WILKES’S FLAGSHIP was one of the most beloved ships in the U.S. Navy. Beamy, yet surprisingly fast, the 127-foot sloop-of-war Vincennes, built in 1826, would so impress her new commander in the months ahead that he would boast that she could “do everything but talk.” In 1830, the Vincennes (named for the Revolutionary-era fort for which the present-day Indiana town is named) became the first U.S. naval vessel to circumnavigate the world; six years later she completed her second trip around the globe. Since then the Vincennes had been put in dry dock and given a complete overhaul. Painted black, with a white interior, she was now, according to First Lieutenant Thomas Craven, “the finest looking ship I ever saw.” Built atop the Vincennes’s original aft cabin, once described as “a pavilion of elegance,” was a new thirty-six-foot-long space that significantly increased the ship’s functionality. In addition to staterooms for Wilkes and several scientists, this new stern cabin contained a large reception room equipped with drafting tables, a library, and a large conference table. The stern cabin would serve as the command center of the squadron for the duration of the cruise.
Sailing close behind the Vincennes was another, slightly smaller sloop-of-war, the 118-foot Peacock—named to commemorate the victory of the USS Hornet over HMS Peacock during the War of 1812. Originally built to be the flagship of the abandoned 1828 expedition, the Peacock had seen plenty of hard service over the intervening decade. Just the year before she had been nearly lost at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. After sixty hours of being pounded on a reef, she had been finally floated free, returning to Norfolk several months prior to the departure of the Ex. Ex. Given the lack of attention the Peacock had received at the navy yard, Lieutenant Hudson was deeply concerned about his ship’s condition. For now, he took some consolation in the hope that with her armament reduced, the Peacock might find an extra knot or two of speed.
The storeship Relief was the one vestige of Jones’s botched attempt to mount an expedition. To all appearances she was the gem of the squadron. Comfortably fitted out, and with the latest technical innovations, including two Spencer trysails (fore-and-aft sails equipped with gaffes to assist in sailing close to the wind), the Relief’s hull shape was that of a packet—the speedy American design developed to carry passengers to and from Europe. Unfortunately, the Relief, like the other vessels built specifically for the Expedition, had been woefully overbuilt, and she was anything but fast.
Next, under the command of Lieutenant Cadwalader Ringgold, was the Porpoise, the rakish brig that had served Wilkes so well at Georges Bank and Savannah. Almost as new as the Relief, the eighty-eight-foot Porpoise was having no problem keeping up with the squadron’s flagship—a pleasant surprise given that the brig had been outfitted with additional fore-and-aft decks. Bringing up the rear of the squadron were the schooners Flying Fish and Sea Gull, commanded by Passed Midshipmen Samuel Knox and James Reid, respectively. Some critics had claimed these slender, seventy-foot New York pilot boats, each with a crew of just fifteen men, would never survive the rough waters off Cape Horn. There was no denying, however, that the schooners were just what Wilkes needed when it came to surveying the islands of the Pacific. Equipped with tillers instead of wheels, these highly maneuverable craft were also surprisingly fast, and the Flying Fish and the Sea Gull were beginning to surge past the much larger Relief.
It was an unusual collection of sailing vessels. European exploring expeditions had relied on sturdy but slow ships such as colliers, built to carry coal from the northern ports of England, or, in the case of the latest French expedition, a beamy horse-transport, euphemistically referred to as a corvette. Not only could these vessels bear heavy loads of provisions and men; they could withstand punishment from uncharted hazards such as rocks and ice. Since the initial fleet of heavily reinforced vessels had proven unseaworthy, the Americans had been forced to settle for this eclectic assortment of ships, brigs, and schooners. Sleek and quick, instead of broad and strong, the vessels of the U.S. Exploring Expedition made for an inspiring sight as they glided away from Hampton Roads.
The U.S. Ex. Ex. carried with it the expectations of a young, upstart nation that was anxious to prove it could meet and perhaps surpass what had already been achieved by dozens of European expeditions. But, as all of the Ex. Ex.’s officers and scientists knew, it was very late in the game to be launching an expedition of this scale. The potential for new discoveries in the Pacific was limited, and European scientists were highly skeptical that anyone from the United States might return with significant results. Then there was the potential for disaster—losing a ship, even the entire squadron, in a storm off Cape Horn or on a hidden reef in the Pacific. But it was the prospect of sailing amid the icebergs in this fragile hodgepodge of a fleet that was the most daunting. “On me Rested everything,” Wilkes wrote. “I communed with myself under very distressing thoughts.”
His instructions called for a three-year dash around the globe. In the next five months alone he was to investigate a group of “doubtful” shoals in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, provision at Rio de Janeiro, survey the mouth of the Rio Negro in Patagonia, then, after establishing a base of operations at Cape Horn, lead a portion of the squadron on the first of two assaults on the Antarctic regions to the south. To avoid being frozen in for the winter, he was instructed to return to Cape Horn no later than early March 1839.
Then it was on to the Pacific. The squadron would provision in Valparaiso, Chile, then proceed to the Navigator, Society, and Fiji groups—surveying islands all the way—before assembling at Sydney, Australia, in the late fall of 1839 to prepare for yet another push south. By March they would be on their way back north. After provisioning at the Hawaiian Islands, they would continue on to the northwest coast of America in the summer of 1840, where they were to pay particular attention to the Columbia River and San Francisco Bay. But even if they had reached their native continent, they would be farther away from home than at any time during the Expedition since their instructions required them to proceed west to the United States—a voyage of at least 22,000 miles. After stops at Japan and the Philippines, it was on to Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope, and, finally, New York City, which Wilkes hoped to reach by the summer of 1841, almost exactly three years after leaving Norfolk.
