- by Carol Standish
|More about Nathaniel Philbrick ...
The U.S. Exploring Expedition was the most accomplished early voyage of discovery to be launched by the newly fledged United States. The mission was first supported by John Quincy Adams in the 1820s, funded by Congress in 1828, and trumpeted by Andrew Jackson’s administration. Finally, in August of 1838, a squadron of six variously rigged sailing vessels and 346 men were seen off by Jackson’s handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren. Sea of Glory by author/historian Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking Press, 452pp, $27.95) is both a painstakingly researched and riveting account of that voyage.
The ten years of political skirmishing produced a deeply compromised choice for leader of the expedition. Forty year old navy lieutenant, Charles Wilkes, was a skilled surveyor with extremely modest sailing or leadership skills. In an interview shortly before departure, Van Buren asked Wilkes point-blank, “ ‘Why is there such opposition against you?’ ” A virtual parade of protesting captains had visited the president, claiming, among other faults, that “ ‘this young Lieut [enant] did not ask nor would he receive any advice... .” Says Philbrick, “[T]he politics of the Ex.Ex. had been part chess game, part intercine warfare.”
With such an inauspicious beginning, one might well assume that the voyage would be a disaster. On the contrary, the expedition accomplished all of its officially charged tasks: searching the South Polar Sea for evidence of land, promoting trade, charting and surveying vast portions of the Pacific for improved navigational safety (of particular benefit to the large and lucrative U.S. whaling fleet), and extending the boundaries of science. In fact, nineteen volumes of reports and atlases were produced and the myriad specimens and artifacts which were brought back constituted the initial collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
All these prodigious accomplishments occurred in spite of the fact that Wilkes was, indeed, an abysmal leader. Petty, secretive and pitifully insecure, he undermined his officers, applied excessive punishments, and exhibited an arrogance that allowed him to strut about the deck of the squadron flagship in a ostentatious uniform above his naval rank. At the end of the voyage he was court-martialed on charges brought against him by his own men. But he was also a driven man—supremely single-minded and rashly tenacious and Philbrick makes the case that without Wilkes’ drive, the mission would have been abandoned on several occasions.
Drawing on personal letters, diaries, memoirs, and the more than thirty shipboard journals written by officers, scientists, artists and midshipmen, Philbrick creates such a rich web of shipboard detail that the account reads like the best fiction. I found myself referring frequently to the 47 pages of jam-packed end notes and the 21 page selected bibliography (printed in a font size painfully smaller than the main text) to verify the source of details so bizarre and intimate they felt imagined.
The courts-martial aftermath and the years of arduous compilation of the raw data are equally well documented but do not serve the narrative of the adventure itself. Philbrick puts the reader on the boat (albeit, sometimes screaming to get off.) The courtroom scenes make the reader squirm with embarrassment at the political shenanigans and pettiness of it all, but they also explain why it has taken so long for the accomplishments of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, and with less enthusiasm, Wilkes, to be given the recognition they deserve.