Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 Info

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Traces the 1838 discovery voyage that resulted in the western
world's survey of 87,000 ocean miles, 280 Pacific islands, numerous
zoological discoveries, and the finding of Antarctica; a journey that
was marked by tragic deaths, the losses of two ships, and controversial
court martials. 250,000 first printing.

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Reviews for Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842:

4

Oct 16, 2019

In the late 1800s America arraigned a conglomerate of six vessels who set out to map the Pacific Ocean. Nathan Philbrick describes the suffering of the crew, thirst, immobilized in the 'victim's or equatorial regions, and irascible bad tempers. Illness was prevalent.
The worst thing was the lack of fish to supplement food stores. Clean water was scarce and salt water was used to wash both bodies and clothing, resulting in painful sores. The most frightening was the infighting amoung leaders and In the late 1800s America arraigned a conglomerate of six vessels who set out to map the Pacific Ocean. Nathan Philbrick describes the suffering of the crew, thirst, immobilized in the 'victim's or equatorial regions, and irascible bad tempers. Illness was prevalent.
The worst thing was the lack of fish to supplement food stores. Clean water was scarce and salt water was used to wash both bodies and clothing, resulting in painful sores. The most frightening was the infighting amoung leaders and separation of boats.
Ultimately, much map work was actually achieved but at great cost.
This is a fascinating tale, true, and disturbing. It doesn't lag or have dry spells of reading but engaged and informs. A wonderful read! Highly recommended! ...more
3

May 08, 2013

When I was in college, I became very good friends with a German guy from Stuttgart named Tobias. He was six-foot-eight, spoke perfect English, and had been a model. We made for an odd sight on campus, since I am not six-foot-eight and am not a Euro model (I did, however, speak passable English).

After graduation, and before Tobias set out on his life as a globe-trotting international banker, I took him up to Minnesota to visit my folks. Along the way, I kept seeing signs along the highway When I was in college, I became very good friends with a German guy from Stuttgart named Tobias. He was six-foot-eight, spoke perfect English, and had been a model. We made for an odd sight on campus, since I am not six-foot-eight and am not a Euro model (I did, however, speak passable English).

After graduation, and before Tobias set out on his life as a globe-trotting international banker, I took him up to Minnesota to visit my folks. Along the way, I kept seeing signs along the highway marking the trail of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery. Like every European, Tobias was certain he knew everything about America. So I decided to quiz him:

ME: Hey, Tobias. Do you know who Lewis & Clark are?
TOBIAS: Superman and his girlfriend.

I’m pretty sure he was joking.

Everyone knows Lewis & Clark. They were the leaders of the most famous expedition of the early American republic. They were the subject of a wildly popular (and highly overrated) book by Stephen Ambrose. There was a PBS documentary. One of the participants inspired a dollar coin. Even the worst public school won’t let you matriculate without some mention of this famous trek.

Compare that to United States Exploring Expedition. What? you ask. You haven’t heard of the Ex. Ex.? One of the great voyages of discovery to ever set sail?

You’re not alone.

Between 1838 and 1842, six ships and hundreds of sailors, botanists, biologists, geologists and cartographers crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean under Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. They bumped up against Antarctica, mapped new islands, explored the volcanoes of Hawaii, slaughtered some natives, and charted the Columbia River. They also collected thousands of samples and specimens that formed the basis of the Smithsonian Museum’s scientific collection.

Yet it is forgotten today.

Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory seeks to bring it back to life. Philbrick, who first came to prominence with the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, seems like a natural fit for this nautical subject. And to be sure, the book is brisk, enjoyable, and in many ways enlightening (of course, it’s nearly impossible not to be enlightening, since the Ex. Ex. has been in the shadows for so long). But instead of a resounding triumph, something is missing.

All great exploration narratives contain three essential conflicts. Man verses nature. Man verses man. And man verses himself.

Philbrick focuses mainly on the third component. He is an avowed lover of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and in Lieutenant Wilkes, he has found his real-life Captain Ahab. Wilkes is a complex, combustible, ever-shifting personality. He begins as a wholly commendable figure: a loving husband, a competent officer, a good leader. By the end, you’ll be wondering why no one ever put him in a rowboat and then sailed to Tahiti.

As portrayed by Philbrick, many of Wilkes idiosyncrasies stem from a lack of esteem. And by esteem I mean rank. Despite being given command of the expedition, Wilkes was not given a captaincy. Philbrick describes how this weighed on Wilkes, not (merely) because of blunted ambitions and hurt pride, but because the rank of captain gave him legitimacy on the voyage. Far from shore, a captain could not rely on the laws of man or gods. He had only himself – his courage, his skill, his personality – between himself and a mutiny. By refusing to promote Wilkes, the sponsors of the expedition kept him at the same level as many of the officers he putatively commanded. Naturally, this eroded his authority.

Even when Wilkes is at his nastiest – and he’s a prick, to be sure – Philbrick faithfully reminds us of the stresses involved in commanding this years-long expedition. In other words, he reminds us that Wilkes was human, despite his glaring character flaws.

These flaws leads us to the second component of exploration narratives: man verses man. The most obvious manifestation of this conflict occurred on the Gilbert Islands, where Wilkes’ men battled indigenous warriors (in scenes reminiscent of Captain Cook’s death). Philbrick, though, is more interested in the simmering psychological struggle between Wilkes and his crew, especially his chief subordinate (and onetime friend) William Reynolds. (Spoiler alert: they don’t end up as friends).

The men of the Ex. Ex. chafed under Wilkes’ harsh discipline and oscillating moods. In one egregious example of his wroth, Wilkes had three men (two marines and a sailor) “flogged around the fleet.” This meant that each man was whipped aboard ship with the cat o’ nine tails, tied to a gallows on a rowboat, taken to the next ship, and whipped again. At another point, Wilkes punished marines whose enlistments had run out and who refused – by right – not to continue with the expedition.

Wilkes officers hated him as much as the men. They were bitterly annoyed by his pettiness, his vindictiveness (he sent several officers home), and his presumptuousness (he flew a captain’s pennant and wore a captain’s epaulets). Once the expedition ended, everyone referred charges against everyone else, and what should have been a celebrated homecoming denigrated into a string of ugly court-martials. Later, in a fit of douchiness, Wilkes attempted to keep the fruits of the Ex. Ex.’s government-funded voyage his private property.

