WILKES ARRIVED in Washington on June 13, 1842. His house on the hill was “almost as I had left it.” His wife and children—including Janey, Edmund, and Eliza—could not have been more pleased to see him. But the absence of his eldest son Jack “made a void in my little flock,” he noted sadly.
He had once dared to assume that if he should successfully complete his mission, a grateful nation would shower him with praise and recognition. He had fashioned out of disaster one of the largest, most sophisticated scientific and surveying enterprises the world had ever seen. He had found a new continent, charted hundreds of Pacific islands, collected tons of artifacts and specimens, and explored the Pacific Northwest and the Sulu Sea. And he had now returned to find that nobody in New York, Washington, or, it seemed, the entire nation apparently cared.
Jane could not conceal her concern for her husband. He had left a youthful, ambitious forty-year-old man. He had been gone four years but had aged at least ten. His eyes had sunk deep into his skull; he had a cough that wouldn’t go away; but as she knew better than anyone, his travails had not yet ended. “She was aware,” Wilkes wrote, “that an onslaught would be made upon me and an endeavor made to cast all my service into the Shade.”
Washington had changed dramatically in the last four years. When Wilkes had left in August 1838, the Jacksonian Democrats had been in power. Now with the Whig John Tyler as president, Wilkes’s former allies had been thrust to the sidelines. At a time when political differences were at their height, Tyler was not about to dwell on the achievements of an expedition mounted by the previous administration. But there was more than party politics at work. Tyler’s secretary of state, Daniel Webster, was in the midst of delicate negotiations with the British government concerning the boundary between Maine and Canada. It had been briefly feared that the two countries might even go to war over the border dispute. Tyler had hopes that Webster might be able to expand his negotiations to include the border in the Pacific Northwest, and the last thing he wanted in the summer of 1842 was for Wilkes to call attention to the importance of that region to the American people. As a result, Tyler and his secretary of the navy, Abel Upshur, had instituted a news blackout when it came to the results of the Expedition. Whereas President Van Buren and his secretary of the navy, James Paulding, had regularly published Wilkes’s reports, with Van Buren proudly announcing the discovery of Antarctica in his annual address in 1840, no official mention of the Expedition had been made in almost a year. To Wilkes’s considerable dismay and indignation, the administration had no interest in the findings he had earlier assumed would win him every concession and accolade he might desire.
The navy had also changed in the last four years. Reform was in the air. Secretary of the Navy Upshur had vowed to protect junior officers suffering under a captain’s immoderate and tyrannical rule. Just a few months before he had restored to duty a lieutenant who had been put under arrest by Commodore Charles Morgan of the Mediterranean Squadron. Both Lieutenant Robert Pinkney and Surgeon Charles Guillou claimed that Wilkes was guilty of far worse outrages against his officers. Subjecting the leader of the Ex. Ex. to an extensive court-martial proceeding would not only serve Upshur’s agenda within the department, it would make it difficult, if not impossible, for Wilkes to trumpet the findings that the Tyler administration wanted kept under wraps.
Wilkes, however, was determined that the Expedition—and, of course, himself—would get the recognition they deserved. As it so happened, on the very day he arrived in Washington, there was a meeting scheduled of the newly created National Institute for the Promotion of Science. Spearheaded by former secretary of war Joel Poinsett, the man who had chosen Wilkes to command the Expedition, the National Institute, a forerunner of the Smithsonian Institution, had been awarded custody of the Expedition’s collections. Wilkes had joined the Institute by mail during the voyage, and he now realized that the organization might provide him with a way to circumvent the Tyler administration. Wilkes hurriedly made his way to the meeting, where Poinsett enthusiastically heralded his return and proposed that he deliver a lecture about the voyage later in the month.
In the days ahead, Wilkes began to marshal support from influential Democrats while formally announcing his return to the Tyler administration. He had already been counseled by his brother-in-law in New York to control his emotions as best he could. “Let Charles by all means keep cool,” James Renwick wrote Jane. “His friends will be sufficiently indignant, he must conciliate.” But when Wilkes first met Secretary Upshur, he was anything but conciliatory. “[The secretary’s] reception of me was very cold,” he wrote. “He never offered to shake hands with me, nor requested me to take a seat. I felt indignant at such treatment and my spirit rose.” Wilkes proceeded to take a seat, and as he launched into a furious soliloquy condemning the action that the Navy Department had taken against him, Upshur sat silently in his chair, nervously taking off and putting back on his reading glasses. Wilkes ended his diatribe by warning Upshur that he was about to lose “the brightest feather he could put into his bonnet” if he continued on this course. Immediately following the meeting, Wilkes wrote Upshur requesting that a general court of inquiry be called to investigate his conduct during the Expedition. He knew that if he could win a favorable result in the more informal circumstances of a court of inquiry, his case would never go to trial.
He had also been advised to appeal directly to the White House. “As to the President,” Renwick cautioned, “he can be counseled and not driven.” But once again, Wilkes’s attempts at diplomacy failed miserably. On the evening he called on the president, Wilkes found Tyler with a dozen of his cronies, seated around a fireplace, squirting tobacco juice into the fire. “I was literally struck [dumb] with surprise to find myself in such a company at the President’s House,” he wrote. “It was exactly like a Virginia or North Carolina bar room, and after the chair was brought forward, the President said, ‘be seated, Sir,’ and this was all the recognition I got of my presence.” Wilkes was convinced that Tyler had no idea who he was; either that or he was “determined to ignore all that had anything to do with the Expedition.” Seething with hurt and anger, Wilkes excused himself from the room.
He next sought out John Quincy Adams. Although no Democrat, Adams had been a supporter of the Expedition from the very beginning; he was also a trustee of the National Institute, and Wilkes poured out his soul to the seventy-five-year-old congressman and former president. He told Adams that Tyler’s and Upshur’s reception had “overpowered him; and all the anxieties and cares and sufferings of the whole [four] years were as nothing to the anguish he had endured within the last five days.” He also complained that while he had been denied a promotion, an officer he had placed under arrest had been awarded one that spring. “I said little in answer to him,” Adams wrote in his diary, “but must wait to hear the statements of the other side.”
