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.
...more
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
2

September 1, 2010

A Tale Not Worth Telling.
This historical account of an 1840s American expeditionary voyage to the Pacific is fatally bogged down in its detailing of the constant, petty politicking and bickering among the principals. The overly-long, pre-voyage portion of the book labors under too many quotations from contemporary documents to illustrate a few repeated points. This same approach continues through the voyage description and the litany of recriminations among the crew afterwards.

I can understand that from the historical researcher's viewpoint the use of primary documents is desirable to demonstrate serious historiography; but in a popular history, exessive source citation retards the story's flow and creates an overall negative tone that detracts from the tale's appeal. In the author's excellent prior book about the whaling ship Essex, the opponents were the sea itself and its leviathan inhabitants. Here, however, the combatants are obscure, low-ranking, naval officers and the political hacks whom they serve - subject matter that deserves limited treatment.
2

February 14, 2005

Biography - yes, History - No
Mr. Philbrick would be better off writing for Tuesday afternoon soap operas and leave writing history to others. This is supposed to be a history of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838. Instead it is an indictment and psychological analysis of its leader, John Wilkes. Philbrick repeatedly makes assumptions about Wilkes' behavior that are just that -- assumptions. The people who were there probably didn't know what was going on, much less a writer 163 years later.

As a biography the book may have some validity. As a history of the expedition it is deeply lacking. We keep hearing of the conflicts between the various memebers of the expedition, the outrageous behavior of Wilkes -- forever. Little of the actual, day-to-day work of the expedition is in the book.

I bought the book based on the reviews shown on the cover. I will check things out a bit more closely another time.
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).
...more
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

April 16, 2019

Great book
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.
2

July 31, 2009

Worse Than Captain Bligh
Lt. Charles Wiles never rose to the position of Captain but imagine his crew's surprise when one morning he showed up on deck dressed in a Captains outfit and announced that he has made himself Captain. He gave more lashes than Captian Bligh or Captain Cook; He screwed up one expedition after another because of micro managing and not trusting his crew. So that in the end the poor writer (Philbrick) spent more time explaining his failures than his discoveries. He reminds one of Captain Quig cutting his own towing rope then blaming the crew. How did we ever get to the South Pole with this idiot in charge? And this was not even his main objective. It was following up on Lewis & Clarks expedition and navigating the waters of the great NortWest. It's an amazing tale of imcompetence and blundering discoveries. He succeeded in spite of himself but was taken to task afterwards by a military tribunal.

One wishes that the narrative could have excluded Charles Wilkes and just gone on with the discoveries.After all these really were exciting times in our American History and the expedition of Lewis and Clark followed up by naval exploration gave us a lot more knowledge and understanding of the vast expanse of the Great NorthWest.
4

June 22, 2015

A Must Read If You Want To Better Understand Early American Exploration
One of Philbrick's better books. Well researched and written. Much of what happened during that expedition still happens in today's armed forces with the likes of Wilkes; people given authority, but not able to handle the rigors of command; with those below them paying the consequence of these incapable leaders. As for the book itself. The story about the EX Ex is as important as any other launched during our country's formative years. The names of the forgotten seaman, and marines; those that did not get their names on any special markers or spits of land are some of the true heros of this tail. The book itself is a good and informative read. This story of exploration should be discussed as part of our history; placed with and include with the explorations and journals of Lewis and Clark, Jedediah Smith, Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, etcetera. In summation, whether you consider Wilkes a hero or a villain; he still remains an intricate part of 19th century exploration.
4

June 22, 2013

Fascinating
This is the story of Charles Wilkes, a talented, driven, hard-working yet unseasoned naval officer who was put in charge of the United States Exploring Expedition ("U.S. Ex-Ex"), an expedition whose mission it was to explore, map, and bring back artifacts from the Pacific. A motley collection of 6 refitted ships made up the expedition's fleet. Starting out from the East Coast of the U.S., they initially did some exploring and artifact-gathering in the Atlantic -- in Madeira, Cape Verde and South America. Together, and at times separately, the expedition's ships went on to explore the southern tip of South America, part of Antarctica's periphery, Fiji, Hawaii, various other islands in Polynesia, and the U.S. Pacific Northwest. After finishing up in the Pacific Northwest, the expedition headed back to Hawaii, then sailed on to the Philippines, Borneo and Singapore, then rounded the Cape of Good Hope and sailed back home to New York. The expedition lasted 4 years, from 1838 to 1842. The expedition's haul of artifacts, and plant and animal specimens was huge. A need to store them and make them available for public viewing helped to drive the founding of the Smithsonian Institution. The expedition also made many maps, some of which still were used by the U.S. military as recently as World War II.

