THERE WASN’T MUCH that could intimidate James Cook. But on January 30, 1774, the indomitable explorer met his match. Four days after crossing the Antarctic Circle, he reached latitude 71°10’ south—farther south than anyone had ever ventured. In front of him stood an immense and impenetrable field of ice, “whose horrible and savage aspect I have no words to describe.” He could have pushed east or west in search of an opening to the south, but Cook had had enough. “I whose ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go, was not sorry at meeting with this interruption,” he later recorded in his journal. He suspected that a large landmass existed to the south, but he was quite content to leave its discovery to someone else. “[W]hoever has resolution and perseverance to clear up this point by proceeding farther than I have done,” he wrote, “I shall not envy him the honour of the discovery.”
More than sixty-five years later, on February 25, 1839, Charles Wilkes held out hope that he might claim that prize. Unfortunately, it was already a month later in the season than when Cook had reached what had become known as his “Ne Plus Ultra” (Latin for “No Farther”), and Wilkes had not yet left Orange Bay.
The last week had been a mad scramble of preparation. The Vincennes was to remain in Orange Bay, where Lieutenant Carr would oversee the collection of meteorological data as well as the celestial observations required to check the rates of their chronometers. Lieutenant Alden, with Passed Midshipman William Reynolds as his second-in-command, was to survey the rocky coastline of Tierra del Fuego in a thirty-five-foot launch. In the meantime, Lieutenant Long in the Relief would take the scientists on a collecting trip into the Strait of Magellan. That left the Porpoise, the Peacock, and the two schooners for a voyage south.
The Antarctic summer had already turned to autumn—dramatically increasing the risk of becoming trapped in the ice. In the event that they might be forced to winter below the Antarctic Circle, the vessels were loaded with enough provisions to last between eight and ten months. Orange Bay became a scene of near-constant activity. Boxes of provisions were taken from the Relief and the Vincennes and loaded into the Peacock, Porpoise, Flying Fish, and Sea Gull as boats bearing firewood and casks of water continually came and went from shore.
Due to the dangerous nature of the duty they were about to undertake, Wilkes decided that lieutenants, instead of passed midshipmen, should be put in command of the schooners. When it was learned that two junior lieutenants, Robert Johnson and William Walker (both part of Wilkes’s inner circle), were to command the Sea Gull and the Flying Fish, respectively, there was an outcry of protest from the senior lieutenants; Hudson’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Samuel Lee, even wrote Wilkes a strongly worded letter. Wilkes responded in a manner that was calculated “to astonish everyone.” With a stroke of his pen, he dismissed Lee from the squadron, ordering him to report to the Relief for passage back to the United States once he reached Valparaiso. This required a complete reshuffling of officers, and in less than an hour, Wilkes had issued the necessary orders, reassigning a total of eleven lieutenants. (Now down an officer, Wilkes reinstated First Lieutenant Craven to active duty aboard the Vincennes, but not until Craven had written a letter of apology.)
Wilkes would later describe the suspension of Lieutenant Lee as “the turning point of the discipline of the cruise.” Lee, like Craven before him, was one of the senior lieutenants he had inherited from the earlier expedition. He was now convinced that they were part of a “mutinous cabal” that if allowed to continue unchecked would destroy the squadron. “[T]he many headed Hydra is completely overcome,” he wrote Jane, “but I have [to] keep a very watchful eye on the boys hereafter.” Lieutenant Johnson, the new commander of the Sea Gull, had a different perspective on the incident. “Every one says the devilish Schooners are the cause of it all,” he wrote. “They ought at first to have been given to the two senior lieutenants when they applied for them.”
By February 25, it was time to depart. Wilkes divided the four vessels into two groups. Hudson, in command of the Peacock, would sail west and south in the company of the Flying Fish in an attempt to better Cook’s Ne Plus Ultra in the vicinity of longitude 106° west. Wilkes had taken over command of the Porpoise and, along with the Sea Gull, would sail south and east toward the South Shetland Islands.
Wilkes’s greatest hopes for discovery lay to the east of the South Shetlands. In the more than sixty years since Cook’s historic voyage south, only one navigator had bettered his mark. On February 18, 1823, the British sealer James Weddell, sailing from the South Orkney Islands, well to the east of the South Shetlands, had reached latitude 74°15’ south, longitude 34°16’ west, almost two hundred miles farther south than Cook. Instead of a wall of ice, Weddell had encountered open water and warm temperatures, prompting him to wonder if instead of land, a navigable sea might extend all the way to the pole. Since that time, no explorer had been able to come close to Weddell’s achievement. Wilkes theorized that the lateness of the season might actually work to his advantage when it came to reproducing the conditions the British sealer had encountered in what is known today as the Weddell Sea.
The Porpoise and the Sea Gull were the first to depart Orange Bay at 7:30 A.M. on February 25. “[W]e gave them three hearty cheers,” Reynolds wrote, “wishing them, with all our hearts, a prosperous time, and a safe return.” At four P.M., a heavy squall pushed the two vessels with a shove out into the fearsome waters of the Drake Passage, the six-hundred-mile stretch of open water between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands. The Drake Passage is the only place on earth where the wind can circulate around the entire globe without ever touching land, making it one of the most dangerous places on the planet for a sailing vessel.
The following day, they came upon a whaleship from New York, homeward bound with 3,800 barrels of oil. Realizing that the whalers would soon be back in the United States, Wilkes asked if they’d be willing to take along some letters. The whaling captain cheerfully agreed, and soon the officers of both the Porpoise and the Sea Gull were scribbling out notes to their loved ones. They were descending into one of the coldest, most perilous parts of the world at a time of year when anyone with any sense would have been headed in the opposite direction. All of them could not help but wonder if these might be the last letters they ever wrote. “I am in excellent spirits,” Wilkes assured Jane, “and am living with Ringgold during this trip.” He added that their nephew Wilkes Henry “is quite well and grown astonishingly.”
With the wind almost directly behind them, they sailed to the southeast at nine knots over huge rolling waves that Wilkes calculated to average thirty-two feet in height. For those aboard the tiny Sea Gull, it was proving to be a thrilling and very wet ride as the narrow schooner surfed into the backsides of the cresting seas. On February 28, the jarring strain of several days of wave-riding caused the Sea Gull’s gaff to break. Despite the immense seas, Johnson was able to maneuver the schooner to within a few feet of the Porpoise and transfer the splintered spar to the brig’s carpenter, who had it repaired in a few hours.
That afternoon it began to snow, and they sighted their first cape pigeons or petrels—dark-brown birds lightly spotted with white that are known for following ships in the Southern Ocean for days at a time. Cape pigeons are also regarded as a sign that icebergs are in the vicinity, and sure enough, at dawn the following day, they saw their first “island of ice.” Wilkes remarked that the icebergs looked worn, “as if the sea had been washing over them for some time.”
