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An exploration of misfortune

Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842; Nathaniel Philbrick; Viking: 452 pp., $27.95

November 09, 2003|William Goetzmann | William Goetzmann is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Exploration and Empire."

On Sunday, Aug. 18, 1838, a grand flotilla of six U.S. naval vessels departed from Norfolk, Va., on an exploring expedition around the world. It was the largest number of ships sent on such an expedition since the ancient Chinese voyages of Adm. Chen Ho in 1431 and America's greatest sea venture of the 19th century. In the harrowing icy seas of the far southern latitudes of the globe, the expedition made the discovery that Antarctica was a new continent -- a feat not admitted by British naval historians to this day.

Even in its own day and since, the Great United States Exploring Expedition, or Ex. Ex. as its officers and men called it, was obscured by courts-martial, dissent and the much-publicized deeds of Lt. John C. Fremont, who circumnavigated not the world but the West (which was much more relevant to the immediate aims of a people bent on North American continental expansion than an icebound continent at the end of the Earth). Even so, on an expedition following the Ex. Ex., Philadelphian Dr. Elisha Kent Kane presented a harrowing tale of his four years in the Arctic seas and claimed to have discovered an "open polar sea" in the far north that made him an even greater national hero than Fremont (his funeral cortege stretched from Mobile, Ala., to Washington, D.C.).

Lt. Charles Wilkes, commander of the Ex. Ex. on its amazing four-year voyage around the world, received only scorn from his countrymen and his government. And thereby hangs a tale so brilliantly told by Nathaniel Philbrick that "Sea of Glory" has to be among the best nonfiction books of this or any other year. Indeed, it ranks with the late Stephen Ambrose's story of Lewis and Clark, "Undaunted Courage," and surpasses it as a story of heroism, sheer terror and significance.

Following Ambrose's approach, Philbrick focuses his story on the young commander of the Ex. Ex., Wilkes, who, despite his lowly rank, was given command of the venture when none of the senior officers would accept the mission, which had been delayed since 1825. At the outset, Wilkes was both elated and disappointed. He was elated with his appointment (largely the result of his attainments in hydrography and coastal mapping) and disappointed that neither Joel Poinsett, the secretary of war, nor President Van Buren would promote him to captain and commodore of the squadron as traditional naval etiquette required. Thus, though he did his duty in remarkable fashion, Wilkes was from the beginning in a rage of insecurity and insult, and by the time the flotilla reached Cape Horn, he was taking it out on his officers. Once an affable officer who regularly fraternized with his fellow officers and crew, Wilkes became a rival to Melville's Capt. Ahab or the Bounty's Lt. Bligh.

He dismissed at foreign ports a whole set of officers not selected by him and broke naval regulations by ordering far more lashes to his marines than regulation allowed. He was insulting to his men and alienated almost all of them except old William Hudson, who captained the second largest ship, the Peacock. And finally, once in the vast Pacific, as a scornful salute to Poinsett and the Navy, he dressed up in a captain's uniform and unfurled a commodore's pennant at the mast of his flagship, the Vincennes, to his officers' astonishment.

Wilkes did not provide all the drama of the story. The heroic feats of his men more than rivaled his rage. They braved the icy seas of the Antarctic, where Hudson miraculously saved the Peacock and two of his men, Lts. William Reynolds and Henry Eld, first sighted land -- mountains on Antarctica -- on Jan. 16, 1840. The two men were filled with "disappointment and mortification" when Hudson doubted their sighting and refused to enter it in his logbook, which threw into question the claim of the Ex. Ex. in sighting the southern continent before the rival expeditions of Frenchman Dumont D'Urville and the English Capt. James Ross (who claimed the honor even after Wilkes had given him a map of 1,500 miles of the continent's coastline).

Wilkes, however, had also ignored a sighting of land by gunner John Williamson on Jan. 18. It was not until Jan. 28 that Wilkes realized that they had sighted the continent at last, a feat not accomplished by even the mighty James Cook. However, by Jan. 28, D'Urville had landed on Antarctica. Sometime after Wilkes learned this, and after talking to his lieutenants on the Peacock, he and Hudson changed their logbooks to Jan. 19. Only Lt. Eld's journal confirmed that Antarctica was sighted on both Jan. 16 and 18, 1840.

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