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Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of…
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Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring… (original 2003; edition 2004)

by Nathaniel Philbrick (Author)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,347229,373 (3.84)21
In 1838, the U.S. government launched the largest discovery voyage the Western world had ever seen-6 sailing vessels and 346 men bound for the waters of the Pacific Ocean. Four years later, the U.S. Exploring Expedition returned with an astounding array of accomplishments and discoveries: 87,000 miles logged, 280 Pacific islands surveyed, 4,000 zoological specimens collected, including 2,000 new species, and the discovery of the continent of Antarctica. And yet at a human level, the project was a disaster-not only had 28 men died and 2 ships been lost, but a series of sensational courts-martial had also ensued that pitted the expedition's controversial leader, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, against almost every officer under his command. Though comparable in importance and breadth of success to the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the Ex. Ex. has been largely forgotten. Now, Nathaniel Philbrick re-creates this chapter of American maritime history in all its triumph and scandal. Sea of glory combines meticulous history with spellbinding human drama as it circles the globe from the palm-fringed beaches of the South Pacific to the treacherous waters off Antarctica and to the stunning beauty of the Pacific Northwest, and, finally, to a court-martial aboard a ship of the line anchored off New York City.… (more)
Member:mfigroid
Title:Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842
Authors:Nathaniel Philbrick (Author)
Info:Penguin Books (2004), 480 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:History, Read in 2015

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Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick (2003)

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The achievements of the US South Pacific Exploration Expedition were spectacular. During its four years at sea between 1838 and 1842, it logged 87,000 miles; surveyed 280 Pacific Islands; created 180 charts (some of which were in use as late as World War Two); and mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the Antarctic coastline. The collection of specimens and artifacts the Expedition’s scientists amassed became the foundation for the Smithsonian’s scientific collections, and the US Botanic Garden, the National Herbarium, the US Hydrographic Office, and the Naval Observatory all owe their existence to the Expedition.

So why has no one heard of it? I would say the main reason the Expedition is not more well-known was a catastrophic failure in leadership; among its many consequences was that its commander Charles Wilkes irreversibly alienated everyone who could have helped him salvage both his own and the Expedition’s reputation and more successfully preserve its memory. A series of courts-martial and mutual recriminations followed the Expedition’s return to the United States, and although the commander was ultimately found not guilty on most of the charges, it was too late to repair the damage. The partisan political climate at the time of the Expedition’s return, as well as some delicate international negotiations, also made it inexpedient to trumpet its achievements at the time.

The Expedition’s broader legacy, though, shines undimmed. One of the greatest was the formation of the Smithsonian itself. The Expedition had returned with a vast array of ethnographic artifacts – the total of four thousand was more than Cook had collected during all three of his voyages. Tens of thousands of geological, botanical, and zoological specimens had also been collected. Then there were the charts and voluminous meteorological, astronomical, magnetic, and oceanographic data. Assembling and analyzing all the data and caring for and displaying the vast collections would have taxed the combined resources of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world at the time – Germany, France, and England – let alone those of a relatively young United States that at the time was considered little more than a scientific backwater. Fortunately for the United States, a representative from the estate of James Smithson had arrived in 1838 with over half a million dollars – equivalent to eleven million today – with instructions that it be used to establish an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Until the Expedition returned in 1842, no one could agree on the exact nature of that institution, and Smithson’s bequest might not have ever been used for a museum if the Expedition had not taken place. Wilkes himself took on protecting the entire collection, and if it hadn’t been for him the US Botanic Garden might not exist at all. And although he had initially made it difficult for the scientists to work effectively during the voyage, he backed them to the hilt afterwards. He successfully lobbied Congress for decades to obtain the necessary funds for publishing all the scientific reports that would flow from the Expedition’s vast quantities of data, and as a result the reputation of the United States as a leader in international science skyrocketed.