They had crossed the Antarctic Convergence, the area where the relatively warm waters from the north meet the cold surface waters to the south. They had entered a region of colder, less salty water, with markedly different flora and fauna. Both the Porpoise and the Sea Gull were soon surrounded by swimming penguins. “I had not known that the Penguins lived so much in water,” wrote Lieutenant Johnson, who was also impressed by the number of whales. “[O]n any part of the Horizon you might be able to sing out ‘Spout ho!’”
But it was the icebergs that most impressed all of them. “[W]e met with some large Islands of ice fifty times as large as the Capitol and much whiter,” Wilkes wrote Jane, “and a great deal higher. . . . [S]oon we were literally surrounded with them, and a most magnificent sight it was too.” On March 1 they sighted several of the South Shetland Islands—volcanic, snow-topped outcroppings that had prompted one sealer to wonder if “Madame Nature had been drinking too much when she form’d this place.”
Wilkes had hopes of landing on one of the islands to collect some specimens, but the conditions remained too rough. By March 3, they’d sailed to within sight of the eastern tip of Palmer’s Land. By now the icebergs were so numerous that navigation was extremely difficult. Johnson in the Sea Gull judged the conditions to be “utterly impassible.” But Wilkes remained undaunted. “[M]y little favorite the Porpoise showed herself worthy of the affection I have for her,” he wrote Jane. With the schooner following in her wake, the brig continued south, the helmsmen of both vessels forced to “put starboard and port every instant to avoid running into [ice].”
Instead of the danger, Wilkes was transfixed by the view. “I have rarely seen a finer sight,” he wrote. “The sea was literally studded with these beautiful masses, some of pure white, others showing all the shades of opal, others emerald green and occasionally here and there some of a deep black, forming a strong contrast to the pure white.” At one point, with no fewer than two hundred icebergs in sight, Lieutenant Ringgold turned to Wilkes and proclaimed, “This is adventuring with boldness.” The two of them laughed, and Wilkes decided to name the three small islands ahead of them the Adventure Islets.
At eight P.M. the fog socked in, forcing them to lay to till daylight. With both the air and water temperature at close to 28°F (the freezing point of salt water), it made for a miserable night, especially since the special cold-weather clothing provided by the government proved next to useless. When on March 5 the wind increased to a heavy gale as the temperature dropped to 25°F, Wilkes realized that it was time to retreat north. Both vessels were coated with snow and ice, but conditions were particularly bad aboard the Sea Gull. Every five minutes or so a large wave would break over the little schooner and drench the men. Icicles, “forming with the direction of the wind,” hung from the rigging; her fore sheets were so caked with ice that they were “the size of a sloop of war’s cable.” Wilkes ordered Johnson to return to Orange Bay after first stopping at Deception Island (one of the South Shetlands), where he was to attempt to retrieve a self-registering thermometer left by an earlier British expedition. Although he had no regrets about turning back, Johnson suspected that Wilkes was planning to continue on without him. After beating the ice from the rigging, the crew of the Sea Gull made sail for Deception Island.
Wilkes had no illusions about the terrible conditions. To continue south would have been madness given the time of year. While Johnson headed west, Wilkes ordered the helmsman of the Porpoise to steer north, along the eastern edge of the South Shetland Islands. Instead of being shaken and dispirited by his brief bout with the Antarctic ice, Wilkes remained jubilant. “[T]hus far,” he later reported to Jane, “I may say the Expedition has proved as successful as I could have hoped or expected. . . . I never felt myself so full of energy in my life as I do now.” “Adventuring with boldness” apparently agreed with the commander of the Ex. Ex.
To be sure, Wilkes had no reason to apologize for not pushing any farther south. Nine years before, Jeremiah Reynolds and some of the most experienced sealers in America (including the redoubtable Nathaniel Palmer) had not made it beyond the South Shetland Islands, even though the privately funded expedition had left Cape Horn more than a month earlier in the season than Wilkes. Just the year before, the veteran French explorer Dumont d’Urville, whose king had offered each member of his expedition a bonus of a hundred francs if they reached latitude 75° south and an extra twenty francs for every additional degree south, had met with disappointing results. Despite having started in early January, d’Urville had been unable to get beyond 65° south. By the time he sailed for South America, more than half his men had succumbed to scurvy.
D’Urville’s experience below the Antarctic Convergence had been so demoralizing that he had chosen to spend the current Antarctic summer months in Polynesia, gathering his men’s strength for one last sail south. This meant that even though the French had departed a year ahead of the U.S. Ex. Ex., they had lost their initial advantage. When it came to the race to being the first to identify what lay to the south, it was now a dead heat between the French and the Americans.
But, in actuality, both Wilkes and d’Urville, along with a slew of sealers in the early 1820s, had already glimpsed the Antarctic Continent. What Wilkes called Palmer’s Land is now known as the Antarctic Peninsula and has become the primary destination for tourists looking to visit the southernmost continent.
But all that was in the distant future. As far as Wilkes and d’Urville were concerned, the search was still on. And besides, there was always the chance that Lieutenant Hudson had met with unexpected success to the west.
It hadn’t started well. Soon after leaving Orange Bay on the morning of February 25, the Peacock and the Flying Fish had been blasted by a squall that sent them scurrying back for the protection of the bay’s outer anchorage. The next morning they were under way in a strong northerly breeze, but an unexpected current from the south of more than eight knots meant that they were barely making any real progress south.
The next day, in a blinding gale, the Peacock and the Flying Fish were separated. As agreed upon, the Peacock waited for twelve hours, but after seeing no sign of the schooner, Hudson ordered that they head to the southwest.
Like any sloop-of-war, the sides of the Peacock had been pierced to accommodate her guns; unfortunately, this did not make her a particularly good exploring vessel since the gun ports, which had begun to warp, leaked alarming amounts of the frigid Southern Ocean. Even Hudson’s cabin was frequently awash. “I have no doubt,” he wrote, “most of us will have to submit to the tortures of Rheumatism as a set off to our curiosity and love of adventure.”
Two stoves were set up belowdecks, and hot coffee was served to the men at midnight. In the early predawn hours of March 9, it began to snow, prompting Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry Jr. (the son of the War of 1812 hero) to awaken the naturalist Titian Peale, the only member of the scientific corps to have been included in this first voyage south, and show him an unusual artifact: the snowball he had made while on deck.
