Sea of Glory

by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking)

(This column first appeared in the December 9, 2004 issue of ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

 

Add Charles Wilkes to that list of strange egotistical military characters that includes such real people as Bligh and Patton and the fictional Ahab and Queeg. Wilkes was the commander of what is described in Philbrick's long book subtitle as "America's Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842," or what came to be called U.S. Ex. Ex. It seems remarkable that we have heard so little about Wilkes' globe-girdling exploration which certainly compares favorably with the voyages of Magellan and Cook. The map of Wilkes' expedition crisscrosses every ocean except the Arctic. His charts of the South Atlantic, Pacific and Antarctic were widely used for eighty years. There were heroic adventures: fatal attacks by cannibals and near catastrophes among Antarctic icebergs, rounding Cape Horn where one ship was lost, in the surf at the mouth of the Columbia River where another went down, and in a blizzard at the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii. Yet all this was compromised by the commander's behavior toward his officers and men. Instead of returning to glory and commendations, Wilkes came back only to be faced with a court-martial. And with a new president in office he also confronted a government hostile to his interests. Philbrick draws upon the many first-person accounts of this voyage to resurrect an important but far too little known aspect of our American history.-- Gerry Rising