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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 squadron of six ships that made up the United States Exploring Expedition, outward bound from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the morning of August 19, 1838, dropped its pilot as it passed Cape Henry Light and soon after held divine service. “The day was beautiful, the sea smooth, the wind light, and the squadron around, with the land sinking from our view,” wrote Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., commanding. “I shall never forget the impressions that crowded on me during that day in the hour of service. It required all the hope I could muster to outweigh the intense feeling of responsibility that hung over me. I may compare it to that of one doomed to destruction.”
Lieutenant Wilkes had good cause for gloomy forebodings, for he commanded what may well have been the sorriest flotilla ever sent forth on the nation’s business. It had been racked by dissension from its inception—and still was. One of its vessels was quite literally rotting away. All were crowded beyond comfort, and all were underequipped and criminally inadequate for one of the most difficult and dangerous assignments ever given to a Navy expedition in peacetime: to explore and survey the Antarctic Ocean, then virtually an unknown part of the globe, and in the process “to extend the bounds of science, and promote the acquisition of knowledge” of the Antarctic, with particular attention to hydrography, astronomy, terrestrial magnetism, and meteorology.
There had been a fey quality about this enterprise from its first stirrings years earlier, when one John Cleves Symmes, Jr., had somehow “learned” that the earth is not solid rock but is composed of five concentric hollow spheres. Of these, the outer sphere on which we live has an opening several thousand miles in diameter at each pole, and after a ship made its way through subpolar ice it would enter warmer waters again, and eventually sail over and around the lip of the opening, to the underside of the outer shell, there to cruise upside down in strange seas among uncharted islands forever bathed in a sourceless light.
Eccentrics are no novelty, but Symmes captured public imagination. His following became so strong that half a dozen bills were introduced in Congress in 1823-24 to send a Navy expedition through the south polar opening, to claim lands for the United States and establish trade with any natives way-down-under. None passed, but, unbelievable as it may seem, a Symmes disciple, John J. Reynolds of Ohio, had influence enough to obtain the approval of John Quincy Adams’ Navy and Treasury secretaries for a three-ship expedition to the inside of the earth. This fantastic expedition to the Land of Never-Never was actually in preparation when Andrew Jackson succeeded Adams and the project was shelved.
But in 1836 the concept of an American expedition to explore southern seas was reactivated. Maritime interests—whalers and merchants—needed better charts of the myriad islands and shoals of the South Pacific. The old plans were dusted oft and greatly revised, Symmes and his hole in the earth having been with some embarrassment forgotten.
To head the expedition President Jackson appointed Captain Thomas ap Catesby Jones, one of his lieutenants at the Battle of New Orleans. Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson chose Lieutenant Wilkes to supervise the surveying work and the so-called nautical sciences: meteorology, astronomy, terrestrial magnetism, hydrography. Charles Wilkes was probably without equal in scientific training in the Navy. He had done outstanding geodetic and hydrographie work and had studied astronomy and magnetism; his private backyard observatory in Washington was said to have been the first in the country. At the time of his appointment, he was head of the new Naval Depot of Charts and Instruments, established to free this country from dependence for charts and maps on foreign sources. (It was later to become the Navy Hydrographic Office.)
A very prickly personality went with these talents. Wilkes was autocratic, uncompromising, and tactless. He was an impetuous, hot-tempered martinet, although he did not always give his superiors the absolute obedience he expected from those below him. This was not due to any willful insubordination but to a serene certainty that in any difference of opinion he was always right and the rest of the world wrong. But he was an officer of great drive and resolution, with an unswerving devotion to duty. Thin-faced and austere, he looked every bit the authoritarian.
He quickly became involved in controversy with Captain [ones over his place in the expedition. He insisted on command of one of the ships and a free hand in his scientific work; Jones saw him as a staff officer carrying out his duties on Jones’s flagship under Jones’s ultimate authority. Wilkes’s resignation was headed off only by sending him to Europe to purchase charts and instruments.
It was only one of unnumbered dissensions. The project became riddled with jealousies, bickerings, feuds, and intrigues. Officers resigned by the score in anger, resentment, or disillusionment, an escape open to them because all members were volunteers. When funds ran out, the Senate pettishly refused more because it had not—so it claimed—been kept sufficiently informed by the Navy. The enterprise became a national scandal.