Modern history



AT THE OUTBREAK of the Mexican War in 1846, Wilkes was unable to secure a position that he thought commensurate with his standing in the navy and elected to remain in Washington. Reynolds was assigned to the Allegheny, a new steamship that would be plagued with mechanical problems. As he was forced to sit on the sidelines at the navy yard in Norfolk, his old shipmate James Alden took part in the capture of Vera Cruz and Tabasco; William May was wounded in action, while Reynolds’s younger brother John served gloriously at Monterrey and Buena Vista and ended the war as a major.

After repairs were finally completed in the winter of 1848, the Allegheny steamed for South America. It was during this cruise that Reynolds’s health suddenly began to fail. The constitution that had withstood four years of abuse during the Ex. Ex. fell prey to the unmistakable symptoms of tuberculosis: chills, fever, and night-sweats. His wife Rebecca had recently lost her mother, sister, and brother to the disease. “Wonder if I am to get the Conzumption and die!” he wrote in his journal.

In the years ahead, Reynolds’s condition would continue to deteriorate. After a winter at a sanatorium in Florida, he requested a year’s leave of absence from the navy, and in September 1851 he set sail for the place that he had called his “second home” during the Exploring Expedition—Hawaii. Rebecca followed a year later, and the couple, who would remain childless, spent the next few years on a one-hundred-acre farm on the island of Kauai.

Reynolds would eventually try to return to active duty on a storeship in Valparaiso, but poor health once again required him to return to Hawaii, where he assumed the post of naval storekeeper at Honolulu. By now, both his parents were dead, and he had come into a modest inheritance. In Honolulu he met up with an old friend from the Exploring Expedition. In 1852 Charles Guillou resigned his commission to become head of Honolulu’s Marine Hospital, and the two former explorers would live out the decade together in the tropical setting they had first come to know with the U.S. Ex. Ex.

By the summer of 1848, Charles and Jane Wilkes had become one of Washington’s more socially prominent couples. In December of 1845, they held a party to celebrate the publication of Wilkes’s Narrative that attracted some of the city’s most distinguished citizens. But it was just one of the many social engagements that had become a regular part of their lives together. As if to compensate for their four-year separation during the Expedition, Jane was almost always at her husband’s side. “[H]er gay & pleasant manner made her popular in the Society,” Wilkes wrote. “We really had a . . . delightful time.”

That summer, however, they decided to spend a few months apart. Jack had recently enrolled in the new Naval Academy at Annapolis. Jane and the girls, now seventeen and ten, wanted to spend the summer in Newport, Rhode Island, while Wilkes determined to take his youngest boy, Edmund, on a trip to North Carolina. He and Jane had recently inherited a portion of a mining operation near Charlotte, and Wilkes and Edmund would use it as an excuse to tour the South. After inspecting the mine, they would head north and meet up with the rest of the family in Newport.

For the trip, Wilkes purchased “a very nice traveling wagon” that he outfitted with shelves and boxes for provisions, clothes, and books. “Our intention was to travel from point to point,” he wrote, “and picnic the whole way.” After saying good-bye to Jane and the girls at the train station in Washington, they made their gradual way south, pulled along by two cream-colored horses. By August they had arrived in North Carolina.

Unbeknownst to Wilkes, Jane had fallen while changing trains in Trenton, New Jersey, and badly hurt her leg. A doctor in New York insisted that it was only a bruise, but several weeks later in Newport, Jane began to feel ill. She took to her bed, and three days later was dead—the apparent victim of blood poisoning.

Wilkes was at the mine when he saw his fifteen-year-old son coming toward him on horseback. “It was a damp muggy day,” he remembered, “calculated to depress the spirits of any one.” Edmund had picked up a packet of letters in Charlotte, and when Wilkes reached for them, he felt a sudden twinge of fear. “I broke the seals and my worst apprehensions were realized—she had died in New Port about a week before.” Unable to read any further, Wilkes gave the letters to his son, saying, “We have lost everything, our best and dearest object in Life.” Once back in their hotel room in Charlotte, Wilkes sat on his bed, unable to speak, as Edmund clung to him and wept. “My brain seemed on fire . . . ,” he wrote. “I felt shipwrecked indeed.”