On June 20, just a week after his arrival in Washington, Wilkes spoke before a crowd of more than four hundred at a special meeting of the National Institute held in the hall of the new Patent Office Building. On hand was a who’s who of political dignitaries, including Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur. It was an unusual and challenging situation for a naval officer, but Wilkes claimed to have been “glad of the opportunity of giving a truthful account of the operations we had been engaged in.” He began in a typically combative manner, recounting how disheartening it had been for himself and his officers and men to discover how little was known of the Expedition’s achievements upon their return. Holding nothing back, he made sure “to throw the blame where it belonged on those who were there present & seated near me.” Wilkes now had the audience’s undivided attention, and he proceeded to tell them the story of the U.S. Ex. Ex. “Throughout the account,” he wrote, “there was a marked interest and an audible approval when I closed.”
Once the applause had died down, Charles Wickliffe, Tyler’s post-master general, leapt to his feet and began to take Wilkes to task for his criticisms of the current administration. This brought the influential senator William Preston, a Democrat from South Carolina, into the fray, speaking in Wilkes’s defense. But it would be John Quincy Adams who would carry the day. Refusing to be drawn into the political sniping, he drew attention to the Expedition’s many remarkable accomplishments. Upshur, who was a trustee of the Institute, was politically astute enough to realize that he must act to contain the damage Wilkes had managed to inflict. Once Adams had finished, the secretary of the navy praised Wilkes’s speech and proposed that he provide a written synopsis of the voyage. A friend of Wilkes whispered in his ear that “I could desire nothing more gratifying,” particularly when Upshur concluded by saying “that the results of the Expedition were highly valuable and honorable, not to this country alone, but to the whole civilized world.” But Wilkes remained unconvinced. “I had seen enough of him to know what a deceitful rogue he was.”
The very next day, Upshur went on the attack, informing Wilkes by letter that his request for a general court of inquiry had been denied and that “A court martial will be called at the earliest convenient time.” By this point Wilkes had submitted a report to Upshur on the Oregon territory. As might be expected, Wilkes took a militant position regarding a possible U.S.-Canadian boundary, insisting that it lie at 54°40’, far enough north to include not only the Strait of Juan de Fuca but also Vancouver Island. Fearing that this would have an incendiary effect on the ongoing negotiations with Britain, Upshur did everything he could to delay the report’s distribution to Congress, finally insisting that the report remain confidential and not, as Wilkes’s supporters had hoped, be published and distributed to the American people that summer.
Even as Upshur worked to quash attempts to publicize the Expedition’s results, he moved to strengthen the government’s case against Wilkes, taking the extraordinary measure of ordering Dr. Charles Guillou to report to Washington on June 27. Upshur granted Guillou unrestricted access to the Navy Department’s files, and for five days the surgeon labored to expand and bolster his charges against the leader of the Ex. Ex. All this time, Wilkes waited impatiently for the court-martial he had been led to believe was imminent. Upshur, of course, was stalling until Guillou had finished assembling seven charges against his former commander. Now, with Pinkney offering an additional four, he informed Wilkes that he would have to wait another three weeks, when a general courts-martial would be convened in New York, where “[you] must take your chances with others whom it is contemplated to bring to trial.”
But if Upshur was confident that he had built a strong case against him, Wilkes knew that the secretary was without a crucial source of information. Prior to his departure from the Vincennes, Wilkes had collected and boxed all his officers’ journals, as well as many other crucial papers, and brought them with him to Washington, where they remained in his sole possession. Not until the middle of July did Upshur realize that Wilkes had these important documents. “You will send to the Department as soon as practicable after the receipt of this letter,” Upshur wrote on July 15, “the Journals of all the officers and Scientific Corps.” When Wilkes showed the secretary’s letter to Senator Silas Wright, a Democrat from New York, Wright smiled and asked him when it would be “practicable” for him to turn over the journals. “Never” was Wilkes’s reply. Wright laughed “and said that was right.”
When he wasn’t preparing for the impending courts-martial, Wilkes continued to promulgate, in the only way presently available to him, the accomplishments of the Expedition. That summer he transformed his house into a miniature museum, and on July 9, in between speeches on the House floor, John Quincy Adams stopped by for a look. “[A]t the earnest and repeated entreaties of Lieutenant Wilkes,” he recorded in his diary, “I went over to his house and inspected a great number of the drawings collected during the exploring expedition—portraits of men, women, and children, of the ocean, and Feejee Islands. Fishes, birds, plants, shells, and navigating charts are in great profusion, more than I had time to examine.”
The courts-martial were scheduled to begin on July 25 aboard one of the finest ships of the line in the U.S. Navy, the North Carolina, lying off New York’s Castle Garden. The masts of the huge ship towered above the rest of the vessels in the harbor. “The morning was beautiful,” a reporter from the New York Herald wrote, “the sun shining in unclouded splendor, and the soft and gentle breezes producing the most pleasing and agreeable sensations as we were being conveyed to the vessel. The ship itself was in beautiful trim, the deck as white as snow, being covered with awnings to shelter those on board from the otherwise insupportable heat of the sun, and crowded with the seamen and marines pursuing their various occupations. . . . Anon the boatswain’s shrill whistle sounded, announcing the arrival of a boat with some of the officers detailed for the Court, when the guards and marines and the watch fell in, and gave them a salute as they made their appearance on deck.”
There were thirteen officers of the court, including nine commodores, two commanders, and two lieutenants. Although Wilkes would later claim that it had been a “picked court,” there were several members who were disposed to look kindly on him. Commodore Charles Ridgely had assisted him during the preparation of the Ex. Ex., fitting out the Flying Fish and the Sea Gull with great dispatch at the New York Navy Yard. Commodore Jonathan Downes had been equally helpful at the Boston Navy Yard. Wilkes had asked that the officers against whom he had brought charges—William May, Robert Johnson, Charles Guillou, and Robert Pinkney—be tried before him; then his case would finally be called. “The evidence in the course of these trials,” the Herald reported, “is expected to bring to light many, if not all the proceedings of the celebrated exploring expedition, which have hitherto been like a sealed book to the citizens of these United States, who are deeply interested in all which occurred. . . . [T]he readers of the Herald will be furnished with a report of the proceedings day by day, which will be distributed all over the country.” For better or worse, the nation’s first significant exposure to the U.S. Ex. Ex. would be by way of the often vituperative testimony given during the five courts-martial, each held one after the other over the course of the next month and a half.
