Monday, October 12, 2015

Happy Birthday Navy: "Sea of Glory"

Review by Bill Doughty

Charles Wilkes captained Exploration Expedition 
Some historians say the United States Navy was "born again" during the War of 1812, which ended two hundred years ago this year, a war which brought great heroes such as David Porter, Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, Isaac Hull, Oliver Hazard Perry and Charles Stewart.

A young man who came of age at the end of the War of 1812, Charles Wilkes, was inspired by British naval hero James Cook and by the U.S. Navy heroes of 1812-1815 (especially Porter and Decatur) to join the Navy. Aboard his flagship, sloop-of-war Vincennes, Wilkes would lead the "Ex.Ex.," the nation's historic Exploring Expedition to Antarctica and around the globe.

But there was something wrong with Wilkes.

Nathaniel Philbrick, a favorite author of Navy Reads, examines Wilkes's psyche while presenting an epic telling of the adventure by six ships carrying sailors, scientists and surveyors. Philbrick's "Sea of Glory" (Viking Penguin Books, 2003) is another work of art about the sea.

As the Navy prepares to celebrate its birthday this week, "Sea of Glory" is a good way to reflect on the mind-boggling significance of Ex. Ex. to history and science. Wilkes and his team of explorers discovered Antarctica; explored of volcanoes in Hawaii; and surveyed Fiji, Pearl Harbor, the Columbia River, and swaths of the Pacific. They brought back unprecedented numbers of plant, animal and mineral species.
"By any measure, the achievements of the Expedition would be extraordinary. After four years at sea, after losing two ships and twenty-eight officers and men, the Expedition logged 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 Pacific islands, and created 180 charts – some of which were still used as late as World War II. The Expedition also mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the icebound Antarctic coast. Just as important would be its contribution to the rise of science in America. The thousands of specimens and artifacts amassed by the Expedition's scientists would become the foundation of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, without the Ex. Ex.,  there might never have been a national museum in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Botanic Garden, the U.S. Hydrographic Office, and the Naval Observatory all owe their existence, in varying degrees to the Expedition."
Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica
"Sea of Glory" is captivating for its description of hazardous life at sea, interactions with native populations, and the sunset of the age of discovery. It also shows how far America has evolved from the days of wooden ships, whaling and the trade of otter and seal skins, sandalwood and sea slugs. Yes, sea slugs.

The Wilkes expedition would influence Charles Darwin, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and other writers and thinkers and spawn Civil War leaders, including the great William Reynolds (Wilkes's opposite and ultimate antagonist), who would claim the Midway Atoll/Islands for the United States, instrumental to the new steam-powered Navy. Surveys of the Pacific by Ex. Ex. would be used by the U.S. Navy in planning the invasion of Tarawa in WWII.

But what was wrong with Wilkes?

"Sea of Glory" is filled with strange happenstances of history, strange characters and warped personalities, none more warped than Wilkes himself, described as "arrogant," "insecure," "egotistical," "vain," "impulsive," "cruel," "duplicitous" and "manipulative" – stretched beyond his capabilities."

"The less control he felt, the more he became fixated on the issue of rank," Philbrick writes. Wilkes, in fact, was literally a self-promoter who thought he deserved the rank of Captain rather than Lieutenant, so he put on the epaulets and uniform of the senior rank during the expedition, an "audacious, even outrageous act, without precedent in the U.S. Navy."

Philbrick and RADM Richard Gurnon, USMS (ret.), former president of Mass. Maritime Academy.
It's no wonder Wilkes fell out of favor with a host of senior officers and Secretaries of the Navy, including SECNAV Gideon Welles.

As a leader, Wilkes believed in blind obedience, harsh discipline and public humiliation of subordinates. When envious or angry he turned to excessive and extreme violence. After the expedition, the Navy court-martialed Wilkes for excessive flogging of Sailors and Marines, among other charges, but he ultimately redeemed himself in the Civil War. He later devoted his life to his legacy while others dedicated themselves to the significant scientific discoveries of his expedition.

Philbrick notes that "science in America was forever changed by the Ex. Ex." However, because of a shift in focus from the Pacific to the American West, among other reasons, the Exploration Expedition has been obscured despite its influence.
"[Wilkes] had once dared to assume that if he should successfully complete his mission, a grateful nation would shower him with praise and recognition. He had fashioned out of disaster one of the largest, most sophisticated scientific and surveying enterprises the world had ever seen. 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."
While attention in coming weeks will understandably be focused on Philbrick's terrific "In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex," readers interested in naval history are wise to include "Sea of Glory" or "The Last Stand" for Philbrick's good studies about leadership, life-and-death challenges and the depths of human nature.

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