Charles Wilkes

views updated May 29 2018

Charles Wilkes


American Naval Officer

Charles Wilkes spent his entire working life in the United States Navy. He is best known for leading a four-year voyage of exploration that circled the globe, mapped large parts of the Pacific and Australia, and charted over 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) of the Antarctic coast. He also constructed and opened the forerunner of the U.S. Naval Observatory near Washington, D.C.

Wilkes was born in New York City in 1798 to John and Mary Wilkes. He joined the Navy in 1818, specializing in oceanography. One of his first assignments was to take charge of the recently established Depot of Charts and Instruments, upon which he began construction of a simple astronomical observatory. This grew to become the U.S. Naval Observatory, an important center for astronomical research for many years.

In 1838 Wilkes was given command of a six-ship expedition of discovery, the U.S. Surveying and Exploration Expedition. This expedition, which was to last four years and covered 87,000 miles (139,000 km), mapped large tracts of the Pacific, Australia, and Antarctica, endured severe weather, and returned thousands of scientific and anthropological specimens for further study.

Wilkes was actually the fourth or fifth person asked to lead this expedition, but those asked before him either refused or left. An officer with very little time at sea, Wilkes proved himself to be a strict disciplinarian, driving both himself and his crews rigorously throughout the expedition. Leaving the United States with six ships, Wilkes returned from the voyage having lost only one ship and 15 men.

Following his return, Wilkes found himself court-martialed for inaccurate records (one British ship was logged as sailing across a stretch of what Wilkes recorded as solid land), excessive discipline, and possible falsification of records. All of the charges brought against him were eventually dropped, with the exception of one—he ordered more than the allowed 12 lashes for six crewmen found guilty of theft. Angry and disappointed, Wilkes spent the next three years writing a five-volume narrative of his voyage, of which 100 printed copies were distributed.

At the start of the Civil War, Wilkes returned to active duty and was given command at sea. In 1861, in command of the San Jacinto, Wilkes intercepted the British steamer Trent in the Caribbean and apprehended two Confederate agents, James Mason and John Slidell. The "Trent Affair" very nearly brought Great Britain into the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy and gained Wilkes more notoriety. Further commands followed as did several ill-advised comments against Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy. These comments led to Wilkes's court-martial for disobedience, disrespect, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming an officer. Found guilty on these counts, Wilkes was subjected to a public reprimand and was suspended from the Navy for a year.

Wilkes died in 1877 leaving a mixed legacy. His naval career was checkered, to say the least. Court-martialed, forced out of the Navy, and disliked by his men, Wilkes was hardly a model officer. Besides founding the Naval Observatory, Wilkes's only major accomplishment was leading the U.S. Surveying and Exploration Expedition. However, this was such a resounding success that it more than compensated for the rest of his career. Several American scientists earned international recognition because of their work during those four years and the collections Wilkes returned to the United States became a major part of the original holdings of the Smithsonian Museum when it opened. Based in large part on this expedition, Wilkes was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1866 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, his tombstone commemorating his discovery of the Antarctic continent.


Charles Wilkes

views updated May 29 2018

Charles Wilkes

Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), American naval officer, is remembered for his exploration of the Antarctic and for his role in the controversial "Trent" affair during the Civil War.

Charles Wilkes was born on April 3, 1798, in New York City. He was educated mainly at home by tutors. He began a naval career at the age of 17 aboard the merchant ship Hibernia. In 1818 he received his midshipman's warrant and entered the British navy. He spent three years in the Mediterranean on board the Guerriere and later cruised the Pacific.

Wilkes's nautical investigations won scientific recognition and led to his appointment as head of the Depot of Charts and Instruments (later the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office). In 1836 he headed a commission to Europe to purchase scientific instruments for naval explorations. In 1838 his dream of a great seagoing exploration was fulfilled when President Martin Van Buren authorized the U.S. Exploring Expedition. In spite of Wilkes's junior rank, he was chosen to lead the five vessels and numerous explorers and scientists. They charted 1,600 miles of the Antarctic coast and hundreds of Pacific islands and collected fossils, observed habits of seals, whales, and strange birds, investigated geological formations, and studied esoteric languages. On his return in 1842, however, Wilkes was court-martialed for "illegal punishment" of men under his command; he received only a public reprimand, and his promotion to commander followed in less than a year.

Wilkes's wife died in 1848, and in 1854 he married again. Soon after, he was promoted to captain, and for some years the family lived in Washington, D.C.

In 1861 Wilkes received orders to command the Union ironclad warship Merrimac, but when he arrived he found that it had been destroyed by the Confederates. His next assignment was the command of the San Jacinto off the coast of Africa. On the voyage homeward Wilkes intercepted the British mail steamer Trent, bound for England with Confederate commissioners James M. Mason and John Slidell on board. With characteristic audacity, he seized the commissioners. This victory, however, gave way to political embarrassment when Britain demanded an apology and the immediate release of the two men. Still, Wilkes's popularity remained undimmed, and in 1862 he was promoted to commodore and then to acting rear admiral. His orders were to capture the Confederate destroyers plaguing Union supply ships. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recalled him in 1863, complaining that instead of capturing destroyers he had used his office to collect prize monies. His commission was withdrawn, and he retired as captain (although his rank of commodore had been restored several months before his recall).

Wilkes's angry letter to Welles, which appeared in the newspapers, led to another court-martial. His sentence of a 3-year suspension from the Navy was reduced by Abraham Lincoln to a year. In 1866 he was given the rank of rear admiral, retired. Wilkes remained active, editing the unfinished volumes of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, confident that his career and reputation would be vindicated by history. On Feb. 8, 1877, he died in Washington.

Further Reading

Wilke's account of the Antarctic voyage, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (5 vols., 1845; repr. 1970), is a valuable scientific work. A recent biography is Robert Silver-berg, Stormy Voyager: The Story of Charles Wilkes (1968). Daniel Henderson, The Hidden Coasts (1953), is a good popular biography. The best account of the Trent affair is Charles Francis Adams, The Trent Affair: An Historical Retrospect (1912).

Additional Sources

Wilkes, Charles, Autobiography of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes, U.S. Navy, 1798-1877, Washington: Naval History Division, Dept. of the Navy: for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off., 1978. □

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