Wilkes’s lobbying also had the effect of convincing Congress that the pursuit of scientific knowledge was essential to the country’s progress. As the United States expanded westward, Congress repeatedly funded sophisticated exploring and surveying expeditions, and all of them included at least one scientist. Between 1840 and 1860, Congress subsidized the publication of sixty works associated with the exploration of the West and funded fifteen naval expeditions around the world. The financial outlay would be enormous – between a quarter and a third of the annual federal budget – and never quite matched at any other time in US history, not even during the Space Race. All of this set an important precedent, and if the billions in grant money flowing from the NIH and NSF is any indication, the commitment remains. This commitment to funding scientific research and advancing knowledge may be the Expedition’s greatest legacy of all.

The Expedition also left a little-known literary legacy, because traces of it repeatedly appear in the pages of Moby-Dick. Herman Melville carefully studied the Expedition’s records as part of the research for his masterpiece, the novel itself contains references to the Expedition and its findings, and it is believed Charles Wilkes was the model for Captain Ahab.

I highly recommend this book as providing new information and insight into an obscure part of US history that should be much better-known than it is.

Favorite Quotes:

“As the Ex. Ex. was proving, exploration was as much about discovering what did not exist as it was about finding something new.” (page 77).

Best description of an island I have read in a long time: “Macquarie Island, a wave-washed, penguin-infested pile of rocks 2,100 miles to the south [of Australia].” (page 154) ( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
The achievements of the US South Pacific Exploration Expedition were spectacular. During its four years at sea between 1838 and 1842, it logged 87,000 miles; surveyed 280 Pacific Islands; created 180 charts (some of which were in use as late as World War Two); and mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the Antarctic coastline. The collection of specimens and artifacts the Expedition’s scientists amassed became the foundation for the Smithsonian’s scientific collections, and the US Botanic Garden, the National Herbarium, the US Hydrographic Office, and the Naval Observatory all owe their existence to the Expedition.

So why has no one heard of it? I would say the main reason the Expedition is not more well-known was a catastrophic failure in leadership; among its many consequences was that its commander Charles Wilkes irreversibly alienated everyone who could have helped him salvage both his own and the Expedition’s reputation and more successfully preserve its memory. A series of courts-martial and mutual recriminations followed the Expedition’s return to the United States, and although the commander was ultimately found not guilty on most of the charges, it was too late to repair the damage. The partisan political climate at the time of the Expedition’s return, as well as some delicate international negotiations, also made it inexpedient to trumpet its achievements at the time.

The Expedition’s broader legacy, though, shines undimmed. One of the greatest was the formation of the Smithsonian itself. The Expedition had returned with a vast array of ethnographic artifacts – the total of four thousand was more than Cook had collected during all three of his voyages. Tens of thousands of geological, botanical, and zoological specimens had also been collected. Then there were the charts and voluminous meteorological, astronomical, magnetic, and oceanographic data. Assembling and analyzing all the data and caring for and displaying the vast collections would have taxed the combined resources of the most scientifically advanced countries in the world at the time – Germany, France, and England – let alone those of a relatively young United States that at the time was considered little more than a scientific backwater. Fortunately for the United States, a representative from the estate of James Smithson had arrived in 1838 with over half a million dollars – equivalent to eleven million today – with instructions that it be used to establish an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Until the Expedition returned in 1842, no one could agree on the exact nature of that institution, and Smithson’s bequest might not have ever been used for a museum if the Expedition had not taken place. Wilkes himself took on protecting the entire collection, and if it hadn’t been for him the US Botanic Garden might not exist at all. And although he had initially made it difficult for the scientists to work effectively during the voyage, he backed them to the hilt afterwards. He successfully lobbied Congress for decades to obtain the necessary funds for publishing all the scientific reports that would flow from the Expedition’s vast quantities of data, and as a result the reputation of the United States as a leader in international science skyrocketed.