In 1852, four years after Jane’s death, Wilkes moved his family to a house on Lafayette Square that had once been owned by Dolley Madison. That same year he returned to Newport to tend to Jane’s grave, where he planted some of her favorite flowers. Back in Washington, he realized that he was in need of a change. “I was very dispirited . . . ,” he wrote. “My dear Girls were all in all to me, but they could not supply the want and prevent the desolation I felt, and it became evident to me that a new life was essential to my happiness.”

Living nearby in Washington was a young widow named Mary Lynch Bolton, whose husband, Commodore William Bolton, had served on Wilkes’s court-martial board. Bolton had died about the same time Wilkes had lost Jane, and the widower now began to consider the widow as a possible bride. “I often trembled for my success,” he wrote, “and finally through my perseverance succeeded in being accepted. A new life at once opened to me.” Eliza took to her new mother immediately; Janey was initially less receptive, but soon all of them had settled into a contented domesticity. Five years later, in 1859, Mary gave birth to a daughter; Wilkes was sixty-one.

After more than a decade at the Patent Office Building, the collection of the Ex. Ex. found a new and permanent home. Congress had finally established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 with the understanding that it would take over stewardship of the Expedition’s collection. But the Institution’s first secretary, the scientist Joseph Henry, saw the Smithsonian as a research organization, and one of his first moves was to refuse the Expedition’s collection. Like Charles Pickering, Henry was for original research, not the maintenance and display of a momentous pile of artifacts that would require a large, expensive building and sizeable staff. Henry was part of a young group of scientists who were replacing the amateur collectors of the previous era, and he wanted to reserve as much as possible of the Institution’s resources for the practice of new science—for laboratories and the publication of results, not specimen cases.

But there were some influential congressmen who were determined that the Smithsonian Institution would become America’s national museum. In spite of Henry’s protestations, bids went out to architects for a palatial new building. The winner turned out to be Wilkes’s nephew James Renwick, Jr., whose ornate Norman design is still known today as the “Castle on the Mall.” By 1850, it was clear that Henry needed an assistant, and although Titian Peale was a leading candidate for the job, Henry hired the much younger Spencer Baird from Dickinson College. Baird’s personal natural history collection was big enough to fill two boxcars, and he looked with enthusiasm to the possibility of expanding the Smithsonian’s holdings, particularly since the many expeditions into the American West were sending back a steady stream of specimens and artifacts to Washington.

Reluctantly, Henry realized that he had no choice but to surrender to the inevitable. In 1858, when the Smithsonian finally acquired the objects of the Exploring Expedition, the Institution’s collection had already grown to the extent that the Ex. Ex. objects accounted for just one-fifth of the Institution’s total natural history holdings. But no one could deny that the addition of the Expedition’s collection added immeasurably to the Smithsonian’s importance and prestige. The larger space of the Smithsonian’s hall allowed Baird to expand and refresh the original Ex. Ex. exhibit, and much as Wilkes had done at the Patent Office fifteen years before, the words NATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE UNITED STATES were placed above the entrance to the hall. In the words of William Stanton, whose book about the Expedition stands as the definitive account of how science in America was forever changed by the Ex. Ex., “[the] Great National Expedition had created a great national museum.”

There were other national institutions whose genesis can be traced to the Exploring Expedition. By this point, Brackenridge’s plants in the greenhouse behind the Patent Office had been moved to a new structure located at the foot of Capitol Hill that is now the home of the U.S. Botanic Garden, while the more than four million specimens currently in the National Herbarium began with the dried plants brought back by the Ex. Ex. Soon after Wilkes’s return to the United States, the Depot of Charts and Instruments and its small observatory were moved from his home on Capitol Hill to a new location in Washington that became the predecessor of the Naval Observatory and the U.S. Hydrographic Office.