Philbrick does an excellent job of detailing Wilkes’ quarrels with his crew, and within himself. Surprisingly, though, he fails to pay attention to the most obvious component of a book of this sort: man verses nature. The Ex. Ex.’s voyages took them to the frigid, iceberg-studded waters off the coast of Antarctica, where the men were pelted with a shivering rain and the ice-coated ships sloughed low through heavy seas. Their voyages also took them to tropical paradises, with gold-sand beaches and cerulean waters and temperate weather and mangoes and coconuts and sexual promiscuity. The exotic locales, the sheer extremes, should have made for a compelling travelogue.

Unfortunately, Sea of Glory fails to transport you to these places. Philbrick is so focused on the shipboard dynamics that he neglects the larger environment. This is a book that never tries very hard to put you in the moment. You never feel the freezing rain or the warming sun or get a touch of seasickness when the ship slides into the trough between waves.

In fact, many of the bigger details of the expedition are ignored or glossed over completely. At one point, an entire ship – the Sea Gull – disappears. The loss of the Sea Gull with all hands is barely mentioned by Philbrick. One moment the ship is there, the next it’s gone. Disposed within a sentence. Men died on her, but they are unnamed and un-mourned.

Oddly, there is scant discussion of the expedition’s raison d’être. We never follow the scientists as they make their discoveries and collect their specimens. We are told time and again that great finds were made, but Philbrick never elaborates. This is regrettable and unnecessary, since the scientific aspect of the expedition was well-catalogued. The Ex. Ex.’s crowning achievement, the survey of the Columbia River, barely rates a mention. Again, we are told it was important, we are told it was hard, but we are never told why.

In fairness to Philbrick, it is clear the focus of the book – on Wilkes and his odyssey – was a conscious decision. Wilkes fascinates Philbrick far more than the maps drawn by the mapmakers, or the rocks gathered by the geologists, or the dead animals collected by the biologists. And I have to admit, Wilkes holds the center. He was the genuine article. A compelling jackass. An audacious glory hound. (Civil War buffs will recall him as the instigator of the Trent Affair). A devoted husband and father.

He is the perfect man around which to build a lasting sea story. I only wish that Philbrick had taken the time to fill in the frame. He has his hero, flawed and tragic. What he is missing is a compelling hero’s journey.
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4

Mar 14, 2019

I have read a few of Philbrick's books and have enjoyed all of them. As a New Englander it is not surprising that his nautical histories are especially engaging. Last Summer at a local book fair I ran across this book at a very attractive price and made the purchase. It has been sitting on my TBR shelf for several months and I thought it was about time to open it. I think this is the best Philbrick book that I have read. Not only is it a good history it is a history with some suspense and reads I have read a few of Philbrick's books and have enjoyed all of them. As a New Englander it is not surprising that his nautical histories are especially engaging. Last Summer at a local book fair I ran across this book at a very attractive price and made the purchase. It has been sitting on my TBR shelf for several months and I thought it was about time to open it. I think this is the best Philbrick book that I have read. Not only is it a good history it is a history with some suspense and reads like a good fiction. The book opens at the beginning of the court martial of the leader of an American Naval expedition in the late 1830's. The story immediately leaves this court martial to trace the life of this accused leader, Charles Wilkes, that will ultimately lead to his present situation and the need to defend himself.

During the Jackson presidency Charles Wilkes is a lowly naval lieutenant with little hope of promotion in the peace time navy. In an effort to distinguish himself he becomes interested in surveying and cartography and is appointed to the Navy Dept. responsible for such matters. While in this assignment a voyage of exploration is mounted and Wilkes volunteers for the mission. The expedition's goal is to explore the Antarctic as well as specific Pacific islands and the Pacific Northwest with special attention to the mouth of the Columbia River. Leadership of the expedition becomes a problem when all the senior officers considered for the job turn it down. The only one left to consider for the job is Wilkes and when he is appointed the Naval establishment objects. While Wilkes' surveying and cartography skills make him an excellent choice for inclusion on the voyage he is too junior an officer to lead an endeavor of this magnitude and his skills as a sailor are seriously deficient. However, the choice is made and the voyage begins.

The details of the voyage are highly entertaining and informative but it is the human conflicts that develop that give the story its suspense. During the voyage Wilkes demonstrates serious character defects that render him a combination Capt. Bligh and Capt. Queeg. In order to demonstrate his command authority to the men on this expedition he consciously decides to adopt the manner of a martinet. He takes offense at trivial or imagined behavior and imposes severe punishments in thoughtless and ill-considered moments. His men go from adoring this commander to loathing him and when the expedition returns to the U.S. several of them bring charges against him while he brings charges against them. You read this book knowing that there is going to be a prosecution but because this is such an obscure bit of nautical history few will know what the outcome will be and what will become of all these gallant men. Further, you will wonder why this expedition and all of its considerable accomplishments is so unknown. Many of the charts prepared by this expedition were still being used by the Navy during WWII a century later. This is a uniquely entertaining history and well worth reading. Enjoy. ...more
4

Nov 23, 2012

I never heard of this expedition, which over four years charted large swaths of Antarctica, hundreds of Pacific Islands, the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and collected sufficient thousands of new ethnographic and biological specimens to initiate the founding of the Smithsonian Insitution. I was glad to be enlightened and to be charmed again by Philbrick’s skill in synthesizing so much historical fact into a narrative that reads like a novel. The tale blends an epic of scientific discovery on the I never heard of this expedition, which over four years charted large swaths of Antarctica, hundreds of Pacific Islands, the U.S. Pacific Northwest, and collected sufficient thousands of new ethnographic and biological specimens to initiate the founding of the Smithsonian Insitution. I was glad to be enlightened and to be charmed again by Philbrick’s skill in synthesizing so much historical fact into a narrative that reads like a novel. The tale blends an epic of scientific discovery on the order of Captain Cook with a personal story of an overbearing leader on the order of Captain Bligh.

Lieutenant Charles Wilkes was placed in charge of the squadron of six sailing vessels and about 200 men due to his political connections, skills in navigation, and track record in founding the National Observatory. His organizational competence unfortunately could not make up for his insecurity over his low rank, limited sailing experience, and dogmatic and paranoid personality. He favored a lot of junior officers over the older officers who threatened his ego and authority, leading to terrible dissension and near mutiny through much of the voyage. Appointing himself Commodore and excessive use of flogging undermined morale. Also, his aversion to delegating tasks left him overworked to the point of nervous breakdown on many occasions.