Wilkes’s lobbying also had the effect of convincing Congress that the pursuit of scientific knowledge was essential to the country’s progress. As the United States expanded westward, Congress repeatedly funded sophisticated exploring and surveying expeditions, and all of them included at least one scientist. Between 1840 and 1860, Congress subsidized the publication of sixty works associated with the exploration of the West and funded fifteen naval expeditions around the world. The financial outlay would be enormous – between a quarter and a third of the annual federal budget – and never quite matched at any other time in US history, not even during the Space Race. All of this set an important precedent, and if the billions in grant money flowing from the NIH and NSF is any indication, the commitment remains. This commitment to funding scientific research and advancing knowledge may be the Expedition’s greatest legacy of all.

The Expedition also left a little-known literary legacy, because traces of it repeatedly appear in the pages of Moby-Dick. Herman Melville carefully studied the Expedition’s records as part of the research for his masterpiece, the novel itself contains references to the Expedition and its findings, and it is believed Charles Wilkes was the model for Captain Ahab.

I highly recommend this book as providing new information and insight into an obscure part of US history that should be much better-known than it is.

Favorite Quotes:

“As the Ex. Ex. was proving, exploration was as much about discovering what did not exist as it was about finding something new.” (page 77).

Best description of an island I have read in a long time: “Macquarie Island, a wave-washed, penguin-infested pile of rocks 2,100 miles to the south [of Australia].” (page 154) ( )
  Jennifer708 | Mar 21, 2020 |
Excerpts from my original GR review (Apr 2009):
- This would be a captivating story in any telling, but in the hands of Nathaniel Philbrick it becomes an original epic. I love these kinds of well told seagoing expeditions. This ranks only slightly behind the outstanding "In the Heart of the Sea" by the same author, which I read first. The expedition's venture along the unexplored frozen Antarctic coast is my favorite section. ( )
  ThoughtPolice | Mar 12, 2018 |
Well, if nothing else, Philbrick sure makes the entire U.S. Ex. Ex. seem like one giant rat's nest of infighting, backbiting, and complete and utter unpleasantness. This is a detailed study of the four-year expedition, focusing in large part on the outfit's commanding officer and his constant feuds with those around him. ( )
  JBD1 | Jul 22, 2017 |
From Andi 08-03-2015, I have the audio book edition which I have heard previously.
  trexm5qp7 | Sep 3, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
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I have ventured . . .

This many summers in a sea of glory,

But far beyond my depth. . . .

--William Shakespeare

King Henry VIII 3.2
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To my father, Thomas Philbrick
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He was not yet forty-five, but he looked much older, his health broken by four years of hardship and danger.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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TABLE OF CONTENTS:

    PREFACE: Young Ambition                                 p.  xv

Part One

    CHAPTER 1. The Great South Sea                        p.  3

    CHAPTER 2. The Deplorable Expedition                 p.   17

    CHAPTER 3. Most Gloriuos Hopes                          p.  43

Part Two

   CHAPTER 4. At Sea                                       p.  63

   CHAPTER 5. The Turning Point                      p.  87

   CHAPTER 6. Commodore of the Pacific                     p. 117

   CHAPTER 7. Antarctica                                   p. 149

   CHAPTER 8. A New Continent                               p. 169

Part Three

   CHAPTER 9. The Cannibal Isles                           p. 189

   CHAPTER 10. Massacre at Malolo                          p.  213

   CHAPTER 11. Mauna Loa                                    p. 233

   CHAPTER 12. The Wreck of the Peacock           p. 259

   CHAPTER 13. Homeward Bound                             p.  287

Part Four

   CHAPTER 14. Reckonng                                   p. 303

   CHAPTER 15. This Thing Called Science                   p.  331

   CHAPTER 16. Legacy                                       p. 347

   Epilogue                                                p. 361

 NOTES                                                  p. 365
   
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY                                     p. 415
   ACKNOWLEDGMENTS                                          p. 437
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