Lieutenant Samuel Francis “Frank” Du Pont was the youngest member of the court and no stranger to the antagonisms that could develop between a commander and his officers. Two years earlier, while serving aboard the Ohio in the Mediterranean, Du Pont and three other lieutenants had been placed under arrest and sent home after running afoul of Commodore Isaac Hull, who accused them of disrespect. Secretary Paulding would later exonerate Du Pont and the other lieutenants, but the 1840s would become infamous as a decade in which outbreaks between captains and lieutenants became distressingly commonplace. When the Cyane returned after a three-year cruise in 1841, nearly every officer was court-martialed, including the captain. Much of the dissension could be traced to the lieutenants’ dissatisfaction over their prospects for promotion. Commodore Hull, for example, had become a captain at the age of thirty-three; in 1842 a lieutenant was well into his forties before he could expect a promotion, and he inevitably began to resent the “Old Man” on the quarterdeck. As he anxiously awaited news from Washington concerning his promotion, Du Pont was predisposed to look with sympathy toward the complaints of the Expedition’s junior officers.
By the second day of the trial of William May, it had become obvious to Du Pont that something out of the ordinary had occurred between Wilkes and his officers during the four years of the Ex. Ex. “One of the witnesses examined today,” he wrote his wife, “showed by his manner & tone, as well as the force of his words, that bitter & heart-burning hostility which pervades the officers of the Exploring Exp. against their commander. The Court is crowded with them, hanging on every word that is said with an intensity of interest & feeling that I have never seen equaled. I have seen frequently excitement on shipboard, & in Squadrons, but the indignation which seems to pervade these young men, must have sprung from some cause not usual in the Service. They are the handsomest & most prepossessing fellows you can well conceive.”
One of these prepossessing fellows was the accused’s best friend, William Reynolds. After finally being sprung from the Porpoise in early July, he had rushed home to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In Rio de Janeiro he had received a letter from his sister Lydia reporting that their neighbor Rebecca Krug “is still single and as much admired as ever.” By the time he returned to New York two weeks later to testify at May’s court-martial, he and Rebecca were approaching, if they had not already reached, an understanding. Before the summer was out, they would be married.
Wilkes had brought two charges against May. In addition to accusing him of disrespect during their confrontation over the box of sea shells at the end of the voyage, Wilkes reached back more than two years to when May had burst into his cabin after learning that Reynolds had been transferred from the Vincennes to the Peacock. May was represented by his brother, a lawyer from Washington, who claimed that the earlier charge should be barred by the statute of limitations, suggesting that Wilkes had only introduced it “as a menace to the accused.” The court was cleared to give the judges the opportunity to decide on the protest in private. When the court was reopened, the judge advocate, a young naval officer named Charles Winder, announced that the first charge had been eliminated. For Reynolds, who could not help but take the charge very personally, it was a hopeful sign.
The trial hinged on whether May had spoken to Wilkes in an insulting manner, and for much of the next two days, witnesses were paraded before the judges to testify as to the general character of both May and Wilkes. May was universally regarded as an energetic and cooperative officer, although some, such as Samuel Knox, did acknowledge that he “is easily excited.”
The vast majority of the testimony, however, concerned Wilkes. Lieutenant Walker was asked, “what is his general manner and tone of voice when excited or offended?—and is he quickly excited or offended?” Walker’s answer was repeated word-for-word in both the court-martial records and the Herald: “In reply to the first part of the question, I would say, that, under such circumstances, his manner is violent, overbearing, insulting, taxing your forbearance to the last degree to endure it. As to the second part, he is capricious and often easily excited.”
Knox may have had some criticisms of May, but they were nothing compared to his description of Wilkes: “His manner and tone of voice when excited was rather incoherent, and rude withal. He is quickly excited, and offended and his general conduct towards the officers is overbearing.” Lieutenant Alden’s testimony was more reasoned and insightful than most. When asked if Wilkes was only responding to provocation when he spoke to an officer in an offensive manner, Alden had an interesting answer: “No sir, in most cases directly the contrary; I have noticed that those the most attentive to their duty would fall under his displeasure the soonest; those that tried the hardest to do their best.” As Alden recognized, Wilkes’s intense insecurity meant that he inevitably felt threatened by his most capable officers; it was the loyal but barely competent ones, such as Carr and Hudson, who won his unstinting praise. Finally, toward the end of the day, Reynolds got his chance to join the chorus of the disaffected: “his tone and voice, when excited,” he testified, “was very passionate, harsh, unofficer-like, and insulting. He is easily offended, and his general manner to his officers is extremely harsh and disagreeable.”
As was becoming obvious to all, Wilkes had an almost preternatural ability to get under an officer’s skin. But as Du Pont increasingly began to appreciate, Reynolds and his compatriots had lacked the maturity to effectively combat Wilkes’s peculiar and highly sophisticated form of psychological warfare: “[T]here does not seem [to have been] a man of any experience or knowledge to contend with such difficulties, among them.” Instead of strengthening May’s cause, the cumulative effect of all the Wilkes bashing inevitably began to work to their enemy’s advantage. Where the officers came off as young and overwrought, Wilkes remained, according to Du Pont, “perfectly self possessed,” while his “broken & wretched” appearance spoke eloquently of the sufferings he had endured over the last four years.
The following day saw testimony from Wilkes and several of his more loyal officers. Hudson, Du Pont remarked, was “universally condemned [in the Navy] for the loss of his ship & his having waived his rank to go with Wilkes, of whom he’s said to have been much afraid.” Hudson’s testimony would do nothing to redeem him in the eyes of his fellow officers. At one point he would insist, “I don’t recollect a solitary act of rudeness or insult on [Wilkes’s] part that I have seen or has come to my knowledge.” But later, when asked if he had heard Wilkes “make use of profane and violent language,” Hudson would lamely admit, “I think I have.”
“I am more & more convinced,” Du Pont wrote his wife that evening, “that all the charges brought against these younger men are but trivial, or come from trivial circumstances, & those against Wilkes himself are not much more serious. He was a disagreeable, overbearing, & disgusting commander, but I doubt if he has transcended his authority, & the whole matter could easily have been arranged [through a court of inquiry] by the Secretary.” The truth was that a navy secretary with a political ax to grind had used the petty complaints of five officers as an excuse to mount a series of courts-martial that worked to the detriment of not just Wilkes but the entire Expedition. The Ex. Ex. and the nation it represented had been ill served by Abel Upshur.