A heavy cross-sea made for an uncomfortable ride, particularly for the men up in the ship’s rigging, who were ordered to let out the reefs in the topsails for the first time since leaving Orange Bay. Normally the sailors worked barefooted, but given the cold conditions, they’d been given government-issue “exploring boots” that proved to be as leaky as they were cumbersome. That day tragedy struck when William Stewart, captain of the maintop and one of the best seamen aboard the ship, fell from the maintopsail yard, bouncing off the main rigging before plunging into the sea. Sticking out of the water were his two exploring boots. Given the dangerous seas, it would have been impossible to send out a boat for him, but a quick-thinking sailor threw out a bowline and lassoed Stewart’s big boots, and he was soon hauled aboard. The surgeon determined that he’d suffered internal injuries during his fall, and two days later Stewart was buried at sea.
On March 11, they saw their first iceberg. “[E]ven the sailors left their breakfast to have a look at it,” Peale wrote. Peale busied himself shooting birds—including two albatrosses (“ash colored with sooty heads”), a blue petrel, and a cape pigeon. He hoped the birds would be blown back onto the deck of the Peacock, but the winds never seemed to cooperate, and the potential specimens were lost.
On Sunday, March 17, Hudson conducted a religious service on the half-deck. The sea was so high that the men had to lie down on the deck and, according to Peale, “hold on by whatever was near.” Hudson thought that this might have been the first time a sermon had been read “within the South Antarctic Circle,” adding, “I should indeed rejoice to extend the requirements of the Gospel . . . from Pole to Pole.”
The weather was miserable—a wet cold fog that often made it impossible to see the icebergs that loomed ahead until they “popp[ed] up suddenly in your face to bid you defiance.” Unlike Wilkes, who seemed to flourish amid the terrors of an iceberg-infested sea, Hudson quickly grew weary of the strain. “This fancy kind of sailing,” he confided in his journal, “is not all that it is cracked up to be.” But there was one advantage to the steadily falling temperatures. By March 18, the Peacock was coated in a thick layer of ice. “Our Antarctic Caulker has so thoroughly performed his duty,” Hudson wrote, “that we shall be comparatively dry below.”
On March 22, the fog lifted for a moment to reveal an icy barrier similar to what Cook had encountered more than half a century before. Hudson made his way east, hoping for an opening. Heavy squalls battered them on the twenty-fourth, the conditions made all the more dangerous by the presence of dozens of icebergs, some extending as high as two hundred feet above the sea. The next day, the sun broke through the clouds for the first time in almost a week, allowing them to make a noon sight. They were at latitude 68° south, longitude 97°58’ west—just a few degrees from Cook.
An hour later, “a strange sail” was sighted to the west. All hands rushed on deck; it was the first vessel they’d seen in almost a month. They hoisted their flag and fired a gun. To their great joy and relief, they soon realized it was the Flying Fish, and at three P.M. the schooner passed astern of the Peacock, both crews giving each other three hearty cheers. A boat was dispatched to the Flying Fish, and soon Lieutenant Walker, along with a sailor whose cracked ribs were in need of medical attention, were on the Peacock’s deck. Walker had brought his chart with him and seemed eager to tell his story. Hudson ushered the young lieutenant below to his cabin, and with the chart spread out before them, Walker recounted how the Flying Fish, the smallest vessel in the squadron, had just made history.
William Walker had not been particularly happy about commanding the Flying Fish. He felt he should have been given the larger Sea Gull since he was ahead of Robert Johnson on the list. His friends consoled him with the assurance that the ninety-six-ton schooner “would at least make him an honourable coffin.”
Just two days later, on the night of February 26, Walker and his fourteen-man crew began to wonder if that was indeed what the Flying Fish was about to become. As they lay to in the squall that had separated them from the Peacock, gigantic seas continually broke over the schooner’s deck. To continue without the company of the much larger ship seemed like madness. But when the gale moderated the next day, they pushed on to the south.
On the night of March 2, another gale kicked up. The wind shifted direction, creating the same jumbled sea conditions that caused William Stewart’s fall aboard the Peacock. Aboard the schooner, it was part earthquake, part tsunami. “It was almost impossible to stand on deck without danger of being carried overboard,” wrote the surgeon James Palmer, “and below, everything was afloat. Books, clothes and cabin furniture chased each other from side to side; while the bulkheads creaked, and blocks thumped over-head, with a distracting din.”
The storm lasted thirty-six hours. On March 6, they experienced their first sunny day of the cruise. Birds followed behind them; a porpoise leaped at their bow; but at midnight it began to blow. “A dreadful night succeeded,” Palmer wrote. Huge seas broke across the deck, crushing their two boats and ripping the binnacle, the wooden box containing the compass, off its fastenings and into the ocean. The companion-slide was then torn away by a mountainous wave that flooded the cabin and knocked both the helmsman and lookout off their feet. When a whale rubbed up against the beleaguered schooner and an albatross flapped its wings in the face of one of the men, Walker began to wonder if all of nature had somehow conspired against them.
Three days later, they discovered a leak in the bread-room, requiring that they shift the stores aft. Most of the next day was spent at the pumps. The schooner was now leaking at every seam. Their clothes and bedding were completely soaked. Dispensing with their worthless exploring boots, they wrapped their feet in blankets in an attempt to stay warm. Then it began to sleet, covering the schooner’s deck, as well as the jackets of the men, in a glistening shell of ice. When the jib split, the icy conditions made it impossible to take in the sail, which hung over the side by a single hank on the forestay. Five of the men were now so debilitated by cold that they could barely stand. Yet all continued to do their duty without complaint.
On March 14 they reached a prearranged rendezvous point with the Peacock at 105° west, just a few degrees of longitude from Cook’s Ne Plus Ultra. Once the weather began to ease, Walker and his men took the opportunity to repair their damaged boats and tend to a sailor who had fractured a rib. After waiting a day, with no sign of the Peacock, they headed south.
The farther south they sailed, the more astonished they were by the amount of wildlife inhabiting this seemingly barren place. The water was filled with penguins; countless birds swarmed in the air; the many whale spouts reminded the men of smoke curling from the chimneys of a crowded city. At one point a huge right whale, longer than the Flying Fish, appeared in front of the schooner and refused to budge, forcing the men to push the creature off with boathooks.
On March 19 they passed between two icebergs that they calculated to be 830 feet high. They hove to beside one of the massive bergs to fill their water casks with meltwater. “Encompassed by these icy walls,” Palmer wrote, “the schooner looked like a mere skiff in the moat of a giant’s castle.” The towering walls of ice and the cold dry Antarctic air created strange acoustics. “The voice had no resonance,” Palmer wrote, “words fell from the lip and seemed to freeze before they reached the ear.”