As was customary on previous European exploring expeditions, Wilkes kept his instructions a secret throughout the voyage. If circumstances required that he depart from the original plan, he did not want his officers second-guessing him; so he gave them a minimum of information. Even now, with the coast of Virginia rapidly receding behind them, no one except himself and Jane back home in Washington knew where the squadron was headed.
The direction of the prevailing winds required them to sail a zigzag course to Brazil, heading east and south toward Africa, before sailing west and south across the equator to Rio de Janeiro. Wilkes determined to sail first for the island of Madeira, about four hundred miles off Morocco. There the squadron would gather at Funchal Roads before continuing south to the Cape Verde Islands and then on to Brazil.
Wilkes was well aware that if they were to reach Cape Horn by December, time was already running out. Over the next few days it became clear that a fast passage south would be virtually impossible. The Peacock was in much worse condition than he and Hudson had originally suspected. Once the squadron had entered the swell of the open ocean, the Peacock’s seams began to leak so severely that Hudson was forced to chop a hole in the berth deck to drain it of water. It would require several weeks of repairs at Rio de Janeiro to make the vessel seaworthy. Then there was the matter of the Relief. The sluggish storeship soon proved to be a virtual sea anchor, slowing the squadron’s progress to a crawl. Just four days out from Norfolk, Wilkes ordered Lieutenant Long to bypass Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands and proceed directly to Rio.
After pushing himself so hard all spring and summer, Wilkes found these new and unexpected problems particularly difficult to bear. The squadron was barely out of sight of land, and already he was exhausted. “[T]he fatigues of all are now and then too much for me,” he admitted in a letter to Jane.
Still uppermost in his thoughts was Poinsett’s refusal to make Hudson and himself captains. It cast a pall over everything. Wilkes decided that they needed to do something to distinguish them from the other lieutenants in the squadron. If they couldn’t wear their captain uniforms (with an epaulet on each shoulder), then they would modify their lieutenant uniforms. Instead of epaulets on their left shoulders, both Wilkes and Hudson would do without epaulets altogether. But if their uniforms were without visible indications of rank, Wilkes insisted that his officers refer to them not as Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Hudson—the way you addressed a lieutenant—but as Captain Wilkes and Captain Hudson.
He then decided he should have a flag lieutenant, an executive secretary who would be responsible for everything from carrying sensitive messages to making dinner arrangements. Overton Carr had been with him at the Depot even before the survey of Georges Bank. Short, boyish, and unfailingly loyal, Carr was the perfect yes-man, and he became Wilkes’s flag lieutenant. If the politicians in Washington wouldn’t do it, Wilkes would provide himself with the necessary trappings of command.
He soon discovered what so many new captains had learned before him: life was very different in the aft cabin of a man-of-war. For one thing it was lonely. As the leader, he was expected to establish a certain distance between himself and his officers. When he appeared on the quarterdeck, his officers were expected to tip their caps and leave him to the solitude of the weather rail. Except for the occasional nights he invited a few officers to dine with him, he ate alone in his cabin. Most captains had learned how to adjust to the isolation and responsibility of command through years of experience at sea, but Wilkes had seized this position of authority almost overnight. He had not had the time and opportunity to establish a style of command appropriate to a voyage around the world.
There was no right or wrong way to lead a ship and a squadron—every captain had his own approach, depending on his talents and temperament. Some, with Nelson being the most famous example, used the power of their personalities, as well as their considerable skills and physical courage, to inspire their officers and men to do their bidding. Some relied on the threat of the lash; others might employ a well-timed joke. Cook, though he carefully monitored his crew’s health, was also renowned for his “paroxysms of passion.” A seemingly insignificant incident could cause him to curse, flap his arms wildly about, and stamp repeatedly on the deck. Whatever the command style, consistency was essential to successful leadership. As long as the officers and men knew what to expect, they could adapt to just about anything. But if the officers’ and crews’ expectations should go unfulfilled in any significant or even insignificant way, the complex interpersonal chemistry of a crowded ship could be quickly and irrevocably altered, transforming a vessel that had once operated like a well-oiled machine into a pressure cooker about to explode.
In the beginning, Wilkes seems to have employed the only command style with which he had any recent experience—the genial approach he had used during the survey of Georges Bank. Just as he had once messed with his officers aboard the Porpoise, he frequently left his cabin to socialize in the Vincennes’s wardroom. As if to distract himself from the immensity of the challenges ahead, he directed his attention to the more easily managed details of shipboard life. He embarked on a personal campaign to rid the officers’ pantries of spiders. Every day the leader of the U.S. Ex. Ex. would venture into his officers’ quarters to search out and squish these annoying creatures. When some of the officers began to grow facial hair, he concocted elaborate schemes to convince them of the inappropriateness of the practice without directly forbidding it. When the ringleader, Lieutenant Johnson, finally shaved off his mustache, Wilkes “rejoiced with others that this speck of discord had vanished,” adding in a letter to Jane that “I shall be quite adept in studying characters before I get back.” It was a petty but telling incident that indicated the lengths to which Wilkes was willing to go to avoid even the hint of conflict with his officers—at least for now.