On Saturday, July 30, May’s brother delivered his closing statement, known as the defence. This handwritten document has become part of the permanent record in the Navy Courts-Martial Records at the National Archives. Most of May’s defence is written in one hand and describes in thorough but unexceptional detail what occurred between May and Wilkes regarding the box of shells. There are a few pages, however, in which the handwriting appears to be that of May’s articulate friend William Reynolds. In these pages, Reynolds rises above the pettiness of the proceedings to address what was for him the real issue of the trial: Wilkes’s failure of character. One paragraph in particular stands as a lasting testament to the feelings of the squadron’s most eloquent officer: “Little did I dream when I volunteered for duty in the Exploring Expedition, how it would result for me. . . . But it is the quality of our nature to be fallible & its misfortune that we are too often the victims of deceit. I had not then learned the philosophy which teaches that he who would attempt enterprises of great command, must begin his government by laying its foundations in his own breast, in control of his own passions & that he who would survey the world must first sound the depth & shallows of his own character.”
At the conclusion of May’s defence, the court was cleared for two hours while the judges came to their decision. “As is usual with courts martial,” the Herald reported, “the decision of the court cannot be made public until it has been approved by the President, the members being all sworn to secrecy.” It was on to the trial of Lieutenant Robert Johnson.
Wilkes had arrested Johnson for refusing to lead the expedition from Puget Sound to Grays Harbor. Johnson’s lawyer, who all agreed was one of the best they’d seen in a navy court-martial, chose to ignore the fact that Johnson had improperly given away a government-issue pistol. Instead, it was Wilkes who was put on trial as Johnson’s lawyer pulled apart his account of the confrontation between himself and the lieutenant on the deck of the Vincennes. It had occurred during what is always a hectic, noisy, and distracting time aboard a sailing vessel—the weighing of the anchor. As the men worked the capstan and the huge anchor rose up out of the water amid the deafening screech and clatter of chain, Wilkes and Johnson had squared off. For Wilkes it was all black and white: either Johnson was going to lead an expedition to Grays Harbor or he was going to be guilty of disobeying orders. For Johnson, it was much more complicated. Wilkes had inserted a clause in his orders requiring him to gain Passed Midshipman Henry Eld’s approval before he dispensed with any more government property. In the navy, an officer was not supposed to submit to the judgment of an inferior officer, and Johnson wanted to discuss this aspect of Wilkes’s order. But Wilkes was in a hurry; he was already annoyed at Johnson; and rather than talking it over with him, he placed Johnson under arrest.
Johnson’s attorney asked Wilkes, “Have you during your experience in the service known of an instance of an officer receiving an order containing a clause similar in character to the one referred to?” Wilkes admitted that he had known of “no such instance in the Naval Service.” But, he continued, the U.S. Ex. Ex. was unlike any operation the navy had ever mounted before. In fact, he had received “private instructions” directing him that “rank was not to be regarded on special duties on the Exploring Expedition.” Johnson’s attorney pressed Wilkes to reveal the nature of these mysterious instructions. Reluctantly, Wilkes told of the letter he had received in Honolulu from Secretary Paulding that urged him to put down “Cabals of discontented officers.” Johnson’s attorney demanded that the letter be made part of the public record, but Wilkes claimed “there were portions of these instructions relating to private matters between myself and Mr. Paulding.” At the court’s insistence, Wilkes was required to make available only the relevant portions of the letter the following day.
“You are engaged in a great undertaking,” Paulding had written, “which has excited the interest of the civilized world, and is looked upon by all your countrymen with great solicitude as one which, if successful in its objects, will redound to the credit of the United States. For that success you are in a great degree personally responsible, and are, in my opinion, fully justified in enforcing those measures which you believe best qualified to ensure the attainment of the great objects of the expedition.” Later in the letter, Paulding specifically stated that “the fantastical claims of rank” were not to interfere with the Expedition’s goals.
Paulding’s letter would be reprinted in newspapers across the country, and at least one naval officer would angrily insist that the secretary’s instructions were at odds with that most sacred of institutions—rank. No wonder the Expedition’s officers had become embroiled in controversy; a voyage organized on such misguided principles was doomed to failure. It was a theme that would be returned to more than once in the days ahead.
Shortly after the reading of Johnson’s defence on August 2, the judges turned their attention to the trial of surgeon Charles Guillou. Guillou was accused, among other things, of failing to account for the disappearance of a tiny metal mortar used in mixing medicines; he had also torn out several pages from his journal, claiming that they contained “private matter.” In a blistering protest of Wilkes’s charges, Guillou’s counsel pounced on the commander’s earlier unwillingness to divulge the full contents of Paulding’s private letter as proof that Guillou’s mutilation of his journal had been justified, but the protest was denied. As the trial dragged on, it was revealed that much of Guillou’s refractoriness had to do with Wilkes’s refusal to grant him a promised promotion. This did not absolve him, however, of having failed to obey several of his superiors’ orders. Guillou admitted as much, insisting that “if he had done any thing wrong it had arisen from misapprehension of [naval regulations].”
Guillou was regarded by Reynolds and his friends as an extremely intelligent and capable officer, and expectations were high for his final defence. On Saturday, August 6, the fourth day of his trial, the great cabin of the North Carolina was crowded with spectators. Many of the officers brought along their wives to witness what was to be a lively and damaging attack on the commander of the Ex. Ex. But Guillou’s defence proved a disappointment. The best the Herald reporter, whose sympathies were clearly with the officers, could say about the defence was that it was “somewhat long.” Since Guillou would be the chief accuser in Wilkes’s court-martial, it did not bode well for that trial’s eventual outcome.
The court-martial of Robert Pinkney began with visual aids. One of the six charges Wilkes had brought against the lieutenant claimed that he had not properly followed his instructions when surveying the south shore of Upolu, requiring that the squadron return to the island more than a year later to redo the survey. Wilkes held up two charts—one based on Pinkney’s flawed survey; the other showing what it looked like after it had been done properly. He also read a letter from Pinkney in which the officer admitted to destroying his journal in Tonga. But the testimony of the day was overshadowed by the announcement that at 9:30 the next morning, William May’s sentence would be read on the quarterdeck of the North Carolina.
The following day the quarterdeck was filled with people, some, according to the Herald, “attracted by curiosity, and others by sympathy for the accused, whom they judged from the reports of the evidence . . . to be quite innocent of any disrespect to Lieutenant Wilkes, besides having formed the opinion that Lieutenant Wilkes was a tyrannical and overbearing officer, and very insulting in his deportment to his subordinate officers.”