Despite these precursors for disaster, few of his men died on the expedition and most of the mission was successfully accomplished. A couple of ships were lost due to mishaps, with recovery of the men. Aside from many close calls with storms and dodging of icebergs near Antarctica, the most danger was incurred due to arrogant treatment of some Fiji islanders. To redress a past murder of a couple of Englishment, Wilkes took a group of chiefs hostage to gain information on the guilty parties and then burned the village of their origin. When the attempted escape of one hostage stimulated a skirmish leading to the death of two of his men, a brutal slaughter of dozens of natives ensued. This part of the story was well told and helped me see in microcosm the seeds of the whole European trend of colonial conquest.

A series of sensational court marshal proceedings over charges and countercharges between Wilkes and his officers at the end of the expedition detracted popular accolades for Wilkes and undermined the credibility of his discoveries. America as whole became more interested in conquering and exploiting the West than exploring or colonization in the world beyond, so the outcomes of the expedition were not appreciated for a long time afterward. With the focus on the personalities and operational aspects of the expedition, the scientific aspects of the voyage unfortunately were given short shrift. Nevertheless, this was a satisfying read. I appreciated more Philbrick’s other works about the survival tale of the whaleship Essex (Heart of the Sea), history of the Plymouth colony (Mayflower), and account of Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn ( The Last Stand).
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5

Nov 16, 2016

Nathaniel Philbrick writes intrinsic insightful, depth of minutia factual, and psychologically framed to perfection non-fiction. It's incredible. And for the time frames, numbers of key characters, epic in scope missions and goals! Well, for the seas of the Earth especially those tales- he's a 6 on a 5 star scale.

Never believing he could surpass his record of the Essex- this Sea of Glory which finely details the 1838-1842 explorations of the U.S. Ex. Ex. equals or does just that.

This book was Nathaniel Philbrick writes intrinsic insightful, depth of minutia factual, and psychologically framed to perfection non-fiction. It's incredible. And for the time frames, numbers of key characters, epic in scope missions and goals! Well, for the seas of the Earth especially those tales- he's a 6 on a 5 star scale.

Never believing he could surpass his record of the Essex- this Sea of Glory which finely details the 1838-1842 explorations of the U.S. Ex. Ex. equals or does just that.

This book was dense and the beginning was super slow- I almost didn't stick with a slow read. But I did. And was it worth the time and attention! Not only in the new material of historical value this has taught me, but also into a window of "eyes" for the Navy and U.S. government of that era. No need to revise the onus or the blame or the perceptions of any of 100's of characters within the voyages, nor to comment upon their morals, choices, emotions, outcomes for fallout- just the "eyes" of being on the Peacock, the Vincennes, the Flying Fish, the Porpoise, the Sea Gull or the Relief. And what they said, saw, physically experienced- decided or had decided for them.

And the graphics were superb. Original drawings, surveying papers, on board sketches and records of log. All superb.

The mass of information that this book taught me I never knew! Like the fact that boys spent at least 2 years aboard ships before becoming eligible to entry the Naval Academy then. That the hierarchy of command levels and assignments was as associated to elite contacts and arbitrary criteria for other pursuits (outside of how to work a floating vessel) as it was. Knowing how many men and women did "home science" especially in the fields of natural world history, I did know. But how they connected and contacted to be "in field" as on such an exploration voyage? Not at all.
And the levels of danger. Several times Wilkes' evaluations decree the reality that at least 2 of the ships that start will not finish.

But most of all this book illuminates the style and twisted in communications personality of brash Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. Or is he Captain Charles Wilkes?

It's not a read for the fainthearted. Especially in the portions of study for Fiji Island group- but overall even more so in the pattern of Wilkes to "negate" all competition, and sometimes anyone with more obvious competence. There are people like that, the "non-team" player- but rarely with such vitriolic cycles and in such determining positions. They are people who do not inspire trust.

This is worth the read for the Pacific Island sections alone. Although the polar explorations and other island stops were enthralling to gutsy luck and dire finality- as well.

This is not a read to be handled quickly. It's as deep as the deepest ocean trench, and as high as the most monstrous ice berg that dwarfs both mountain and ship. ...more
4

May 07, 2012

Nathaniel Philbrick gets a WriterWorking prize for the best epigram ever to frame a book for this quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: “I have ventured this many summers in a sea of glory but far beyond my depth.” Sea of Glory is the story of Charles Wilkes and the voyage of the great American Exploring Expedition of 1838-42. It was America’s first great effort to stake a place in the annals of world science and exploration. It gave this country a share in the discovery of Antarctica as a Nathaniel Philbrick gets a WriterWorking prize for the best epigram ever to frame a book for this quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII: “I have ventured this many summers in a sea of glory but far beyond my depth.” Sea of Glory is the story of Charles Wilkes and the voyage of the great American Exploring Expedition of 1838-42. It was America’s first great effort to stake a place in the annals of world science and exploration. It gave this country a share in the discovery of Antarctica as a continent. It led to the founding of the Smithsonian. It should have been as famous and legendary as Lewis and Clark’s trek over mountain and plain. Yet, few of us have ever heard of it. Why?
The determined and perseverant man who led the expedition and was responsible for achieving so many of its objectives was a vain, overbearing, insecure shipwreck of a human being. Every slight--perceived or actual--was for him an invitation to combat which he swore to win with the most brutal, high-handed methods he could command. He was awarded leadership of the project because everyone else had turned it down. And he was, as the bard puts it, far beyond his depth. A naval lieutenant with an undoubted knack for mapping and surveying, he had gained a reputation by inventing ingenious techniques for charting the shoals and hazards on the east coast. However, he was only a lieutenant. A lieutenant suddenly in charge of five ships embarking on a three year voyage through the most hazardous waters on earth. And they wouldn’t make him a captain. He lobbied and lobbied, but still they wouldn’t. He pouted and stomped his feet and wrote nasty letters, but they sent him on his way without his promotion. And he never recovered.
He kicked around his subordinates, always looking for brewing plots and mutinies, transferring men from one ship to another on the most trivial pretexts to avoid dangerous friendships from developing. When the voyage had to be extended beyond its original three-year limit and enlistments ran out, he whipped and starved and imprisoned people until they agreed to stay on for the duration. Shades of Rumsfeld and Cheney. He donned a captain’s uniform to cloak himself in an authority he did not possess. And when they finally got home and he faced courts martial and had his officers testifying against him, he published self-serving exhortations absolving himself and damning others for every mishap and conflict. And when offenses that might have drawn prison time resulted in a trivial reprimand, he took it as if he had been whipped around the fleet and keelhauled.
Despite it all, the man brought the expedition through astounding hardships. To sail those ships, little wooden boats that require men to climb several stories in the air to tug on ropes and sails caked over with ice in blizzards so thick they can’t see the deck below, through thousands of miles and months of icebergs is a feat of skill and endurance impossible to imagine. And everywhere they went, they collected samples of flora and fauna, charted the reefs of hitherto unmapped pacific islands, conducted experiments on gravity and volcanoes and currents that influenced navigation well into the twentieth century. The French and English were in close competition during all this, especially on the matter of Antarctic discovery, and by objective standards Wilkes beat them out on most counts.
In the end, though, his vainglorious boasting made him and his voyage hard for public and officialdom alike to take. Between the time he left and the time he returned, the whigs took over from the democrats and were not interested in helping glorify the success of something their rivals had initiated. Still, a more diplomatic, charismatic man could have risen above all that and appealed to patriotic fervor that was to soon be embodied in Polk’s phrase “manifest destiny.” But he didn’t. Couldn’t. It’s a lesson in how hard, skilled labor isn’t enough. Not nearly. You need help, support, people to work with who enjoy and advocate for you and what you are doing. Too bad Wilkes never understood that. His name might be up there with Lewis and Clark. Too bad Bush never understood that. We might not be having to pull our national reputation out of the slough of despond. ...more
4

