WASHINGTON IN THE SPRING OF 1838 was full of distractions for a young naval officer. But William Reynolds (no relation to the beleaguered Jeremiah N. Reynolds) was a most bookish passed midshipman. Instead of attending the teas and dances to which he received regular invitations, he preferred the Library of Congress. When he wasn’t working at the Depot of Charts and Instruments, he could be found, he wrote his sister Lydia, in the “long spacious room” of the nation’s library, perusing lavishly illustrated volumes of Audubon, Shakespeare, and Cervantes.
But he was lonely. “[T]his is all very pleasant,” he confided to Lydia, “but I want someone to talk to about what I have seen & what I have read.” His two best friends in the service, John Adams (nephew to the former president) and William May (son of the Washington doctor who had once been George Washington’s personal physician), had recently left town, and he was now “almost totally without society.”
Just the year before, the three officers had attended naval school together. Prior to the creation of the academy in Annapolis, midshipmen first went to sea for several years before learning what was known as the “philosophy” of their calling. Reynolds was one of forty-five midshipmen assigned to the Gosport Ship Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, where they attended lectures by day while studying in nearby boardinghouses by night. Adams had been Reynolds’s roommate. May had lived in the next room down the hall. Of the threesome, May was the ladies’ man. Handsome and impulsive, he had already fought at least one duel. For his part, Reynolds stayed true to his studious self while in Norfolk. In a letter to Lydia, he claimed to be “perfectly indifferent to the attraction of the fair ladies. . . . [W]hile I remain here, my book, the immaculate ‘Bowditch,’ the Midshipman’s Bible, will be the only object.”
Reynolds’s affections may have already been spoken for. In an earlier letter to his sister, he objected to her concern about being seen with a girl named Rebecca Krug, who lived just down the street from the Reynolds family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Lydia had explained that if a young woman spent time with the sister of an eligible young man, it was generally assumed that the woman and man must be engaged. “Why Good God,” William wrote, “it’s absurd to think of such a thing, no one would say so, & if they did, why then, what matter who would believe them on such a foundation.” (Despite his protestations, Reynolds would later prove to have more than a neighborly affection for Rebecca Krug.)
By May of 1837, William and the rest of his class were in Baltimore, nervously awaiting their examinations. The first midshipman to be examined failed, or “bilged,” after a grueling seven hours of interrogation. As it turned out, both Adams and May bilged, while Reynolds earned the rank of passed midshipman.
The following winter, after a brief stint aboard the newly launched Pennsylvania—at 210 feet and 3,104 tons displacement, the largest ship in the U.S. Navy—Reynolds enjoyed an extended stay at home in Lancaster. William was the second oldest of eight children. His father, a former newspaper publisher and state legislator, was now managing an ironworks in nearby Cornwall, Pennsylvania, where the family had taken up residence. It had been his father’s good friend Congressman James Buchanan who had secured Reynolds’s midshipman’s appointment back in 1831, and William’s younger brother John was now a cadet at West Point. Of his seven brothers and sisters, it was Lydia, three years his junior, to whom Reynolds was closest. In addition to his usual letters, William often included enclosures for Lydia that were not to be shared with the rest of the family. So it was not unusual that, without his friends Adams and May to talk to in Washington, Reynolds turned to Lydia soon after reporting to his new assignment: the Depot of Charts and Instruments.
On April 20, the very day Reynolds reported for duty at the Depot, Charles Wilkes was approved by President Van Buren as commander of the U.S. Exploring Expedition. Most members of the service viewed the appointment of so junior an officer as an insult to the navy—even though all previous, more senior candidates had refused the position. But Reynolds was inclined to think differently. His friend William May had served with Wilkes during the survey of Georges Bank. May had nothing but good things to report about his young commander.
Perhaps inevitably, Reynolds began to consider volunteering for the impending Exploring Expedition. Since the Depot was located on the grounds of Wilkes’s house, he had already had ample opportunity to meet the new leader of the Expedition. “I like Captain Wilkes,” he told Lydia, “which is important (to me).” May was planning to get over a recent love affair by shipping out on the Ex. Ex. “It is most likely, I shall bear him company,” Reynolds wrote, “though I may not share his desperate motives.”