At this early stage in the voyage, William Reynolds and his compatriots were too enthralled with the grandeur of the undertaking to regard Wilkes as anything but the dashing and inspirational leader of the youngest naval squadron any of them had ever known. “It is so strange to me to look around and find none but youthful faces among the officers,” Reynolds wrote Lydia, “a young Captain, with boys for his subordinates—no gray hairs, no veterans among us.” Since they were all so young, they were given responsibilities that would have normally been at least three, even four years away. Reynolds was appointed an officer of the deck, an honor usually reserved for a lieutenant. With a speaking trumpet held to his lips, he issued the orders that kept the twenty sails of the Vincennes drawing to maximum advantage. “I cannot explain to you the feeling,” he enthused to Lydia, “for though we only take advantage of or oppose the wind and waves, it seems as if we directed them. . . . To handle the [sails’] fabric with exquisite skill, to have hundreds move at your bidding, to run in rivalry and successfully with the Squadron and passing vessels, to laugh at the wind and bid defiance to the waves, ah! The excitement is good and glorious. . . . My proffession, above any other in the world. Hurrah! For the Exploring Expedition!”
Reynolds also took great interest in the scientists assigned to the Vincennes: the bespectacled naturalist Charles Pickering, the broad-shouldered Scottish gardener William Brackenridge, and the bearded collector of mollusks Joseph Couthouy. Although Couthouy had once been a merchant captain, the others were no sailors, and it was taking these studious landlubbers some time to adapt to the cramped quarters of a tossing ship. In spite of all, they created their own wonderfully weird worlds within their staterooms, stuffed till nearly bursting with specimens and artifacts. Reynolds marveled at the “dead & living lizards, & fish floating in alcohol, and sharks jaws, & stuffed Turtles, and vertebrates and Animalculae frisking in jars of salt water, and old shells, and many other equally interesting pieces of furniture hanging about their beds, & around their state rooms.” For his part, Reynolds enjoyed slightly more sumptuous quarters. His and roommate William May’s stateroom had become the talk of the Vincennes. White and crimson curtains now hung from the bulkhead; silver candlesticks and a mirror adorned the bureau; a Brussels carpet lay across the deck while a cutlass and one of the new Bowie knife pistols gave the room a “man of war finish.”
Reynolds and May were part of Wilkes’s inner circle of half a dozen or so acting lieutenants and passed midshipmen, who had either served with him on the Porpoise or assisted at the Depot of Charts and Instruments. During the early days of the voyage, this core group of officers, whom Wilkes referred to as “our Washington folks” since they had spent considerable time that summer making observations on the grounds of his Capitol Hill home, served as a kind of surrogate family for the Expedition’s commander. In a letter to Jane he recounted the time when Reynolds and May, who shared a watch together, had breakfast with him in his cabin. The two handsome and dark-haired officers, who looked so much alike that they could have been brothers, insisted that “it was not possible for them to be more comfortable and contented.”
In addition to Reynolds, May, Flag Lieutenant Overton Carr, and Wilkes’s second-in-command William Hudson, his trusted circle of officers included Lieutenants Robert Johnson, William Walker, and James Alden, along with Passed Midshipmen Samuel Knox, who commanded the schooner Flying Fish, and Henry Eld, serving under Hudson in the Peacock. Wilkes’s most intimate associate on the Vincennes was the purser (the naval equivalent of a comptroller), Robert Waldron. Waldron had been with Wilkes on the Porpoise and spent an hour of just about every evening in Wilkes’s cabin, gossiping about the latest goings on among the officers and men. Also part of this group was the commander’s teenage nephew, Wilkes Henry, the eldest son of his widowed sister Eliza. Henry had been his personal clerk aboard the Porpoise, and Wilkes had secured a midshipman’s appointment for the boy so that he could accompany him on the voyage. Overall, Wilkes was pleased with the group of officers he had assembled. “[Y]ou will be glad to learn,” he wrote Jane, “that we have got along very smoothly thus far, and that they one and all exhibit the greatest desire to do their duty.”
Charlie Erskine couldn’t believe it. Almost a year after being whipped by Charles Wilkes, the boy was once again under his command. That summer Charlie had been reassigned to the Porpoise, then at New York and being outfitted for the Expedition. As long as he could stay on the Porpoiseand have nothing to do with the squadron’s leader, he figured he would be safe. But on the morning of August 17, as the squadron prepared to set out from Norfolk, Wilkes’s gig came alongside the Porpoise with orders for Erskine to join the Vincennes. Unaware of his former cabin boy’s feelings toward him, Wilkes wanted Charlie to serve on the flagship. “I felt more like jumping overboard than sailing with my worst enemy,” Charlie remembered. He begged Lieutenant Ringgold to let him remain on the Porpoise, but Ringgold told him he had no choice but to get into the gig.
Once on board the Vincennes, Charlie was promoted to mizzen-top man. “I liked my station, the ship’s officers, and the crew,” he remembered. But at Sunday service the next day he found himself staring across the quarterdeck at Charles Wilkes. “[W]hen I saw him, it made me revengeful,” he wrote, “and I felt as if the evil one had taken possession of me.”
It was Charlie’s first experience aboard a full-rigged ship. Unlike the sloops, schooners, and brigs on which he had previously served, the Vincennes possessed three masts and three decks—the spar, gun, and berth decks. The crew of two hundred men was divided into sixteen messes, twelve men in a mess. While the officers ate on tables set with plates, forks, knives, and spoons and employed servants to attend to their personal needs, Charlie and his messmates sat on a piece of canvas spread out on the deck and ate their salt beef out of two wooden tubs known as kids. When not eating or on watch, Charlie slung his hammock from a beam that was just four and a half feet above the deck, with only twenty-eight inches between the sailors on either side of him. As he and the rest of his watch rocked to the creaking sounds of a wooden ship at sea, Charlie found himself reliving the punishment he had suffered at the hands of Wilkes. “I only wish I could forget the past,” he wrote, “and that it might not so constantly haunt me.”