Apr 10, 2018

This is an absolutely fascinating account of the first international voyage of discovery sponsored by the U.S., the "U.S. Ex. Ex." (the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, in full), which became the last group of sailing ships (not under steampower) to circumnavigate the globe, in 1838-1842. They discovered Antarctica, and made an enormous number of highly accurate surveys of the South Pacific (their maps of Tarawa were the only available in the U.S. when the invasion of that island This is an absolutely fascinating account of the first international voyage of discovery sponsored by the U.S., the "U.S. Ex. Ex." (the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, in full), which became the last group of sailing ships (not under steampower) to circumnavigate the globe, in 1838-1842. They discovered Antarctica, and made an enormous number of highly accurate surveys of the South Pacific (their maps of Tarawa were the only available in the U.S. when the invasion of that island was planned in 1945). The expedition's officers corps, all young midshipmen and lieutenants, would go on to produce seven admirals.

Unfortunately they were commanded by a man not suited to the job he was given, who had a nervous breakdown at the end of the first leg of the voyage, and turned into the reincarnation of Captain Bligh. The fellow officers who had been his friends turned into his worst enemies, due to his mistreatment of them. There would be a great round robin of courts-martial on their return.

This great voyage of discovery is now mostly forgotten, but its collection of stuffed penguins, war clubs from Fiji, and 4000 other items is the founding collection of the Smithsonian (as well as of the U.S. Botanical Garden and the National Herbarium). ...more
4

Nov 29, 2013

I really love and appreciate non-fiction that brings history vividly to life. Using plenty of original source material (personal journals, ship's logs, government records etc.), Nathaniel Philbrick's rigorously researched story of the United States Exploring Expedition -- a scientific surveying mission conducted from 1838 to 1842 -- puts the reader right on board with the crew.

Reading this book, you can't help but feel the excitement, suffering, astonishment and frustration of the men who I really love and appreciate non-fiction that brings history vividly to life. Using plenty of original source material (personal journals, ship's logs, government records etc.), Nathaniel Philbrick's rigorously researched story of the United States Exploring Expedition -- a scientific surveying mission conducted from 1838 to 1842 -- puts the reader right on board with the crew.

Reading this book, you can't help but feel the excitement, suffering, astonishment and frustration of the men who embarked on this truly remarkable task. The word "epic" gets thrown around a lot these days, but here it fits. It's amazing (and disappointing) that this project does not rank right up there with the Lewis and Clark expedition in the public consciousness. This is one of those extraordinary stories of human accomplishment that has been largely neglected and forgotten.

Philbrick deeply probes the character flaws in the Expeditions's commanding officer, Charles Wilkes, whose psychological unsuitability to lead tragically overshadowed his preeminent brilliance as a navigator and cartographer. In an era when most people never ventured more than thirty miles from their place of birth in their entire lives, these men were circumnavigating the planet. Far from glamorizing or romanticizing a sailor's life, "Sea of Glory" confronts the ugly reality of the cruelty and tyranny of naval discipline in a manner reminiscent of Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. It also reveals how the advancement of science is often cripplingly constrained by the politics of the day.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in maritime history, oceanography, global exploration or the psychology of leadership.
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4

Apr 18, 2013

The age of Western exploration of the world was not just about exploration, but more so about imperialism, as this book attests. The so-called US Exploring Expedition from 1838-1842 was not just about exploring and charting most of the Pacific Ocean, as well as part of Antarctica, but also about the murder of Fijians, a precursor to its subjugation of the Native American peoples in the 19th century, its invasion and colonization of the Philippines in the early 20th, and its debacles in The age of Western exploration of the world was not just about exploration, but more so about imperialism, as this book attests. The so-called US Exploring Expedition from 1838-1842 was not just about exploring and charting most of the Pacific Ocean, as well as part of Antarctica, but also about the murder of Fijians, a precursor to its subjugation of the Native American peoples in the 19th century, its invasion and colonization of the Philippines in the early 20th, and its debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st. ...more
5

Feb 02, 2015

This book is about the American expedition that was created to chart the seas. See my complete review on my bookblog: http://quirkyreader.livejournal.com/4...
4

Feb 12, 2008


Synopsis:
The US Exploring Expedition (the Ex.Ex. as it is referred to throughout the book)was at the time one of the most extensive projects undertaken by the United States. However, it went largely uncelebrated at its conclusion for many reasons -- changes in politics in Washington DC; the drive west by settlers for gold & land; changes in the purpose and scope of the Navy itself -- but largely because of one man, Charles Wilkes, the leader of the expedition.

Wilkes was somewhat arrogant,
Synopsis:
The US Exploring Expedition (the Ex.Ex. as it is referred to throughout the book)was at the time one of the most extensive projects undertaken by the United States. However, it went largely uncelebrated at its conclusion for many reasons -- changes in politics in Washington DC; the drive west by settlers for gold & land; changes in the purpose and scope of the Navy itself -- but largely because of one man, Charles Wilkes, the leader of the expedition.