On May 13, he wrote Lydia from the office of the observatory. “I cannot give up the Exploring Expedition,” he declared. “I shall offer myself to Captain Wilkes today or tomorrow, therefore be ye all prepared.” As if to emphasize the strength of his resolve, he sealed the letter with Wilkes’s own family crest. “The seal,” he explained to Lydia, “is Mr. Wilkes coat of arms, a Norman cross bow.” With this wax seal the destinies of William Reynolds and Charles Wilkes would be joined for the next four years.
Back in March, when Wilkes had first received orders to return to Washington, he did not want to leave the Porpoise and his young and enthusiastic group of officers. After their success at the Georges Bank, they were continuing to do excellent work on Georgia’s Calibougue Sound. The orders simply said to proceed without delay to Washington. “What could it mean?” Wilkes wondered out loud. When one of his officers suggested that it might have something to do with the Exploring Expedition, Wilkes shook his head. “Oh no, I have done with it and [am] content to let it alone.”
Within a few days, Wilkes was back in Washington, where he learned that Captain Joseph Smith, the latest candidate to lead the Exploring Expedition, had requested that he accompany him as a surveyor. Wilkes would be given command of his own vessel. But he still had his reservations. Smith was not in good health. In addition, many of the officers Smith would inherit from Commodore Jones were senior to Wilkes and would quite naturally object to their junior being elevated to such a high post. After talking it over with Jane, he decided to have nothing to do with an expedition led by Smith.
It is impossible to know if Wilkes anticipated what happened next, but when Smith learned that he would not have Wilkes as a surveyor, he—like so many captains had done before him—declined the offer to command the Expedition. Soon after, Secretary of War Poinsett began to consider offering the post to Wilkes. Even though the lieutenant lacked comparable command experience, he was clearly a competent surveyor. And besides, who else was there? The navy rumor mill would later accuse Wilkes of having schemed to wrest the command from Smith, but Wilkes insisted, “I never thought of such a thing. I was too young an officer to aspire and did not dream of it.”
On an evening in March, Poinsett requested that Wilkes meet with him at his home. The two men sat beside the fireplace in Poinsett’s parlor. The secretary began by asking Wilkes to describe how he thought the Expedition should be organized. It was, of course, a topic that he had been considering for most of his life. The squadron should be made up of only young officers with the technical training required to conduct a nautical survey. The scale of the Expedition must be reined in. Instead of large and unwieldy ships, a brig similar to the Porpoise and several even smaller schooners should be used; they were the only craft suitable for surveying the coral-fringed islands of the South Pacific. As part of this reduction in scale, the scientific corps must be cut by at least two-thirds to less than a dozen men.
Poinsett asked if he thought an expedition along the lines he’d just described could be quickly and successfully organized. Wilkes insisted that it could. Poinsett had been staring at the fire; he now turned to look directly at Wilkes. “I have been authorized by the President,” he said, “to offer you the command of the expedition.” Wilkes was unable to respond. “Why do you hesitate?” Poinsett asked. “Are you afraid to undertake it?” Wilkes struggled for words. “No sir, but there are very many reasons that crowd upon me why I should not accept it.” They continued to talk, and once Poinsett made it clear that he would have almost total control in organizing the Expedition, Wilkes tentatively accepted the appointment. “[I]t was so entirely unexpected,” he remembered, “I [told him] I must have time to think the matter over.”
That night Wilkes and Jane had what he later described as “a good cry.” Jane assured her husband that he had acted honorably throughout these difficult proceedings and that he would “establish a name which both she and our children would glory in.” When they finally went to bed, Wilkes almost immediately nodded off. But Jane could not sleep. Her husband would soon be leaving on a voyage that would last at least three years, and Jane, already a mother of three, was five months pregnant.
Almost immediately, enormous pressures came to bear on Poinsett to rescind Wilkes’s appointment. The young lieutenant might be one of the navy’s top surveyors and a creditable scientist, but this meant nothing to the naval officers who outranked him, almost all of whom, it seemed, joined in a shrill chorus of dissent. Letters of outrage poured into the War Department. “The year Lieutenant Wilkes entered the Navy,” Captain Beverley Kennon wrote Poinsett, “I was the third lieutenant of the Washington 74; the year he was made a lieutenant, I commanded a ship of war in the Pacific Ocean.” Kennon insisted that he be given the command. But Kennon had already been offered the position, only to refuse it back when the voyage had become a laughingstock. But now, with a lowly lieutenant given the command, it was no laughing matter. The navy’s pride was at stake.
