Charles Wilkes (April 3, 1798 – February 8, 1877) was an American naval officer and explorer. He is particularly noted for leading the 1838–1842 United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 as well as for his role in the Trent Affair during the Civil War.
Wilkes was born in New York City, in 1798, as the great nephew of the former Lord Mayor of London John Wilkes. His mother was Mary Seton who died in 1802 while Charles was three years old. As a result, Charles was raised by his aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton, a convert to Roman Catholicism who was the first American-born woman to be 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, now Columbia University. He entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1818, and became a lieutenant in 1826.
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 its first superintendent Matthew Fontaine Maury.
The South Seas expedition
In 1838, although not a seasoned naval line officer, Wilkes was experienced in nautical survey work, and 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 U.S. Exploring Squadron was authorized by act of the Congress on May 18, 1836.
The United States Exploring Expedition, commonly known as the Wilkes Expedition, included naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, taxidermists, artists and a philologist, and was carried by the USS Vincennes (780 tons) and Peacock (650 tons), the brig Porpoise (230 tons), the store-ship Relief, and two schooners, Sea Gull (110 tons) and Flying Fish (96 tons).
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.
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.
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 on 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. He 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.
His Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (5 volumes and an atlas) were published in 1844. He edited the scientific reports of the expedition (20 volumes and 11 atlases, 1844–1874) and was the author of Vol. XI (Meteorology) and Vol. XIII (Hydrography).
The Narrative contains much interesting material concerning the manners and customs and political and economic conditions in many places then little known. Wilkes's 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.
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 England, James Murray Mason and John Slidell. He later brought them to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor. Though he was officially thanked by Congress, his action was later disavowed by President Lincoln due to diplomatic pressure placed on the Administration by the British Government. 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.
As part of these duties, he visited the British colony of Bermuda. Acting on his orders, however violating the British rule that allowed American naval vessels (of either side) to remain in port for a single day, Wilkes remained in port for nearly a week aboard his flagship the Wachusett, while his gunboats Tioga and Sonoma blockaded St. George harbour, a key Confederate blockade-runner base. The gunboats prevented a number of ships from leaving the harbour, and opened fire at a Royal Mail Steamer, the Merlin. The actions of "The Notorious Wilkes"—as local media branded him—convinced many that full-scale war between the United States and the United Kingdom was inevitable.
Despite his accomplishments, Wilkes acquired a reputation as sometimes arrogant and capricious. This may have been due to his open conflict with Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. This conflict was due to Secretary Welles recommendation that Wilkes had been too old to receive the rank of commodore under the act then governing promotions, and resulted in Wilkes writing a scathing letter to the Secretary of the Navy. This controversy ended in his being court-martialled in 1864 and being found guilty of disobedience of orders, insubordination, and other specifications. He was sentenced to public reprimand and suspension for three years. However, President 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.
Photograph 1865 & Oil Tinted by Margaret A. Rogers