Suddenly it was possible for a scientist to earn a living in the United States—something that had been almost unimaginable when the Expedition had first sailed. This may have been the Expedition’s—and its leader’s—greatest contribution. “Without Wilkes’s incredible energy and Byzantine mind,” Stanton writes, “the Expedition’s achievements might have been no more lasting than the wake of its ships upon the waters of the world. . . . By putting science into government and government into science he had made it possible for the American scientist to live by his profession—like other respectable people.”

But the Expedition’s scientific impact was not wholly institutional. It had an indirect, but nonetheless crucial role in introducing Darwin’s theory of evolution to the United States. About the same time that Commodore Matthew Perry was establishing diplomatic relations with Japan in 1853, the navy, with the assistance of the Smithsonian and the Coast Survey, sent out an exploring expedition to the North Pacific, led by Wilkes’s former lieutenant Cadwalader Ringgold. In many ways it was the Ex. Ex. redux. Included in the squadron of five vessels were the Vincennes and the Porpoise. There was a botanist named Charles Wright. And like its great predecessor, the North Pacific Expedition would be controversial. Once in China, Ringgold began to act strangely. Instead of pushing on to the north, he remained in port, ceaselessly repairing his vessels. Finally, Commodore Perry, just back from Japan, interceded and, declaring Ringgold “insane,” relieved him of command.

Wilkes’s beloved Porpoise would be lost with all hands in a typhoon, but Charles Wright eventually returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Asa Gray was given the opportunity to examine the botanist’s notes. Gray recognized similarities between several Japanese plants described by Wright and those from the East Coast of the United States. The evidence seemed clear that these species of plants—from opposite sides of the earth—had at some point in the distant past come from a common ancestor. Several years later, in 1858, when Darwin sent Gray advance proofs of On the Origin of Species, Gray recognized that his own observations validated Darwin’s work, and he would become America’s foremost promoter of the theory of evolution.

Cadwalader Ringgold was not the only Ex. Ex. officer who would lead a major naval operation in the years preceding the Civil War. Soon after the discovery of gold in California, James Alden returned to his old haunts in California and the Pacific Northwest and expanded on the Expedition’s original surveying efforts, this time under the aegis of the Coast Survey. In 1857-58, William Hudson commanded the steamer Niagara in an unsuccessful attempt to lay the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean.

During the 1850s America became involved in an English obsession: the hunt for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin, who had sailed in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage and never returned. In the years after Franklin’s disappearance, many English explorers, including Wilkes’s old rivals James Ross and Edward Belcher, led expeditions into the Arctic, their efforts encouraged by Franklin’s widow and the offer of prize money. It had been briefly rumored that Wilkes would lead an American voyage to find Franklin, but his health and personal situation precluded it. Instead, Lieutenant Edwin DeHaven, the same man whose inclusion in the Ex. Ex. at Callao had so angered Wilkes’s junior officers, led a privately financed two-vessel expedition north. In a conscious evocation of America’s first Exploring Expedition, DeHaven was given an ensign from the Peacock.Whether or not the flag of the wrecked exploring vessel proved a curse, this and the next four U.S. voyages to the Arctic—all of which took along the Peacock’s flag—would be, in varying degrees, unsuccessful.

DeHaven’s surgeon was a dashing, physically frail aristocrat from Philadelphia named Elisha Kent Kane. Even though the expedition accomplished little, Kane wrote a narrative of his experiences amid the arctic ice that became a best-seller. In the tradition of Frémont (or at least of Frémont’s wife), Kane’s book made real the weird and frightening world of a wilderness. He also wrote quickly, and he was soon on his way back into the northern ice in 1853, this time as the expedition’s commander. Kane proved to be a far worse leader of men than even Wilkes, but he did not have to suffer the indignity of a court-martial. After being saved by a rescue ship commanded by yet another Ex. Ex. veteran, Lieutenant H. J. Hartstene (sent home by Wilkes aboard the Relief ), Kane set to work on Arctic Explorations in the Years 1853, 54, 55. The public was enthralled, and Arctic Explorations became one of the biggest selling travel books of all time.