Wilkes was not without his proponents. In a most extraordinary gesture of support, Joseph Smith, the captain under whom Wilkes had refused to serve, wrote to wish the lieutenant well. Smith reported having been roundly criticized by “his brother officers” for providing Wilkes with the opportunity to gain the command. But he assured Wilkes that no “blame can attach to you.” “I hope now you will be off & off soon,” he wrote. “I have faith in your acquirements of science, in your industry & in what is still more important, your boldness of purpose & boldness of execution. I wish you all success & every propitious breeze.”
The controversy made its inevitable way to Capitol Hill. During a debate over a naval appropriations bill in April, a congressman brought up Wilkes’s appointment, calling it “a violation of rank.” Another congressman pointed out that the rules of seniority applied only in a time of war. It was only right that someone of Wilkes’s scientific expertise be appointed to the command. Even the sainted James Cook had been “made a Lieutenant for the purpose” of leading an exploring expedition. Yet another congressman claimed that a reputable source had told him that Wilkes had been appointed because he had agreed to dismiss Jeremiah Reynolds, who had become “obnoxious to the Department.” So it went, a ceaseless din of outrage that would continue long after the squadron had sailed.
Wilkes might have easily been overwhelmed by the pandemonium. But by keeping the details of the Expedition to himself and Jane and by focusing solely on the tasks ahead of him, he plowed ahead. First he had to determine what vessels were to be included in the squadron. Two sloops-of-war, the 127-foot Vincennes and 118-foot Peacock, were already slated to be part of the Expedition, as was the 109-foot storeship Relief, the only vessel remaining from Jones’s original squadron. In keeping with what he had outlined to Poinsett, he added three smaller vessels—the 88-foot brig Porpoise and two 70-foot schooners, former New York pilot boats that were rechristened the Flying Fish and the Sea Gull.
What Wilkes needed to find as quickly as possible were commanders for the Peacock, the Relief, and the Porpoise who did not outrank him, not an easy task given his lowly place on the list. He first appealed to Lieutenant William Hudson from Brooklyn, New York. Although without any surveying experience, Hudson, forty-four years old, had a reputation as an excellent seaman and had already expressed interest in joining the Expedition back when Jones was to be the leader. He was also one of Wilkes’s closest friends in the navy. Unfortunately, even though Hudson and Wilkes had been promoted to lieutenant on the same day, Hudson ranked slightly above his putative commander, and to serve under a junior officer was unheard of. Only after Poinsett had assured Hudson in writing that the Expedition “was purely civil” did he agree to take the position.
Wilkes’s choice to command the Relief was another old friend, Lieutenant George Blake, who had served with him during the survey of Narragansett Bay. When it looked like Hudson might not sail with them, Blake asked Wilkes if he would make him second-in-command. Wilkes equivocated, and Blake decided to back out of the Expedition altogether. This forced Wilkes to go with Lieutenant Andrew Long, the man Jones had chosen for the Relief and who only agreed to the position once Wilkes had promised that the commander of the Porpoise would not outrank him. Wilkes chose Lieutenant Cadwalader Ringgold, thirty-five, from a prominent Maryland family. With the loss of Blake, Wilkes was left without a single commanding officer with previous surveying experience.
Wilkes claimed that his most difficult task involved the scientific corps. He must eliminate twenty of the twenty-seven scientists. First to go was the head of physical sciences. Wilkes would take over that department, along with all subjects related to surveying, astronomy, meteorology, and nautical science. It was a tall order for one man, even without the extra burden of leading the Expedition. Wilkes’s choices for the rest of the corps proved to be quite good. The naturalist Titian Peale, son of the famous painter and museum founder Charles Willson Peale from Philadelphia, had already accompanied expeditions to Florida and the West. A capable artist and a crack shot, Peale was a collector par excellence. James Dwight Dana, the Expedition’s geologist, was just twenty-five and had already published his System of Mineralogy, the standard text on the subject. In the weeks before the squadron’s departure, he would undergo a sudden religious awakening and, at the urging of his evangelical parents, join the First Church of New Haven. Dana was destined to become a giant in his field, and while his Christian beliefs would sometimes lead his science astray, the strength of his conversion appears to have made possible the startling breakthroughs that awaited him, encouraging him to look beyond the myriad details of the natural world and seek out the bigger picture. “As a Christian,” the geologist James Natland has written, “Dana could now make bold his science.”
