Even in a society as amnesiac as ours, it’s a wonder we’ve mislaid the U.S. South Seas Exploring Expedition, known as the “Ex. Ex.” for short. Launched in 1838, the Ex. Ex. surveyed 1,500 miles of Antarctic coast, hundreds of tropical isles, and the Pacific Northwest from Puget Sound to San Francisco Bay. The expedition toted home a trove of artifacts and specimens that laid the foundation for the Smithsonian Institution. The Ex. Ex. also spawned a sensational series of courts-martial covered as closely by the New York press of the 1840s as any celebrity scandal is today. Yet few Americans have even heard of the most ambitious scientific and exploratory mission the U.S. government undertook between the time of Lewis and Clark’s journey and that of our own era’s space program.
One reason for this neglect is the unwieldiness of the Ex. Ex.’s story, which spans four years, five continents, six vessels, and hundreds of sailors. Nathaniel Philbrick, who in 2000 retrieved another forgotten sea tale in his taut, National Book Award–winning In the Heart of the Sea, pilots this potential shipwreck of a saga by lashing his narrative to the life of Charles Wilkes, the Ex. Ex.’s embattled leader. The result is a subtle and surprising portrait of command. Wilkes, an inept mariner and a wretched manager of himself and other men, nonetheless pulled off a difficult and dangerous mission that had far-reaching consequences for science, navigation, and Pacific society.
Wilkes possessed a Napoleon complex while displaying few if any of the Corsican’s talents. Wildly self-inflating, deeply insecure, and delusional about his own skills and the intentions of those he commanded, Wilkes “conducted himself as if he were in the midst of war—not with icebergs and uncharted reefs, but with his own men.” He lied about the sighting of Antarctica, crowned himself commodore while at sea, permitted the slaughter of Pacific islanders, and flogged his crew beyond even the flesh-stripping standards of the nineteenth-century navy. “His manner is violent, overbearing, insulting, taxing your forbearance to the last degree to endure it,” one of Wilkes’s men later testified, in a relatively charitable assessment of the man nicknamed “Stormy Petrel.”
Yet Wilkes emerges as much more than a martinet. Quoting extensively from the commander’s letters to his beloved wife, Philbrick portrays a deeply wounded man whose victimization of others resulted, in large part, from his own mistreatment by a navy that denied him the rank and authority he needed to lead. Wilkes also merits grudging respect for his extraordinary tenacity and survival instincts, whether at sea, snow-blind atop a volcano, besieged in a New York courtroom, or adrift in the Washington bureaucracy. “Like a cork he cannot be sunk,” one contemporary marveled. It is this resilience, Philbrick suggests, that ultimately enabled Wilkes to safeguard the Ex. Ex.’s precious scientific legacy from threats both large and small.
Philbrick juxtaposes the infuriating Wilkes with a literary young officer, William Reynolds, who was as sensitive as his commander was uncaring. Struck by the gentleness and generosity of Pago Pago islanders, Reynolds writes: “My pride as a white man melted away & I thought in my heart, these people have more claim to be good than we.” When violence erupts against islanders elsewhere in the Pacific, he laments, “More War! It seems to me, that our path through the Pacific is to be marked in blood.” Yet even the large-hearted Reynolds pledges to revenge himself on the commander. “I have forgotten nothing and nothing will I forgive,” he writes.
While Philbrick focuses on the psychological warfare that plagued the Ex. Ex., he has also penned an engaging primer on nineteenth-century naval and scientific life. A veteran sailor and director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies in Nantucket, Philbrick has a knack for explaining complex phenomena such as plate tectonics and Magellanic Clouds in plain English. He also excels at distilling colorful details from oceans of primary and secondary sources. We learn, among many other wonders, that navy men were nearly as likely to die in duels as in combat between 1798 and 1848; that web-footed “Newfies” were bred for swimming and so common at sea that they were known as “ship dogs”; that nineteenth-century theorists believed polar seas “flowed into a large portal leading to the interior of the earth”; and that sailors could see more than seventy-five miles of Antarctic coast at once because the atmosphere was “virtually devoid of humidity and dust.” By bringing this same clarity and breadth of vision to Sea of Glory, Philbrick recovers and redeems a great American story that has been mired for over a century and a half in a “long, sure slide into obscurity.”
Tony Horwitz is the author of Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before.