At precisely 9:30 the gig of Commodore Matthew Perry, commanding the steam frigate Missouri, came alongside the North Carolina. Perry was received with “all the honors,” and Passed Midshipman William May was ordered to come forward. Standing in the center of what was described as “a wondering circle of Middies, Lieutenants, Captains, and Commodores, besides a goodly number of civilians,” May waited as Perry unfolded the letter he had received from the secretary of the navy. To the surprise of everyone but the judges, May had been found guilty of disrespect to a superior and sentenced to a public reprimand. “The offense of which you have been found guilty,” Perry read, “although it involves no moral turpitude, strikes at the foundation of all discipline. A respectful deportment is part of the duty of obedience, and obedience is the first law of military service. It is impossible, therefore, that the Department can fail to look with displeasure on the conduct of an officer who so far loses his self-control as to suffer himself to be betrayed into disrespect to his superior.” The letter was handed to May, the crowd dispersed, and by ten A.M. Pinkney’s trial had resumed.
As the day of his own court-martial approached, Wilkes did his best to ignore Upshur’s repeated demands that he turn over “the whole of the Books and Instruments, etc. used by the Exploring Expedition.” Finally, in early August, he responded, “your order will be obeyed the very moment I am relieved from the ominous and responsible situation in which I am placed and can attend to them in person.”
It was during Pinkney’s trial that the judge advocate attempted to force Wilkes’s hand. While testifying about the survey at Upolu, Lieutenant George Sinclair requested that he have the opportunity to consult his journal. It was the moment the judge advocate had been waiting for. “I have a letter,” he declared, “from the Secretary of the Navy, in which he says that he has sent Lieutenant Wilkes three orders to deliver up those journals, none of which he has regarded.”
Since there was little the court could do about the matter that day, the trial continued, with Sinclair stating, to the amusement of everyone but Wilkes, that the Expedition’s surveying instructions were so poorly written that “the more I read them the less I understood them.” The following morning, Wilkes requested that he be given the opportunity to respond to the Herald’s account of the previous day’s testimony. The president of the court, Commodore Stewart, reminded Wilkes that what was printed in a newspaper had nothing to do with the testimony allowed by the court. Wilkes blurted out that it was the Herald’s statement concerning his not having turned over the Expedition’s journals that he wished to counter. Stewart repeated his earlier statement, to which Wilkes replied that “he cared little about what the newspapers said, he was thickskinned so far as they were concerned.” The following day, the Herald would report that Wilkes subsequently used testimony that had appeared in the newspaper to assist him in examining a witness, “thus acknowledging the correctness of the reports which the reporter understood him to impugn at the commencement of the proceedings.” Wilkes had managed to anger not only the judge advocate and the judges, but also the popular press, and his own trial had not yet begun.
On Saturday, August 13, Pinkney’s counsel, the Expedition’s assistant surgeon James Palmer, read his defence. The trial had shown that Wilkes was willing to go to any length and pursue just about any course if it would strengthen his case against the lieutenant, a perfectly competent officer against whom Wilkes had taken a violent and inexplicable dislike. Over and over again during the Expedition, Pinkney claimed, Wilkes “tried to goad me into rebellion.” But why? Pinkney had a theory, and it involved the issue of rank.
From the very beginning, the officers of the Ex. Ex. had recognized that the schooners were “of all vessels, most likely to distinguish themselves on the Exploring Expedition.” “The history of the Flying Fish’s first Antarctic cruise,” Pinkney continued, “and the subsequent survey of the mouth of the Columbia by Lieutenant Knox, justify all the hopes which were entertained of those admirable schooners.” But instead of putting the Flying Fish and the Sea Gull under the command of his senior lieutenants, Wilkes had assigned them to passed midshipmen. “[T]he obstinacy with which he maintained a decision so injurious to the Lieutenants,” Pinkney insisted, “and so little in accordance with his own solemn assurances, to be guided, in all appointments, by rank alone, at once annihilated confidence.” Pinkney claimed that when the Sea Gull was lost off Cape Horn, it made even Wilkes aware of the injustice of his actions, and he placed Pinkney, a senior lieutenant, in command of the remaining schooner. “[B]y this act, Lieutenant Wilkes tacitly acknowledged his former error,” Pinkney maintained. “The mortification which he seemed to suffer from this circumstance, is the sole cause to which I can trace his strange animosity to me during my subsequent service in the Squadron.” It was a difficult theory to sell to a military tribunal, but it came as close as anyone had so far to unlocking the motivations of the Expedition’s commander. Reynolds would subsequently send a copy of Pinkney’s defence to his father back in Pennsylvania. “It is certainly an able one,” he wrote, “& must have hit Wilkes very hard. Even thro’ his ‘thick skin.’”
What Pinkney and Reynolds had no way of knowing was that prior to the Expedition’s departure, Wilkes had also been denied what he perceived to be his due—an acting appointment to captain. Although many of Wilkes’s subsequent actions were indefensible, the truth was that Paulding and Secretary of War Poinsett had failed to give him a rank commensurate with his responsibilities as leader of the Expedition. It was inevitable that a man of Wilkes’s temperament would turn his hurt and frustration on his senior lieutenants, and it was with the dismissal of Craven and Lee that the unraveling of his relationship with his officers began. One can only wonder how differently the voyage might have turned out if the Expedition’s young and insecure commander had been given the rank he deserved at the outset.
Wilkes’s court-martial was scheduled to begin on August 17, just four days after the conclusion of Pinkney’s. In the interim, William Reynolds intended to get married. “I do not expect this announcement to surprise you much,” he wrote his father on August 14, “as I mentioned to you that if I could make such an arrangement, I should adopt it, without delay.” Two days later, Reynolds and Rebecca Krug were married in Lancaster; Reynolds’s sister Lydia was a bridesmaid. Almost immediately following the ceremony, the couple was on their way to New York City to spend their honeymoon at Wilkes’s court-martial.
Upshur had ordered that Wilkes must return to Washington and retrieve the requested journals and documents before the trial could begin, but Wilkes’s counsel Philip Hamilton claimed that the secretary’s order required his client “to produce evidence to be used against himself on the trial, contrary to all the rules of law and evidence.” The long journey to Washington and back would also “deprive him of his right to a speedy trial.” Besides, Wilkes had already sent “a confidential agent” to Washington to obtain the journals, which should be arriving in New York in the next few days. Reluctantly, the court agreed to continue with the trial.