Dana’s friend the botanist Asa Gray was also chosen for the civilian corps, and like Dana, would rise to the top of his field. Unfortunately, after changing his mind several times, Gray would back out of the Expedition at the last minute and be replaced by the lackluster William Rich from Washington. Rounding out the scientific corps was the young philologist, or linguist, Horatio Hale from Harvard; the naturalist Charles Pickering from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia; the conchologist (a collector of mollusks and shells) Joseph Couthouy from Boston; and the horticulturalist William Brackenridge, a Scotsman currently living in Philadelphia, who had once supervised Edinburgh’s famed botanical garden. It was a young, diverse group that, for the most part, represented the best American science had to offer in 1838.
Over the next five months, Wilkes pushed to achieve what others had failed to accomplish in two years. Each vessel needed to undergo extensive modifications; equipment and provisions must be arranged for; commissioned and noncommissioned officers, as well as sailors and marines, had to be selected. Hundreds of men had already been recruited by Jones, but the months of turmoil and indecision had taken their toll as they bided their time at navy yards in Virginia and New York. But it was the Expedition’s officers who were the most disaffected. Indeed, from Wilkes’s perspective it sometimes seemed as if the entire U.S. Navy were in league against him. “At times I felt almost overwhelmed at the Situation and the responsibilities upon me,” he wrote, “but they were of short lived depressions.”
It was in the fitting out of the Vincennes and the Peacock at Norfolk that Wilkes received the stiffest resistance. The commodore in charge of the navy yard made it clear that he and his officers did not approve of Wilkes’s appointment and would do as little as possible to assist in the preparation of the squadron. Appealing to friends at navy yards in New York and Boston, Wilkes was able to procure much of what was denied him at Norfolk. From Boston he received a fleet of whaleboats, while the two schooners were purchased and modified at the New York Navy Yard in just two weeks.
Still, when it came to overhauling the Vincennes and the Peacock, which were to be equipped with additional spar decks built over the preexisting gun decks, Wilkes had no choice but to deal with the refractory officers in Norfolk. Making it all the more difficult was the temporary loss of his most stalwart advocate, Secretary of War Poinsett. In April, Poinsett was struck down by an illness that, it was feared, might kill him. This meant that Wilkes had no one to turn to when his request to replace some of the vessels’ iron water tanks with wooden casks was refused. (If one of the ships was wrecked on a reef, Wilkes argued, the wooden casks would provide more buoyancy than the tanks and could be more easily transferred to shore.) So Wilkes took his grievances to the president of the United States.
Martin Van Buren, known as “the little magician,” appeared quite pleased to see Wilkes. He quickly promised to get him his water casks. Then he asked a question: “Why is there such opposition against you?” Wilkes said he thought it had to do with his being so junior a lieutenant. Van Buren told him that over the last few weeks he had been visited by a virtual parade of captains protesting his appointment. Just that morning Commodore Isaac Chauncey, president of the Navy Board, had urged him to suspend Wilkes. The commodore had claimed that “this young Lieut[enant] did not ask nor would he receive any advice which had been proffered him. No one knew what he was doing.” Van Buren assured Wilkes that he had his total support and encouraged him to “come direct to me” if he encountered any more trouble.
In addition to preparing six vessels for a voyage around the world and recruiting the necessary officers and men, Wilkes had to prepare the instruments, including twenty-four chronometers. As head of the physical sciences department, he also had several pendulum experiments to conduct before the Expedition could sail. A pendulum is used to determine the force of gravity; by comparing different readings at different locations around the globe, it is possible to determine the contours of the earth, as well as the density of its interior. In the grass field that stretched from the back of his house to the Capitol building, Wilkes erected “Pendulum Houses,” temporary shelters that would accompany them on their travels. To assist him, Wilkes assembled a group of six passed midshipmen, including William Reynolds, William May (who had successfully retaken his examination), and several others from the Porpoise. For Wilkes, this little community of science on a hill, so near to his own home (where Jane was now almost eight months pregnant), seems to have provided a haven from the storm.
With departure set for August 10, Reynolds wrote his sister Lydia to ask for her help in preparing the clothing he would need. He had left a pair of his red cotton drawers at home, and he requested at least eight more just like it. He also put in orders for eighteen pairs of thin cotton socks, twelve calico shirts, two bedsheets, four pillowcases, and six woolen stockings. He asked that she find his white hat; he would need it to shield himself from the brutal Polynesian sun. He fully expected the voyage to transform him into “a weather beaten, wrinkled, uncouth savage. [M]ay you all have a pleasant time in civilizing me [on my return].”