Once they’d filled their casks, they continued on through the fog, the deck officer on watch always standing at the forecastle, listening for the roar of breakers. Several times they looked up to discover an iceberg’s frozen sides emerging from the mist. At twilight they narrowly averted slamming into a submerged tongue of ice that would have surely sunk them. Although the icebergs were a constant threat, there was yet another, far more insidious danger: becoming trapped in the ice as the temperature began to drop. By this point all their thermometers had been broken, so they mounted tin pots in the rigging and filled them with water. They would continue south until the water started to freeze.
On March 20, the fog suddenly lifted. There, just a few yards ahead of them, was the wall of ice that had stopped both Hudson and Cook. Fifteen to twenty feet high, it extended to both the eastern and western horizons. To the south lay “a vast and seemingly boundless field,” wrote Walker, who proceeded to head west and then east, “luffing and bearing away alternately to avoid dangerous contact with large detached masses.”
The next day, at four P.M., they found it—an opening to the south. With all sails set, they were doing eight knots, “flattering ourselves,” Walker remembered, “we should get beyond Cook.” But by noon of the next day, “our hopes were blasted in the bud.” They were hove to in another gale. All around them were icebergs, “whose pale masses just came in sight through the dim haze, like tombs in a vast cemetery.”
The next day the skies cleared and the wind disappeared. To the south it seemed as if they could see all the way to the pole. “The eye ached for some limit to the space,” Palmer wrote, “which the mind could hardly grasp.” Behind them, several giant floes of ice collided, closing them in. The ice shifted again, opening up a sliver of space through which Walker attempted to squeeze his little schooner, sometimes forcing her into the ice. The carpenter ran aft, warning that the vessel was not built for this kind of abuse. “[B]ut there was no alternative except to buffet her through,” Palmer wrote, “or be carried to the south.” Finally at nine in the morning of March 22, they reached an area of relative safety. They were at latitude 70° south, longitude 101° west.
Two days later, they found themselves once again in a diminishing breeze, with the temperature dropping. It was so quiet that they could hear the water freezing around them. Palmer described it as “a low crepitation, like the clicking of a death-watch” as the sea’s surface took on an oily appearance that quickly congealed into a thick, soupy slush known as grease ice. Walker knew that if they didn’t break free quickly, they might never break free at all. He headed the Flying Fish downwind until he’d established some headway. Then he “gave her the mainsheet,” yanking in the large aft sail as the headsails were released and the helm was brought down. The schooner veered into the wind and, amid the crackling of sea ice, shot through the barrier to windward.
But they weren’t clear yet. For the next four hours they struggled to the north. The fearful sound of wood grinding against ice prompted the carpenter to attempt a modification to the bow. Borrowing planks from the cabin berths, he tried to reinforce the area of impact at the waterline, but with time running out, Walker refused to wait long enough for him to complete the job. They were constantly adjusting the helm, sometimes tacking, other times jibing, to avoid icebergs that towered over their two masts. Walker was convinced that it was the schooner’s small size that saved them. “I do not believe a ship could have passed these dangers,” he wrote. They finally reached open water at latitude 70°14’ south—less than one degree, or sixty miles, from Cook’s Ne Plus Ultra. Behind them to the south, the water had become “a firm field of ice.” It was time to head home.
They hadn’t surpassed Cook, but they had come very close, and they had done it in a New York pilot boat instead of an overbuilt collier. “I have never known men subjected to equal hardships,” wrote Walker, who proudly pointed out that no American vessel had ever sailed farther south.
Geographers would later discover that even if Walker and his men hadn’t passed Cook in terms of latitude, they had succeeded in sailing closer to Antarctica. Due to her more easterly position, the Flying Fish had come to within 110 miles of Thurston Island, just off the Eights Coast of Antarctica. Today the eastern tip of Thurston Island is called Cape Flying Fish, while the island’s interior contains the Walker Mountains—lasting tributes to this truly extraordinary navigational accomplishment.
On March 25, just a day after their narrow escape from the ice, Walker and his men sighted the Peacock. After hearing Walker’s account of his adventures, Hudson ordered the Flying Fish back to Orange Bay at the tip of South America. The Peacock, in accordance with Wilkes’s instructions, headed north to Valparaiso, Chile, where the entire squadron would soon rendezvous.
It had been a difficult two months for William Reynolds. He had been forced to watch as the Porpoise, the Peacock, and two schooners left Orange Bay for the mystery that lay to the south. “Next year!” he had consoled himself in his journal, “Will be our turn.”
But the duty he had been given was far from a routine surveying assignment. Along with Lieutenant Alden and ten handpicked men, including some of the most experienced sailors in the squadron, he was ordered to explore one of the stormiest coasts in the world in a thirty-five-foot cutter-rigged launch. Although Wilkes appears not to have been fully aware of it, the hazard was huge. The launch, equipped with a small cuddy up forward, was too small and top-heavy to have any hope of weathering the storms that frequented the region. “If they ever get caught in a gale in a sea way . . . ,” wrote the scientist Joseph Couthouy, who was also an experienced mariner, “she will play them the slippery trick before they know it.” For his part, Reynolds was well aware of the danger: “if we should be caught ‘out’ in a S.W. blow, and driven off the Land, we should be lost!”
On March 12, just a day after leaving Orange Bay, Reynolds and company were sailing between the Hardy Peninsula, at the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego, for the Wollaston and Hermit Islands, just to the northwest of Cape Horn. They were in the Mantello Pass, a more than sixty-mile-wide stretch of open water, when they saw “heavy masses of dark mackerel clouds” to the south. They had made it to within a half-mile of Wollaston Island when the wind suddenly switched in direction and climbed in velocity, turning the coast that was to be their salvation into a dreaded lee shore. They watched in horror as “the surf broke tremendously [and] saw plainly what would be our fate, unless we could soon find a secure anchorage.”
It began to rain; then it began to sleet as the wind continued to build. They had no choice but to make a wild dash for Hermit Island to the south. “[The launch] was pressed with sail,” Reynolds wrote, “& bounded from Sea to Sea, with a speed that astonished us.” One of the crewmembers was a man named Jim Gibson, a sailor who had once gone to school with Reynolds back in Lancaster. As the waves broke over the sides of the launch, the two old friends, finding themselves in an open boat at the end of the world, talked of “how Comfortable we should be, if [we] were only by his Aunt Hubley’s stove, sipping hot punch.”
The visibility was so terrible that they couldn’t see what lay ahead of them at Hermit Island. With the waves “deluging us fore and aft,” they came to within two boat-lengths of a rocky point. Just inside the point was a small cove sheltered from the wind. “[T]he helm was put hard down,” Reynolds wrote, “and in another moment we were in calm water, riding quietly at anchor.”