Eleven days after leaving Norfolk, at midnight on August 29, Charlie came on deck to relieve the lookout on the lee quarter. There was a slight swell, but little wind. While walking the Vincennes’s deck, Charlie paused to look down the cabin skylight. Sitting at the table was “the man who had ordered me to be flogged.” Even at this late hour, Wilkes was awake, studying a chart. Charlie remembered the sting of the colt as if he had been punished yesterday.
The officer of the deck began to walk forward, leaving Charlie alone beside the skylight. Stacked on a nearby rack were some belaying pins—iron cylinders to which were fastened the ropes of the ship’s running rigging. As if in a trance, he found himself reaching for one of the belaying pins and holding it over the skylight. If he waited another second, the roll of the ship would bring Wilkes’s head directly beneath the heavy iron pin. But just as he was about to drop the pin through the pane of glass, Charlie was transfixed by a vision of his mother. “My God!” he gasped. “What does this mean?” Greatly shaken, he returned the belaying pin to the rack, unable at first to disengage his fingers. The officer of the deck sang out through his speaking trumpet, “A bright lookout fore and aft!” Charlie blurted, “Ay, ay, sir,” and the Vincennes sailed on for Madeira, her officers and men oblivious to how close they had come to losing their commander.
On September 6, a low, dark object appeared on the horizon. Word quickly spread through the Vincennes that a wreck had been sighted, and soon all hands were on deck. Spyglasses were traded among the officers, each one reporting on what he saw. One claimed he saw a bare mast extending above the waterlogged hull; another said he saw people standing on the deck, waving in distress.
But as the Vincennes bore down on the distant object, it was realized to be a huge tree, its sun-bleached branches raised high in the air. It was a cottonwood that had drifted on the Gulf Stream all the way from the Mississippi River. Two boats were dispatched to investigate, and soon the entire squadron had assembled around the tree. The men in the boats discovered a large school of fish hovering among the tree’s submerged, barnacle-encrusted branches, and as they harpooned specimens for the scientists, the nimble Sea Gull tacked and jibed amid the fleet with what Reynolds called “a graceful beauty in her motion and appearance that is indescribable, but which to the eye of a Sailor is lovely to behold.”
The two schooners had come to be regarded as, in the words of another officer, “the pets of the squadron.” Their refined fore-and-aft rigs not only made them lovely to look at, they enabled them to sail closer to the wind than any other vessel in the fleet. Being a distinctly American type of craft developed in the eighteenth century to negotiate the convoluted coastline of the Atlantic seaboard, the schooners also appealed to the officers’ patriotism, and Reynolds predicted that “the English will look upon [them] with jealous eyes.” Though the vessels were comparatively small, every lieutenant in the squadron yearned to command one of the schooners, and when Wilkes, at the last minute, had put two lowly passed midshipmen in charge of the vessels, it had caused more than a little grumbling. In answer to queries, Wilkes claimed that the schooners were nothing more than tenders to the Vincennes and as a consequence did not constitute independent commands. Given time, he insisted, all the officers would have ample opportunity for glory.
To be sure, Wilkes maintained a tight leash on the schooners. Every morning the Sea Gull and the Flying Fish were ordered to take up positions on each quarter of the Vincennes. As the little vessels wallowed in the man-of-war’s wake, the fifteen-man crew of each schooner toed a seam so that Wilkes might inspect them through a spyglass. “That third man, Mr. Reid,” Wilkes was heard to shout to the passed midshipman in command of the Sea Gull, “his legs are dirty, sir! The next man’s head has not been combed! Look at that lubber’s neck handkerchief! Stand up, you scoundrels!”
On September 13, Wilkes, in accordance with instructions from the secretary of the navy, ordered all the officers to begin keeping a daily journal. The journals were to include “all occurrences or objects of interest, which may, at the time, be considered even of the least importance.” At the end of the voyage, the journals would become the property of the U.S. government. The order was not limited to journals. Everything related to the Expedition—“memorandums, remarks, writings, drawings, sketches, and paintings, as well as all specimens of every kind”—must be turned over to Wilkes at the end of the voyage.
Reynolds had been keeping a journal since the voyage began—a habit that dated to well before the Ex. Ex. “I cannot think of letting this go before any ones eyes but those few at home,” he wrote. Even though it was in obvious violation of regulations, he decided to keep the existence of his personal journal a secret and begin keeping another for his commander.
Two days later, Reynolds had the forenoon watch. The Vincennes was charging along at ten knots in a stiff breeze. “[W]e all felt elated and excited from the speed at which we were going,” Reynolds wrote. Up ahead they spied an unknown brig, and Wilkes told Reynolds to make more sail so that they might catch up to it. After issuing the necessary orders, Reynolds glanced aloft and noticed that something was wrong with the main topgallant sail, the next-to-highest sail on the center mast. Through his speaking trumpet he called out to ease one of the control lines so that the sail would draw properly. A gust of wind blew the sail out with terrific force, causing the released rope to run so quickly that it caught the man at the yard around his neck and yanked him off his feet. “[O]ne awful cry came from his lips,” Reynolds recounted. With the rope wrapped around his neck, the sailor, George Porter, swung from the yard, his body “showing terribly distinct against the clear sky.”