Every third night, Reynolds and May stayed up until four in the morning, assisting Wilkes with his observations while the other four passed midshipmen split the other two nights between them. “The nights pass most swiftly & pleasantly,” he wrote. “Everything is so interesting & occupies the attention so entirely that time flies. I breakfast at the fashionable hour of 12.” For Wilkes it meant that he was almost never asleep, and Reynolds and the others developed an almost reverential awe of their commander. “I like Captain Wilkes very much,” Reynolds wrote Lydia. “He is a most wonderful man, possesses a vast deal of knowledge, and has a talent for everything.”
As he had told Poinsett, Wilkes planned to rely on a corps of young, energetic officers who had just passed their examinations. On most naval vessels, a passed midshipman was relegated to a subordinate role, but on the Exploring Expedition a different standard would prevail. “[T]he Passed Midshipmen will perform the duties of Lieutenants,” Reynolds excitedly wrote Lydia. Wilkes felt it was important that the more senior passed midshipmen be given acting appointments, temporary promotions that reflected their increased responsibilities during the voyage. Soon after Poinsett had been struck down by illness, Mahlon Dickerson was replaced by James Paulding as secretary of the navy. In July, Wilkes asked Paulding to grant the rank of acting lieutenant to ten of the passed midshipmen. Unfortunately Reynolds and May were too far down the list to be included.
Wilkes was under the impression that Poinsett had already agreed that he and his second-in-command William Hudson would be given acting appointments as captains. Since it would leapfrog both of them past the rank of commander, the appointments would undoubtedly infuriate the already irate navy hierarchy. But it would have been just as scandalous to place the nation’s first exploring expedition, a squadron comprising six vessels and several hundred men, under the command of a mere lieutenant.
The issue of rank had become a matter of deep concern in the U.S. Navy. In Britain and France, an officer could aspire to the rank of admiral, but in the United States he could rise no higher than captain, with the title of commodore being given to a captain who commanded a squadron. When an American naval officer encountered a European officer of equivalent age and experience, he was inevitably outranked—a difficult and often embarrassing situation for an officer attempting to uphold the honor of his country. But it wasn’t simply a question of creating the proper impression in foreign ports. If an officer was to maintain discipline among his own officers, he needed to outrank them. Due to the backlog in promotions in the peacetime navy, many lieutenants were placed in the unenviable position of commanding officers of their own rank. “It poisons the very fountain of discipline,” an anonymous naval officer insisted in a widely read article of the day, “and never fails to bring forth insubordination—letting loose among the crew those refractory and evil spirits, which discipline alone can chain down.” Wilkes was not out of bounds in expecting an acting appointment to captain.
Unfortunately, Poinsett’s illness made it impossible for Wilkes to confirm his understanding about this critical issue. Assuming the promotions would be forthcoming, he instructed his purser to pay both himself and Hudson as captains. In the middle of July, Poinsett had recovered enough to resume his former duties. To Wilkes’s shock and disappointment, the secretary of war backed away from what Wilkes felt had been an earlier promise to make him a captain. Wilkes attributed the change of heart to Poinsett’s illness, claiming that his “boldness and grasping of thought . . . had been greatly weakened.” He could only hope that as the day of the squadron’s departure approached, Poinsett would make it right.
Counseling him on this and many other issues was Jane. It is clear that her influence extended well beyond mere pillow talk. Wilkes regarded her as his “assistant” and at one point suggested (only half jokingly) that she and the children might accompany him on the Expedition. “I only wish I could have you as my second in command,” he wrote from Norfolk in July, “and all would go well. What think you of rigging yourself in men’s clothes . . . and all our chicks as little middies [and then] embarking with me.” When on July 19, Jane gave birth to their fourth child, Eliza, it meant that, at least for a time, she must concentrate on other things besides her busy husband and his voyage.
On the day of Jane’s delivery, Wilkes sat down to draft a long and impassioned letter to Poinsett. Now, more than ever before, Wilkes realized that if he was to bear the full weight of his command throughout the long, arduous voyage that lay ahead, he needed an acting appointment to captain. He understood why Poinsett was reluctant to give him the acting appointment he deserved. The secretary had already suffered the wrath of nearly the entire department by appointing him to lead the Expedition. But a promise was a promise. “[O]n this I did rely,” Wilkes wrote. If he had suspected he would not be awarded an acting appointment, he would have never agreed to command the Expedition. The following week, President Van Buren was scheduled to travel to Norfolk with Poinsett and Paulding to review the fleet. Wilkes felt it would be only appropriate if the acting appointments were made official during that ceremony.
