“ice Ahead!”


Most of the charges collapsed when tested against the broad discretionary powers that had been given Wilkes at the outset of the expedition: “In the prosecutions of these long and devious voyages, you will necessarily be placed in situations which cannot be anticipated, and in which … your own judgment and discretion must be your guide.” The charge that he had lied about his discoveries was rendered ridiculous when officers and men of his own and other ships corroborated his sightings. But he could not effectively defend himself from the accusation that he had inflicted illegal punishment on his men. He tried to claim that his discretionary powers relieved him from the normal restrictions on punishment, but it was no use; he was found guilty of the single charge of having exceeded Navy Regulations in giving out too many lashes to the deserters and the drunken working party in Valparaiso. He was sentenced to a public reprimand which was entered in his service record; no compensating commendation for his unique accomplishments was ever put there.

The scientific corps fared no better than the rest of the expedition. Its collections of specimens had been sent back to Washington from various ports along the way, carefully packed in barrels and cases with warnings that they were not to be unpacked except by the scientists who had packed them. But people in Washington could not wait. Specimens were taken out, and once out were strewn about, mixed up, damaged, or lost. The Secretary of the Navy tried to have a qualified curator appointed, but inertia and congressional niggardliness intervened; the best custodians that could be hired to care for the priceless results of four years of work in far corners of the world were an old janitor, a couple of taxidermists, and a clergyman.

This quartet did mayhem to science. The conchologist of the expedition had carefully identified each of his preserved specimens with a numbered tin tag. The clergyman-curator noticed that the tin tags were turning the alcohol milky and conscientiously removed all of them and put them in a separate container—leaving the specimens without any identification. Titian Peale found that 180 of the bird specimens he had collected were lost, and many of those that came through might just as well have been. Some time after returning from the expedition the recollection was still bitter as he wrote a friend: I cannot forget the late Exploring Expedition,—my two birds (male and female) made into one,—the legs of one put onto another body.—hundreds of fine insects put into ‘families’ without localities, although they came from all parts of the world.—bows in one end of the room,—arrows in another, with their ends sawed off to make them fit into fancy stands, etc.—all for the great end,—promotion of science.

For a number of years Wilkes was assigned to desk work in Washington, preparing the official report of the expedition. The Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition in five volumes came from his own hand in 1845, an account whose interest for a reader today is not entirely staled by more than a century of library dust. The reports of the scientific work of the expedition were also Wilkes’s over-all responsibility; there were to have been twenty-eight volumes but only nineteen were completed, of which he wrote two himself, Hydrography and Meteorology . For eighteen years he was occupied in this slow-moving project which removed him from all serious controversy, though of course he constantly badgered Congress for more money to print better editions of the reports.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Wilkes (a captain since 1855) was sent to Norfolk to take command of the U.S.S. Merrimac , but arrived after that famedestined vessel had been scuttled to keep her out of Rebel hands. He was then given the San Jacinto , and almost at once precipitated an international incident by halting the British steamer Trent in the Caribbean and taking off two Confederate commissioners, James Mason and John Slidell. He was briefly a national hero and Congress voted him its thanks, but an outraged Great Britain talked of war and Lincoln had to disavow an act which was clearly in violation of international law.

A year later, during 1862-63, Wilkes—then an acting rear admiral—was in command of a Caribbean squadron searching for the Confederate commerce raider Alabama . He not only conducted his chase in a way that brought protests of neutrality violations from other nations, but at one point he blandly commandeered three vessels from another American squadron, claiming he needed their speed in the pursuit. It appears never to have occurred to him that in strengthening his own squadron he was weakening the other, which was also out to destroy the Alabama .

Before long, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles transferred Wilkes to other duties. In his annual report to the President, Welles categorically stated that it was Wilkes’s fault that the Alabama had escaped.

Wilkes’s response was predictable. He shot off an intemperate letter to Welles, with copies to the newspapers. It was an unwise act, which brought him before another court-martial, charged with insubordinate conduct, disobeying the lawful orders of his superior, disrespect to a superior, and conduct unbecoming an officer. The evidence against him was indisputable this time, and he was found guilty on all counts and suspended from active duty for three years.