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Charles Wilkes

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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Wilkes, Charles

Charles Wilkes, 1798–1877, American naval officer and explorer, b. New York City, educated by his father. In 1815 he entered the merchant service and received (1818) an appointment as a midshipman. For his survey (1832–33) of Narragansett Bay he was designated (1833) head of the department of charts and instruments of the navy. Although an inexperienced leader, he was put in command of a government exploring expedition intended to provide accurate naval charts for the whaling industry. Wilkes, then a lieutenant, set sail (1838) from Norfolk, Va., in charge of a squadron of six ships and 346 seamen, and accompanied by a team of nine scientists and artists. They sailed around South America, did important research in the S Pacific, and explored the Antarctic. The portion of Antarctica that he explored was subsequently named Wilkes Land. Wilkes explored Fiji in 1840, visited the Hawaiian group, and in May, 1841, entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the Pacific coast of the United States, and explored the Pacific Northwest.

After having completely encircled the globe (his was the last all-sail naval mission to do so), Wilkes returned to New York in June, 1842. In four years at sea he had logged some 87,000 miles and lost two ships and 28 men. His Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (5 vol. and an atlas) appeared in 1844. He edited the scientific reports of the expedition (20 vol. and 11 atlases, 1844–74) and was the author of Vol. XI (Meteorology) and Vol. XIII (Hydrography). Moreover, the specimens and artifacts brought back by expedition scientists ultimately formed the foundation for the Smithsonian Institution collection.

Despite his accomplishments, Wilkes acquired a reputation as an arrogant, cruel, and capricious leader. The impetuosity of his nature, for which he was twice court-martialed, was demonstrated when early in the Civil War, as commander of the San Jacinto, he stopped the British mail ship Trent and, contrary to all regulations, forcibly removed Confederate commissioners John Slidell and James M. Mason. The incident almost involved the Union in a war with England (see Trent Affair). Promoted to the rank of commodore in 1862, he commanded a squadron in the West Indies.

See biography by D. Henderson (1953, repr. 1971); W. Bixby, The Forgotten Voyage of Charles Wilkes (1966); R. Silverberg, Stormy Voyager (1968); A. Gurney, The Race to the White Continent (2000); N. Philbrick, Sea of Glory (2003).

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