On July 26 President Van Buren and his retinue arrived at Norfolk. Colorful signal flags fluttered from the rigging. All the officers, the full marine detachment, and the marine band were lined up on the quarterdeck of each vessel. Aloft, the enlisted men, in white duck trousers and blue jackets, stood on the yards and booms, facing the president. Since the chronometers had not yet been brought aboard, Wilkes allowed the guns to fire a salute.
About sixty people sat down to a “bounteous lunch” in honor of the Expedition. (Although Commodore Lewis Warrington and the other officers of the navy yard had been invited, none of them chose to attend.) Toasts were delivered. Much wine was drunk. “It was a well timed encouragement,” Wilkes remembered, “and showed that, however the officers [of the navy yard] might feel themselves opposed to it, the Gov[ernment]t gave me its full Sanction.”
But instead of elation, Wilkes felt a gloom settling over him. Apparently, the acting appointments were not forthcoming—at least not that day. When Poinsett praised the progress that had been made so far, Wilkes responded “that I was not deceived or to be humbugged by such things.”
By the beginning of August, Jeremiah Reynolds, the Expedition’s original promoter, realized that he was about to be left behind. Dozens of letters, many of them from his supporters in Ohio, had been written insisting that he be included, but Jeremiah’s most articulate defender was the writer Edgar Allan Poe. Poe had become so fascinated with Symmes’s and Jeremiah’s earlier claims about the holes in the poles that he had written several short stories and even a novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, that referred to a mysterious opening at the bottom of the earth. Poe would later pay tribute to Jeremiah’s role in instigating the Expedition: “Take from the enterprise the original impulse which he gave—the laborious preliminary investigation which he undertook—the unflinching courage and the great ability . . . by which he ensured its consummation—let the Expedition have wanted all this, and what would the world have had of it but the shadow of a shade?” In the years ahead, Jeremiah would insist that Wilkes—that “cunning little Jacob”—had schemed along with Dickerson to deny him his due. But long before Wilkes was named to the command, Jeremiah had been foolish enough to take on the secretary of the navy in the pages of The New York Times. As Jeremiah knew better than anyone, the politics of the Ex. Ex. had been part chess game, part internecine warfare, and the only man left standing after a decade of struggle was Charles Wilkes.
In the meantime, the other Reynolds was busy preparing for the voyage of his dreams. In early July, Passed Midshipman William Reynolds had briefly visited his family in Lancaster. After picking up his clothing and other supplies, he traveled to Norfolk to join the squadron. By August, the departure date had been pushed back to the middle of the month.
Reynolds was in charge of purchasing food for his mess, the group of officers with whom he would be sharing meals for the foreseeable future. On August 12, he wrote Lydia telling her he had been “most busily and arduously engaged in Expending $1000 for the Mess & $600 for myself: we have a great many stores, and I flatter myself that the mess over which I preside will be the most respectable, tasty, and somewhat stylish.” He would be sharing a stateroom with his best friend May on the Expedition’s flagship, the Vincennes. May, who had been assisting Wilkes, had not yet arrived from Washington, leaving Reynolds to prepare their living quarters. Although it was not yet finished, he claimed the room “will be carpeted, cushioned, curtained (one set crimson damask, one white), mirrored, silver candlesticks, etc. etc.—a little boudoir, most exquisitely luxurious in its arrangements.”
The squadron was now, for the first time, fully assembled, and Reynolds was delighted by the addition of the two schooners, just delivered from New York. “Passed Midshipmen will command them,” he enthused to Lydia. “I wish my rank would entitle me to one. ’[T]is something to be a Captain [the title applied by courtesy to any commander of a vessel], and those Boats are large, beautiful & swift—perhaps I may return Captain Reynolds.”
He was also fascinated by the most unusual passengers who would be accompanying them on the voyage: the “Scientifics.” “I like the associates we shall have during the cruise, these enthusiastic artists, and those headlong, indefatigable pursuers & slayers of birds, beasts & fishes & gatherers of shells, rocks, insects, etc. etc.” What particularly interested Reynolds about these men was that it was not the promise of glory or wealth that had inspired them to sail on a voyage around the world, but their thirst for knowledge: “They are leaving their comfortable homes to follow the strong bent of their minds, to garner up strange things of strange lands, which proves that the ruling passion is strong in life. . . . We, the ignoramuses, will no doubt take great interest in learning the origin, nature & history of many things, which we have before regarded with curious and admiring eyes.” To make sure he had an adequate record of his experiences, he purchased two large journals. “[I]f I fill them,” he told Lydia, “I trust I shall make a perusal interesting.”