For the next two weeks, they would spend most of their time huddled in this and another cove, riding out a series of ferocious gales, one of which was so severe that back in Orange Bay—supposedly the securest anchorage in the Hardy Peninsula—the Vincennes dragged her anchors. But they were not alone. There were also the local natives, the Yahgan Indians, who, much like Reynolds and company, traveled from island to island in small open boats. Indeed, the Yahgans were wonderfully adapted to life in a bark canoe. With big torsos, long arms, and spindly legs with flaps of skin hanging down from their knees, they traveled the waters off Tierra del Fuego, often with their entire families in a single canoe: the mother and eldest boy paddling, the father bailing out water and tending the fire that always burned on a few stones and ashes in the center of the hull as the infants and toddlers nestled in a bed of dry grass. Despite the horrendous weather, the Yahgans wore little or no clothing and while on land lived in tiny smoke-filled huts surrounded by heaps of limpet shells.
When Darwin had first seen these people a few years before, he had been so shocked by their primitive state that he had written, “one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures, and inhabitants of the same world.” Reynolds, on the other hand, quickly discovered that the Yahgans had skills that he and Alden could only envy. After spending an entire night unsuccessfully attempting to light a fire, the naval officers watched in amazement as some Yahgans walked down to the beach the next morning and created a large blaze amid the wet underbrush. “[W]e could not learn by what means they kindled it,” Reynolds marveled. The Yahgans were also remarkable mimics, repeating with eerie precision just about everything the Americans said.
One day it began to snow, and the sailors and the Indians enjoyed a snowball fight. “[W]e Skylarked among the snow together, as if we had been old friends: they were naked, & we warmly clad & I just thought that we presented as wide a contrast of person & habit as could be met with any where in the world.” But Reynolds, a man who enjoyed his luxuries, was not about to go native. “[I]f they be the children of Nature,” he wrote, “I am thankful that I am a member of a more artificial community, & will [waive forever] the belief, that those barbarous ones who have the fewest wants, lead a more enviable existence than the great civilized mass.”
On March 25, the weather finally began to moderate. Just an hour after leaving their cove, they saw a sail in the distance. It proved to be the Sea Gull, and as the schooner approached, the officers on the launch took up a gun and fired a salute. When Reynolds first stepped onto the schooner’s deck, he was stunned by its comparative size. “The Sea Gull seemed a monster,” he wrote. “I thought her almost too large.” Most of all, however, he felt, for the first time in several weeks, safe.
Johnson explained that soon after they returned to Orange Bay from the South Shetland Islands, he had been sent out on a search for the launch by Lieutenant Craven, who had begun to fear the worst. For their part, Alden and Reynolds were eager to hear about the Sea Gull’s sail south, and they soon learned about the schooner’s stop at Deception Island—how they had anchored in the lagoonlike harbor of a volcano’s drowned crater and set out on an unsuccessful search for the self-registering thermometer left by the British explorer Captain Foster. Johnson and his men had walked over the surface of an active volcano, and even as snow and sleet pummeled their heads, they could feel heat radiating up through the thick soles of their boots. At one point Johnson put his ear to the ground and heard a roaring sound, like “a strong draught in a chimney.”
Over the next week, as Alden supervised the completion of the survey from the security of the schooner, Reynolds fell in love—not with a woman, but with the Sea Gull. He became smitten with everything about this perfectly designed craft. One night as they rode out yet another gale, he could not help but wonder if the Sea Gull were, in fact, alive. “I could scarcely believe that all was mechanical,” he wrote, “that her nice & regular motion was merely the result of properties bestowed on her by the skillful builder. It seemed much more natural to think that She had a mind, an instinct, a will of her own, & that guided by it, she defied the threatening dangers of the Gale.”
By the time they returned to Orange Bay, the squadron was buzzing with excitement. The Flying Fish had brought back word of her historic sail south; Wilkes had returned in the Porpoise, his initial euphoria tempered by an incident at the Strait of Le Maire just off the eastern tip of Tierra del Fuego. In the same storm that had nearly killed Reynolds and his compatriots, one of Wilkes’s officers, Lieutenant John Dale, had been trapped with his boat’s crew on the shore of Good Success Bay. The Porpoise had been forced to make for the open sea, and it had taken almost a week to retrieve Dale and his men. Wilkes blamed the delay on Dale’s incompetence, and a court of inquiry was to be convened once they reached Valparaiso. In the meantime, the Peacock was already on her way to Valparaiso while the Relief was long overdue from her cruise to the Strait of Magellan. In the sixty days since they first arrived at Orange Bay, they had experienced no less than eleven gales, averaging between two and three days in duration. To be trapped in a storm against a lee shore in the Strait of Magellan was a fate no man wanted to contemplate.
On April 17, Wilkes decided that it was time for the Vincennes and Porpoise to depart for Valparaiso. He ordered the two schooners to wait another ten days for the Relief. If the storeship did return to Orange Bay, Wilkes wanted the schooners to transport the scientists to Valparaiso; otherwise they would be delayed even longer by an interminable passage north aboard the slow-sailing Relief. The next time the squadron reassembled, it would be in the warm waters of the Pacific.
The Vincennes anchored at Valparaiso on May 15. Wilkes found the Peacock, but saw no sign of the Relief. From Hudson, who had been at anchor now for close to three weeks, he learned that Lieutenant Long had arrived almost a month earlier and had since sailed up the coast to Callao, Peru, where he was taking on stores. Wilkes also learned why the Relief had not returned to Orange Bay.
While the rest of the squadron had headed south, the Relief had set out from Orange Bay for the Strait of Magellan on February 26. Long had been instructed to sail west and north, following the rocky coastline to the western entrance to the Strait. He was then to sail the length of the Strait, seeking shelter whenever necessary along its north shore while providing the scientists with every possible opportunity to collect specimens. By the time they returned to Orange Bay, no later than April 15, they would have completed a circumnavigation of Tierra del Fuego. But the voyage did not go as planned.
Instead of hugging the shore on his way to the Strait of Magellan, as Wilkes had advised him to do, Long chose to play it safe, heading well offshore before beginning to work north. Unfortunately a series of storms and headwinds turned what Wilkes had predicted would be a two-day passage to the mouth of the Strait into a seemingly interminable struggle up the coast. On March 17, three weeks after leaving Orange Bay, the Relief was finally beginning to approach the western coast of South America. The geologist James Dana looked forward to “fine sport among the guanacos [cousins of llamas], birds and fish of the Straits.” But then it began to blow a gale from the southwest.
“The winds howled through the rigging with almost deafening violence,” Dana wrote. The sleet and dense haze offered little visibility, but Lieutenant Long knew that somewhere to leeward lay what was known as the “Milky Way,” a region of countless rocks and tiny islands that virtually defied navigation. Philip King, the British navy captain whose sailing instructions Long had read with great care, said of the Milky Way: “No vessel ought to entangle herself in these labyrinths, if she does, she must sail by eye. Neither chart, directions, nor soundings, would be of much assistance and in thick weather the situation would be most precarious.”