It was now up to Reynolds to get Porter down. But how? “[D]id we haul on the rope, it would be to choke him instantly,” he wrote, “did we slack it, he would be dashed on deck. There he hung!” The rigging of the ship was now alive with sailors, making their way toward their helpless shipmate. The first thing to do was to take in the sail. Once the flapping canvas had been tamed, one of the men was able to catch Porter’s body, only to have it pulled from his grasp when the ship rolled to leeward. A second attempt proved successful and the rope was immediately cleared from Porter’s neck. His face was completely black. “He is dead!” the men shouted down from aloft. But by the time Porter had been brought down to the deck, he was showing signs of life. The rope had wrapped around his jaw and the back of his head, making it impossible for him to breathe but not breaking his neck. The men knew he was going to survive when Porter opened his eyes and worriedly asked the surgeon if this meant he might miss his daily ration of grog. Laughing, one of the sailors claimed that Porter “was not born to be hung, or he would not have missed so good a chance.”
By September 16, the Vincennes was anchored at Funchal on the south shore of Madeira. For a squadron attempting a quick passage to Rio de Janeiro and then on to Cape Horn, a stop at the already well-known island might seem ill advised, especially since there were not the facilities required to begin repairing the Peacock. But Wilkes felt the opportunity to provision and recruit the men would do the squadron good, and Madeira, a lush, volcanic outcropping of stunning beauty a few hundred miles west of Casablanca, was renowned for not only its fresh vegetables and fruits but also its wine.
Perhaps most important, as far as Wilkes was concerned, this 305-square-mile island, much of it devoted to jagged peaks that reached as high as a mile above the surrounding sea, had long been associated with the more than four-hundred-year-long tradition of European exploration. Madeira was first colonized by Portugal in 1434 by one of the knights of Henry the Navigator, the prince traditionally credited with spearheading his country’s pioneering voyages down the west coast of Africa and, ultimately, to the East Indies. Several decades later, Christopher Columbus lived for a time at Madeira and the neighboring island of Porto Santo. He married a member of the local lesser nobility, and his conversations with the many sailors who touched at this famous island may have led him to first consider a voyage west. Even the island’s eponymous wine was associated with voyages to distant lands. When a trading vessel returned to Madeira from the East Indies with an unopened cask in her hold, the wine was found to have a uniquely sweet, fortified flavor—a consequence of its having been repeatedly baked in the equatorial heat. Thus was born the wine that quickly became a favorite in Elizabethan England and in colonial America. In 1768, James Cook, on his way to his first voyage of discovery, stopped at Madeira, where he took on more than three thousand gallons of wine.
For the next nine days, the officers and scientists fanned out across the island. In emulation of his renowned predecessor, Wilkes secured several casks of choice Madeira, which he and, on occasion, his officers would enjoy throughout the duration of the voyage. The stop was, Wilkes claimed, “of infinite benefit to the officers and crews.”
After touching at Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands (also visited by Cook), the squadron headed west across the Atlantic. During the long passage to Rio de Janeiro, Reynolds ran into unexpected trouble with the Vincennes’s first lieutenant Thomas Craven. Reynolds had served with Craven before and had found him to be a capable and friendly officer. But for no apparent reason during the passage to Rio, Craven accused Reynolds of neglect of duty and gave him a thorough dressing down. “If any one on shore had spoken to me in that way,” Reynolds wrote in his journal, “I should have struck him & certainly I felt very much inclined to do to Mr. Craven.”
What Reynolds didn’t realize was that ever since the Expedition’s departure from Norfolk, Craven had become the object of his commander’s intense and increasingly vindictive envy. Wilkes was suffering under a deep sense of insecurity. As so many navy captains had already pointed out, he had precious little experience at sea, while Craven was recognized as one of the best seamen in the squadron. If Wilkes hadn’t been so insecure about his own nautical ability, he might have recognized how lucky he was to have Craven for a first lieutenant. Instead, he felt threatened by him. Even as Wilkes strove to present an urbane and judicious face to Reynolds and his friends, he covertly worked to undermine Craven. By October, Wilkes’s constant harassment and fault-finding had pushed his first lieutenant to take out his frustrations on Reynolds, whom all recognized as one of the commander’s favorites.
Reynolds decided he must report the incident to Wilkes. “I understand you, Mr. Reynolds,” Wilkes assured him, “& depend upon it, such things shall not happen again.” Reynolds felt confident that his troubles with Craven were now over, adding, “Had I not known Captain Wilkes well and been fully aware that he was free from all petty notions such as that my rank will permit [Craven] to inflict insult without fear . . . , I never would have gone to him with my complaint against his First Lieutenant.”
“Bah!” Reynolds would later write in the margins of his journal, “he hated Craven & this was the reason he took my part—cove that I was, not to have seen through him then.”
As the squadron made its way south and west across the middle of the Atlantic, Wilkes directed a daily search for shoals, islands, and even a volcano that had been reported but had never been independently verified. Spreading out all five vessels from north to south, so that an estimated twenty miles of latitude could be continuously scanned on a clear day, they sailed over the coordinates of these “vigias,” or doubtful shoals. Invariably they found no sign of any hazard, and Wilkes would later send a list of these phantom shoals to the secretary of the navy. As the Ex. Ex. was proving, exploration was as much about discovering what did not exist as it was about finding something new.
At night during the passage to Rio de Janeiro, the sea seemed to catch fire. Bursts of light sparkled at the vessels’ bows while glowing contrails curled in their wakes—a phenomenon known as “the phosphorescence.” Referred to today as “bioluminescence,” this greenish-yellow light is believed to be caused by tiny dinoflagellates, single-celled marine organisms that undergo a light-producing oxidation process when disturbed. “Every drop that was tossed up shone from its own light,” Reynolds recorded, “and as it fell again into the ocean, diffused around rings & circles of the same intense glow, the night being black as Erebus.”