Once again, Wilkes watched as another explorer received the accolades that had been denied him. At least he could take some consolation in knowing that the U.S. Exploring Expedition was now almost universally referred to (when, of course, it was referred to at all) as the Wilkes Expedition. Still, deep down he knew that he had never achieved the fame he had originally envisioned for himself as a boy in New York. Then, in 1860, at the age of sixty-two, he got his second chance: the Civil War.

In August 1861 Wilkes was given what he craved—command of a vessel. The steam sailer San Jacinto was on station along the west coast of Africa, and he was ordered to deliver her to Philadelphia. Quickly reverting to his old, impetuous ways, Wilkes decided, instead, to go in search of rebel privateers.

He eventually made his way to the West Indies, where he learned that two Confederate commissioners, James Mason and John Slidell, were in Cuba, awaiting passage to England on the British vessel Trent. By this time, Wilkes had been instructed to join Commodore Samuel Du Pont’s impending attack on Port Royal, where the North hoped to establish a base of operations off the coast of South Carolina. But he had other ideas. He would remove the rebel diplomats from the British ship. That there was no legal precedent for such an act did not greatly concern Wilkes, who hastily consulted several books of international law and convinced himself that the seizures were justified.

On November 8, 1861, the San Jacinto lay in wait off the Bahamas. “It was a beautiful day and the sea quite smooth,” Wilkes wrote. “The lookout descried the smoke of the Steamer, and it was then time to inform my officers of my intentions.” Wilkes positioned the San Jacinto in the path of the Trent and fired a warning shot. The British vessel stopped, and Wilkes ordered First Lieutenant Donald Fairfax to board the Trent and return with the commissioners. Despite being slapped in the face by Slidell’s daughter, Fairfax succeeded in arresting the diplomats, and the San Jacinto was soon on her way north. Wilkes described it as “one of the most important days in my naval life.”

It was a brazen and illegal grab for celebrity, but it worked. When Wilkes arrived in Boston, he had already been declared a hero. A nation that was still reeling from a Confederate victory at Bull Run was desperate for some good news. Wilkes and his officers were whisked away to a reception at Faneuil Hall, where Boston’s mayor extolled Wilkes for his “sagacity, judgment, decision, and firmness.” As the joyous mob cheered, Wilkes affected humility: “I have only to say that we did our duty to the Union and are prepared to do it again.” He would shake so many hands that day that his fingers became covered with blisters. “[A] pretty severe punishment,” he wrote, “for the honor of a public reception.”

As the city debated the legality of his actions (the author and lawyer Richard Henry Dana claimed the Trent was “a lawful prize”), there was a run on books of maritime and international law. Then it was on to New York, where the president of the city’s historical society remarked, “It is, sir, your prerogative to make history; ours to commemorate it.” When Wilkes finally returned to Washington, President Lincoln assured him “that I had kicked up a breeze, but he intended to stand by me and rejoiced over the boldness, as he said, of my act.” But as an outraged British government threatened to enter the war on the side of the Confederates, the Lincoln administration was forced to hand over Mason and Slidell. Convinced that “my conduct had been correctly American,” Wilkes “felt a glow of shame for my country.”

Just as he had done so many times during the Exploring Expedition, Wilkes’s subsequent actions would sabotage everything he had so far achieved. His new status as a hero won him the rank of acting rear admiral (marking the fulfillment of Mammy Reed’s prophecy), and in September 1862 he took command of a “flying squadron” in the Caribbean that was to search out and capture the notorious raiders Alabama and Florida. The assignment had been forced upon Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who had already seen enough of Wilkes’s reckless arrogance. “He is very exacting toward others,” Welles recorded in his diary, “but is not himself as obedient as he should be. . . . He has abilities but not good judgment in all respects. Will be likely to rashly assume authority, and do things that might involve himself and the country in difficulty, and hence I was glad that not I but the President and the Secretary of State suggested him for that command.”

