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

by Nathaniel Philbrick

Paperback, 2004



Call number




Penguin Books (2004), 512 pages


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.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ksmyth
Unlike my other books on the US Ex.Ex., Philbrick takes a long look at Charles Wilkes, and the politics that disrupted the expedition.

He paints a picture of Wilkes as imperious and a poor sailor, but intelligent and good scientist. He was highly protective of his authority, and often overstepped
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it to take credit that did not belong to him. He also blamed failure on subordinates, when it was not their failure.

It is a great story well told.
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LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
Following "In the Heart of the Sea" by the same author, I was a tad concerned about reading this book. I know, I know, Heart of the Sea won an award or two and got rave reviews. But I really didn't like it all that much. However, since I had already bought the book, I started reading it and I will
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tell you, it runs rings around Heart of the Sea. Granted, the two are very different in terms of their subject matter, but the writing & research by Philbrick surpasses Heart of the Sea by far.

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.

Wilkes so alienated both officers & men alike on this expedition that when he returned, rather than be welcomed as a hero in all his glory and receive the instant heretofore standard promotion that being an expedition leader provided, he found himself facing several charges from men he'd previously arrested at a court-martial. He didn't help matters much; at his first public lecture, he took the opportunity to blast the current adminstration.

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. For all of their outstanding work, Wilkes, his men & the expedition faded into silence as the US grappled with new concerns.

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.
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
This 1830's American naval exploration of the Pacific and Antarctica could have been as famous as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but it is largely unknown today because it was surrounded in controversy by its unlikeable captain Wilkes (a real-life model for evil captains like Moby Dicks Ahab and
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Queeg in The Caine Mutiny). Philbrick tells the story of the expedition through the colored lens of the captains unlikeable character and thus while I found it interesting, it was never heroic and often pathetic to spend time with him and the often equally unlikeable crew. Yet at the same time he and the expedition accomplished a lot and delivered the goods - the contradictions are enough to make your stomach turn.

My personal impression is that the American generation of Wilkes and his crew were not heroic - the sons and grandsons of the great Revolutionary War generation, they were driven by idealism and optimism to change the world, but they were also self-centered and self-serving, not unlike the contradictions of the "me" generation Baby Boomers post WWII. The in-fighting and insecurities of everyone involved, on the expedition and back in Washington, reflected a mood of a young, insecure nation. Had this expedition gone differently it might have inspired a romantic interest in expanding America not only across the West but far beyond into the Pacific and the western coast of Canada. Instead the ExEx sailed into a "slide into obscurity."
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LibraryThing member StrokeBoy
Wow this is a great book. Philbrick takes you on one of the most exciting and unknown adventures in American History. I recommend this book to anybody how enjoys American history, sea history or just a great adventure. I read this book in huge chuncks because I just couldn't put it down.
LibraryThing member npl
This is the story of the U.S. ExEx, which should be as important in history as the Lewis and Clark expedition, but has been largely forgotten. Among other things the expedition confirmed the existence of Antarctica and its status as a continent, claimed the Columbia River and Puget Sound for the
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U.S. (despite British presence there), mapped the coastline of Washington and Oregon, surveyed many Pacific islands, and collected thousands of species of plants and animals that formed the basis of the Smithsonian expedition.

Narrative Context: Middle Range Narrative Context

Subject(s): Adventure, exploration, discovery, high-risk situations, extreme weather conditions, survival,19th century, ocean navigation, circumnavigation, ethnology, biology, geographical surveys, mapping, Oceania, Pacific Ocean, Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope, Antarctica, Pacific Northwest

Type: History in retrospect, adventure

Pacing: Slower pacing due to historical background and details
from commander and crew logs

Tone: Serious tone, historical detail, detailed setting (shipboard life and weather/climate extremes), literary

Similar Titles or Authors: In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick; Mayflower: a Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathaniel Philbrick; The Bounty: the True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Catherine Alexander; The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Exploration by Catherine Alexander; Barrow’s Boys: a Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude and Outright Lunacy by Fergus Fleming; The Mapmaker’s Wife: a True Tale of Love, Murder, and Survival in The Amazon by Robert Whitaker; Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose

Whole Collection Context: Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett; Servants of the Map: Stories by Andrea Barrett

Special Features: Extensive research, illustrations, maps, footnotes, bibliography

Learning/Experiencing: Very important in this story—who knew?!

Characterizations: Major characters are well-drawn, particularly Charles Wilkes and Passed Lieutenant William Reynolds. Focus on both characters and the events of the expedition.

