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One of his ships was rotten, his cold-weather gear was totally inadequate, and his officers resented him. But Lieutenant Wilkes had his orders—and off into the unknown Antarctic he sailed
August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
The shipwrecked mariners were aided by the Hudson’s Bay Company agent, by people from a nearby Methodist mission, and by Indians who brought salmon for them. Some were later taken aboard the Vincennes and the Porpoise; others were sent overland to San Francisco in the company of hired guides. After an exceedingly difficult journey of two months they reached San Francisco about October 29, to find the expedition waiting. It sailed on November 1. The squadron then consisted of the Vincennes , the Porpoise , and the Flying Fish , and the Oregon , which had been purchased at Astoria to replace the lost Peacock . At Honolulu the expedition split up. Wilkes with the Vincennes and the Flying Fish headed directly for the Philippines; the Porpoise and the Oregon sailed toward Japan before turning south to rejoin the other two ships at Singapore.
There the Flying Fish was sold; the charting was completed and there was no more need for a small ship to work in shallow waters. The remaining vessels continued through the East Indies and the Indian Ocean, around Africa, and across the Atlantic to arrive in New York on June 8, 1842.
The expedition had accomplished much, very much. It had surveyed 280 islands and drawn 180 charts, so accurate that many were still in use during World War II. It had surveyed some 800 miles of coast and inland waters of the Oregon country, thereby greatly strengthening the hand of the United States government a few years later when the boundary question was being negotiated. And it had sailed along some 1,500 miles of Antarctica, and had recognized that it had found the coast of a continent.
But no hero’s welcome awaited Wilkes. John Tyler and his Whigs were too mean-minded to praise a project conceived during a Democratic administration. The story is that Wilkes, after waiting in vain for some acknowledgment of what he had done, called one evening at the White House, where he found Tyler gathered with some friends. The President invited Wilkes to come in and have a chair, but then he and his cronies picked up their conversation and no one even mentioned the expedition.
Worse yet, Wilkes soon found himself facing a courtmartial, on charges raised by two officers he had disciplined and sent home. There were eleven charges, containing thirty-five separate specifications; among them: he had illegally worn a captain’s uniform (that promised authorization had never come), he had lied about his discoveries, he had murdered natives, he had exceeded his authority, he had inflicted illegal punishment on his men.
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.