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Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick

Coming off the horror show of The Half Has Never Been Told, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really looking forward to one of Philbrick’s adventures at sea. I had a great time reading In the Heart of the Sea and was definitely up for another one of Philbrick’s riveting, page-turning nautical voyages. Though I wasn’t disappointed with Sea of Glory as a book, I was disheartened by the ego-fueled, dysfunctional drama that seemed to poison the story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (U.S. Ex. Ex.) from the start.

And what a story this is. I have to admit, I had never heard of Charles Wilkes or this expedition before coming across this book. While reading, it was hard not to compare everyone involved and the mission itself to the Lewis & Clark Expedition. To say that those involved compared unfavorably to the men who made up the exploring party of Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase would be an understatement.

Philbrick’s book is equal parts psychological portrait of Capt. Wilkes and narrative of the four-year journey of the Ex. Ex. itself.

The U.S. Ex. Ex. was an exploring and surveying expedition undertaken between 1838-42 of, primarily, the Pacific Ocean, but expanded to include many of the surrounding lands as well, including the Antarctic Circle and the Oregon territory that would become so important just a couple of years later during the presidency of James K. Polk. The Smithsonian described it as “six sailing vessels and 346 men, including a team of nine scientists and artists, making it one of the largest voyages of discovery in the history of Western exploration.”

Set in motion by President Andrew Jackson (though originally envisioned by John Quincy Adams), the Ex. Ex. was evidence of the U.S.’s growing influence in the fields of oceanography, botany, mineralogy and really scientific inquiry in general. Most of the world’s foremost scientific experts were, at the time, located in Europe, but the Ex. Ex. was America flexing its muscles on the world stage.

The expedition was led by the mercurial, driven, insecure and downright despotic Capt. Charles Wilkes. Born in New York City in 1798, Wilkes joined the Navy as a young man and eventually led the Navy’s Department of Charts and Instruments becoming an expert at nautical surveying, though he held relatively little seafaring experience on the whole. Through a seemingly endless maze of politicking and coercion he captured command of the Ex. Ex. much to the eventual resentment of a whole host of other naval captains who felt significantly more qualified for this immense task. As Philbrick described it, “the politics of the Ex. Ex. had been part chess game, part internecine warfare, and the only man left standing after a decade of struggle was Charles Wilkes.”

The expedition’s narrative is primarily driven by two competing accounts. One, from the journals and letters of Capt. Wilkes and the other from a popular midshipman, James Reynolds. Reynolds worshipped Wilkes at the outset of the journey but quickly grew disillusioned with him and eventually cultivated a burning hatred for his former mentor, writing, “the nature of the man has become changed, he is as one possessed by a demon.”

Over the course of the book, the reader becomes intimately familiar with the six ships and their principle officers as well as the complex relationships and one-upmanship that constantly sabotaged the expedition. In addition to the competing naval officers, the frustrations of the crew of civilian scientists on board are also recorded. Wilkes for his part is described by Philbrick as having been “his own worst enemy. His aching need for praise and control drove him to some astounding accomplishments but had also led him to commit acts that earned him almost universal censure and scorn.”

By the end, Wilkes and crew had circled the globe (the first all-sail naval mission to do so) and had logged some 87,000 miles while losing two ships and 28 men and yet they came home to face courts martial and controversy as well as public indifference. Philbrick describes the scene from Wilkes’ perspective: “He had found a new continent, charted hundreds of Pacific islands, collected tons of artifacts and specimens, and explored the Pacific Northwest and the Sulu Sea. And he had now returned to find that nobody in New York, Washington, or, it seemed, the entire nation apparently cared.”

It’s almost incomprehensible to consider that, despite their admittedly dysfunctional and toxic climate, the expedition brought home with them a treasure-trove of scientific material and data, the largest ever made by a single sailing expedition. They collected thousands of ethnographic objects, hundreds of charts and graphs of Pacific islands and miles of the Oregon coast and Columbia river, hundreds of notebooks containing unprecedented data on a staggering variety of cultures, languages, and anthropological observations that Philbrick depicts as “a monument to the incredible diversity of the peoples and places visited over the last four years.”

And yet, the U.S. at the time lacked the cultural institutions required to store, study and display any of these treasures in any meaningful way. That being said, Wilkes helped to establish a sort of temporary museum for the public view of many of the artifacts of the journey called The Collection of the Exploring Expedition, which became an immensely popular public exhibition.

Wilkes also supervised the publication of a massive book of their journey that proved to be a best-seller despite, apparently, being crushingly overstuffed and oppressive to actually read. In the end though, the Ex. Ex. led to a new era of American leadership in science and exploration though the nation would soon turn their attentions from exploring the stormy seas to the vast expanses of the American West.

As for the book itself, I found it to be another immensely edifying and entertaining read from Philbrick. He’s quickly become one of my favorite writers of history and I look forward to reading more of his work in the future.