Story Line: Philbrick’s intention was to explain why this expedition, whose mission and achievements were as great and adventurous as that of Lewis and Clark, is largely unknown today…… Largely this is because of Wilkes and the criticism of his behavior by the crew when the expedition was over. Wilkes was unprepared to lead the expedition and was not given the rank or the authority to do his job. Furthermore, he was arrogant and not a capable leader.

Language: Beautiful and evocative descriptions along with clear explanations of events and motivations.

Setting: Integral to the story, since it is about world explorations.
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LibraryThing member jztemple
This book had the potential of being a rather interesting tale in the style of Undaunted Courage, the Stephen Ambrose classic about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Unfortunately the author chose to put much of the focus on the continuous bickering and infighting between the leader of the expedition
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and his subordinates. While some discussion of this would of course have been appropriate, it forms the main theme of the book and barely a page goes by without some Kitty Kelly like "who hates whom" revelations. The author also tends to skip over things like how the ships were operated or provide more descriptive details of the places visited. Not recommended unless you want more human drama (and dramatics) and less history.
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LibraryThing member sergerca
An interesting read that took me a while to get into. I've read several Philbrick books now, and this is by far my least favorite. However, it is an interesting episode of American history of which I was not aware. I'm happy to have read it.
LibraryThing member LuiMor
Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick is non-fiction that reads like a fictional novel. The incredible details, events and stories that Philbrick tells create a thickly woven book that recounts the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. The novel focuses on the leader of the journey, Charles Wilkes
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and gives an insight into his life and the pressures put upon him.
The U.S. Exploring Expedition was a government funded mission that’s purpose was to explore and survey the coast of Antarctica, the South Seas, the Pacific Northwest and any islands along the way. One of the most interesting elements in this book is the source of information. Most of the story is taken from letters and journals written by the sailors themselves. Philbrick utilizes direct quotes from these sources to make the reader feel as if they are truly on the voyage themselves. He highlights a few specific sailors, most notably William Reynolds, a talented and likable writer. Another major factor in this book is the development of the characters. Much like a fictional book, the characters change drastically over the course of the book, for better or for worse. Wilkes starts out as a promising, intelligent and determined young man. During the Expedition he slowly begins to get power hungry, he cruelly punishes his sailors and loses himself in the process. He ends as a broken man.
Some books are so entertaining they slip learning in without you knowing it. Sea of Glory is a perfect depiction of this. The entire book provides such a clear view of this voyage and the many disasters and successes they experience. Not only does it give this information, but it also gives background in a very interesting manner. Even people who dislike non-fiction may like this book. Anyone interested in sailing, exploring, geography and even human nature will definitely enjoy this book.
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LibraryThing member oldman
The story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838 - 1842 is the subject of the Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick. A little known expedition intended to bring the US into the ranks of the exploring nations of the world actually did find, but due to failings of the leadership both ashore and afloat
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this expedition did not attain the grand goals set for it.
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LibraryThing member kenno82
Philibrick sets out to raise the profile of the US Exploring Expedition, which surveyed the islands of the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River and the largest stretch of Antarctic coastline at the time. He does this by exploring the leadership attributes of Wilkes and the tensions that arise with his
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crew. The most interesting aspect of the book is the role rank plays within the Navy to feed Wilkes' paranoia and feed his ambition, which ultimately undermines the success of the Expedition.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
This is an absolute gem of a book - a non-fiction tale that has all the page turning suspense of a novel.
It tells the story of the US Navy's 1838 Exploring Expedition which explored the southern ocean, sighted Antarctica and then charted many Pacific Islands and then did the same in the Pacific
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North-west of the (future) US.
The expedition was very big in its time, but was quickly forgotten. This amnesia was largely self-inflicted, with the expedition leader being a seriously flawed character and martinet who clashed with almost all of his senior crew, even sending some home during the cruise, and leading to a series of courts-martial on arrival home. This nasty business, and the revelations of poor behaviour and lack of judgement meant that the real achievements of the four-year cruise were largely overlooked at the time and dropped quickly from sight afterwards.
Philbrick tells the story well. The foibles of Wilkes (expedition leader) are well exposed, without being overdone. The reader becomes aware quite early that the cruise ends badly, and knows that senior officers, including the leader, face courts-martial on return to the US, but we don't know until the very end who is nominated as the "baddy".
Great stuff.
Read Aug 2014.
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LibraryThing member mybucketlistofbooks
More great beach reading from Nathaniel Philbrick. This time he tackles a now mostly forgotten expedition known as the United States Exploring Expedition (or US. Ex. Ex.) which took place between 1838 and 1842. Led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes the expedition consisted of six ships whose charge was
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to explore and survey the Pacific Ocean. Consisting of Navy officers and seaman, and a corps of scientists, the expedition was one of the most successful in terms of discovery, in American history. Among its many accomplishments are included the charting the shore of Antarctica for the first time, becoming the first expedition to reach and map the Fiji islands, charting the area surrounding the Columbia River in Oregon whose ownership was a matter of dispute between Great Britain and the United States, climbing both the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes in Hawaii, and by providing the first accurate explanations for the formation of the coral atolls that dot the South Pacific. They encountered numerous indigenous peoples throughout their journey, and cataloged and took samples of enough flora and fauna to fill a museum, and indeed it was one of the first collections added to the new Smithsonian Institution. Despite this enviable record of success however the expedition is all but forgotten now.

