“Ice Ahead!”


A few days before the reduced squadron was to sail into the Antarctic, Wilkes learned that one of Hudson’s officers, a Lieutenant S. P. Lee, had coolly informed Hudson that he would no longer address him as “Captain” but would use only the “Mister” which was all his true rank of lieutenant rated. “My first question to Hudson,” wrote Wilkes, “was, ‘Why did you not cut him down? If an officer of mine had said that to me I should have done so.’ ” Wilkes proceeded to cut Lee down. He ordered him to report to the Relief and in less than an hour shifted eleven other officers to different vessels and duties to compensate for Lee’s departure. Hudson was one of the few officers with whose loyalty and dependability Wilkes never found the slightest fault; nevertheless, he did suggest several times that his second-in-command could do with a little more iron in his character.

The four ships headed for polar waters on February 25, 1839. The date was dangerously late. The brief Antarctic summer was ending and soon there would be a very real possibility of being frozen in for the winter. The ships carried neither food nor fuel enough to bring them through a polar winter—although it hardly mattered, for the unreinforced vessels would have been crushed long before anyone starved.

Antarctica was almost entirely terra incognita at that time. Only Palmer Peninsula, the north-thrusting finger that rises toward the tip of South America, was at all known; it had been named for Nathaniel Palmer, a Connecticut sea captain who had sighted it in 1820 while chasing seals along the Antarctic coast. One other spot had a name: far across on the other side of the Pole, another sealing captain, a Britisher named James Briscoe, had sighted a coast and called it Enderby Land in honor of his ship’s owners; but it was an isolated strip on a blank map without relation to anything else.

The Porpoise and the Sea Gull headed down the east side of Palmer Peninsula but found an ice pack so heavy they were able to pick their way only a short distance southward. Spray coated the vessels with ice; ropes were so stiff and thick with ice that they passed through the sheaves of their pulley blocks with difficulty. The gun ports of the Porpoise let icy spray and wind enter, and with his other troubles, Wilkes found still another deficiency in the misbegotten expedition the first time he called for an issue of cold-weather clothing. “Although purchased by the government at great expense,” he wrote in his published Narrative of the expedition, “it was found to be entirely unworthy the service, and inferior in every way to the samples exhibited. This was the case with all the articles of this description … provided for the Expedition.” The crowding ice and increasingly stormy weather soon caused Wilkes to give the word to turn back. In the meantime, the Peacock and the Flying Fish had been driving southwestward far to the west of Palmer Peninsula, under orders to attempt to equal or exceed the existing “farthest south” record, made by Britain’s Captain James Cook in 1774.

The people on the Peacock were more eloquent than Wilkes. Titian Peale wrote in his journal: “The gun deck has been constantly afloat since we left Orange Bay, even my room and the Pursers opposite to it, and furthest forward of the cabins, have been almost untenantable, the floor being all the time covered and swashing as the ship rolls. …”

On Sunday, March 17, Lieutenant Hudson held divine services, but the sea was so high the men had to lie on the deck and hold on to whatever was handy. Hudson observed in his log that the Episcopal service had been said, “perhaps the first time it was ever done within the Southern Antar[c]tic circle,” and added, “I must again repeat how wet and uncomfortable our gun deck is—enough of itself to make all hands sick- most of the water passing over it freezing . …”

Despite the late start, the ill-suited vessels, and the gales and snowstorms, the Peacock and the Flying Fish very nearly achieved their mission. The little Flying Fish became separated from the Peacock and picked her way through channels in the ice pack to latitude 70° 14′ S, only seventy miles short of Cook’s southernmost point, but there she was forced to turn back.