|Born||April 3, 1798|
New York City, U.S.
|Died||February 8, 1877 78) (aged|
Washington, D.C., U.S.
|Branch||United States Navy|
|Wars||American Civil War|
Charles Wilkes (April 3, 1798 – February 8, 1877) was an American naval officer, ship's captain, and explorer. He led the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and commanded the ship in the Trent Affair during the American Civil War (1861–1865), where he attacked a Royal Mail Ship, almost leading to war between the US and the UK. His behavior led to two convictions by court-martial, one stemming from the massacre of almost 80 Fijians on Malolo in 1840.
The Trent Affair was a diplomatic incident in 1861 during the American Civil War that threatened a war between the United States and the United Kingdom. The U.S. Navy illegally captured two Confederate diplomats from a British ship; the UK protested vigorously. The United States ended the incident by releasing the diplomats.
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States from 1861 to 1865, between the North and the South. The most studied and written about episode in U.S. history, the Civil War began primarily as a result of the long-standing controversy over the enslavement of black people. War broke out in April 1861 when secessionist forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina shortly after Abraham Lincoln had been inaugurated as the President of the United States. The loyalists of the Union in the North proclaimed support for the Constitution. They faced secessionists of the Confederate States in the South, who advocated for states' rights to uphold slavery.
Royal Mail Ship, usually seen in its abbreviated form RMS, is the ship prefix used for seagoing vessels that carry mail under contract to the British Royal Mail. The designation dates back to 1840. Any vessel designated as "RMS" has the right to fly both the pennant of the Royal Mail when sailing and to include the Royal Mail "crown" insignia with any identifying device and/or design for the ship.
Wilkes was born in New York City, on April 3, 1798, as the great nephew of the former Lord Mayor of London John Wilkes. His mother was Mary Seton, who died in 1802 when Charles was just three years old. As a result, Charles was raised by his aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton, who would later convert to Roman Catholicism and become the first American-born woman canonized a saint by the Catholic Church. When Elizabeth was left widowed with five children, Charles was sent to a boarding school, and later attended Columbia College, which is the present-day Columbia University. He entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1818, and became a lieutenant in 1826.
The Lord Mayor of London is the City of London's mayor and leader of the City of London Corporation. Within the City, the Lord Mayor is accorded precedence over all individuals except the sovereign and retains various traditional powers, rights and privileges, including the title and style The Right Honourable the Lord Mayor of London.
John Wilkes was a British radical, journalist and politician. He was first elected a Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of his voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives. In 1768, angry protests of his supporters were suppressed in the St George's Fields Massacre. In 1771, he was instrumental in obliging the government to concede the right of printers to publish verbatim accounts of parliamentary debates. In 1776, he introduced the first bill for parliamentary reform in the British Parliament.
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, SC, was the first American to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. She established the first Catholic girls' school in the nation in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where she also founded the first American congregation of religious sisters, the Sisters of Charity.
In 1833, for his survey of Narragansett Bay, he was placed in charge of the Navy's Department of Charts and Instruments, out of which developed the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office. Wilkes' interdisciplinary expedition (1838–1842) set a physical oceanography benchmark for the office's first superintendent Matthew Fontaine Maury.
Narragansett Bay is a bay and estuary on the north side of Rhode Island Sound covering 147 mi2, 120.5 mi2 of which is in Rhode Island. The Bay forms New England's largest estuary, which functions as an expansive natural harbor and includes a small archipelago. Small parts of it extend into Massachusetts.
The United States Naval Observatory (USNO) is one of the oldest scientific agencies in the United States, with a primary mission to produce Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) for the United States Navy and the United States Department of Defense. Located in Northwest Washington, D.C. at the Northwestern end of Embassy Row, it is one of the pre-1900 astronomical observatories located in an urban area; at the time of its construction, it was far from the light pollution thrown off by the (then-smaller) city center. Former USNO director Gernot M. R. Winkler initiated the "Master Clock" service that the USNO still operates, and which provides precise time to the GPS satellite constellation run by the United States Air Force. The USNO performs radio VLBI-based positions of quasars with numerous global collaborators, in order to produce Earth Orientation parameters.
Physical oceanography is the study of physical conditions and physical processes within the ocean, especially the motions and physical properties of ocean waters.
During the 1820s, Wilkes was a member of the prestigious Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences, which counted among its members presidents Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams and many prominent men of the day, including well-known representatives of the military, government service, medical and other professions.
The Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences (1816–1838) was a literary and science institution in Washington, D.C., founded by Dr. Edward Cutbush (1772–1843), a naval surgeon. Thomas Law had earlier suggested of such a society "at the seat of government." It was the first "learned society" established in Washington and was organized on June 28, 1816, sixteen years after the city was occupied, and less than two years after the invasion by the British troops. The second article of its constitution states: "The Institute shall consist of mathematical, physical, moral and political sciences, general literature and fine arts."
Andrew Jackson was an American soldier and statesman who served as the seventh president of the United States from 1829 to 1837. Before being elected to the presidency, Jackson gained fame as a general in the United States Army and served in both houses of Congress. As president, Jackson sought to advance the rights of the "common man" against a "corrupt aristocracy" and to preserve the Union.
John Quincy Adams was an American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, and diarist who served as the sixth president of the United States from 1825 to 1829. He previously served as the eighth United States Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825. During his long diplomatic and political career, Adams also served as an ambassador, and represented Massachusetts as a United States Senator and as a member of the United States House of Representatives. He was the eldest son of John Adams, who served as the second US president from 1797 to 1801. Initially a Federalist like his father, he won election to the presidency as a member of the Democratic-Republican Party, and in the mid-1830s became affiliated with the Whig Party.
In 1838, although not yet a seasoned naval line officer, Wilkes was experienced in nautical survey work, and was working with civilian scientists. Upon this background, he was given command of the government exploring expedition "... for the purpose of exploring and surveying the Southern Ocean,... as well to determine the existence of all doubtful islands and shoals, as to discover, and accurately fix, the position of those which [lay] in or near the track of our vessels in that quarter, and [might] have escaped the observation of scientific navigators." The US Exploring Squadron was authorized by act of the Congress on May 18, 1836.
The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the Federal Government of the United States. The legislature consists of two chambers: the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The Exploring Expedition, commonly known as the "Wilkes Expedition," included naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, taxidermists, artists and a philologist, and it was carried by USS Vincennes (780 tons) and USS Peacock (650 tons), the brig USS Porpoise (230 tons), the store-ship USS Relief, and two schooners, USS Sea Gull (110 tons) and USS Flying Fish (96 tons).
Natural history is a domain of inquiry involving organisms including animals, fungi and plants in their environment; leaning more towards observational than experimental methods of study. A person who studies natural history is called a naturalist or natural historian.
A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts. During the Age of Sail, brigs were seen as fast and maneuverable and were used as both naval warships and merchant vessels. They were especially popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Brigs fell out of use with the arrival of the steam ship because they required a relatively large crew for their small size and were difficult to sail into the wind. Their rigging differs from that of a brigantine which has a gaff-rigged mainsail, while a brig has a square mainsail with an additional gaff-rigged spanker behind the mainsail.
The second USS Porpoise was a 224-ton Dolphin class brigantine. The USS Porpoise was later rerigged as a brig. She was based on the same plans as Dolphin.
Departing from Hampton Roads on August 18, 1838, the expedition stopped at the Madeira Islands and Rio de Janeiro; visited Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Peru, the Tuamotu Archipelago, Samoa, and New South Wales; from Sydney sailed into the Antarctic Ocean in December 1839 and reported the discovery "of an Antarctic continent west of the Balleny Islands" of which it sighted the coast on January 25, 1840. Next the expedition visited Fiji and the Hawaiian Islands. In Fiji, the expedition kidnapped the chief Ro Veidovi, charging him with the murder of a crew of American whalers.And, in July 1840, two sailors, one of whom was Wilkes' nephew, Midshipman Wilkes Henry, were killed while bartering for food on Fiji's Malolo Island. Wilkes' retribution was swift and severe. According to an old man of Malolo Island, nearly 80 Fijians were killed in the incident.
From December 1840 to March 1841, he employed hundreds of native Hawaiian porters and many of his men to haul a pendulum to the summit of Mauna Loa to measure gravity. Instead of using the existing trail, he blazed his own way, taking much longer than he anticipated. The conditions on the mountain reminded him of Antarctica. Many of his crew suffered snow blindness, altitude sickness and foot injuries from wearing out their shoes.
He explored the west coast of North America, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, the Columbia River, San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River, in 1841.
He held the first American Independence Day celebration west of the Mississippi River in Dupont, Washington on July 5, 1841.
The United States Exploring Expedition passed through the Ellice Islands and visited Funafuti, Nukufetau and Vaitupu in 1841.The expedition returned by way of the Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, Borneo, Singapore, Polynesia and the Cape of Good Hope, reaching New York on June 10, 1842.