Reynolds was dismayed that Guillou’s charges against Wilkes and their myriad specifications were as long-winded and disorganized as his defence had been. When read in the courtroom, they made for a confusing litany of accusations: illegally attacking natives, excessively punishing sailors and marines, falsely claiming to have seen Antarctica, dressing as a captain, flying a commodore’s pennant, refusing to forward Guillou’s letters to the secretary of the navy, along with a host of other allegations. “We all regret that Guillou’s charges were so wordy,” Reynolds wrote his father. “We think he has weakened his grounds very much. We would have been better satisfied had he stuck to the Strongest part of his known wrongs, & let other matters alone. There are some errors in his dates, also, which entirely destroy some & weaken other specifications.” Luckily, Pinkney had kept his charges brief and to the point, and Reynolds was confident that they “can all be proved.”
On the second day of the trial, Wilkes reported that after a thorough search of his home, the man he had sent to Washington had returned with only a few of the requested logs and none of the documents. He was now certain that he had forwarded the papers to the Navy Department when the Expedition was still at sea. When Guillou testified that he knew for a fact that the documents were not in the department’s files, Wilkes’s counsel turned the surgeon’s testimony against him by asking how he had gained such an intimate knowledge of the Navy Department. Guillou had no choice but to admit that he had spent close to two weeks at the department under the orders of the secretary of the navy “to furnish the Judge Advocate with information upon the subject of the accusations I had made against Lieutenant Wilkes.” When one of the court’s judges voiced his concern about possible “collusion between the Secretary of the Navy, the Judge Advocate, and Doctor Guillou, in preparing the charges,” even Wilkes’s detractors had to admit that the Navy Department had lent credence to his claims that a nefarious cabal had tried, and was continuing to try, to undermine him and the Expedition.
The case against Wilkes began to look even more suspect when the judge advocate appeared the following morning with one of the disputed log books under his arm and shamefacedly admitted that he had had it all along. Du Pont now wished for a “riper lawyer” in the role of judge advocate. Many in the courtroom—both behind the bench and in the gallery—were annoyed that the judge advocate had not stricken the charges related to the actions taken against natives at Fiji and elsewhere. Just about every officer in the Expedition, including Reynolds, felt that while these measures had been lamentable, they had been completely justified. Wilkes’s instructions had stated that, unless it was a case of self-defense, he should refrain from any violent encounters. When the judge advocate asked Lieutenant Robert Johnson if the attack on Malolo “was necessary for self defense,” he heatedly responded, “It was not self-defense. I was ordered to go on shore to revenge my messmates, who were murdered at the island before our arrival.”
Wilkes’s attorney Philip Hamilton recognized an opportunity to win sympathy for his client. George Emmons was asked to describe what he found when he first landed at Malolo. “On arriving there we found the bodies of Lieutenant Underwood and Midshipman Henry on the beach, close to the water. Midshipman Henry was entirely naked, and Lieutenant Underwood had on a pair of thick canvas trousers they could not tear off. They were both wounded in the head. All the crew were wounded, and one of the men was crazy on the beach.”
Hamilton: “Did not Lieutenant Wilkes endeavor to restrain the seamen from killing the inhabitants of Malolo?”
Emmons: “He did.”
Hamilton: “Have you not expressed a belief that Lieutenant Wilkes was moderate in his punishment of the inhabitants?”
Emmons: “I thought so at the time, and have often said so. I received an order from Lieutenant Wilkes on that day to cease hostilities and felt mortified, because I thought they had not been punished enough.”
Hovering over the court-martial, but left unstated throughout the many days of testimony, was the close connection between Wilkes and one of the officers killed at Malolo. It was a rare example of restraint that was calculated to work to Wilkes’s advantage, for all knew that his nineteen-year-old nephew had died on that beach.
While the focus of Pinkney’s charges was much narrower than Guillou’s, the incidents, when contrasted with the life-and-death exploits at Malolo and elsewhere, inevitably came across as petty and inconsequential. The near-collision between the Flying Fish and the Vincennes in the Tuamotus was rehashed over and over again as more than half-a-dozen officers testified as to whether or not Wilkes had been guilty of using the phrase “God damn it” when addressing Pinkney. In each instance, Hamilton would attempt to prove that the witness’s testimony had been influenced by his dislike of Wilkes.
Hamilton had a more difficult time countering the charges of excessive punishment—particularly when it came to the four marines who had refused to reenlist in Hawaii. Passed Midshipman George Colvocoresses (nicknamed Colvo) told how he had taken the marines from the prison in Honolulu to the Vincennes. “They were brought to the gangway and punished with the cat, receiving, I think a dozen though not till they had been asked if they were willing to return to duty. And their reply was ‘no!’” Hamilton asked George Sinclair which officers in the Expedition had spoken of Wilkes’s “reputation for cruelty.” “I have heard all the officers of the squadron, with but few exceptions so speak of him,” Sinclair replied.
Captain Isaac McKeever—the officer who had persuaded Wilkes to take on his nephew as sailing master of the Vincennes before the squadron left for the South Pacific—returned the favor by testifying that there had not been enough time for Wilkes to try the sailors and marines caught drinking in Callao. Wilkes was therefore justified in whipping each of them more than the allotted dozen lashes.
Wilkes’s attorney was most successful in portraying Wilkes as a tireless and hardworking commander. Assistant Surgeon John Fox claimed that Wilkes “devoted his whole time to the duties of the squadron, and did not reserve to himself more than five hours a day for sleep. He was irregular in his sleep, so as to injure his health; the length of time he went without sleeping was extraordinary.” Even Wilkes’s avowed enemies acknowledged that he was “remarkably attentive to his duties.”
There was one charge that Wilkes had no choice but to admit to. When Overton Carr was asked if he had been ordered to replace Wilkes’s coach whip with a commodore’s pennant shortly after leaving Callao, Hamilton interrupted Carr’s testimony to say that Wilkes freely acknowledged that he had flown the pennant and worn a captain’s uniform. His officers would have to wait until his defence before they heard his rationale for elevating himself in rank.
On Saturday, August 27—ten days into Wilkes’s court-martial—the trial took on a new life. That morning the judge advocate announced that he would devote the rest of the proceedings to proving that Wilkes had deliberately lied about sighting Antarctica on January 19, 1840. Two years earlier President Van Buren had staked the reputation of the nation on Wilkes’s claim by officially announcing the discovery of a new continent. If Wilkes had lied, he had dishonored not only himself but the entire United States of America. “The Judge Advocate took his seat,” the Herald reported, “arranged his papers, and prepared for the examination of the witnesses, with the air of one who was determined to use every effort to elicit the whole truth, if possible, on this most important specification.”
