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Rocky voyage of Pacific exploration regains stature in retelling

Sunday, December 07, 2003

By Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nathaniel Philbrick learned to sail on Lake Arthur in Moraine State Park, opening the door -- perhaps we should say, hatch -- for a career devoted to the sea.


"Sea of Glory"

By Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking ($27.95)


The former Pittsburgher is director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies in Nantucket and author of "In the Heart of the Sea," a National Book Award winner in 2000 for his account of a tragic whaling voyage.

Now he's back in the water with the history of the U.S. South Seas Exploring Expedition, a federally funded voyage of discovery around the Pacific Ocean from 1838-42.

Called "the Ex. Ex.," the project had a $150,000 budget from Congress. Its goals were primarily scientific and navigational.

Its crew of seven scientists would gather an impressive collection of animal, mineral and plant specimens large enough to launch the Smithsonian and the national Botanic Garden.

Experiments in meteorology, astronomy and oceanography would provide essential material for the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office.

Its surveys and charts of Pacific islands and the northwest coast of America would endure into the 20th century, and the expedition's map of 1,500 miles of Antarctica was one of the 19th-century's greatest surveying achievements.

Impressive stuff, and all detailed in the official publications of the Ex. Ex. and the journals of its officers. Philbrick had the story at his fingertips in these forgotten documents: stirring yarns of Americans doing great things, facing great dangers while standing tall for the red, white and blue.

Great tales must have heroes and villains, of course. In Charles Wilkes, the Ex. Ex. commander, Philbrick has a bit of all of the above.

At 40, Wilkes was a talented navigator, adept at using scientific instruments of the time, but he was only a junior lieutenant in the Navy. He was ambitious, however, and when senior officers declined to lead the exploration, he jumped at the chance.

The six ships and 346 men under his command sailed south from Norfolk, Va., on Aug. 18, 1838. It would be a stormy trip, ending four years later with Wilkes' court-martial, two ships at the bottom of the ocean and the deaths of about 20 of its crew.

Despite his responsibility, Wilkes was never given captain's rank by the Navy, an oversight that rankled his soul. He took his resentment out on his subordinates and sailors, suspending, arresting and flogging his way across the Pacific.

They in turn hated him, both for his vicious and petty reprisals and his incompetence as an officer. Their complaints and the Washington politics of the time led to Wilkes' trial.

He received nothing harsher than a reprimand at his court-martial, however. While it hampered his military career, it gave him the opportunity to secure the Ex. Ex.'s trove of specimens for public display and to write the history of the voyage.

The Ex. Ex. was four years of adventure and accomplishment, most of it occurring in uncharted waters and with dubious leadership. In Philbrick's respectful treatment, its forgotten importance is restored to a level approaching the Lewis and Clark expedition.

But somehow, the glamour of that mission -- even though Wilkes also had a Newfoundland dog for company as well -- is missing here. Part of the problem is Philbrick's pedestrian prose that only occasionally draws excitement and suspense from perilous moments.

A landlubber like myself also should read this book with a dictionary of nautical terms close at hand, as Philbrick frequently uses jargon that require some explanation.

He also has problems balancing his material, shortchanging the Ex. Ex.'s work along the Oregon coast and Wilkes' court-martial.

Helping the book are maps, illustrations and photographs, most drawn from the official history.

The Ex. Ex. and its period in American history, that crucial time before the Civil War, warrant renewed interest. Despite its shortcomings, Philbrick's book will go a long way in awakening that interest.

Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

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