Wilkes was somewhat arrogant, craved the limelight, and had a tempestuous temper. Worst of all, he was totally insecure, especially around those who were highly competent. He was not a natural seaman, and had no feel for the rhythms of sea voyages; and when others more competent than himself would point things out to him he more than not had them confined for insolence. Worst yet, although he was the commander of the expedition, he did not have the commensurate rank...he started the expedition as a lieutenant and ended it the same way, even though others serving under him were promoted. The other high-ranking officers in the fleet of the expedition were also lieutenants, so Wilkes appointed himself "captain" and flew the commodore flag on his vessel once they left the US coast. He was controlling & paranoid and saw others as "righteous outsiders" while he himself he saw as the champion, battling "ignorance and ineptitude." However, he had great ambition & drive, and although he is painted from all accounts to be a total jerk & a "Captain Bligh" (I must be careful ...since I read Caroline Alexander's version of the mutiny on the Bounty I don't want to throw that term around too loosely), he did get the job done. The expedition managed to sail far south to Antarctica and chart some hitherto unexplored coastline; it also charted the south seas islands & the Columbia River. At the same time, scientists brought back tons and tons of specimens, which helped to usher in the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Furthermore, on that voyage, observations were made regarding plate tectonics that were way ahead of their time as well as notions about evolution & anthropology.


The bulk of the book is about Charles Wilkes & his role as leader of the expedition; yet Philbrick clearly elaborates on the nothingness to which the expedition itself was condemned.

I very highly recommend this book to people who are interested in this sort of thing. It is well documented; most of his material comes from primary accounts of those who were there with Wilkes -- his men, his family, his enemies, his friends. ...more
4

Jan 23, 2009

As a work of naval history, I prefer In the Heart of the Sea, but as a study of the effects of deep-seated psychological defects on leadership, Sea of Glory is a fascinating study. I struggle with Lt. Charles Wilkes, commander of the U.S Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, charged with mapping previously unexplored portions of Antarctica, Polynesia, and the Pacific Northwest. He's a man beset by his own demons. But to his credit, Philbrick gives us a nuanced portrait of a man out of his depth, As a work of naval history, I prefer In the Heart of the Sea, but as a study of the effects of deep-seated psychological defects on leadership, Sea of Glory is a fascinating study. I struggle with Lt. Charles Wilkes, commander of the U.S Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, charged with mapping previously unexplored portions of Antarctica, Polynesia, and the Pacific Northwest. He's a man beset by his own demons. But to his credit, Philbrick gives us a nuanced portrait of a man out of his depth, but with the will to succeed (or at least the imagination to tell himself a story about his own personal greatness). Wilkes is alternately pitiable, vicious, loving, poisonous, quick-witted, daring, cowardly, tyrannical, bitter, feckless, wildly irrational, stupid, and vexing - he was also probably the driving force behind much of the expedition's success and enduring contribution to science and exploration despite his own best efforts to alienate himself and torpedo the expedition, time and again.

In some ways, the commander of the U.S. Exploring Expedition seemed doomed to failure right from the start. One wonders how things might have been different if Jackson or his Secretary of the Navy had the wisdom (or at least the charity) to convey upon Wilkes the one thing that might have buttressed his self-confidence before he left New York in 1838 - an acting captain's appointment - a station Wilkes thought he'd been promised as part of accepting command of a mission that no other captain in the U.S. Navy wanted. Throughtout the book, issues of rank poison Wilkes' mind and jeopardize the mission. He fairly torchers his officers, goading his senior Lieutenants for no other reason Philbrick assures us, than Wilkes' own debilitating insecurities and resentment a not having received a captain's commission.

But despite the unqualified loopiness of many of his antics, Wilkes is a character I each of us can recognize if we look hard enough. Here's a man thrust into a position that he has neither the wisdom, experience, or maturity to orchestrate - and with nowhere else to turn, he builds a wall around his insecurities and sense of inadequacy. And in the process disenfranchises his crew, turns trusted offices into bitter enemies, and nearly gets everyone killed - more than once. There's something undeniably human in Philbrick's portrayal of this man and I walked away from this book, I'm ashamed to say, finding something of myself in Wilkes. I think to those who want to look, we all might find something of ourselves in him. It's not a ringing endoursement of the soaring heights the human spirit can reach - but it is comforting to note that despite these perceived weaknesses we can each overcome. The U.S. Exploring Expedition turned out to be a success, after all, and Charles Wilkes - despite his profund personal defects - deserves much of the credit. When I think about it, I'm not sure what ultimate message we might conclude when thinking about Wilkes. ...more
5

Jun 01, 2012







Okay, page 8. Lived in the USA all of my life, love to study history both when I was in school and now on my own. I was the kid who read the extra history books on the shelf in the history prof's office. And I never ever heard of Captain Wilkes or the US Exploring Expedition. No housework or cooking today. I am already captured by this book.
5

Dec 07, 2017

Unless you are a die-hard pre-Civil War U.S. Naval history buff (which I am not), you probably haven’t heard of of the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838 (The U.S.Ex.Ex. for short). It is probably not mentioned in a lot of textbooks, even if some of its many discoveries are. There are, according to Nathaniel Philbrick, some very good reasons for this.

Philbrick’s wonderful book, “Sea of Glory”, is perhaps the most comprehensive and honest account of the four-year expedition. Unless you are a die-hard pre-Civil War U.S. Naval history buff (which I am not), you probably haven’t heard of of the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838 (The U.S.Ex.Ex. for short). It is probably not mentioned in a lot of textbooks, even if some of its many discoveries are. There are, according to Nathaniel Philbrick, some very good reasons for this.

Philbrick’s wonderful book, “Sea of Glory”, is perhaps the most comprehensive and honest account of the four-year expedition. While an exciting story of maritime adventure, Philbrick’s book is also a story of incompetence, pettiness, and blatant politicizing of an event that should have been a moment of pride for the United States and its navy. Instead, it was probably its most embarrassing and controversial.

The Expedition, which was comprised of six ships and 346 men, was the largest scientific expedition of its kind in history. That, alone, is historically significant. It is, however, what the Expedition helped to create in the subsequent years that is truly impressive.