The main theme of "Sea of Glory," however, are the expedition's trials and tribulations -- in particular, those brought about by the expedition's commander, Lt. Charles Wilkes, who, although talented and hard-working, was handicapped by blinding ambition, insufficient leadership skills, and insufficient people skills in general. A large part of the book chronicles incidents brought about or aggravated by Wilkes' inner demons. Imagine the worst boss you've ever had. That's Wilkes, times 10.

One of the book's more memorable parts is its descriptions of the iceberg fields in Antarctic waters that the expedition encountered and had to cautiously navigate through. Another memorable part of the book is its description of two battles that took place on the island of Malolo, in Fiji. In the first battle, two members of the expedition were killed on the beach in an attack launched by the Fijians. One of those killed was Wilkes' nephew. The second battle, launched by the Americans in retaliation for the Fijians' initial attack, was at a Fijian fortress in the interior of the island. Approximately 80 Fijians' were killed in that battle. There was also a smaller, swift skirmish that day on boats in the water.

There are some interesting tidbits in the book, including the expedition's discovery of an American and another outsider on Fiji, whom the expedition initially mistook for Fijians on account of their having embraced the culture and blended in with the people there. Another intriguing character in the book is "Oahu Jack," a native Hawaiian who joined the expedition as a navigator and interpreter in the expedition's initial visit to Hawaii. Were the Hawaiian and Fijian languages at that point in time close enough so that speakers of one could understand speakers of the other, or did Oahu Jack know Fijian or some other language that was close enough to Fijian so that he could communicate with Fijians? The book doesn't say. It piques one's curiosity.

The audiobook version of the book, which I am reviewing here, is an abridgment of the printed edition. I wish the audiobook version were unabridged, as I have many unanswered questions about the expedition that I am guessing are answered in the print edition.

This is an interesting book that I would love to see made into a movie for the big screen.
2

July 2, 2014

... all of his books and this was my least favorite. Since I've sailed the same seas with the ...
I've read all of his books and this was my least favorite. Since I've sailed the same seas with the U.S. Navy, I found it to be overly technical and sensed the author wanted to fill every page with research. The book was not a page turner and I found myself looking forward to reaching the last page. It was a struggle.
2

August 9, 2009

The Expedition is interesting - the writing is terrible
I agree with several other 2 star reviews - the author gets mired in trying to log all of Wilkes faults in relentless detail - and misses the interesting part of the story - the scientific and exploration details. The book needs to be re-written under a good editor. There are really two stories here that need to be told separately - and this author twists them together and makes a mishmash of both stories.

One story is the scientific expedition and exploration, the other story is the soap-opera about childish, spoiled children who obstructed the driven leader of the expedition.

The author's judgmental orientation leaves a distasteful impression, especially as the expedition was a military function and whether it's 1840 or 2009, military discipline rules. Wilkes instituted 5 different courts marshall charges against 5 groups and was himself court marshalled, but he prevailed and went on to become an Admiral in the USN.

I found this book very frustratingly similar to another book I recently tried to enjoy - the author there focussed on judging the captain and not the voyage in In the Wake of Madness: The Murderous Voyage of the Whaleship Sharon
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.
...more
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
5

July 31, 2018

A Very Interesting and Well-written Story
I've read several of Nathaniel Philbrick's books and I was looking forward to this one, particularly because it dealt with something in our history of which I was almost totally ignorant. I found it to be a book that I had a hard time putting down, as I wanted to know what happened next. Philbrick's writing style is easy to read, with one criticism: He makes the assumption that readers will be familiar with the nautical terms he uses in the book. While I'm sure it ads authenticity to the narrative, it would be more interesting to me if I knew exactly what the terms were.

