- Historic Sites
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
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.
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.