At three P.M. the next day the lookout cried, “Breakers under the bows!” Out of the thick gray mist loomed the hundred-foot-high Tower Rocks, against which the waves of the Southern Ocean broke with such force that the spray shot up higher than the Relief’s masthead. The ship was brought about but could make no headway against the tremendous wind and waves. The mist broke clear for a few minutes, revealing Noir Island under the lee bow, just a few miles to the northeast. “[N]ight was approaching,” Lieutenant Long wrote, “to claw off or hold our own was impracticable, a portentous sky, and the ‘milky way’ close under our lee, warned us that our graves might be made in it.” Long resolved to sail for the shelter of Noir Island.
“We could not but admire the coolness and judgment of Captain Long,” Dana wrote, “who, through the whole was seated on the foreyard, giving his orders as quietly and deliberately as in more peaceful times.” As the Relief bore down on Noir Island, Long ordered the men to prepare the anchors. In a half hour they had rounded the southeastern point of the island, where they found a small, partially sheltered cove. It would have to do. In sixteen fathoms of water, they brailed up their trysails, luffed into the wind, and let go two of their anchors, along with one hundred and fifty fathoms of chain, and furled the sails. “Here we felt comparatively safe,” Long wrote. That night, the naturalist Charles Pickering overheard one of the officers remark “that a few such days as this would make a man turn gray.” “[T]he sequel proved,” Pickering wrote, “that one’s hair does not turn gray so easily.”
When they awoke the next morning, the wind had diminished. They could see snow atop the six-hundred-foot-high peaks of the island. Some of the scientists, noticing a tiny cove beside them, even talked about going ashore. But then the wind began to build and shifted to the southeast. The island was no longer providing any protection. “A heavy Cape Horn sea was now setting into the harbor,” Dana wrote, “and as the ship reared and plunged with each passing wave we feared that every lurch would snap the cables or drag our anchors.” An old sailor who had been more than forty-five years at sea told Pickering that he “had never before seen such riding.” Behind them was a reef that terminated with a large jagged rock, which now lay directly astern. They watched as the waves thundered against it. That night, the anchors began to drag. Long ordered the men to lower a third anchor, then a fourth. “[T]here seems to be nothing that separates us from eternity,” he wrote in his log, “but the sailors semblance of Hope, the Anchor.”
The next morning, March 20, Long ordered the men to heave in the two larboard chains to see if the anchors were still attached to them. As he had suspected, one of them was gone completely while the other had lost its shank, rendering it worthless. “Our situation may be described,” he wrote, “but I shan’t attempt it.” The wind began to build, creating what Long described as “an awful swell.” As night approached, Long ordered his officers and men to “prepare for the worst.” Dana decided that in the event that the Relief drifted into the ironbound coast of Noir Island behind them, “his the happiest lot who was soonest dead” since those who weren’t drowned or battered to pieces on the rocks could only look forward to dying of exposure on the island, which was now completely smothered in snow. Assuming his time had come, Pickering, the naturalist, decided to retire to his cabin. With a pillow under his head and his cloak wrapped around him, he stretched out on the cabin floor and fell instantly asleep—“a philosophic act,” Wilkes later wrote, “that was in keeping with his quiet and staid manner.”
No one else aboard the Relief appears to have slept a wink that night. “[E]very pitch of the ship was feared as the last,” Dana wrote. “How anxiously we followed her motion down as she plunged her head into the water, and then watched her rising from those depths, until with a sudden start she gained the summit of the wave, and reeled and quivered at the length of her straightened cable!” With each one of these upward thrusts, the remaining anchors and chains could be heard dragging across the rocks—an appalling rumble that to Dana’s ear sounded like the growling of distant thunder. At nine P.M. the crew was ordered on deck “to await the event.” By this time the sound of the dragging anchors had become “almost an incessant peal,” Dana wrote, “announcing that the dreaded crisis was fast approaching.”
They had drifted to within a ship’s length of the reef. One of the anchors finally caught and, for a few brief moments, the Relief hovered in the wild surge of the breakers. “[T]he ship rose and fell a few times with the swell,” Dana wrote, “and then rose and careened as if half mad: her decks were deluged with the sweeping waves, which poured in torrents down the hatches.” The strain on the cables proved too much, and at 11:30 P.M. the anchor chain parted. “[W]e found ourselves,” Long wrote, “at God’s mercy.”
With the remnants of the cables hanging from the bow, the Relief began to drift to her apparent destruction. Then a miracle occurred. For the last few hours the wind had been gradually shifting to the east. Just when it looked as if they were about to fetch up on the large rock at the end of the reef, the Relief—as if nudged by the hand of God—drifted around the final hazard and out to sea.
Long realized that there was now a possibility for action. He waited until Noir Island’s Astronomers Point bore west by south, then ordered the cables slipped. Under fore-trysail and storm-staysail, they wore the ship “short round,” Long wrote, “without unnecessary loss of ground.” More sail was set, and using the smooth water in the lee of Noir Island to his advantage, Long drove the Relief under “a heavy press of sail” to windward. The next morning Pickering awoke to discover that the crisis had passed. The Relief had clawed far enough to weather that Long was confident they would soon clear Cape Gloucester and “once more reach the wide waters of the Pacific in safety.”
They had made no new discoveries, but the officers and men of the Relief had made their mark in the annals of American seamanship. “It is doubtful that in the history of the Navy,” one commentator has written, “there has been a more remarkable escape from destruction on a lee shore.” Long opened his sealed orders and learned that the squadron was headed for Valparaiso. Although he was supposed to have first returned to Orange Bay, he felt that without any anchors he had no option but to continue on to Chile. At Valparaiso, Long was able to secure an anchor from the British warship Fly, and on April 14, the Relief sat quietly at rest for the first time in more than a month and a half.
When, a month later, Wilkes learned of the Relief’s travails, he was filled not with grateful wonder for her deliverance but with outrage and indignation. Long had committed the same sin that had resulted in the longest passage in recorded history to Rio de Janeiro. Ironically, while trying to play it safe, he had put not only his own vessel but the future of the Expedition at risk. If he had only done as Wilkes had recommended—hug the coast, rather than timidly stand off from it—none of this would have happened.
On May 19, the Flying Fish, back under the command of Passed Midshipman Samuel Knox, arrived at Valparaiso. The Sea Gull was nowhere in sight. Shortly after leaving Orange Bay, the two schooners had encountered a particularly violent gale, and Knox had fled back to the bay. Knox had last seen the Sea Gull riding out the gale in the lee of Staten Island and had assumed she would have beaten them to Valparaiso.