In a hasty addendum written the following evening, his enthusiasm was even greater than the day before. “I am perfectly charmed with everything on board,” he gushed, “& have the most glorious hopes of a most glorious cruise. [N]othing could tempt me to withdraw. I am wedded to the Expedition and its fate, sink or swim.”
On August 10, it was time for Wilkes to head to Norfolk. “I will not soon forget the scene at the Breakfast table,” he wrote Jane the next day, “with your dear self and little Eliza at your breast & those other children around. It was enough to have halted any man [even] if his heart had been made of stone and [has] made me cry a dozen times since. How much comfort & happiness I have left behind.” He was leaving not only his wife, but his best and perhaps only true friend, a person with whom he had lived and worked for most of his adult life. Wilkes knew that when he returned in three to four years, his youngest daughter Eliza would have no memory of her father.
By Sunday, August 12, he was in his freshly painted cabin aboard the Vincennes, awaiting the sailing orders he had already drafted but which needed to be formally issued by the secretary of the navy. Wilkes would not have been faulted if he had taken time that evening to bask in the glory of his achievement. He had done all that he had promised he would do. Despite almost every kind of opposition, Wilkes had assembled a squadron of six vessels and 346 men. Almost miraculously, he had succeeded in turning around the Expedition’s morale. Instead of the nest of intrigue and mistrust it had been just a few months before, the squadron was now characterized by an extraordinary eagerness and zeal. Years later, William Reynolds would remember the astonishing sense of promise he and his fellow officers felt at the voyage’s onset.
The Commander of the Expedition was hailed by all his subordinates, with an éclat that must have touched his feelings. The impression in his favour was universal, and the most unlimited confidence as to his abilities as a leader, and his character as a man, was the deep and proper feeling of those who were to trust to him so much. Not a few were bound to him with a personal devotion that was almost chivalrous in its extent, and which had been created by a recent association with him on a perilous service, the survey of a bank in the open ocean. The fervour of these gentlemen, communicated itself to others, who with the ardour of youth, and the impulse of their nature, were ready to believe that the object of such generous promise must be the very beau ideal of a Captain for the hazardous enterprise in which they had embarked.
But Wilkes was in no mood to enjoy the marvel he had created. He had heard nothing about his and Hudson’s acting appointments. In a final, now blighted gesture of optimism, they had brought with them new captain’s uniforms, each equipped with two epaulet straps instead of a lieutenant’s one and a round jacket with four buttons over each pocket flap. It was humiliating to have to tell Hudson that they could not yet put them on. It was not a matter of ceremony; the acting appointments were absolutely vital if he was to lead this squadron. With a hurt that still festered decades later, he remembered in his Autobiography that he needed the rank of captain “to give force to my position and surround me with, as it were, a shield of protection.”
Desperately missing his wife and children, and without this crucial vote of confidence from the secretary of war, Wilkes was being abandoned to his fate, just as his own widowed father had done back when he was four years old. “I hope you will never feel the mortification that I do at this moment,” he wrote in a final letter to Poinsett, “at being left now to grapple with things that the Govt. might have put under my entire control by the one act of giving Mr. Hudson and myself temporary acting app[ointment]ts for this service and which I consider was fully pledged to us. . . . I have one consolation left that everything that we do earn by our exertions will be due entirely to ourselves.”
By the morning of Sunday, August 18, the squadron had weighed anchor and made sufficient progress that it was time to bid farewell to the pilot. Later, the pilot would report that the sight of six naval vessels, all under full sail in a light breeze on a sunny summer day, was “highly pleasing,” especially since he had never seen officers “more bent on accomplishing all within their power for the honor and glory of the navy and of the country.”
As he stood on the quarterdeck surveying the squadron behind him, Wilkes could not help but feel self-doubt. Like it or not, he was just a lieutenant, with less sea experience than many of his passed midshipmen. “It required all the hope I could muster to outweigh the intense feeling of responsibility that hung over me,” he wrote. “I may compare it to that of one doomed to destruction.”