Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842

Jacket-6• Grade Range: upper high school-adult
• Adventure related title
• Nathanial Philbrick
• Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition 1838-1842
• Publisher: New York, Viking
• 2003
• 452 pages.
• ISBN: 978-0-67003-231-0
• Awards: Richie’s Picks
• Author’s website:

In 1838 a squadron of six sailing vessels set out for a four-year journey of exploration. The U.S. Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.) was one of the largest voyages of discovery ever undertaken. Led by Captain Wilkes, the Ex.Ex. redrew the map of the world; the 40 tons of specimens they brought back formed the foundation of the Smithsonian museum. Philbreck answers the question: ‘why have we never heard of Wilkes or the Ex. Ex?’

The story of the Ex.Ex. is filled with adventure and drama. There are many memorable moments: a snowball fight with Tierra del Fuego’s Yahgan natives: who apparently had flaps of skin that hung over their knees, some brutal encounters with Fijian cannibals: including eyeball munching, and an insanely close encounter with an active volcano. The expedition was charged with surveying Antarctica and determining if it were a continent. They were the first Americans to chart Puget Sound, the Columbia River and San Francisco Bay, establishing the United States basis for claiming those territories. The origin of the theory of plate tectonics stands out among the many scientific discoveries the expedition advanced.

Yet, as Philbrick maintains, the Ex. Ex. is fascinating not because of its successes, but because of what went wrong. Despite the expedition’s scientific discoveries and astonishing adventures, it came to be viewed as a colossal embarrassment. Captain Wilkes was insecure and egotistical with a talent for creating discord and conflict; his morbid hunger for recognition ensured his expedition ended not in glory, but in an ugly court-martial. Wilkes was universally despised by his officers and it is even alleged that Melville based Captain Ahab on him.

Melville and Shakespeare represent that personal flaws are inextricably connected to qualities of greatness; they are not just intertwined: they are one and the same. In exhaustive detail, Philbrick examines whether Wilkes successes can be divorced from his failures. Relying extensively on primary sources, including sailors’ journals, Philbrick recreates the expedition in all its drama and drudgery. Political infighting and petty squabbles sap the energy of the men. This is a fascinating study but, at over 300 pages of text, one few teenagers are likely to have the stamina to wade through. Like the member’s of the expedition: the reader’s eagerness to journey on is worn down by hundreds of Wilkes’s awful decisions and unnecessary cruelties. That said, for those who love true tales of maritime disaster and have an interest in exploration and leadership, it is a memorable and intriguing story.

Sea of Glory also acts as a fascinating counterpoint to Earnest Shackleton’s Antarctic journey seventy years later. Shackleton attempted to cross the continent Wilkes was the first to chart. Where Wilkes’ expedition succeed in its goals, lost scores of men and ended with the Captain despised and forgotten, Shackleton’s journey achieved opposite ends: he failed in his task, but due to determinedly optimistic and solicitous leadership, returned with his entire crew and is well-remembered a hundred years later.

Front matter: includes a Table of Contents, a brief author biography, and an extensive preface. Opening with Wilkes’ court-martial the preface establishes the context of the U.S. Ex.Ex. and raises the issues of leadership Philbrick addresses in the book. A modern rendering of the six ships of the Ex. Ex. Concludes the preface. Back matter: An extensive epilogue briefly explores the legacy of the discoveries of the Ex. Ex.: charts of islands in use through the second World War, the establishment of Antarctica as a continent, etc. The epilogue also discusses why Wilkes accomplishments were so quick to be forgotten, dismisses the idea that a cooler more capable Captain would have achieved more and lays the responsibility for the expeditions obscurity on Wilkes inability to partner with Reynolds, a talented officer Wilkes had severely alienated during the voyage. A notes section includes abbreviations for frequently consulted texts, several paragraphs outlining and annotating additional reading, followed by chapter by chapter acknowledgements and notes that discuss the origins of ideas and quotes. An extensive selected bibliography lists unpublished sources first, followed by published sources and dissertations and ending with a list of publications of the United States Exploring Expedition. The notes and suggestions for further reading are extremely impressive and let the reader understand the origins of information and argument. Acknowledgements thank experts and those who aided in the production of the book. An index completes the volume.


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