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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
After one year President Lincoln, an admirer of Wilkes’s accomplishments, reviewed the charges and voided the remainder of the sentence. But Wilkes was ill and did not return to active duty. He was made a rear admiral on the retired list in 1866. In 1877, almost seventy-nine years old, he died.
Wilkes was robbed of rightful recognition partly by circumstances, partly by the pettiness of others, partly by his own bristling pride. A jealous administration had deprived him of a triumphal homecoming and in every other way minimized his accomplishments, even to aiding and abetting his court-martial. Soon after, Britain’s James Clark Ross had made his own Olympian pronouncements, which cast a shadow over Wilkes’s discoveries. Wilkes, it will be recalled, had left charts and other data in Australia to help Ross. Although Ross never offered the slightest thanks, he did assert that he had sailed over a position where land had been indicated by Wilkes, and had found nothing but water. He also offered the gratuitous opinion that the “scraps of land” sighted by Wilkes did not make up a continent.
Wilkes was dead long before Antarctic exploration was resumed, and then the new generation of explorers did little to rescue him from oblivion. In several cases they, too, found only ocean where Wilkes had charted land—although none could deny that the polar continent Wilkes had discovered was there, even though it might sometimes be fifty or a hundred miles from where he had charted it. But, for that matter, nothing but water was found at one or two positions where the godlike Ross had reported land.
The cause of these discrepancies was revealed only as polar phenomena came to be better understood. Under certain conditions, atmospheric refraction over polar ice is so pronounced that a mountain peak more than a hundred miles away may appear to be only a few miles distant. Without doubt it was this that caused Wilkes to chart some of his land in the wrong position; more than one later explorer has had the experience of cruising a hundred miles from the Antarctic continent while seeing the coast apparently a dozen miles away.
But no cold and scientific explanation is going to bring Wilkes any recognition at this late date. Moreover, it has been chiefly Australians who have explored along the shores of Wilkes Land and have taken the lead in re-establishing Wilkes’s reputation (see note on page 101). In his own country he is still a footnote in most histories, or at best a brief paragraph. Eccentric, prickly, occasionally wrongheaded, he was nevertheless one of his country’s great explorers. He deserves a better place in her pantheon of heroes.