The first witness was James Alden, the watch officer when Wilkes claimed he first sighted land. Alden testified that once the squadron had returned to Sydney, Wilkes had attempted to convince him that he had seen land on the nineteenth when he was certain he hadn’t. It wasn’t until January 28, Alden insisted, that they saw land for the first time. It was damning testimony, difficult to refute, but Hamilton did the best he could. He asked Alden why, on January 31, he had recommended that Wilkes abandon their pursuit of Antarctica. “We had been constantly beset by ice and in a gale of wind for the greater part of two days,” he testified. “The ship was in imminent peril of being lost constantly. It required all hands a greater part of the time. The sick list was large; and the medical officers were the cause, by their reports, of our being called on for our opinion.” Wilkes, of course, had overridden the officers’ and medical staff ’s recommendation and continued on. Now that he had established that Wilkes had persevered in spite of his officers, Hamilton asked, “Did you ever hear any officer say Lieutenant Wilkes was a d——d lucky fellow, or words to that effect and that it was no further use of opposing him? Was not that remark made when in sight of land?” Although the question was labeled as hearsay and struck from the record, the implication was clear; Wilkes had been struggling against both the elements and his officers, whose hatred for their commander was so intense that they had been disappointed by the discovery of Antarctica. Wouldn’t men so inclined be willing to deny earlier reports of sighting land?
Then Hamilton called the gunner John Williamson to testify. Williamson claimed that on the morning of January 19, Wilkes had questioned him if he thought he saw land in the distance. “If it isn’t land,” Williamson had responded, “I’ve never seen land.” To many, Williamson’s testimony seemed highly suspicious; at the very least, it demonstrated the dysfunctional nature of Wilkes’s command. Instead of consulting his fellow commissioned officers, Wilkes had been forced to leave the quarterdeck and approach a gunner on the gangway.
But as the judge advocate proceeded to prove, it really made no difference whether or not Wilkes had seen land on the morning of the nineteenth. Three days earlier, on January 16, two young passed midshipmen had become the first to see what would later be recognized as the continent of Antarctica. Even though William Hudson had refused to acknowledge it and Wilkes had done his best to ignore it, the fact remained that these two young men had rescued the nation’s honor—if not Wilkes’s and Hudson’s—through their discovery. The judge advocate called William Reynolds to the stand and asked him to describe what he had seen from the masthead on that historic day.
Reynolds: “I saw what I supposed to be high land on the morning of the 16th about 11 o’clock from the masthead, with Mr. Eld. We were looking at it an hour before we went below to report, and then procured a spyglass, and looked until we became satisfied that it was land. We went below and reported it to the officer of the deck, and Lt. Eld to Capt. Hudson. I could see the land from deck, but not so distinct as aloft. I pointed out the direction of the land to the officer of the deck, Lt. Budd. He didn’t seem to think it was land, and didn’t send anyone to the masthead to make further observation. I waited on deck some time, expecting Captain Hudson would come up; he didn’t come up, and I went below. We then tacked ship and stood off from the barrier, and there was no entry made in the log or notice taken of the report, much to my disappointment and mortification.”
Judge Advocate: “Were you then, and are you now, convinced it was land?”
Reynolds: “I was convinced that it was land at the time, am now so convinced, and never doubted it.”
The true goat in this account was William Hudson, who was subsequently subjected to a heated and humiliating series of questions by the judge advocate. Not only were Hudson’s competence and intelligence brought into question, it was even suggested that he had willingly doctored his report to the secretary of the navy so as to corroborate Wilkes’s claims. “The whole matter is horrid in a national point of view,” Du Pont wrote a friend. “[ M ]y mind is clearly made up as to the moral bearing & integrity which the matter involves—though to me, Hudson stands if possible in a more unenviable light than Wilkes. Alden’s testimony tells the whole story; & to my mind the 19th was the blankest day as far as log books & Journals can show, of the whole week or ten days previous to discovery.”
But if Wilkes’s honesty had been brought into serious doubt, the judge advocate was unable, in the end, to prove incontrovertibly that he had lied. When it came to the reputation of the Expedition, however, the damage had been done. Wilkes’s hunger for glory had permanently tainted what might otherwise have been recognized as one of the most courageous feats of exploration of the nineteenth century.
After almost three weeks, it finally came time for Wilkes’s defence. “The room was crowded with spectators,” the Herald reported, “among whom were many ladies.” One of them was Rebecca Reynolds, just back from a brief weekend visit to West Point, from which her husband’s younger brother John had recently graduated. Wilkes had gone to the trouble and expense of having his defence printed—a pamphlet of “56 closely printed pages,” according to the Herald. Wilkes was only able to read a portion of it before his voice gave out and he handed the pamphlet over to Hamilton. “This gentleman bungled so much in his delivery,” Reynolds wrote his father, “and spoke in such monotonous & hurried tones that we wondered whether he could be reading a production of his own.”
The defence began by relating how Wilkes had returned from the Expedition “to find that I had already been condemned in my absence.” He went on to describe the circumstances he had struggled under during the voyage. “A cabal . . . existed,” he asserted, “to thwart all the objects of the Expedition, which were not consistent with the ease of the gentlemen who composed it.” “I did not spare myself,” he continued. “I feel no derogation to my character to admit that I did not spare others when the public service was promoted.” His problem with his officers, he explained, related to two diametrically opposed theories of discipline. In a blatant attempt to appeal to the sympathies of the senior members of the court, Wilkes claimed that he subscribed to the “old discipline of the service.” “I avow myself, and shall ever be found, opposed to the new idea that authority is to be derived from the steerage and wardroom, and that officers are to be shown the instructions of their commander, and be civilly asked if they will perform their duty.” If Wilkes was a throwback to an earlier and harsher era, he was proud of it. “[T]he work we have executed . . . is enormous,” he maintained. “I attribute it to the discipline that has prevailed, and which the laws, rules and regulations of the naval service allow.”