Philbrick’s purpose for the book is twofold; first to bring the accomplishments of this expedition back into the U.S. canon of human exploration, and second, to provide a narrative that explains why it’s accomplishments have been so overlooked. The expedition itself had adventures worthy of anything one might find in a Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling or Daniel Defoe novel – including angry cannibals. All of this is expertly dealt with by Philbrick whose writing is always clear and compelling. He brings something else to this work though, something that I thought was a bit lacking in his other books, and that is a real talent for illuminating the personalities of those involved in the events he describes. This is fortuitous as it was these personalities that were at the root of the expeditions later obscurity. I’m not going to go further than that because I don’t want to accidentally reveal any spoilers, for while this is primarily a book of history, it reads like a great adventure!

Highly Recommended!
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LibraryThing member untraveller
Excellent! Philbrick is a great writer. My only wish would be for a list of characters in the plot. When it gets this convoluted, a reminder list is helpful.
LibraryThing member JBD1
Well, if nothing else, Philbrick sure makes the entire U.S. Ex. Ex. seem like one giant rat's nest of infighting, backbiting, and complete and utter unpleasantness. This is a detailed study of the four-year expedition, focusing in large part on the outfit's commanding officer and his constant feuds
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with those around him.
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LibraryThing member JeffV
Nominally about the US Exploring Expedition, a 4-year venture to discover Antarctica, chart islands in the Pacific, and explore the Oregon coast and Columbia River, [i]Sea of Glory [/i]instead is more of a biography of the Expedition commander Charles Wilkes. The expedition was many years in the
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making, and Wilkes, a young, up-and-coming cartographer with an interest in science, maneuvered his way through the political landscape to get selected to lead this voyage, despite his rank of Lieutenant. The nominal rank of captain had been promised, but was not forthcoming, and Wilkes had to take care to select his subordinates from a pool of those who could not claim seniority or otherwise challenge his authority. Therefore, not only did the expedition not include some of the best and most experienced talent available, but the stress of managing six ships without the authority drove him to become a tyrant of epic proportions. Officers were stripped of command, replaced by those more compliant. Floggings in excess of the legal limit were executed in the name of discipline. Wilkes had the audacity to not only assume the rank of Captain without proper elevation, but also flew a Commodore's flag, indicating he was captain of a naval squadron.

In the course of the journey, ships were lost, crewmen killed or deserted, but the objective was met. Wilkes' maps of some of the Pacific atolls remained in service all the way through WW2, more than 100 years later. The sheer volume of artifacts acquired made it the most scientifically productive expedition in history to that point, enough, in fact, to form the basis of a collection that was to become the Smithsonian Institution. All of that, though was overshadowed by Wilkes' asshattery, and the expedition never did get the acclaim and notoriety that it more properly deserved.

When it was over, Wilkes had to meet challenges by former officers in a court martial, and had to defend some of his discoveries (all discoveries were "his". to hell with the crewmen who actually made them) from international inquiry. Amazingly, Wilkes came out largely unscathed, and was granted copyrights to all published reports stemming from the expedition. It wasn't until years later, finally promoted first to captain then rear-admiral, that this "loose cannon" finally became too much of a liability when, during the ACW, instead of taking out the commerce raiders that he was ordered to eliminate, he instead found it more personally lucrative to prey upon vessels of other sovereign nations. Wilkes was recalled, suspended, and never went to sea again.

Philbrick's style was snappy with a nice flow. The book probably would have been better characterized as a biography; I would have liked to hear more about some of the discoveries and what the scientists made of them. The story told was a good one, however, and I'm interested to know more. In many ways, it's the kind of story I wish Darwin's [i]Voyage of the Beagle[/i] had been.
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LibraryThing member pmackey
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
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and marines. A very good and worthwhile read.
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LibraryThing member shirfire218
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.
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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.
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512 p.; 8 inches


0142004839 / 9780142004838
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