On other nights, it was the sky that demanded their attention. As they approached the latitude of Rio de Janeiro, they saw what were known as Magellanic Clouds. The explorer Magellan and his men had recorded sighting these “shiny white clouds here and there among the stars” on the first leg of their voyage around the world. Similar in appearance to the Milky Way, and most easily seen in the Southern Hemisphere, Magellanic Clouds remained a mystery well into the twentieth century—although that did not stop John Cleves Symmes from speculating that they had something to do with his hole at the South Pole. Now known to be galaxies external to our own Milky Way, some as many as 195,000 light-years away, Magellanic Clouds were just one of several spectacular celestial phenomena observed by the Exploring Expedition during the passage to South America. One night, dozens of falling stars lit up the sky. “[A]h! these evenings defy slumber,” Reynolds wrote, “and long after the usual hour of rest the upper deck is thronged with ardent gazers, who glow with rapture as they look.”
Some of the more ardent gazers in the squadron were the Expedition’s two artists, Alfred Agate and James Drayton. In an era before photography, artists were a crucial part of any expedition, providing drawings and paintings that were later used to create illustrations for the published scientific reports and narrative. Although both accomplished artists, Agate and Drayton had the benefit of a relatively new invention, the camera lucida—an optical device that projected the virtual image of an object onto a piece of paper for tracing. In the months ahead, the two artists, as well as the naturalist Titian Peale, would use the camera lucida to create images of hundreds of specimens and artifacts, as well as portraits of the many different peoples they encountered. They also created drawings and paintings depicting important scenes and events during the voyage, often basing their work on sketches provided by the squadron’s officers.
On the afternoon of November 23, under full sail, the Vincennes stood in for Rio. Soon she had entered a circular bay almost one hundred miles in circumference surrounded by the spurs of a low mountain range. Ships from all over the world were anchored in groups around the bay. As the Vincennes sailed up the harbor, she passed the USS Independence, the flagship of the Brazil squadron, and Commodore John Nicholson’s band struck up “Hail Columbia.” Under normal circumstances, naval ceremony required that Wilkes fire a salute in recognition of his superior officer, but because of the delicacy of the chronometers aboard the Vincennes, Wilkes decided to forgo this custom. He sent an officer to the Independence to explain the reason behind the apparent slight, but Nicholson “appeared somewhat put out,” Wilkes remembered, “and it was industriously circulated that I had intentionally treated him with disrespect.”
The Peacock had preceded the Vincennes by three days and was already undergoing repairs, but the Relief, which had been sent ahead soon after leaving Norfolk, was nowhere to be seen. Not until four days later, one hundred days after leaving Norfolk, did the storeship arrive, making it one of the longest passages to Rio on record. Instead of following the prevailing breezes east before heading south and west for South America, Lieutenant Long had sailed a more direct, but very slow course. Wilkes already had little confidence in Long (he had been, after all, one of the officers he had inherited from Jones’s original expedition), and he took the opportunity to berate him in the presence of the Peacock’s Captain Hudson.
Wilkes planned to stay in Rio for at least a month. While the squadron underwent repairs, he would conduct his initial gravity and magnetic experiments. He made arrangements with the Brazilian authorities to create a base at an old convent on Enxadas Island at the mouth of Gunabara Bay facing Rio. Here Wilkes created the same hive of activity that had existed at his Capitol Hill home the previous summer. “[T]he tents are spread,” Reynolds recorded, “and the portable houses for the Instruments are put up, and the Instruments are fixed in their stands . . . , and there is a hum and a life and a stirring spirit pervading the usually quiet island.”
In addition to supervising his own experiments, Wilkes was responsible for coordinating the scientists’ journeys into the Brazilian interior, where they would collect no less than five thousand specimens for shipment back to the United States. Wilkes also supervised the repair of the Peacockand the fumigation of the Porpoise, and he quickly found himself spread too thin. “I have too much anxiety or rather too many persons depending upon me,” he wrote Jane. He knew that his own observations must meet exacting standards since they were to be later integrated with observations being made by Lieutenant Gilliss at the Depot and Professor William Bond at Harvard.
Particularly torturous were the pendulum experiments. Wilkes had procured a sixty-eight-inch-long nonadjustable, or “invariable,” free-swinging pendulum from Francis Baily. After suspending the pendulum from an iron tripod, he set up a pendulum clock behind the tripod. Both the clock and the invariable pendulum were swung, and since the two pendulums were different lengths, they swung at different rates. Every so often, however, they would coincide. Observing the two pendulums through a telescope set up on the opposite side of the room, he would record the exact time of the coincidence, repeating the observation over and over again for days on end. Eventually, enough data was accumulated to determine the precise duration of a single swing of the pendulum. With this time and the length of the pendulum, it was then possible to calculate the force of gravity.
As the experiments wore on, Wilkes started to experience terrible headaches. He demanded complete quiet, and when a man mending a sail in an adjacent room of the convent building accidentally made a noise, Wilkes “went off in a minute,” according to an officer assisting him in the experiment. “Where is he?” Wilkes screamed. “The son of a bitch. . . . I’ll pound him! Where is he? By God, I’ll throttle him!” For the officers who had worked with him prior to the voyage’s departure, it was a startling change in behavior. “These little outbreaks,” Reynolds wrote, “were rather ominous for the future harmony of the squadron.”