As Philbrick describes it, “By any measure, the achievements of the Expedition would be extraordinary. After four years at sea, after losing two ships and twenty-eight officers and men, the Expedition logged 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 Pacific islands, and created 180 charts---some of which were still being used as late as World War II. The Expedition also mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the icebound Antarctic coast. Just as important would be its contribution to the rise of science in America. The thousands of specimens and artifacts amassed by the Expedition’s scientists would become the foundation of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, without the Ex. Ex., there might never have been a national museum in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Botanic Garden, the U.S. Hydrographic Office, and the Naval Observatory all owe their existence, in varying degrees, to the Expedition. (p. xix)”

So, why haven’t you heard of it?

Philbrick gives several reasons:

1)The expedition took many long, long years to get going.

It also had its roots in some very controversial theories which are, today, considered ridiculous pseudo-science. The idea for the expedition had its genesis as early as 1824, with the theories of two men, John Cleve Symmes and Jeremiah N. Reynolds, who believed (based on little to no scientific evidence) in the idea that the Earth was hollow, and that there were openings at either pole through which, it was believed, ships could traverse. This “Hollow Earth” theory was, strangely enough, extremely popular at the time. So popular, in fact, that Congress during the John Quincy Adams presidency actually began serious talks on an expedition to the South Pole.

The idea didn’t get very far beyond the talking phase, unfortunately. President Andrew Jackson, who prided himself on being an anti-intellectual and anti-science president, originally poo-pooed the idea as frivolous and a waste of money and resources better used for domestic issues.

Of course, like the Space Race of the 1950s, numerous European countries, including Great Britain, were gaining a lot of press for their scientific explorations of the South Pacific and attempts at exploring Antarctica. Jackson wanted in on the action, and he suddenly became a pro-science advocate. Congress eventually approved the expedition for $150,000, which was a lot of money back then. Unfortunately, the expedition hit a few more roadblocks before it began.

It would not be until 1838, under the presidency of Martin Van Buren, that the expedition would finally get underway.

2) The Expedition was under the leadership of an inexperienced commander who was not well-liked at all, exhibited narcissistic tendencies, and consistently made questionable decisions based on his own inflated sense of importance.

Charles Wilkes was, by his own admission, a naval greenhorn when he was chosen (by a strange set of circumstances) to lead the expedition. After being chosen, Wilkes himself said, “[T]here are very many reasons that crowd upon me why I should not accept it. (p. 47)”

While it’s impossible to know exactly what was going through his head at the time, Wilkes probably felt that he was too young. He had only been on one other voyage prior to this. He also had a young family at home, with a wife pregnant with his third child. All of these were good reasons why he shouldn’t have led the expedition, but certain members of the Navy and politicians in Washington, D.C.---including President Van Buren---clearly saw something in Wilkes that he didn’t see in himself.

No one saw the true Wilkes: a man beset with insecurities, lack of confidence, and petty jealousy for anyone who was, in any way, more knowledgeable or experienced at anything. Rather than listening and learning from his more-seasoned officers and crew, Wilkes made their lives a living hell, for no apparent reason.

While an intelligent man, Wilkes’s major weakness was a complete inability to admit when he made a bad decision. As Philbrick writes, “Some leaders have the ability to step back from even the most volatile situation and assess, as best they can, what really happened. Wilkes, on the other hand, epitomized what has been called the “emotional mind”. He responded to situations quickly and passionately. Even if subsequent events proved that his initial response was unwarranted, he clung like a bulldog to his first impression. (p. 110)”

Wilkes was also notorious for being quite liberal doling out punishment involving the whip. The Navy had very strict guidelines as to how often and how many lashes was appropriate. Wilkes consistently defied and ignored these guidelines.

Needless to say, Wilkes made many enemies on the four years at sea, many of whom would seek redress at the end of the expedition.

3) The return home, rather than being a joyous celebration, was a turbulent affair of courts-martial, jurisdictional in-fighting about the scientific bounty, and political squabbling.

Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur had it in for Wilkes, calling for a court martial of the Expedition’s commander. Some later saw this as a mistake, as a general court of inquiry would have been more effective.

While this was going on, confusion abounded as to what to do with all of the scientific artifacts, data, and documentation collected by the Expedition. The United States, at this time, did not have an adequate national storehouse for this kind of stuff.

“No one had anticipated that one voyage could have possibly generated such a massive amount of material, “ writes Philbrick. “The number of ethnographic objects alone was staggering: four thousand pieces, a third more than the total number of artifacts collected during all three of Cook’s voyages. Indeed, the ethnographic collection of the U.S. Ex. Ex.... is now thought to be, according to anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler, the largest ever made by a single sailing expedition. (p. 332)”

Storehouses, institutes, and scientific think tanks had to be especially created to handle this overflow of information; buildings and organizations that would later be the foundation for the Smithsonian Institute.

The maritime adventures and explorations described in “Sea of Glory” are reason enough to read the book, but Philbrick is as dedicated to preserving the integrity and memory of the admirable (and humanly flawed) men in the story as he is in documenting the history and the scientific achievements of this fascinating expedition. Sometimes, the humanity of historical events are drowned out and suppressed by timelines, facts, and data. Philbrick’s talent is never forgetting that real, emotional men and women are at the heart of these events. ...more
5

Jan 24, 2018

An all around excellent historical story! I had never heard of this expedition until I read this book.
4

Jul 29, 2018

You have to love non-fiction to appreciate a book of this nature. I'm a super-nerd when it comes to historical events & voyages of discovery, well-known or not. Philbrick is one of my favorites in that genre for his diligent research of subject matter and then writing in a way that is factual, yet interesting... even intriguing. He provides an excellent "window" into the lives and character of the many people who lived these events and/or made them happen. I first read In the Heart of the You have to love non-fiction to appreciate a book of this nature. I'm a super-nerd when it comes to historical events & voyages of discovery, well-known or not. Philbrick is one of my favorites in that genre for his diligent research of subject matter and then writing in a way that is factual, yet interesting... even intriguing. He provides an excellent "window" into the lives and character of the many people who lived these events and/or made them happen. I first read In the Heart of the Sea many, many years ago and was fascinated with the story and his ability to present it in such detail. For me, he is on par with Erik Larsen and Laura Hillenbrand. ...more
3

Jul 23, 2012

It’s amazing that American history has lost track of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-42) or the “Ex. Ex.” As a journey of discovery, the expedition is incredibly significant – it’s like Lewis and Clark at sea. Six wooden ships sailing the vast watery wilderness for science, the Stars & Stripes and the future Smithsonian Institution. Along the way, it confirmed the findings of Charles Darwin and established Antarctica as a sixth continent. Four years of exploration and challenging It’s amazing that American history has lost track of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-42) or the “Ex. Ex.” As a journey of discovery, the expedition is incredibly significant – it’s like Lewis and Clark at sea. Six wooden ships sailing the vast watery wilderness for science, the Stars & Stripes and the future Smithsonian Institution. Along the way, it confirmed the findings of Charles Darwin and established Antarctica as a sixth continent. Four years of exploration and challenging seamanship ranging from Pacific atolls to the accurate mapping of 1,500 miles of Antarctic coastline. (A hundred years later, crafting battle plans during World War II in the Pacific, the Navy learned that the only available chart of Tarawa was the one drawn by the Ex. Ex.!)