After having completely encircled the globe (his was the last all-sail naval mission to do so), Wilkes had logged some 87,000 miles and lost two ships and 28 men. Wilkes was court-martialled upon his return for the loss of one of his ships on the Columbia River bar, for the regular mistreatment of his subordinate officers, and for excessive punishment of his sailors. A major witness against him was ship doctor Charles Guillou.He was acquitted on all charges except illegally punishing men in his squadron. For a short time, he was attached to the Coast Survey, but from 1844 to 1861, he was chiefly engaged in preparing the report of the expedition.
His Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (5 volumes and an atlas) was published in 1844. He edited the scientific reports of the expedition (19 volumesand 11 atlases, 1844–1874) and was the author of Vol. XI (Meteorology) and Vol. XXIII (Hydrography). Alfred Thomas Agate, engraver and illustrator, was the designated portrait and botanical artist of the expedition. His work was used to illustrate the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition.
The Narrative contains much interesting material concerning the manners, customs, political and economic conditions in many places then little known. Wilkes' 1841 Map of the Oregon Territory pre-dated John Charles Fremont's first Oregon Trail pathfinder expedition guided by Kit Carson during 1842.
Other valuable contributions were the three reports of James Dwight Dana on Zoophytes (1846), Geology (1849) and Crustacea (1852–1854). Moreover, the specimens and artifacts brought back by expedition scientists ultimately formed the foundation for the Smithsonian Institution collection. In addition to many shorter articles and reports, Wilkes published the major scientific works Western America, including California and Oregon in 1849, and Theory of the Winds in 1856.
Wilkes was promoted to the rank of commander in 1843 and that of captain in 1855. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, he was assigned to the command of USS San Jacinto to search for the Confederate commerce destroyer CSS Sumter.
As part of these duties he visited the British colony of Bermuda. Acting on orders, Wilkes remained in port for nearly a week aboard his flagship, USS Wachusett, violating the British rule that allowed American naval vessels (of either side) to remain in port for only a single day. While Wilkes remained in port, his gunboats USS Tioga and USS Sonoma blockaded Saint George's harbor, a key Confederate blockade runner base. The gunboats opened fire at the Royal Mail Ship Merlin.
When Wilkes learned that James Murray Mason and John Slidell, two Confederate commissioners to England, were bound for England on a British packet boat, RMS Trent, he ordered the steam frigate San Jacinto to stop them. On November 8, 1861, San Jacinto met Trent and fired two shots across its bow, forcing the ship to stop. A boarding party from San Jacinto led by its captain then boarded Trent and arrested Mason and Slidell. The diplomats were taken to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.
The actions of "The Notorious Wilkes," as Bermuda media branded him, convinced many that full-scale war between the United States and the United Kingdom was inevitable.
He was officially thanked by Congress "for his brave, adroit and patriotic conduct".However, his action was later disavowed by President Lincoln due to diplomatic pressure by the British Government. (Mason and Slidell were released.) His next service was in the James River flotilla and he was placed on the retired list on December 21, 1861. Subsequently, after reaching the rank of commodore on July 16, 1862, he was assigned to duty against blockade runners in the West Indies.
Wilkes acquired a reputation for sometimes acting arrogant and capriciously, perhaps partly because of his open conflict with Gideon Welles, who was the Secretary of the Navy. Welles recommended that Wilkes had been too old to receive the rank of commodore under the act then governing promotions. Wilkes wrote a scathing letter to Welles in response. The controversy ended in his court-martial in 1864. He was found guilty of disobedience of orders, insubordination, and other specifications. He was sentenced to public reprimand and suspension for three years. However, Lincoln reduced the suspension to one year, and the balance of charges were dropped. On July 25, 1866, he was promoted to the rank of rear admiral on the retired list.
Some historians speculate that Wilkes' obsessive behavior and harsh code of shipboard discipline shaped Herman Melville's characterization of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick .Such speculation is not mentioned in the U.S. Naval historical archives.
In addition to his contribution to U.S. Naval history and scientific study in his official Narrative of the Exploration Squadron (6 volumes), Wilkes wrote his autobiography.
Wilkes died in Washington, DC, with the rank of Rear Admiral.
In August 1909, the United States moved his remains to Arlington National Cemetery. His gravestone says that "he discovered the Ant-arctic continent."
The US Navy named four ships for Wilkes: torpedo boat USS Wilkes (TB-35) served around the turn of the 20th century, destroyer USS Wilkes (DD-67) served during World War I, and destroyer USS Wilkes (DD-441) served during World War II. An oceanographic survey vessel, USS Wilkes (T-AGS-33), was launched in 1969, sponsored by Mrs. Hollis Lyons Joy (Deborah Wilkes Joy), Wilkes' great granddaughter.
In 1923, Wilkes Island, one of the three islands surrounding the lagoon at Wake Atoll was named for Wilkes by Alexander Wetmore, lead scientist of the Tanager Expedition.