Wilkes was exhibiting the symptoms of a man who had been stretched beyond his capabilities. The less in control he felt, the more he became fixated on the issue of rank. At one point Commodore John Nicholson, commander of the Independence on station at Rio, addressed him as “Mister,” instead of “Captain,” Wilkes. When Wilkes expressed his outrage in a letter, Nicholson coolly responded, “To call you a Captain or Commander would not make you one.” It was a statement that appears to have cut Wilkes to the quick.
Late one night, as he sat alone beside his “wagging pendulum,” he burst into tears. “I had a good cry,” he admitted to Jane (from whom he would withhold nothing throughout the voyage), “which relieves me not a little. How few, my dear Janie, would believe that the Commdr. Of the Expg Expedn. could be so easily brought to the sinking mood against all the duties that he is surrounded with.”
In late December, Wilkes finally finished his pendulum experiments. By then, Lieutenant Long and the Relief were already on their way south. It was time, he decided, for some relaxation. With his flag lieutenant, Overton Carr, and a servant, he went ashore to enjoy a heated bath. But when he emerged from the warm water, he collapsed into his servant’s arms. “I was conscious,” he remembered, “but could not speak.” Carr immediately took him to a nearby hotel and put him to bed. When news spread that the commander had fainted and was now catatonic, it “produced a sensation throughout the fleet,” Wilkes wrote Jane, “and officers came [running from] all directions.” Just three months into the voyage, he was physically and emotionally depleted. Although the surgeon Edward Gilchrist pronounced “the case a very serious one” and suggested a regimen of “restoratives,” Wilkes opted for nothing more than a good night’s sleep. The next morning he was up and back at work, “to the great surprise of everybody.” The fact remained, however, that the commander of the Ex. Ex. was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
On January 6, the squadron departed from Rio de Janeiro, but not before Wilkes and Nicholson exchanged a final, acrimonious flurry of correspondence. Wilkes accused the commodore of “endeavoring to decry [the Expedition’s] National character and destroy its efficiency by not extending to the Commanding Officers the courtesy and etiquette that their situation . . . commands.” It all came down to Nicholson’s having called him Mr. Wilkes. Baffled and irked by Wilkes’s tormented rage, Nicholson asked him a very good question: Rather than pretend to be something he wasn’t, why didn’t he instead choose to relish the fact that he, a young lieutenant, had been given such a prominent command? “You should feel more highly the honor which has been conferred upon you, as Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, . . . than all the empty and evanescent titles that could be given by either the people or officers of our own Country or any other.” Nicholson would ultimately send copies of his correspondence with Wilkes to Paulding at the Navy Department with a cover letter referring to “the wrong impressions he appears to entertain relative to his supposed rank.”
Even before the squadron had departed from the United States, Wilkes knew that he would be hard-pressed to reach Cape Horn in time to launch a voyage south before the end of the Antarctic summer in late January. From the beginning, time was of the essence. But Wilkes had shown little inclination to hurry. The squadron had spent a leisurely ten days at Madeira and more than a month in Rio. It was true that the Peacock had needed major structural repairs, but Wilkes had chosen to focus on his feud with Commodore Nicholson and his interminable pendulum experiments rather than the pressing need to fix the Peacock and be off as soon as possible. Instead of boldly forging ahead, Wilkes had hung back, apparently unable to confront the trial that lay to the south.
They were now more than a week into January and still had at least 1,800 miles between them and the tip of South America. Given the importance of the Antarctic cruise to the Expedition, Wilkes should have dispensed with the scheduled survey of the Rio Negro in Patagonia and sailed with all dispatch for Cape Horn. But to the astonishment of his officers, the squadron proceeded under easy sail and on January 25 dropped anchor at the mouth of the Rio Negro. The next morning, as First Lieutenant Craven directed preparations to begin the survey in the boats, Wilkes retreated to his cabin, where he lay in the grip of yet another one of his debilitating headaches.
By sundown, the boats were more than three miles from the Vincennes. The current was so strong that it was almost impossible to row against it, so with night approaching, Craven and his men made for the much closer Porpoise. Meanwhile, back on the Vincennes, Wilkes, still suffering from a headache, began to suspect that Craven had taken the opportunity to spend a night “in merrymaking” aboard the Porpoise.
The next morning, Wilkes determined that Craven must be punished. Even though he had absolutely no tangible proof of misconduct, he sent his trusted flag lieutenant Overton Carr to do his bidding. Craven was ordered back to the Vincennes while Carr assumed command of the survey. Craven soon learned that he had been suspended and that Carr had been named first lieutenant.
Craven and his fellow officers were at a loss to know what he had done wrong. As Wilkes would come close to admitting years later in his Autobiography, Craven’s real sin was not a breach of discipline, but his undeniable competence. By suspending Craven and making Carr the first lieutenant, Wilkes was consciously striking out at an officer whose chief fault was that he “regarded himself as the acting spirit in . . . managing the ship.” It was a shabby, duplicitous, and manipulative abuse of power, but Wilkes’s actions against Craven may have saved the Expedition. Prior to the incident, he had become stupefied with exhaustion and self-doubt. The leadership style that had worked at Georges Bank was clearly not going to get him through a voyage of this magnitude. Instead of being everyone’s friend, he was much better at cultivating his enemies. By lashing out at Craven he had finally roused himself to action. Refreshed and invigorated by his triumph over his first lieutenant, he began to look ahead with enthusiasm for the first time in the voyage.