Having said all that, if I were a Hollywood producer I would be looking to buy the rights to this book. It would make a very interesting movie.
2

May 16, 2009

Soap Opera around the Globe
This book deals with an interesting, little known episode in the American history of science and exploration: the U.S. Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.), but the narrative of this volume is badly flawed and woefully incomplete. Unfortunately, it is biased toward the daily interactions among the protagonists of the Ex. Ex. The author spends perhaps more than 50% of the book talking about the hideous behavior of Charles Wilkes--in charge of the expedition--and focuses on the daily conflicts and outrageous interactions between him and his officers. A few selected paragraphs would have sufficed to adequately cover this aspect, but no!... Mr. Philbrick has to flog this dead horse over and over, until there is nothing left to say about how overbearing or despicable Charles Wilkes was.
At the end of the book, Philbrick still spends a 30-page long chapter providing all kinds of irrelevant, picky details about the acrimonious court martial which took place after the Ex. Ex. had ended; nothing useful or even remotely interesting is learnt from this gratuitous and unbelievably boring chapter. Instead, Philbrick could have devoted more pages actually telling the readers about the interesting exploratory aspects of the expedition. For example, Philbrick does not even mention the visit of the Ex. Ex. to Maui, or the fact that several of its members descended and explored Haleakala's vast crater for the first time, describing in the process several of its unusual volcanic features. Obviously, devoting any space to this and other fascinating excursions would have cut into Philbrick's long-winded narrative about the constant bickering among Ex. Ex. participants.
In this book, supposedly about the unusually important scientific aspects of the Exploring Expedition, one gets the overwhelming impression Philbrick really has little interest in the geographical explorations and scientific accomplishments of this extraordinary first American circumnavigation trip. Instead, he reduces what should have been an exciting account of an extraordinary voyage into a trite story about the pettiness of Wilkes and the other characters of the Ex. Ex. By doing so, Philbrick does the ultimate disservice to the Ex. Ex.; he simply ignores its most serious scientific aspects, and chooses to focus instead on its jejune, soap-opera details.
I have read extensive sections of the original 4-volume narrative by Wilkes (1845), and can say it is considerably more interesting than this modern but misguided account.
3

December 2, 2015

A great story by a terrific storyteller who I think almost drowned in the enormity of it
The true story of this 4-year voyage of discovery is an epic tale and an important piece of the history of our planet as we know it today -- definitely fascinating and worth reading. There is so much to tell, though, that even the great Nathaniel Philbrick (author of "In The Heart Of The Sea" among many more) drowns a bit, between the ocean and the ships and the men who made the voyage. However, despite the caveats, don't miss reading this book!
3

June 23, 2015

Dissention on the United States Exploring Expedition
The United States Exploring Expedition (called the US. Ex. Ex. for short) is largely forgotten today, but it was one of the largest American voyages of discovery of the 19th century. Led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the ships carried members of the Navy and a group of scientists around the world, collecting data and samples as they traveled from Antarctica to the Fiji Islands, to the Pacific Northwest and the islands of Hawaii. As the crew took measurements and collected samples, they charted the shores of Antarctica for the first time, solved the mystery of the formation of coral atolls, climbed the volcanoes Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, and charted the area surrounding the Columbia River to help the United States solve an ongoing border dispute. But productive as the expedition was, it was plagued with disharmony amongst the crew. After promoting himself to Captain and micromanaging much of the expedition’s enterprises, Charles Wilkes became so hated by his crew that he faced multiple court martials upon his return to the United States.

Nathaniel Philbrick really focuses on Charles Wilkes, the leader of the expedition. The picture he paints is of a man desperate for glory, a hard-working scientist longing to make his name by heading a grand voyage of discovery. But Wilkes is also arrogant, refusing to hire any crew members who outrank him. Once the ship sets sail he becomes autocratic and cruel to his men, a poor leader whose decisions often hinder the crew’s performance. If an officer disagreed with him, he was stripped of his rank and replaced with someone more inclined to agree with Wilkes. By the end of the voyage, Wilkes’ closest allies had turned against him. It was truly unfortunate, because the drama and endless bickering between the expedition’s members drew attention away from the voyage’s discoveries, effectively erasing their accomplishments from memory.

I wish that Philbrick had spent more time talking about the scientific aspects of the expedition instead of the political maneuvering by Wilkes. The things that the voyage did accomplish are truly impressive: the samples collected became the foundation for the Smithsonian Institution’s collection, and some of the maps created by Wilkes continued in use through to WWII. That’s really cool, and shows that when they weren’t fighting these guys knew what they were doing. Unfortunately, the focus on Wilkes’ drama really bogs the story down, and takes a fascinating adventure and transforms it into a biography of a frankly unpleasant narcissist.
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.

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