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Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (2003)

de Nathaniel Philbrick

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1,6982310,112 (3.84)25
In 1838, the U.S. government launched the largest discovery voyage the Western world had ever seen-6 sailing vessels and 346 men bound for the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Four years later, the U.S. Exploring Expedition returned with an astounding array of accomplishments and discoveries: 87,000 miles logged, 280 Pacific islands surveyed, 4,000 zoological specimens collected, including 2,000 new species, and the discovery of the continent of Antarctica. And yet at a human level, the project was a disaster-not only had 28 men died and 2 ships been lost, but a series of sensational courts-martial had also ensued that pitted the expedition's controversial leader, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, against almost every officer under his command. Though comparable in importance and breadth of success to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Ex. Ex. has been largely forgotten. Now, Nathaniel Philbrick re-creates this chapter of American maritime history in all its triumph and scandal. Sea of glory combines meticulous history with spellbinding human drama as it circles the globe from the palm-fringed beaches of the South Pacific to the treacherous waters off Antarctica and to the stunning beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and, finally, to a court-martial aboard a ship of the line anchored off New York City.… (més)
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In Sea of Glory Nathaniel Philbrick details for us the full story of America's ambitious and highly consequential voyage of exploration in the Pacific; an amazing accomplishment for its time. After all, the United States was not yet even a century old during the span of the voyage: 1838 to 1842. The expedition was known as the U.S. Exploring Expedition, given the nickname of Ex Ex. The vast amount of territory explored and charted by the expedition is truly mindboggling. It is one of the greatest feats of American Exploration in U.S. history, akin to Lewis and Clark and few others. However, it has been relegated to the shadows of history and few of us have now heard of it or are in the least bit familiar with it. In fact, by the time of the death of the expedition's leader, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, it had already been largely forgotten as the nation turned their attention towards the new fascination--exploration of the Arctic.

The expedition was responsible for much scientific progress and important theories including plate tectonics and the formation of volcanic island chains. The amount of specimens collected and returned are considered the largest such haul ever. In fact, the specimens from the U.S. Exploring Expedition were the founding collection of America's museum--The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Wilkes and his crew surveyed thousands of miles of coastline from Antarctica to Fiji to the Pacfic Northwest, charting nearly 300 Pacific islands, creating 180 charts; invaluable information to the young United States, and indeed, the world. Wilkes is credited with confirming the existence of the continent of Antarctica. The writings and journals produced from the crew of the 4 year voyage are priceless for their scientific observations and record of the events that transpired on the journey. One of the most invaluable scientific contributions was a linguistic study of an indigenous population in the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Fascinating stuff indeed. A travesty that these accomplishments have been largely unknown and unheralded by the vast majority of the U.S. population.

Much of the reason for the voyage's obscurity in the annals of history has to do with the outrageous and vile behavior and actions of Charles Wilkes, the leader of the expedition. He was a Lieutenant with no naval experience and extremely unqualified for the job of Commander of an expedition. Through politics and connections, he was chosen; and the men under the command of his leadership suffered dearly for it. Along with that he did not receive the promotion that would have given him seniority over those he was to govern, dooming the relationships among leader and crew from the very beginning.

Lieutenant Wilkes became a man possessed with illusions of grandeur and driven by rage and bitterness at the denial of those in power to bestow the proper advancement in rank upon him that would give him seniority to some of the other crew members who outranked him. He determined to punish those innocent men relentlessly for this. The physical and mental abuse they suffered at his hands is hard to listen to and I cannot even imagine how those men bore it on this four year journey through personal hell. Lashings were ordered for no reason at all and far beyond the legal limit that existed. The list of atrocities perpetrated seemed endless. Charles Wilkes' actions were truly those of an insane man frequently during this voyage, including immediately donning decorations and hoisting the banners of a much higher rank, "pretending" that he was indeed now an admiral and ordering the crew to address him as such. If they refused, they were dealt harsh punishment and abused for the rest of the voyage. Ultimately, he alienated all of the other officers, many of whom became his bitter enemies.

It is an action of his on a remote Fiji island that stands out as his most heinous crime. In revenge for the death of two sailors (one of them his nephew), Wilkes was responsible for a genocidal attack on the entire population of the particular island this had occurred on. There the crew killed every man, woman and child they came across and committed the most unspeakable atrocities. Astoundingly, though the crew was at odds with Wilkes on most every other point; on this one they were in agreement with him and were not sorry for it.

Despite his crippling personality disorders, Wilkes was a brilliant man with many talents and an obsessive compulsion that drove him to overwork both himself and the rest of the crew. The surveying jobs they did were remarkable as were his charts and most other things he was responsible for. His accomplishments were multidinous and varied. I believe the man was a veritable genius, with extreme personality disorders. ( )
  shirfire218 | Nov 14, 2023 |
Nathaniel Philbrick does an outstanding job retelling the exploits and trials of the little known U.S. Exploring Expedition. Wilkes accomplished great things though at great cost to himself and his officers. As a former enlisted person, my blood boils at the treatment of the expedition's sailors and marines. A very good and worthwhile read. ( )
  pmackey | Mar 29, 2023 |
I liked this book about the U.S. Exploring Expedition. Philbrick's prose nicely details both the discoveries and the people involved. ( )
  krin5292 | Sep 3, 2020 |
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) ( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
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) ( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
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In 1838, the U.S. government launched the largest discovery voyage the Western world had ever seen-6 sailing vessels and 346 men bound for the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Four years later, the U.S. Exploring Expedition returned with an astounding array of accomplishments and discoveries: 87,000 miles logged, 280 Pacific islands surveyed, 4,000 zoological specimens collected, including 2,000 new species, and the discovery of the continent of Antarctica. And yet at a human level, the project was a disaster-not only had 28 men died and 2 ships been lost, but a series of sensational courts-martial had also ensued that pitted the expedition's controversial leader, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, against almost every officer under his command. Though comparable in importance and breadth of success to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Ex. Ex. has been largely forgotten. Now, Nathaniel Philbrick re-creates this chapter of American maritime history in all its triumph and scandal. Sea of glory combines meticulous history with spellbinding human drama as it circles the globe from the palm-fringed beaches of the South Pacific to the treacherous waters off Antarctica and to the stunning beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and, finally, to a court-martial aboard a ship of the line anchored off New York City.

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