He claimed that the only charge that caused him “the least anxiety” was that of excessive punishment, but he was confident that it had been proven that the floggings “were absolutely necessary for the good order and discipline of the service.” When it came to the discovery of Antarctica, he now chose to acknowledge and, in fact, acclaim the sighting of land on January 16. But in Wilkes’s version of the discovery, Reynolds played no part in it. Without once mentioning his name or his testimony, Wilkes only referred to Eld’s description of the sighting. “If ever the testimony of a witness was calculated to produce an impression on the court,” he insisted, “it was that of Mr. Eld”—even though Reynolds had made essentially the same remarks earlier in the trial.
He also attempted to explain why he had been forced to rely on the testimony of a noncommissioned officer when it came to proving he had seen land on the morning of January 19. “Those who are unacquainted with the isolation in which the etiquette of the navy places the commander of a strictly disciplined ship of war,” he wrote, “may express surprise that no interchange of opinion on the subject of land took place between myself and the officers. Such discipline being maintained, we had little communication.” He branded the judge advocate’s accusation that he had purposely lied about seeing land as a “wanton and unprovoked assault” on his reputation.
Wilkes saved his most creative arguments for the charge concerning his having flown a commodore’s pendant and worn a captain’s uniform. “I admitted the facts stated in the specification,” he maintained, “but deny that I am therefore guilty of ‘scandalous conduct unbecoming an officer.’” The navy regulations read: “No officer shall wear a broad pendant of any kind, unless he shall have been appointed to command a squadron, or vessels on separate service.” “Mine was the command of a squadron,” he insisted, “and that regulation, if law, is my authority for using the pendant.” His argument was somewhat slipperier when it came to the matter of wearing a captain’s uniform. There was nothing on the current books that gave him the authority, he admitted, but there were some new regulations under consideration that read, “When an officer shall receive an acting appointment to fill a vacancy from the Secretary of the Navy, in conformity with these regulations, he may assume the uniform, and annex his acting rank to his signature.” What Wilkes neglected to mention, however, was that Poinsett and Paulding had specifically refused to give him an acting appointment. Still, given the trouble that the issue of rank was currently creating in the service, it was not difficult to appreciate Wilkes’s need to find a way to assert his authority over the rest of the squadron’s officers. For Reynolds and his friends, it was distressing in the extreme to think that what had been regarded as such an outrageous abuse of privilege during the Expedition might now be viewed as a mere bending of the rules.
As he approached the end of his defence, Wilkes could not help but make a few personal references. He slammed Upshur for making a court-martial out of what so clearly should have been a court of inquiry and for giving Guillou “unprecedented” access to the files of the Navy Department. He blasted Pinkney for daring to impugn the competence of the officers of the Sea Gull in his defence. “I might contrast the intelligence, attention to duty, and untiring activity of the lamented Reid and Bacon with all that is opposite in the character of Lieutenant Pinkney.” He claimed that the judge advocate’s conduct during the trial had revealed a level of “ignorance and prejudice [that] had it not been publicly exhibited could not have been believed to exist.”
Finally, he appealed to the judges as a “brother officer,” even as he wrapped himself in the American flag. “[A] bare verdict of not guilty is far less than the nation has a right to require at your hands,” he insisted. “Its honor, its glory, the untarnished luster of its unconquered flag, have all been assailed through me. With you rests the power of vindicating that honor, exalting that glory, and wiping off any stain which these proceedings have cast upon that banner.”
A few days after the conclusion of the trial, the editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, delivered his judgment in an editorial. “Lieutenant Wilkes and his associates have exhibited some weaknesses,” he wrote, “but it may be justly doubted whether any circum-navigator, after a four years’ cruise round the world, ever returned home with fewer really tangible causes of complaint.” If there was a villain in this trial, it was Upshur, who should have investigated the loss of the Peacock and the Sea Gull rather than wasting the court’s time with so many trivial charges. “Mr. Wilkes is sensitive and quick-tempered; but did Columbus, or Cook, or Vancouver, Ross, or any other, come out as easily? This temper should be somewhat overlooked in his arduous and responsible duties. . . . No doubt Wilkes has made mistakes in some small matters, but has he not overshadowed these by his other manly qualities, energies, and conduct as commander of the expedition? Is not the whole exposition a disgrace to the navy?”
Reynolds was deeply worried about the fate of Guillou and Pinkney. Although Johnson had been acquitted, word had leaked out that Guillou had been found guilty and sentenced to dismissal from the navy. But since he had performed such faithful service for the secretary of the navy, Upshur had made it known that if Guillou assembled as many letters of support as possible, there was a good chance President Tyler would commute the sentence. Guillou did just that, procuring letters from just about every officer in the squadron, along with letters from many influential politicians. On September 28, Tyler issued his verdict: “the sentence is mitigated by conviction to suspension without pay or emoluments for twelve months from the date of the sentence.” Pinkney would also be found guilty and suspended from duty for six months. For Reynolds, the wait for word of Wilkes’s sentence was agonizing. “I shall be in a perfect fever, until I know the result of his sentence,” he wrote his father, “and I shall be like to die if the sentence be not a severe one.”
On September 22, Upshur issued the verdict. Wilkes was found not guilty on all charges except for illegally flogging the sailors and marines. For that, his only punishment was a public reprimand. “The sentence will astonish you,” Du Pont had written a friend, “but it will be no assessment of the way the man is estimated as a man.” Reynolds and his friends were thunderstruck, but Wilkes was not about to celebrate. “Wilkes’s extreme arrogance,” Du Pont wrote, “& conviction that he would not only be acquitted, but it would [be] accomplished with a flourish of trumpets & a swipe at his accusers, has thus rendered his sentence doubly severe to himself.”
Du Pont carefully studied Wilkes’s reaction as the exhausted, sickly, and proud explorer listened to Upshur’s reprimand: “The country which honored you with a command far above the just claims of your rank in the navy, had a right to expect that you would, at least, pay a scrupulous respect to her laws. The rebuke, which by the judgment and advice of your associates in the service, she now gives you, for having violated those laws in an important particular, involving the rights of others of her citizens, will be regarded by all as the mildest form in which she could express her displeasure.”
“Wilkes was cut to the very soul by his sentence & the wording of the reprimand,” Du Pont wrote. “He writhed severely under it & swears vengeance against Upshur.”
The voyage had ended; five courts-martial had been heard; but as the Expedition’s scientists and artists were well aware, there was still much work to be done. There were collections to be analyzed, reports to be published, but first and foremost, there was a narrative to be written. The battle for control of the Expedition’s legacy was about to begin. For Charles Wilkes, it would be the battle of his life.