Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition was penned by Nathaniel Philbrick, well-known for In the Heart of the Sea and Bunker Hill. This recounts the epic voyage of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, otherwise known as the Ex Ex. From 1838 to 1842, they explored Antarctica, then the Pacific—including Fiji and the Hawaiian Islands—and then Puget Sound and the Columbia River, going on land to explore what are now the states of Washington and Oregon.
The Ex Ex was potentially as significant as the Lewis and Clark expedition on land. But hardly anyone knows about it. And thereby hangs a tale.
I was astonished there was such an expedition, sailing from Virginia down to Antarctica—in wooden sailing ships! Then they went on to encounter Pacific Islanders, some friendly, some violent. Considering where I live, I had great interest in their exploration of the Columbia River. I had no idea the mouth of the Columbia is considered the third most dangerous river mouth to traverse in the world.
But why don’t more people know about this expedition? Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who was in charge of the Ex Ex, was far too inexperienced a man to be in charge of such an epic voyage. By the end of the expedition, all his officers had turned against him. Wilkes was put on trial for his outrageous behavior. If any of his officers were more competent than he was, he would humiliate that officer in front of the men, give him reduced responsibilities, or put him off at a friendly port. By all accounts, he was an incompetent and a coward. Much of the expedition’s discoveries went unpublished.
If anyone thinks his side of the story should be told, by all means read Sea of Glory. But it seems to be the old story of the Navy taking a smart young man and unaccountably thrusting him into a position where he was in way over his head. For years. To Antarctica and back.
I have to say I found Sea of Glory depressing. A much more uplifting book is Erebus: One Ship, Two Epic Voyages, and the Greatest Naval Mystery of All Time by Michael Palin, which I reviewed here. This British expedition had competent commanders. There’s some sort of lesson here, don’t you think?