Captain Charles Wilkes Elementary in Bainbridge Island, Washington is his namesake.
Wilkes Boulevard in Columbia, Missouri is named in his honor.
USS Vincennes (1826) was a 703-ton Boston-class sloop of war in the United States Navy from 1826 to 1865. During her service, Vincennes patrolled the Pacific, explored the Antarctic, and blockaded the Confederate Gulf coast in the Civil War. Named for the Revolutionary War Battle of Vincennes, she was the first U.S. warship to circumnavigate the globe.
George Washington De Long was a United States Navy officer and explorer who led the ill-fated Jeannette Expedition of 1879–1881, in search of the Open Polar Sea.
Johnston Blakeley also spelled Johnston Blakely was an officer in the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France and the War of 1812. He is considered to be one of the most successful American naval officers of that period.
USS Flying Fish (1838), a schooner, was formerly the New York City pilot boat Independence. Purchased by the United States Navy at New York City on 3 August 1838 and upon joining her squadron in Hampton Roads 12 August 1838 was placed under command of Passed Midshipman S. R. Knox.
Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, born Alexander Slidell, was a US naval officer, most famous for his 1842 decision to execute three suspected mutineers aboard a ship under his command, the USS Somers. Mackenzie was also an accomplished man of letters, producing several volumes of travel writing and biographies of early important US naval figures, some of whom he knew personally.
The United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842 was an exploring and surveying expedition of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands conducted by the United States. The original appointed commanding officer was Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones. Funding for the original expedition was requested by President John Quincy Adams in 1828, however, Congress would not implement funding until eight years later. In May 1836, the oceanic exploration voyage was finally authorized by Congress and created by President Andrew Jackson.
Captain William Levereth Hudson, USN was a United States Navy officer in the first half of the 19th century.
James Alden Jr. was a rear admiral in the United States Navy. In the Mexican–American War he participated in the captures of Veracruz, Tuxpan and Tabasco. Fighting on the Union side in the Civil War, he took part in the relief of Fort Pickens, followed by many engagements on the Lower Mississippi, before being promoted Captain of USS Brooklyn and assisting in the Union victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay.
Alfred Thomas Agate was a noted American artist, painter and miniaturist.
Harstine Island is an island in Mason County, Washington, United States. The US Census recognizes it as an unincorporated community. The island is located west of Case Inlet in southern Puget Sound, 16 km (9.9 mi) north of Olympia. It has a land area of 48.305 km2 (18.651 sq mi), and had a population of 1,002 as of the 2000 census.
USS Sea Gull was a schooner in the service of the United States Navy. The Sea Gull was one of six ships that sailed in the US Exploring Expedition in 1838 to survey the coast of the then-unknown continent of Antarctica and the Pacific Islands. The specimens collected on the voyage would later form the backbone of the Smithsonian Institution.
Astrolabe was a horse barge converted to an exploration ship of the French Navy and was originally named Coquille. She is famous for her travels with Jules Dumont d'Urville. The name derives from an early navigational instrument, the astrolabe, a precursor to the sextant.
Major William Rich (1800–1864) was an American botanist and explorer who was part of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842.
Henry Eld was a United States Navy officer, geographer, and Antarctic explorer.
Cadwalader Ringgold was an officer in the United States Navy who served in the United States Exploring Expedition, later headed an expedition to the Northwest and, after initially retiring, returned to service during the Civil War.
Charles Fleury Bien-aimé Guilloû was an American military physician. He served on a major exploring expedition that included both scientific discoveries and controversy, and two historic diplomatic missions. He ran a hospital in the Hawaiian Islands, before returning to the US.
The era of European and American voyages of scientific exploration followed the Age of Discovery and were inspired by a new confidence in science and reason that arose in the Age of Enlightenment. Maritime expeditions in the Age of Discovery were a means of expanding colonial empires, establishing new trade routes and extending diplomatic and trade relations to new territories, but with the Enlightenment scientific curiosity became a new motive for exploration to add to the commercial and political ambitions of the past. See also List of Arctic expeditions and List of Antarctic expeditions.
The Battle of Drummond's Island was a conflict between the United States Exploring Expedition and the village of Utiroa on April 1841 at Drummond's Island, which is now named Tabiteuea. The cause of the conflict was the disappearance of the American seaman John Anderson, who was suspected to have been murdered by the village natives. In retaliation, the members of the expedition killed twelve of the natives and burned the village to the ground.
The Bombardment of Upolu, in 1841, was the second engagement with islanders of the Pacific Ocean during the United States Exploring Expedition.
Thomas A. Budd was a United States Naval officer.
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