As Welles had predicted, Wilkes almost immediately began to make trouble for himself and his country. Claiming that he was without sufficient means to achieve his goals, Wilkes detained several U.S. naval vessels intended for other stations. He took particular delight in securing the plushly appointed Vanderbilt. “This is the vessel for me,” he wrote his wife. “She has speed and all the appliances for comforts I am entitled to.”

He also repeatedly violated the neutrality of ports throughout the Caribbean, and soon Washington was swamped with protests from Spain, France, Denmark, Mexico, and Britain. The final straw, as far as Welles was concerned, was Wilkes’s apparent greed. Instead of searching out raiders, he spent most of his time taking blockade-runners. Since each captured vessel earned him a significant amount of prize money, he was, he boasted to his wife, “filling my pockets” even as he served his country. But on June 1, 1863, Welles chose to recall him. In his annual report, the secretary chastised the former hero for detaining the Vanderbilt when she might have otherwise succeeded in taking the Alabama. Furious at this public censure, Wilkes wrote Welles a scathing letter of protest. When Wilkes sent the letter to The New York Times, the secretary ordered an inquiry and eventually a court-martial. Wilkes was found guilty on all counts and suspended for three years from the navy. Lincoln commuted his sentence to one year, but Wilkes would never again see active duty.

When the war broke out, William Reynolds returned as quickly as he could to Washington. His health was still poor, but he desperately wanted to serve his country. He spent much of 1862 in a frantic search for a cure, visiting doctors in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Newport. In October he was made a commander on the reserve list and assigned to the storeship Vermont at Port Royal. In the summer of 1863, he learned that his brother John, now a general, had been killed during the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg. About this time, Reynolds’s health miraculously began to improve. By the end of the war, his weight had climbed from a low of just 123 pounds to 188. He was put back on the active list, and in the next ten years he would more than make up for the time he had lost to tuberculosis.

Promoted to captain, he was put in command of the Lackawanna and ordered to set sail for the Pacific. On August 28, 1867, 1,134 miles to the west of Hawaii, he claimed the Midway Islands—discovered just eight years before by American mariners—for the United States. With the advent of steam power, coaling stations became a priority for a nation with global ambitions. It was the first time, Reynolds proudly pointed out, that his country had “added to the domain of the United States beyond our own shores, and I sincerely hope that this instance will by no means be the last of our insular annexations.”

Once back in Washington in 1869, he would be named president of ordnance; in 1873 he was promoted to rear admiral; twice he would serve as acting secretary of the navy. His meteoric rise to the top of his profession was capped by his being named commander of the Asiatic Station. His flagship, the 3,281-ton Tennessee, displaced more than the entire squadron of the U.S. Ex. Ex.

At some point, Reynolds was moved to return to the journals he had kept during the Exploring Expedition. At the end of his private journal, he made a list of the officers with whom he had served. His friend William May, he noted, had died in 1861; Henry Eld, with whom he had first sighted Antarctica, had died of yellow fever in 1850, as had the surgeon John Whittle; his friend James Alden had been named a commodore in 1866. Reynolds did not have the space to note that Alden had served with Farragut at the battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. Alden was leading the fleet in the attack when he saw a ship ahead of him hit a mine (then known as a torpedo) and begin to sink. Instead of continuing on, Alden—as he had done on the beach at Malolo—hesitated. In command of the ship behind him was Admiral Farragut, who shouted out, according to legend, “Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead!”

Reynolds noted that Overton Carr had been “Disgraced during the war 1864.” The conchologist Joseph Couthouy was “killed 1863 in the Service.” A host of others, including Robert Pinkney and George Sinclair, had become “Rebels.” His friend Charles Guillou had eventually settled down as a pharmacist in New York City. In addition to himself, a significant number of the officers would reach the rank of admiral—Alden, Emmons, Case, Craven, and Lee. Then, of course, there was the Expedition’s commander.

Soon after the war, Wilkes bought fourteen thousand acres of land in Gaston County, North Carolina, that contained an ironworks. It proved to be a bad investment, and in January 1874 the property was sold at auction. During this period, he took up, once again, the cause of the Expedition’s reports. He was able to secure a small amount of funding to publish his own Hydrography and a botany report, but when in 1876 the Library Committee requested that it “be removed from its responsibility for the work,” the publications of the U.S. Ex. Ex. came to an official halt.

