Charles Wilkes

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Charles Wilkes
Born(1798-04-03)April 3, 1798
New York City, U.S.
DiedFebruary 8, 1877(1877-02-08) (aged 78)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Known for
AllegianceFlag of the United States.svg  United States
Branch United States Navy
Rank Rear Admiral
Commands held
Wars American Civil War
Charles Wilkes signature.png

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.

<i>Trent</i> Affair diplomatic incident that almost brought the U.S. to war with the U.K. during the American Civil War

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.

American Civil War Civil war in the United States from 1861 to 1865

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 Prefix for ships that carry mail under contract by the British Royal Mail.

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.


Early life and career

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.

Lord Mayor of London Mayor of the City of London and leader of the City of London Corporation

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 18th-century English radical, journalist, and politician

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 Seton 18th and 19th-century American Catholic religious founder and saint

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 bay comprising 28 miles of coastline in the state of Rhode Island, USA

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.

United States Naval Observatory scientific agency in the United States

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 The study of physical conditions and physical processes within the ocean

Physical oceanography is the study of physical conditions and physical processes within the ocean, especially the motions and physical properties of ocean waters.

Columbian Institute

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. [1]

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 7th president of the United States

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 6th president of the United States

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.

South Seas expedition

USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica, during the Wilkes expedition. Vincennes (color).jpg
USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica, during the Wilkes expedition.
Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition 1838 - 1842 Commodore Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition 1838 - 1842.jpg
Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States Exploring Expedition 1838 - 1842

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.

United States Congress Legislature of the United States

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). [2]

Natural history study of organisms including plants or animals in their environment

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.

Brig sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts

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.

USS <i>Porpoise</i> (1836)

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. [3] 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. [4]

Pacific Northwest: 1841 Map of the Oregon Territory from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition Pacific-Northwest.jpg
Pacific Northwest: 1841 Map of the Oregon Territory from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition

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. [5] [6]

The United States Exploring Expedition passed through the Ellice Islands and visited Funafuti, Nukufetau and Vaitupu in 1841. [7] 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. [8] 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 volumes [9] [10] and 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. [11]

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.

Civil War

Capt. Charles Wilkes in The champions of the Union, lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1861 Currier & Ives - The champions of the Union 1861.jpg
Capt. Charles Wilkes in The champions of the Union, lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1861

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.

Trent Affair

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. [12]

He was officially thanked by Congress "for his brave, adroit and patriotic conduct". [13] 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.

Promotion controversy

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.

Later life

Admiral Charles Wilkes when retired Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes.jpg
Admiral Charles Wilkes when retired

Some historians speculate that Wilkes' obsessive behavior and harsh code of shipboard discipline shaped Herman Melville's characterization of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick . [14] 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." [15]


Admiral Charles Wilkes plaque at United States National Arboretum Admiral Charles Wilkes plaque at United States National Arboretum.jpg
Admiral Charles Wilkes plaque at United States National Arboretum

The US Navy named four ships for Wilkes: torpedo boat USS Wilkes (TB-35) served around the turn of the 20th century, [16] destroyer USS Wilkes (DD-67) served during World War I, [17] and destroyer USS Wilkes (DD-441) served during World War II. [18] 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. [19]

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. [20]

Wilkes Boulevard in Columbia, Missouri is named in his honor.

Dates of rank


See also


External video
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Booknotes interview with Nathaniel Philbrick on Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, January 25, 2004, C-SPAN

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  1. Rathbun, Richard (October 18, 1917). The Columbian institute for the promotion of arts and sciences: A Washington Society of 1816–1838. Bulletin of the United States National Museum. Retrieved 2010-06-20.
  2. Tyler, David B (1968) The Wilkes Expedition. The First United States Exploring Expedition (1838–42). Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society
  3. Adler, Antony (2014-07-03). "The Capture and Curation of the Cannibal 'Vendovi': Reality and Representation of a Pacific Frontier". The Journal of Pacific History. 49 (3): 255–282. doi:10.1080/00223344.2014.914623. ISSN   0022-3344.
  4. Apple, Russell A. (1973). "Wilkes Campsite Nomination form". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  5. Drew W. Crooks. "The Wilkes Expedition and Southern Puget Sound: An 1841 Encounter With Lasting Effects". History Homework Helpers. Dupont Museum. Archived from the original on July 10, 2011. Retrieved March 4, 2011.
  6. Wilkes, Charles (1856). Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Volume 4. G. P. Putnam.
  7. The visit to the Ellice Islands (now known as Tuvalu) is described in Chapter 2 in volume 5, pp. 35-75, 'Ellice's and Kingsmill's Group'
  8. Charles Wilkes; Charles Fleury Guilloû; United States Navy Court-martial (1843). The following defense of Lieut. Charles Wilkes: to the charge which he has been tried.
  9. Hartwell, Mary Ann, ed. (1911). Checklist of United States public documents 1789–1909. p. 661.
  10. The Publications of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1844–1874, Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection — Volumes were numbered I through XXIV. Volumes XVIII, XIX, XXI, & XXII were not published. Only 2 chapters of Volume XXIV were published.
  11. The extensive report of the expedition has been digitized by the Smithsonian Institution. The visit to the Ellice Islands (now known as Tuvalu) is described in Chapter 2 in volume 5, pp. 35-75, 'Ellice's and Kingsmill's Group',
  12. Deichmann, Catherine Lynch (2003). Rogues & runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War. Bermuda National Trust. p. 25. ISBN   978-0-9693939-9-3.
  13. Appletons' annual cyclopaedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 276.
  14. The Stormy Petrel and the Whale, by David Jaffe, Port City Press, c1976.
  15. "Charles Wilkes Rear Admiral, United States Navy". Arlington Cemetery Biography. Retrieved March 4, 2011.
  16. "USS Wilkes (TB-35)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships . Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command . Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  17. "USS Wilkes (DD-67)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships . Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command . Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  18. "USS Wilkes (DD-441)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships . Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command . Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  19. "USS Wilkes (T-AGS-33)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships . Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command . Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  20. "Bainbridge Island School District" . Retrieved 30 May 2012.
  21. "Review: The Forgotten Voyage of Charles Wilkes by William Bixby". Kirkus Reviews. 1 March 1966.
  22. Harris, Robert R. (30 November 2003). "Review: Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick". NY Times.