Soon after Craven’s suspension, an onshore gale kicked up, putting the squadron in immediate peril. The surf was breaking on the nearby shore “with tremendous violence,” Reynolds wrote, “as if it would wash the sandy barrier away.” There wasn’t enough time to raise the heavy and cumbersome anchors, so the order was given to slip their cables. Leaving behind buoys to mark the locations of the anchors, the squadron began to claw away from the desolate shore of Rio Negro. Wilkes took great pride in the way that both he and his new first lieutenant responded to the challenge. “I was somewhat pleased to let [Craven] see that there were others quite as competent to perform the duties as he,” Wilkes wrote. By suspending his first lieutenant, he had “destroyed within his mind that over Conceit he had in the ability to alone perform and take care of the ship.” It was a form of psychological warfare Wilkes would subsequently employ against all officers who, in his judgment, dared to view themselves as indispensable.
Reynolds and his fellow officers were not sure what to think about Craven’s suspension. No one liked trouble, and yet a suspension might allow for promotions from below. Perhaps Wilkes had his reasons. “[T]he friends who were so devoted to the Commander would not suffer a voice to be raised against him,” he wrote, “and threatened to quarrel with any one who should say a word to his prejudice. Mr. Wilkes was still an Idol to many, and he knew it.”
After retrieving their anchors, the squadron left Rio Negro on February 3. Although Wilkes knew where they were headed, he chose, once again, not to share the information with his officers. Some guessed they were headed for the Falkland Islands; others figured that due to the lateness of the season, they were headed around the Horn for Valparaiso, Chile. Whatever the case might be, for the present they were headed south. When it began to snow on February 6, the quartermaster Thomas Piner, one of the older members of the Vincennes’s crew, commented that they were now “getting into the suburbs.”
Then it began to blow. “The ship laboured much,” Reynolds wrote, “damaging crockery by the wholesale & taking in oceans of water.” His ornate bed was not suitable for a gale, so he was forced to spend the night in a hammock in steerage: “[T]o pass the night among such a million of noises, from the tramping & voices of men, the bleating & grunting of the live stock, the workings of the Masts & guns, the creaking of the Ladders, the howling of the winds, the strong dash of the breaking waves, & the continual fetching away of some thing or other about decks, is to suffer more than can be imagined, but which is well known, to all who have weathered out a Gale at Sea.”
The next day, warm clothing, including the India rubber jackets originally ordered by Jones, was distributed to the crew. On Saturday, February 16, exactly twenty-four weeks after leaving Norfolk, they sighted the wave-washed outcropping of Cape Horn. Despite the Horn’s fierce reputation, the weather was wonderful—warm, sunny, and quiet—and the Vincennes sailed on with her studding sails set.
It was soon learned that they were to proceed to Orange Bay, a well-protected natural harbor just inside the Hermit Islands at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego. Ever since 1616 when the Dutch explorer Willem Schouten named the bleak rock at the end of South America for his hometown of Hoorn in the Netherlands, Cape Horn and its gale-force southwesterly winds had been studiously, often desperately avoided by vessels attempting a passage between the world’s two largest oceans. During the War of 1812, navy captain David Porter had rounded the Horn in the American frigate Essex. “[O]ur sufferings . . . have been so great,” he wrote, “that I would advise those bound into the Pacific, never to attempt the passage of Cape Horn, if they can get there by another route.” Wilkes and his men were about to sail into the mythic recesses of one of the most feared places on earth.
Wilkes had instructed Lieutenant Long and the Relief to proceed directly to Orange Bay, where he was to have already set up a revolving signal light atop a hill. Since they had no charts of the waters immediately surrounding Cape Horn—a region no mariner in his right mind would choose to visit—they had to be very careful as they felt their way along this rocky, inhospitable tip of the world, especially since, as Reynolds observed, “changes occur here, like lightning—quick & often unexpected.”
All that night the wind remained light and baffling. At six in the morning, by which time the sun had already been up for two hours, all hands were called on deck to work the ship through a narrow, rock-rimmed channel. The wind was against them, requiring that they tack the Vincennes every five minutes. Repeatedly tacking a seven-hundred-ton square-rigged ship in a confined space required exceptional coordination and skill: The ship’s bow was swung quickly into the wind, and with her head yards thrown aback, the bow fell off from the wind until the after yards were swung around so that the sails could fill as the ship settled onto the new tack. Soon after coming up to speed, it was time once again to tack. In light air, there was always a danger that the ship might not have enough momentum to complete the maneuver—known as “missing stays”—a potentially disastrous turn of events when in close quarters with a rock. Tension mounted aboard the Vincennes, especially when darkness started to come on. “We were in an unknown place,” Reynolds wrote, “we knew nothing of the localities, nothing positive & certain. We had no soundings [due to the extreme depth of the water] & of course could not Anchor.”
In hopes of attracting the attention of the Relief, they fired guns and rockets. Lookouts strained to see the light that was supposed to have been placed on a high hill. Twice a star rising up over the land was mistaken for the signal.
At midnight the wind began to freshen. In fear of blundering into the rocks, the topsails were reefed, and the Vincennes stood offshore and waited for daylight. At four that morning it was light enough to read on deck, and the Porpoise was discovered nearby. An hour later, as the sun rose “in fiery splendor,” they saw it—the Relief at anchor. By six in the morning, they, too, were anchored in Orange Bay.
That afternoon Wilkes finally withdrew “the veil of mystery.” “[A]ll hands went to work as if Life & death depended on their exertions,” Reynolds wrote. Despite the lateness of the season, they were “to go South.”