Charles Wilkes

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Charles Wilkes

Charles Wilkes (April 3, 1798February 8, 1877) was an American naval officer and explorer. He is particularly noted for his 18381842 Pacific expedition as well as for his role in the Trent Affair during the Civil War.


Early life and career

Wilkes was born in New York City. He entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1818, and became a lieutenant in 1826. In 1830 he was placed in charge of the division of instruments and charts.

The South Seas expedition

In 1838, Wilkes was appointed to command an exploring and surveying expedition in the Southern Seas, authorized by Congress in 1836. The United States Exploring Expedition, commonly known as the Wilkes Expedition, included naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, taxidermists and a philologist, and was carried by the sloops-of-war Vincennes (780 tons) and Peacock (650 tons), the brig Porpoise (230 tons), the store-ship Relief, and two tenders, Sea Gull (110 tons) and Flying Fish (96 tons).

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USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica, during the Wilkes expedition.

Leaving Hampton Roads on August 18, 1838, it 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"; visited Fiji and the Hawaiian Islands in 1840, explored the west coast of the United States, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, the Columbia River, San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River, in 1841, and 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.

Wilkes was court-martialled on his return, but was acquitted on all charges except that of 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. Twenty-eight volumes were planned but only nineteen were published. Of these Wilkes wrote the Narrative (1845) and the volumes Hydrography and Meteorology (1851). The Narrative contains much interesting material concerning the manners and customs and political and economic conditions in many places then little known. Other valuable contributions were the three reports of James Dwight Dana on Zoophytes (1846), Geology (1849) and Crustacea (1852-1854).

In addition to many shorter articles and reports, Wilkes published the major scientific works Western America, including California and Oregon (1849) and Theory of the Winds (1856).

The Civil War

At the outbreak of the American Civil War, Wilkes (who had reached the rank of commander in 1843 and that of captain in 1855) was assigned to the command of the San Jacinto to search for the Confederate commerce destroyer Sumter.

The Trent Affair

On November 8, 1861, he stopped the British mail packet Trent, and took off the Confederate commissioners to Europe, James Murray Mason and John Slidell. Though he was officially thanked by Congress, his action was later disavowed by President Lincoln. His next service was in the James River flotilla, but 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 was disrated (becoming a captain on the retired list) in November 1862 on the ground that he had been too old to receive the rank of commodore under the act then governing promotions, and engaged in a long controversy with Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy. This controversy ended in his being court-martialled in 1864 and being found guilty on several counts and sentenced to public reprimand and suspension for three years. But on July 25, 1866, he was promoted to the rank of rear admiral on the retired list.

Last Years

Wilkes died in Washington state on February 8, 1877.

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Map of the Pacific Northwest
from "Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition." Philadelphia: 1845
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Journal entry, August 6, 1841 Page 2

de:Charles Wilkes


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