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Book Review - Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842

Posted February 25, 2008 5:01 PM by Chris Leonard

by Nathaniel Philbrick is a historical tale of exploration, political intrigue, science in action, paranoia, and great courage. Over four years, the six ships of the U.S. Exploratory Expedition (dubbed the Ex. Ex.) lead by "Captain" Charles Wilkes, logged 87,000 ocean miles, surveyed some 280 Pacific Islands, penetrated closer to the coast of Antarctica, then any group before them, mapped some 800 miles of the Pacific Northwest US coastline and amassed some 20 tons of specimens and artifacts that would become the original collection Smithsonian Institution, and a training crucible for some of the foremost scientists of the 19th century.

So, why at the beginning of the book is Wilkes being put on trial? And more astoundingly, why has this voyage been largely forgotten?

Wilkes, a surveyor by trade and Navy Lieutenant received the command of the fleet almost by default. While the voyage was under the auspices of the US Navy, all available captains turned down the command as most felt such a long "scientific" voyage would make it tough for them to compete for advancement within the ranks. Out of site…out of mind.

Wilkes himself was selected in a bizarre twist of fate. The final naval officer of sufficient rank offered the position, Captain Joseph Smith, offered the position of official surveyor to Wilkes; who after talking to his wife turned the position down. This in turn, led to Smith turning down the offer of command; which was then offered to Wilkes who accepted.

So how does a survey lieutenant, handed a commission whom many felt he did not deserve handle his command. Simply put, not well. Although dubbed a Captain to manage the Ex. Ex., Wilkes was not in reality of this rank. As commander, he had to be the officer of highest rank, so he was forced to outfit the other five ships in the fleet with lieutenants, many of whom had never "captained" ships before. This fear of rank led Wilkes to request an upgrade to "admiral" from the Secretary of the navy, an advancement he never received. With little knowledge of ship management, hardly any command experience, and a feeling of being rebuffed by naval command; the Ex. Ex. set to sail with a "captain" who lacked confidence in himself and who felt his crew would not respect him.

As with many tales of the sea, as the long voyage wore on, so grew Wilkes' paranoia. Any lieutenant in the fleet who attempted a daring maneuver or seemed more competent than the rest was punished instead of rewarded. Regular seaman faced harsh punishments such as flogging beyond the legal limit. Some believe that Charles Wilkes was a model for Moby Dick's Captain Ahab. To make matters worse, once into the Pacific, Wilkes "crowned" himself admiral of the fleet.

It is impressive that the expedition was successful at all.

Upon return, Wilkes was court-martialed for the loss of a ship and for mistreatment of his officers and crew. More than anything else, though, this was the result of the ill-will he generated amongst his officers who were eager to find the revenge in a courtroom that they could not get at sea. Wilkes, however, was acquitted on all charges except that of illegally punishing men in his squadron.

The enduring legacy of the Ex. Ex. were its contributions to science and geography. The collected specimens and artifacts, after many trials and tribulations, led to the creation of the original Smithsonian Institute and the United States Botanic garden.

Among the scientific crew were:

  • Charles Pickering – Naturalist – whose experiences on the Ex. Ex., lead him to write influential works including
    • Races of Man and Their Geographical Distribution (1848)
    • Geographical Distribution of Animals and Plants (1854)
    • Geographical Distribution of Plants (1861)
    • Chronological History of Plants: Man's Record of His Own Existence Illustrated through Their Names, Uses, and Companionship (1879)
  • William Rich - botanist
  • William Brackenridge horticulturist
  • James Dwight Dana who wrote Zoophytes (1846), Geology (1849) and Crustacea (1852-1854).
  • Horatio Hale – Linguist and ethnographer who published works on the ethnography of Polynesia, child-languages, and Native American migrations as evidenced by language.
  • Titian Peale – entomologist, photographer, artist
  • Asa Gray – Botanist - who was not a member of the Ex. Ex., but wrote most of the botanical specimen reviews).

Sea of Glory is the least well known of Philbrick's works, which include In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, an event which inspired a young seaman named Herman Melville to write Moby Dick; and New York Time Bestseller Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War about the early settlement of New England through King Phillips war. Both works I highly recommend.

Next Tuesday, we will focus on The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen, a work guaranteed to produce strong opinions.

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Re: Book Review - Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Explorin

02/27/2008 8:46 AM

This is an excellent idea for a blog and a great choice for a first book, Chris. When I read Sea of Glory several months ago, I dove right in without reading the flyleaf. After perusing the first few pages, I had to remind myself that this was a historical account and not a work of fiction. Nathaniel Philbrick's writing is that good.

Charles Wilkes is a fascinating study of what can happen when a leader's responsibilities are not commensurate with his authority. In a hierarchical organization such as the U.S. military, the lines of command must be clear. The Navy's failure to promote Wilkes above his peers was shortsighted, and helped stoke the fires of the "captain's" insecurities. It was wrong for Wilkes to assign himself a higher rank, but management by committee wasn't an option.

Wilkes' mission also suffered from a lack of oversight. Some of this was due to technological limitations (there were no shipboard radios at the time). Still, the Navy clearly displayed an "out of sight, out of mind" attitude. Inspectors could have met Wilkes at various ports. Had they spoken to members of Wilkes' staff, some of the "captain's" excesses may have been avoided.

So what can we 21st century office-dwellers learn from the case of Charles Wilkes? If you're going to put someone in charge of a project, then give them command. But inspect their work and demand accountability. The workplace is not a democracy (as some mistakenly believe it is), so civilians need not dismiss the tale of the Ex. Ex.

- Moose

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