Nathaniel Philbrick, although a meticulous historian, has the instincts of a novelist and knows how to tell the human story behind the facts. Both the actions aboard the historical “Ex. Ex.” Vessels and this 364-page narrative focus on a kind of MUTINY OF THE BOUNTY conflict between the titular expedition leader and a junior officer, William Reynolds. As with Capt. Bligh in 1790, the collision of personalities ends up in a courtroom. “Martinet” – the word was invented for this Lt. Charles Wilkes, maybe the world’s worst exploratory expedition commander except for Sir John Franklin (1845) or Robert Falcon Scott (1910). For a crew of which Wilkes thought so little, a half dozen of them became admirals and Civil War heroes, while his abused cabin boy wrote an 1890 bestseller, TWENTY YEARS BEFORE THE MAST (he was illiterate back when the Ex. Ex. set out). Sadly, when Wilkes & Reynolds died a couple of years apart in the late 1870s, neither man’s obituary cited their service in the hugely successful U.S. Exploring Expedition. Its fruits, literally, still fill a museum today.

More than once I wished that a talented novelist like Dan Simmons would do with this material what Simmons did in THE TERROR for the doomed Franklin Expedition. It’s a terrific story – interesting for the myriad historical details (71 pages of notes & bibliography) as well as the nautical drama of vainglorious but brave men at sea.
...more
4

Nov 24, 2008

Sea of Glory tells the story of the United States' Exploring Expedition (US Ex. Ex. for short) of 1838-1842. This expedition charted, surveyed, and studied much of Antarctica, the South Pacific islands (especially Fiji), and the Columbia River at a time when little, if anything, was known about such places. In fact, the US Ex. Ex. can really be credited with the discovery of Antarctica as a continent since prior to this voyage only the long Antarctic Penninsula was known--which by itself would Sea of Glory tells the story of the United States' Exploring Expedition (US Ex. Ex. for short) of 1838-1842. This expedition charted, surveyed, and studied much of Antarctica, the South Pacific islands (especially Fiji), and the Columbia River at a time when little, if anything, was known about such places. In fact, the US Ex. Ex. can really be credited with the discovery of Antarctica as a continent since prior to this voyage only the long Antarctic Penninsula was known--which by itself would not be considered a continent. Furthermore, the scientific specimens this voyage collected became the basis for the Smithsonian Institute.

I have long contended that very often the more obscure and unknown a historical event is the more interesting it becomes. This book is a perfect example. Even though I am a bit of a US history buff, I had never even heard of this expedition until a friend recommended this book to me. No one I have talked to since had ever heard of it either. But the story is fascinating. Reading this book was a thrilling adventure in itself.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this story is the unfolding of the reasons why such a noteworthy and eventful expedition became such a minor footnote in our nation's history. This is the story of the expedition's under-qualified yet devoted and driven, ego-maniacal yet paranoid leader -- Charles Wilkes.

A great read for anyone interested in adventure and history. ...more
5

Jan 31, 2017

Sea of Glory is a fantastic narrative of the largely forgotten U.S. Exploring Expedition of the 1830s. It was not at all the dry and boring "textbook" I was expecting. Rather, it was refined and written almost like a novel using historical sources. It arranges the expedition from start to finish, detailing the political forces that lead to its inception, what perils faced the crew on their journey, and how the political landscape at the time of the expedition's return lead to its fall into Sea of Glory is a fantastic narrative of the largely forgotten U.S. Exploring Expedition of the 1830s. It was not at all the dry and boring "textbook" I was expecting. Rather, it was refined and written almost like a novel using historical sources. It arranges the expedition from start to finish, detailing the political forces that lead to its inception, what perils faced the crew on their journey, and how the political landscape at the time of the expedition's return lead to its fall into obscurity.

The most interesting character is by far that of Charles Wilkes, the leader of the expedition. The book explorers the complex psychological forces that caused him to go from being a benevolent commander that was well liked by those under his command to being a ruthless and spiteful narcissist who sought only to glorify his own contributions and belittle those of others.

Pound for pound, Sea of Glory is a must read for anyone interested in early american history and is one of the best historical novels I have ever read. I will definitely be reading Philbricks other works in the future. ...more
4

Jan 05, 2010

Sea of Glory is a very good read, not only as an exciting tale of seafaring and exploration, but also as a cautionary tale. It tells the story of the US Exploring Expedition to Antarctica and the Pacific in 1838-42. The head of the expedition, Commander Wilkes, was a classic toxic boss, and was the storm center of a mass of intrigues and infighting that plagued the expedition from Day 1. I strongly recommend it, not only for people in the military, but for corporate executives. Wilkes' massive Sea of Glory is a very good read, not only as an exciting tale of seafaring and exploration, but also as a cautionary tale. It tells the story of the US Exploring Expedition to Antarctica and the Pacific in 1838-42. The head of the expedition, Commander Wilkes, was a classic toxic boss, and was the storm center of a mass of intrigues and infighting that plagued the expedition from Day 1. I strongly recommend it, not only for people in the military, but for corporate executives. Wilkes' massive mishandling of what would today be called human resources sabotaged what was a very important mission. The tale still offers lessons to be learned. And the passages describing the crews attempts to navigate the treacherous waters of the unexplored polar regions is as gripping as any adventure tale I have ever read.

My only (mild) criticism is that the author, Nathaniel Philbrick, sometimes lays on the nautical terminology a little thik. But he absolutely captures the characters and the spirit of the time.