It was too early to leap to any conclusions, but if something had happened to the Sea Gull, back under the command of Passed Midshipman Reid, Wilkes blamed it on Long. By Wilkes’s logic, if the Relief hadn’t been overdue at Orange Bay, he wouldn’t have been forced to order the two schooners to wait for the storeship’s return, and the Flying Fish and the Sea Gull would have sailed safely to Valparaiso. In the meantime all they could do was wait and hope that the little schooner and her fifteen-man crew would be soon sighted sailing into the harbor.
Before he headed for Callao and had it out with Lieutenant Long, Wilkes had other matters to attend to in Valparaiso. On May 20, the day after the arrival of the Flying Fish, a naval court of inquiry commenced aboard the Peacock. For the next week, Hudson, who was appointed president of the court, presided over a painstaking reexamination of the actions of Lieutenant Dale at Good Success Bay. After close to a dozen witnesses had been called to testify, it was established that Dale had done everything he could to get his boat-crew off the beach but had been thwarted by the rising surf of an approaching gale. Wilkes, who had insisted on the court of inquiry, would later issue a public reprimand accusing Dale of incompetence and cowardice that was completely at odds with the court’s findings.
The Dale incident would prove to be a kind of watershed in the Expedition, establishing a pattern that would be repeated over and over again for the next three years. Just as he had done earlier with Lieutenants Craven and Lee, Wilkes had felt compelled to pounce on and attack a seemingly innocent and well-meaning officer. No matter how many times this would happen in the years ahead, Wilkes’s officers and men remained at a loss to explain their commander’s behavior.
Some leaders have the ability to step back from even the most volatile situation and assess, as best they can, what really happened. Wilkes, on the other hand, epitomized what has been called the “emotional mind.” He responded to situations quickly and passionately. Even if subsequent events proved that his initial response was unwarranted, he clung like a bulldog to his first impression. The dismissal of Craven at Rio Negro and Lee at Orange Bay resulted from knee-jerk reactions that a more careful and rational weighing of the evidence would have shown to be completely unjustified. But this is not how the emotional mind works. “Actions that spring from the emotional mind carry a particularly strong sense of certainty,” writes Daniel Goleman, “a by-product of a streamlined, simplified way of looking at things that can be absolutely bewildering to the rational mind.” Substitute “his officers” for “the rational mind,” and you have an excellent description of how the squadron’s lieutenants and passed midshipmen responded to these early examples of Wilkes’s style of command.
The case of Lieutenant Dale was just as perplexing. Wilkes had watched events unfold on the wave-hammered shore of Good Success Bay from the deck of the Porpoise. He had had no direct contact with Dale, and except for a few days of anxious waiting, there had been no long term repercussions from the incident. But Wilkes had been infuriated by Dale’s inability to return to the Porpoise. From his perspective, Dale’s actions amounted to a personal insult—a flagrant crime that required a swift and crushing response. Instead of a commanding officer, Wilkes was behaving much like an indignant child on a playground, and his officers were shocked by his callous bullying of a blameless lieutenant.
“Such a villainous attempt to ruin an unoffending man,” William Reynolds later wrote, “opened the eyes of the staunchest admirers of Lieutenant Wilkes to the glaring faults of his character, and to borrow a phrase of his own, [the case of Lieutenant Dale] may be considered as the ‘turning point’ of the feelings of the officers, towards their commander. Here forward, there was no affection for his person, and consideration, humanity or justice was no longer hoped for at his hand.”
Underlying Wilkes’s actions was the conviction that the officers whom he had inherited from Commodore Jones, and who represented the one aspect of the Expedition’s organization over which he had had no control, were incompetent. “It is astonishing,” he wrote Jane, “that all Commdr Jones men and officers with one or two exceptions are good for nothing.” What he did not take into account was that over the course of the last year his inner circle of officers had inevitably gotten to know and respect many of the officers from the previous regime. Reynolds and his friends were becoming less and less willing to stand idly by as Wilkes ran roughshod over their compatriots.
Wilkes, who had not even a smattering of empathetic understanding, remained oblivious to this shift within the squadron. He was convinced that if he could only rid himself of Jones’s officers, all would be well. “[A]ll those I have brought into the Expedn. give me no trouble,” he assured Jane as late as June 16. “They are improving rapidly under my good tuition and I shall be able to make men of them I hope before I have done with them.”
Before the squadron left Valparaiso for Callao in June, Wilkes implemented the first part of a plan “to get rid of many of my worthless officers.” Lieutenant Craven had made it clear that he wanted to command a schooner. Well, Wilkes would grant him his wish. He ordered Craven to remain in Valparaiso to take command of the Sea Gull when she finally arrived. More than a month overdue, the Sea Gull was assumed lost by most officers in the squadron, and Craven made it clear to Wilkes that he knew exactly what his commander was up to. Wilkes insisted, however, that he still held out hope. If, God forbid, the Sea Gull did not arrive, then, of course, Craven would be required to return to the United States. Wilkes could now turn his attention to Lieutenant Long.
Once in Callao, Wilkes ordered that the storeship Relief be fumigated, a procedure that produced three barrels of dead rats. From Wilkes’s perspective, the rats were not the only vermin plaguing the squadron. Long was incompetent and worthy of a court-martial. In addition to Craven, now safely salted away in Valparaiso, and Lee, who had already sailed for the United States on the Henry Lee (a ship named for his uncle), there were Lieutenant Dale and an ever-growing list of lieutenants and surgeons whose chief sin was that they had formerly served under Jones. He wouldn’t be able to rid himself of all of them, but on June 21, Wilkes consigned a goodly portion to the Relief. The storeship, he announced, was too slow to be of use to the squadron. After dropping provisions at Sydney, Australia, and Honolulu, the ship was to return to the United States. “[A]fter I have rid myself of her,” Wilkes wrote Jane, “& her useless trash I shall be well off.” Long, who had won the respect of all who had served under him, did not take Wilkes’s decision well. “Much difficulty & diplomacy” were entailed, Reynolds wrote, “in quieting Captain Long.”
It was while the Relief was being loaded with provisions for its final swing through the Pacific that some minor trouble erupted. Some of the squadron’s marines were ordered to supervise the transfer of whiskey into the storeship’s hold, but instead of maintaining proper discipline, the marines joined the sailors in sampling the wares. Wilkes was not amused by the drunken frolic that resulted. The next day, the offenders suffered twenty-four lashes each, even though twelve was the legal limit without the sanction of a court-martial. When three deserters were delivered to Wilkes a few days later, two received thirty-six lashes while the third got forty-one—once again without a court-martial. Wilkes claimed that there was not enough time for normal due process and that the punishments were not unreasonable considering the offenses. It was a judgment that would come back to haunt him several years later.
