By Nathaniel Philbrick
(ISBN: 0-0712-1164-0 Published by Perennial Paperback 2005 496 pages)
Review by: John Laskey
Not a book about the Civil War, but as an entertaining and accessible biography of Captain Charles Wilkes, instigator of the Trent Incident, it will be of particular interest to Round Table members.
Author Nathaniel Philbrick has already scored a popular success on both sides of the Atlantic with his ‘In The Heart Of The Sea’, on the drama and sinking of the whale ship ‘Essex’, and the amazing turn of events surrounding its stricken crew. As Philbrick showed, the novel ‘Moby Dick’, upon which Herman Melville had drawn inspiration that incident fiction is sometimes not as strange as the truth.
Moby Dick’ also owes something to the voyages of Charles Wilkes. Philbrick paints a picture of Wilkes as clever and thorough, but largely deskbound officer, whose ego occasionally outran his talents. More dangerously for his crews, they often outran his seamanship. At a time Wilkes was a relatively junior officer the United States had been fumbling its attempts to break into the European dominated field of world exploration. Popular democracy and a lack of government reach and resources combined to scuttle its planned explorations to the undiscovered and uncharted continents, in particular the polar circles. This allowed British and French explorers to claim the honours. But thanks to happenstance and political manoeuvring the middle aged Lieutenant Wilkes found himself catapulted over the heads of more experienced navy officers to lead a six ship ‘Exploring Expedition’ (the US ‘Ex. Ex’) that would take 4 years and cover 87,000 miles.
Ensuring the drama was Wilkes’s own difficult personality. In his deskbound existence in Washington DC, the loner’s closest confidant was his wife, and the necessity of such long enforced separation from his greatest admirer, along with his dislike of life at sea, are the probable cause of Wilkes’s nervous collapse early on in the voyage. Up to that point his unfussy and open style of command, along with his technical professionalism and achievements had made him much admired by his junior officers. One of his biggest fans was (Passed) Midshipman William Reynolds, brother of John F Reynolds the future commander of the Union I Corps. But Wilkes emerged from his cocoon of nervous debility as a martinet, ensuring the alienation and eventually the hatred of Reynolds and nearly all of his officers. It was this, exacerbated by Wilke’s fondness for dishing out humiliating punishment and his real difficulty with the practicalities of seamanship, which ensured the tremendous achievements of the Ex. Ex. would be eclipsed by scandle.
Yet the expedition’s achievements were considerable. Where Wilkes failed as a seaman he more than made up for in through cartographic skill and organisational ability. And his driving ambition ensured some successful discoveries in the face of great danger. He drew up the first chart of the as then undiscovered coast of Antarctica, duly named Wilkes Land. The established British explorer John Ross, who took the opportunity to incorporate some of Wilkes’s work in his own, quietly undermined this achievement. The Ex. Ex. went on to draw up charts of the Fijian Islands, Hawaii and the then remote banks of the Columbia River on the North West US coast.
Instead of accolades Wilkes returned to a court-martial on a number of serious charges, many resulting from his poor relations with his officers and scientists and his presumption of the higher rank that he felt - not without some justice - entitled to. To the intense disappointment of his hater-in-chief Reynolds, all but one of these charges were dismissed: the illegal flogging of marines who had exercised their right not to continue with the voyage once their terms of service had expired. For this offence Wilkes received a very public reprimand that in his eyes wholly eclipsed the glory of his achievements on behalf of the United States.
Wilkes retired, hurt, to oversee the effective organisation of the unprecedented number of specimens in what would eventually make up the core of the Smithsonian collection. He didn’t return to public view until the Trent Incident of 1861. Philbrick makes it clear that Wilkes had no authority to arrest the Confederate envoys on board the Trent. It was just another example of his glory seeking for very high stakes – a possible war with Britain. Philbrick speculates that such a threat could have arisen earlier had Wilkes’s strident views on settling the North West frontier not been officially hushed up on the Ex.Ex’s return. And though Lincoln had commended him at first it was quite clear that Wilkes was acting on his own initiative, an important factor in the careful defusing of the Trent affair. After this headline grabbing incident, Wilkes was detailed to seek out Confederate raiders. It might have been interesting had he actually done so, since some of his former Ex. Ex officers had opted to serve in the Confederate Navy. Instead, Wilkes preferred to run down fat blockade-runners, brazenly lining his pockets with the bounty. This was all too much for US Navy Secretary Gideon Wells to endure and Wilkes was humiliatingly beached.
Readers will quickly find themselves immersed in this well-told tale of the clash of wills at sea, against a background of sudden danger, wonder and violence. It sometimes reads like a Patrick O’Brian novel of the sea yet succeeds in presenting Wilkes, if not in a flattering light, then under a rueful one. The film rights are surely being sought.