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.
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
It is a great story well told.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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".
Read Aug 2014.
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!
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.
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.