By now almost all agreed that the Sea Gull—which had not been seen in several months—had been lost. Wilkes wrote that her officers, Passed Midshipmen James Reid and Frederick Bacon, “were among the most promising young officers in the squadron.” He speculated that the schooner might have tripped her foremast in the gale off Cape Horn, which would have ripped up her deck and caused her to founder. “Poor, poor fellows,” lamented Reynolds, who had grown so closely attached to the vessel and her crew at Tierra del Fuego, “what a terrible lot. The two officers were young men of my age, one if he be indeed gone, leaving a wife more youthful than himself and [a] child that [he] has never seen.”
With Craven and many of the other senior lieutenants eliminated from the squadron, Wilkes began to reshuffle his officers. For a brief time Reynolds feared he might be transferred off the Vincennes to another vessel. Wilkes was now able to reappoint his special favorite Overton Carr (whom he referred to as “Otty” in his letters to Jane) as his first lieutenant. Wilkes liked to think of himself as coolly objective in his dealings with his officers, insisting to Jane that his lieutenants were “not a little astonished at my decision and impartiality for it makes no matter with me who the individual is that offends, I give him the necessary rebuke.” But Otty Carr was the exception. “He is so much in my confidence,” he wrote Jane, “from having been my flag Lieutenant and so long with me that it gives me pleasure to aide him in his duties,” adding that Carr “has risen further than your dear husband by holding on to my coat.”
There was another Wilkes intimate, however, who was giving him no such pleasure. While in Valparaiso, his teenage nephew, Midshipman Wilkes Henry, had been a principal in a duel. Dueling had a long and undistinguished history in the U.S. Navy. One historian has claimed that between 1798 and 1848, thirty-six naval officers were killed in eighty-two duels, approximately two-thirds as many as died in combat during that same period. For a young man whose sense of self-worth was defined by his willingness to die in a noble cause, the dark and romantic tradition of dueling was difficult to resist. Put a steerage full of teenage naval officers together with too much time on their hands, and some sort of trouble was bound to occur. When someone felt his sense of dignity had been slighted, a formal challenge was sure to follow.
When it came to the Ex. Ex., young Wilkes Henry did not have the best of role models. Reynolds’s friend William May had fought several duels, including a bloodless square-off four years earlier against another Expedition lieutenant, A. S. Baldwin. (As was often true after a duel, the two former opponents were now good friends.) Wilkes Henry’s duel dated back to what Wilkes described as a “foolish quarrel” with Passed Midshipman George Harrison in Rio de Janeiro. Unable to arrange the duel in Rio, they were forced to wait until the squadron’s arrival in Valparaiso, where Henry took along fellow midshipman James Blair as his second. Luckily, no one was hurt. “[T]hey took two shots at each other,” Wilkes told Jane, “to little effect.” Wilkes felt he had no alternative but to dismiss all four officers (the two principals and their seconds) from the squadron, calling them “a pack of young boobies.” But it was Wilkes Henry in whom he was most disappointed. “Oh how I do regret I ever consented to his coming in the Expedition,” he wrote Jane.
Knowing that dismissal would ruin his nephew’s naval career, Wilkes continued to agonize over the decision. He consulted Hudson, the one man in the squadron whom he felt he could talk to about such matters. “I told him that I should never forgive myself if any accident happened to [Wilkes],” he told Jane. Hudson’s own son was a midshipman in the squadron. “[H]e said he could readily enter into my feelings.”
On June 22, Wilkes received a letter signed by most of the officers in the Expedition requesting that he not dismiss the duelists and their seconds. The officers promised that they would not allow a similar incident to occur. Wilkes gladly took the opportunity to reevaluate his original decision, especially since it was clear that the officers were most concerned not about Harrison but about his nephew. “[W]hen you know that their fondness for Wilkes has induced them to take this interest for them all,” he wrote Jane, “I am sure you will feel as much gratification as I do about it.” “[A]ll my troubles about Wilkes are at an end,” he happily declared.
The officers’ collective plea of June 22 provided an opportunity of another sort for the commander of the Expedition. The letter represented a surprising gesture of support from the officers, especially given Wilkes’s most recent actions. He might have used the incident as a rallying point—a way to start to rebuild his officers’ morale. He had pared the officer corps down to the extent that it was now dominated by his inner circle. A few nicely timed compliments and promotions would have instilled a renewed sense of purpose and loyalty in a group of men who were yearning for some sign of approval from their commander. Instead, Wilkes listened to Captain Isaac McKeever.
Wilkes had first met McKeever, the commander of the USS Falmouth, at Valparaiso and had been immediately seduced by him. Unlike the hated Commodore Nicholson back in Rio de Janeiro (who would later direct the unsuccessful search for the crew of the Sea Gull ), McKeever immediately referred to him as Captain Wilkes. He also had nothing but praise for Wilkes and the Expedition. Wilkes would later remember that McKeever “gave me encouragement to go forward with resolution and confidence.”
Other officers in the squadron took notice of McKeever’s attentiveness, particularly when the Falmouth followed the squadron to Callao. Once in Peru, McKeever continued his curious wooing of Wilkes, even offering him his ship’s launch and a cutter. “Capt. McKeever seems to feel great interest in the Expedition,” warily noted Lieutenant Johnson, formerly of the Sea Gull and now first lieutenant of the Porpoise. “I hope he has no sinister views.”
Not until early July did it become generally known what McKeever expected as his part in what Johnson termed the “famous bargain.” The removal of so many senior lieutenants from the squadron had created an opening for a sailing master aboard the Vincennes. At the very beginning of the Expedition, Wilkes had promised his officers that all promotions would be made within the squadron’s own ranks. But it turned out that Captain McKeever had a nephew aboard the Falmouth, Lieutenant Edwin DeHaven, who wanted to join the Expedition. Wilkes agreed to make DeHaven his sailing master.
For the junior officers of the Expedition eager for promotion, it was a crushing blow. Reynolds was at the head of the list for the promotion to sailing master, but now he would have to wait. “The Falmouth came in,” he bitterly recorded in his journal, “Cap McKeever, gave us his Launch, IstCutter and his Nephew: which latter, was heartily wished at the d___l by us.” Wilkes would have never acknowledged it, but he was, in effect, continuing the cycle of abuse: just as he had been devastated by Poinsett’s refusal to grant him an acting appointment, now he was imposing the same injustice on Reynolds and his fellow officers. “[T]he wound that has been inflicted will rankle all the cruise,” Reynolds predicted. “I feel as if my very life had been taken away.” For Reynolds and his fellow officers, this was the true turning point of the Expedition.