Left unpublished was a huge report on fishes, to which the noted Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz had devoted the last years of his life. For the most part, however, the unfinished reports represented no great loss to science, even if Wilkes told his son Jack that his Physics volume would have been the most important of the Expedition’s publications. This seems to have been yet another one of his hollow boasts. His Hydrography report had contained several misguided theories about winds and current, and soon after the Expedition’s return, the British pendulum expert Francis Baily had informed Wilkes that based on the data he had sent him, he could only conclude that Wilkes had made some modification to his pendulum that had ruined his results. This meant that his heroic climb up Mauna Loa had been all for nothing. No wonder Wilkes had taken so long to finish his report on Physics.

Instead of science, Wilkes devoted most of his energies after the war to his own legacy. For four years he would write obsessively about his past. His Autobiography is a fascinating document in which his paranoia, vanity, and vindictiveness are given full play. To the very end, Wilkes remained incapable of controlling his worst impulses, and the big book that was to redeem his reputation stands as a monument of an altogether different sort, ending, in typical fashion, with a tirade against Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. On February 8, 1877, at the age seventy-eight, Wilkes died at his home on Lafayette Square. Many obituaries referred to him as the hero of the Trent Affair but made no mention of his having led the U.S. Exploring Expedition.

In the same year that Charles Wilkes died, William Reynolds suffered a seizure at Yokohama, Japan. He and Rebecca returned to their house on H Street in Washington, just three blocks from his former commander’s residence on Lafayette Square. Reynolds died two years later at the age of sixty-three.

Unlike Wilkes, the Stormy Petrel who was always in some kind of trouble with his superiors, Reynolds ended his career as the consummate insider. The Navy Department appointed a committee of admirals, who, accompanied by a marine band, transported Reynolds’s coffin to the Washington train station, where it began the long journey home. Once in Lancaster, his body lay in state in the full dress uniform of an admiral, with the ensign from the Tennessee draped over the coffin. A long line of carriages followed the hearse to the cemetery, where Reynolds was laid to rest beside his brother John. Like Wilkes before him, his obituary would speak of all that he had done during the Civil War and after, but make no mention of the voyage that had meant so much to him.

It was left to Charlie Erskine, the cabin boy who had almost dropped a belaying pin on Wilkes’s head, to have the last word. In 1890, he published a book, Twenty Years Before the Mast—quite an accomplishment for a retired sailor who had been unable to read or write when the Expedition began. Charlie had a series of cards printed up, in which he described himself as “one of two survivors of the U.S. Exploring Expedition around the world, 1838-42, under Com. Charles Wilkes.” He also had his own personal collection of Expedition artifacts that included nine war clubs from Fiji that he had procured from the Smithsonian back in 1859.

Charlie’s book revealed a side of the Expedition that would have otherwise been lost. For Wilkes and Reynolds, the Ex. Ex. had been about the officers who led it, not the lowly sailors who did most of the work. Reynolds was made livid with rage when Wilkes refused to treat him like a gentleman, but showed no concern for the sailors who were whipped on an almost daily basis. When a reform movement threatened to do away with corporal punishment in the 1840s, Reynolds wrote the Navy Department, insisting that an officer’s “power resides alone in the prompt & certain application of the lash.”

Charlie, needless to say, had a very different attitude toward the lash, and Twenty Years Before the Mast stands as a testament to the countless sailors who suffered in anonymity. “As the sailor lives, so he dies,” he wrote in the final chapter. “There is no audience but those who share his dangers. He lies down afar from home and friends, with no one to tell to the world the story of his battles, so bravely fought, though lost; no one to witness his suffering, or note the courage with which he faced his last moment.”

With the publication of his book, Charlie had ensured that at least one sailor’s story would not be forgotten. Fifty-three years after Wilkes had callously whipped this handsome and trusting boy, a kind of justice had at last been served.

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