large oceans, and four years at sea.
Ah, but the adventure. The Expedition brought together threads of scientific investigation, the commercial needs of traders and whalers, and the U.S. diplomatic expansion of the Jackson and Van Buren era. It visited Antarctica twice, once from the tip of South America, and a year later from Australia. The seamanship needed to take sailing vessels through the fog and ice of the high southern latitudes was a real adventure, which Philbrick tells skillfully. Between and after the Antarctic visits, the Expedition surveyed hundreds of Pacific Islands, had a hostile encounter with Fijians, climbed through the climate changes of Mauna Loa in Hawaii to make pendulum observations which would increase scientific understanding of the earth’s gravity, shape, and density. After completing that task, the Expedition moved to the Pacific Northwest, surveyed the coast from California to Vancouver Island and the Puget Sound, and entered the mouth of the Columbia River, traversing some of the most dangerous waters in the United States.
The Expedition returned to the United States in 1842 to a Tyler administration whose interests had shifted to westward expansion, the annexation of Texas, and conflict with Mexico. In the naval culture of that time, after-action disputes were taken to courts martial. Wilkes, Reynolds, and three others were given suspensions and reprimands that gave no sense of vindication for anyone, and undercut the public image of the Expedition. Over the next few years, its scientific output gained greater appreciation as books, memoirs, and findings were written. But the public had moved on to other interests and the Expedition missed the moment of accolade that Wilkes and his crew had expected. But what an adventure they had.
— Bill Smith