Highly recommended. ...more
3

Sep 29, 2014

This book was very interesting, but it was also very long and very slow. It just didn't have the same life to it as Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea, and it reads more like a long historical narrative rather than an exciting adventure at sea. I wish the book had focused more on the expedition itself rather than on Wilkes and his leadership problems. I learned a lot so I'm glad I read this one, but I am also glad that I am finally finished.
3

Dec 22, 2012

Story of the pacific ocean exploration by US in the 1800s. Captain Wilkes was egomaniac with control issues that led to widespread discontent during the four year journey. Great accomplishments during a time of worldwide exploration of the seas.
2

Mar 19, 2014

I really didn't like it so much. I was expecting more of an adventure story, and parts were, but their was too much on the bad leadership, and bad feelings, and bickering between the officers. So no, it was not for me.
4

Nov 02, 2016

The U.S. Exploring Expedition was an amazing exploit. A squadron of six U.S. Navy vessels was sent to explore and chart sites all over the Pacific Ocean, from Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America to Antarctica to the Fijian and Hawaiian Islands to the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. It produced hundreds of charts, some of which remained in use for more than a century, and brought back a massive quantity of scientific specimens that formed a large percentage of the holdings of The U.S. Exploring Expedition was an amazing exploit. A squadron of six U.S. Navy vessels was sent to explore and chart sites all over the Pacific Ocean, from Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America to Antarctica to the Fijian and Hawaiian Islands to the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. It produced hundreds of charts, some of which remained in use for more than a century, and brought back a massive quantity of scientific specimens that formed a large percentage of the holdings of the Smithsonian Institution at its founding. It is tragic that this incredible expedition has been largely forgotten.

Yet its accomplishments are even more striking given that it was commanded by a man who was, to put it bluntly, a massive jerk. Vain, insecure, inconsistent, vindictive--Charles Wilkes was all of these and more. Before the expedition was a year old, he had alienated most of his officers by his conduct. That the expedition held together and largely completed its assignments is something of a minor miracle.

Philbrick has given us not just a chronicle of a forgotten naval exploit, but an exploration of human character in the context of leadership. It is riveting and fascinating.

Notes: I "read" the audio book. It was read by Scott Brick, one of my favorite book narrators, but in places the audio seemed to be playing too fast. ...more
4

Jan 20, 2018

The achievements of the US South Pacific Exploration Expedition were spectacular. During its four years at sea between 1838 and 1842, it logged 87,000 miles; surveyed 280 Pacific Islands; created 180 charts (some of which were in use as late as World War Two); and mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the Antarctic coastline. The collection of specimens and artifacts the Expedition’s scientists amassed became the foundation for the Smithsonian’s scientific The achievements of the US South Pacific Exploration Expedition were spectacular. During its four years at sea between 1838 and 1842, it logged 87,000 miles; surveyed 280 Pacific Islands; created 180 charts (some of which were in use as late as World War Two); and mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the Antarctic coastline. The collection of specimens and artifacts the Expedition’s scientists amassed became the foundation for the Smithsonian’s scientific collections, and the US Botanic Garden, the National Herbarium, the US Hydrographic Office, and the Naval Observatory all owe their existence to the Expedition.

So why has no one heard of it? I would say the main reason the Expedition is not more well-known was a catastrophic failure in leadership; among its many consequences was that its commander Charles Wilkes irreversibly alienated everyone who could have helped him salvage both his own and the Expedition’s reputation and more successfully preserve its memory. A series of courts-martial and mutual recriminations followed the Expedition’s return to the United States, and although the commander was ultimately found not guilty on most of the charges, it was too late to repair the damage. The partisan political climate at the time of the Expedition’s return, as well as some delicate international negotiations, also made it inexpedient to trumpet its achievements at the time.

The Expedition’s broader legacy, though, shines undimmed. One of the greatest was the formation of the Smithsonian itself. The Expedition had returned with a vast array of ethnographic artifacts – the total of four thousand was more than Cook had collected during all three of his voyages. Tens of thousands of geological, botanical, and zoological specimens had also been collected. Then there were the charts and voluminous meteorological, astronomical, magnetic, and oceanographic data. Assembling and analyzing all the data and caring for and displaying the vast collections would have taxed the combined resources of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world at the time – Germany, France, and England – let alone those of a relatively young United States that at the time was considered little more than a scientific backwater. Fortunately for the United States, a representative from the estate of James Smithson had arrived in 1838 with over half a million dollars – equivalent to eleven million today – with instructions that it be used to establish an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Until the Expedition returned in 1842, no one could agree on the exact nature of that institution, and Smithson’s bequest might not have ever been used for a museum if the Expedition had not taken place. Wilkes himself took on protecting the entire collection, and if it hadn’t been for him the US Botanic Garden might not exist at all. And although he had initially made it difficult for the scientists to work effectively during the voyage, he backed them to the hilt afterwards. He successfully lobbied Congress for decades to obtain the necessary funds for publishing all the scientific reports that would flow from the Expedition’s vast quantities of data, and as a result the reputation of the United States as a leader in international science skyrocketed.

Wilkes’s lobbying also had the effect of convincing Congress that the pursuit of scientific knowledge was essential to the country’s progress. As the United States expanded westward, Congress repeatedly funded sophisticated exploring and surveying expeditions, and all of them included at least one scientist. Between 1840 and 1860, Congress subsidized the publication of sixty works associated with the exploration of the West and funded fifteen naval expeditions around the world. The financial outlay would be enormous – between a quarter and a third of the annual federal budget – and never quite matched at any other time in US history, not even during the Space Race. All of this set an important precedent, and if the billions in grant money flowing from the NIH and NSF is any indication, the commitment remains. This commitment to funding scientific research and advancing knowledge may be the Expedition’s greatest legacy of all.

The Expedition also left a little-known literary legacy, because traces of it repeatedly appear in the pages of Moby-Dick. Herman Melville carefully studied the Expedition’s records as part of the research for his masterpiece, the novel itself contains references to the Expedition and its findings, and it is believed Charles Wilkes was the model for Captain Ahab.

I highly recommend this book as providing new information and insight into an obscure part of US history that should be much better-known than it is.

Favorite Quotes:

“As the Ex. Ex. was proving, exploration was as much about discovering what did not exist as it was about finding something new.” (page 77).

Best description of an island I have read in a long time: “Macquarie Island, a wave-washed, penguin-infested pile of rocks 2,100 miles to the south [of Australia].” (page 154) ...more

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