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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
Captain Jones himself resigned when the Navy rejected his demands for bigger and better ships, and one after another, two commodores and three captains refused the command. Navy Secretary Dickerson obtained—partly by default—the appointment of Wilkes to head the expedition, a selection that set off a new wave of resignations: in 1838 when he took command, Wilkes was forty years old but only a lieutenant in an expedition full of lieutenants. It was a very junior rank for such an important command; he was not even the senior officer, for his second-in-command, Lieutenant William L. Hudson, had two more years in grade than Wilkes and agreed to serve under him only after being given written assurance that it would not prejudice his future promotion. Even the enlisted men objected, and sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy protesting against being put under such junior leadership. Wilkes moved to shore up the collapsed morale. One of his first acts was to give the enlisted men their first leave in months, in order, he wrote later, to “show entire confidence in them. To my great surprise, they returned to a man. …”
On Navy orders, he thinned out the expedition’s corps of civilian scientists. There had been great talk of making this a co-operative effort in the broadening of man’s knowledge, and learned societies had nominated scientists to accompany the expedition. But the Navy, in the ancient way of the military, was suspicious of civilians. Wilkes cut the scientific corps from almost thirty down to nine. “In these selections I omitted all departments appertaining to physics, surveying, astronomy, or nautical science which I determined to fill myself. …”
In spite of the drastic curtailments, an impressive group was left, including several men who went on to become prominent in their fields. The most outstanding was James Dwight Dana, later one of the nation’s leading geologists. Another unusually interesting member of the scientific corps was Titian Ramsay Peale of the famous family of artists; he came aboard as a naturalist but spent a considerable part of his time as a recording artist.
Of the ships assembled by Captain Jones only the Relief , a storeship, was retained. (It proved to be a poor choice.) Two sloops of war—the Vincennes , 780 tons, and the Peacock , 650 tons—and a gun brig, the Porpoise of 230 tons, were acquired. Wilkes had another deck added to the Vincennes and the Peacock to protect the men and to provide more room. But not the slightest work was done by the navy yard to reinforce the hulls against the buffetings of antarctic ice.
The Vincennes and the Porpoise were otherwise in reasonably good condition, but the Peacock was another matter. Her commander, Lieutenant Hudson, reported, “Taken as a whole, the Peacock has been fitted out, (so far as the navy-yard was concerned) with less regard to safety and convenience, than any vessel I have ever had any thing to do with.” Extensive areas of decayed wood were later discovered that must surely have been deliberately ignored during the overhaul. What could not be ignored xvas hidden; early in the voyage it was discovered that a large rotten spot in a mast had been taken care of by chiseling out the most obvious decay, stuffing the hole with oakum, and smoothing over the surface with putty. Fortunately, the hole was only eighteen inches from the top of the mast and could be eliminated by shortening the mast and rerigging.
At the last minute, Wilkes obtained two more vessels, the Sea Gull of 110 tons, and the Flying Fish of 96 tons, very recently New York pilot boats, to use for inshore survey work. The Navy took them over only three days before the expedition sailed, and in that short period reduced their masts and sails and otherwise made them ready.
The squadron, six ships with 82 officers and 342 men, left Hampton Roads on August 18, 1838, anchored in the channel overnight to await favorable tides, and was on its way in the morning. Wilkes, on the Vincennes , and Lieutenant Hudson, his second-incommand on the Peacock , had both assumed the temporary rank of captain. Wilkes had realized that a mere lieutenant would be at a great disadvantage representing his country abroad and had asked that he and Hudson be given captain’s stripes for the cruise. He had, it appears, been led to believe that the matter would be taken care of; even President Van Buren had seemed full of assurances when he had come aboard on an inspection trip and Wilkes had anxiously approached him.
But as sailing time neared, both Van Buren and Secretary of War Joel Poinsett, like true politicians, avoided committing themselves. Wilkes wrote later: “Finding I had been deceived by the non-action of the President and Mr. Poinsett I came to the conclusion that it was necessary to do what they had omitted and decided with Lieutenant Hudson, to assume the acting rank myself, directing him also to do the same and to do it as an inviolable secret, as no one connected with the Expedition would be any the wiser. …”