Charles Wilkes
Born(1798-04-03)April 3, 1798
DiedFebruary 8, 1877(1877-02-08) (aged 78)
Resting placeArlington National Cemetery, Arlington County, Virginia, U.S.
Known for
Military career
AllegianceUnited States of America
BranchUnited States Navy
RankRear admiral
Commands held
WarsAmerican 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).

During the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865, he commanded USS San Jacinto during the Trent Affair in which he stopped a Royal Mail ship and removed two Confederate diplomats, which almost led to war between the United States and the United Kingdom.

Early life and career

Coat of Arms of Charles Wilkes

Wilkes was born in New York City, on April 3, 1798, 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 and home tutored by his aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was fluent in French from her own upbringing in New Rochelle, New York on a French Huguenots settlement. Charles became himself fluent, which served him throughout his career, including in dealing with officials during an extended stay in Europe in 1830 and 1831.[1] His fluency was also demonstrated during his exploration of Puget Sound in 1841 with French-speaking guide Simon Plamondon.[2]

Seton later converted to Roman Catholicism, becoming 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.


Wilkes 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 the office's first superintendent Matthew Fontaine Maury.

He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1843.[3]

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.[4]

South Seas expedition

Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, Exploring Expedition 1838–1842
USS Vincennes in Disappointment Bay, Antarctica, during the Wilkes Expedition.
Pacific Northwest: 1841 Map of the Oregon Territory from Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition

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 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).[5]

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.[6] After charting 1500 miles of Antarctic coastline, the expedition visited Fiji and the Hawaiian Islands.[7][8] In Fiji, the expedition kidnapped the chief Ro Veidovi, charging him with the murder of a crew of American whalers.[9] 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 from 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.[10]

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.[6] He held the first American Independence Day celebration west of the Mississippi River in Dupont, Washington, on July 5, 1841.[11][12] The United States Exploring Expedition passed through the Ellice Islands and visited Funafuti, Nukufetau and Vaitupu in 1841.[13] 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.[6]

After having completely encircled the globe as 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-martialed 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.[14] 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.[6]

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[15][16] 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.[17] The Narrative contains much interesting material concerning the manners, customs, political and economic conditions in many places then little known.[6] 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 Voyage round the world: embracing the principal events of the narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition in one volume: illustrated with one hundred and seventy-eight engravings on wood 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

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.[6]

Trent Affair

Main article: Trent Affair

As part of these duties, he visited the British colony of Bermuda in 1861. 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 RMS Merlin.

When Wilkes learned that James Murray Mason and John Slidell, two Confederate commissioners (to Britain and France, respectively), 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 party from San Jacinto led by its captain then boarded Trent and arrested Mason and Slidell, a further violation of British neutrality. The diplomats were taken to Fort Warren in Boston Harbor.

The actions of "The Notorious Wilkes," as Bermuda media branded him, were contrary to maritime law and convinced many that full-scale war between the United States and England was inevitable.[18]

He was officially thanked by Congress "for his brave, adroit and patriotic conduct".[19] However, his action was later disavowed by President Lincoln due to diplomatic protests 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.[6]

West Indies Squadron

As commander of the West Indies Squadron, Wilkes repeatedly complained of having an insufficient force, and he twice seconded to his own fleet ships ordered to other duties, even in spite of direct orders to release them. Though he had a degree of success in the capture of blockade runners, in which he profited personally, he drew criticism for failing in his primary task, the capture of the commerce raiders CSS Alabama and CSS Florida. He also repeatedly exacerbated diplomatic relations with the British, Spanish, Dutch, French, Danes and Mexicans through his arrogant and illegal activities in the West Indies and Bermuda. In violation of international law regarding belligerent nations, he established coal depots on a number of neutral islands and frequently illegally hovered outside of neutral ports. The British accused him of establishing virtual blockades of the ports of Nassau and St. George's, where his arrogant behavior even led to suspicions that he had been sent to intentionally insult the British, while the French similarly accused him of effectively blockading Martinique.

Wilkes justified his actions by calling the ports little short of operational bases for blockade runners. His capture of ships such as the Peterhoff, Dolphin, Springbok, and Victor resulted in diplomatic remonstrations explicitly directed against Wilkes. He was recalled from his West Indies command in June 1863, a consequence of multiple factors. His failure to capture the Confederate commerce raiders certainly played a role, and his retention of the USS Vanderbilt in direct contravention of explicit orders to release it to independently hunt the Alabama served as a justification, but he probably owed his removal primarily to the seeming never-ending stream of complaints from neutral nations over his actions.[20]

Court martial

Though supported by him in many of his actions in the West Indies, Wilkes frequently found himself in open conflict with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Welles had recommended that Wilkes had been too old to receive the rank of commodore under the act then governing promotions.

When Welles severely criticized Wilkes in his December 1863 annual report over his retention of the Vanderbilt, Wilkes wrote a scathing response that found its way into the newspapers. A court of inquiry accused Wilkes of responsibility for its publication, and he was brought before a March 1864 court martial, facing charges of disobedience of orders, insubordination, disrespect of a superior officer, disobedience of naval regulations, and conduct unbecoming an officer. He was found guilty of all charges and sentenced to public reprimand and suspension for three years.[20] 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.[6]

Later life

Admiral Charles Wilkes, retired

One historian speculated that Wilkes' obsessive behavior and harsh code of shipboard discipline shaped Herman Melville's characterization of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick.[21] Such speculation is not mentioned in the United States Navy historical archives.

In addition to his contribution to United States naval history and scientific study in his official Narrative of the Exploration Squadron (6 volumes), Wilkes wrote his autobiography.

Wilkes died in Washington, D.C., 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." sic [22]


Plaque at National Arboretum

Dates of rank


See also


External videos
video icon 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


  1. ^ "Charles Wilkes papers, 1816-1876 - Archives & Manuscripts at Duke University Libraries".
  2. ^ "Cowlitz Farm History".
  3. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 2021-04-12.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Tyler, David B (1968) The Wilkes Expedition. The First United States Exploring Expedition (1838–42). Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Chisholm 1911.
  7. ^ Wood, G.D. (26 March 2020). "The Forgotten American Explorer Who Discovered Huge Parts of Antarctica". Smithsonian. Retrieved 2020-03-30.
  8. ^ Philbrick, N. (2004). Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery : the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0142004838.
  9. ^ 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. S2CID 162900603.
  10. ^ Apple, Russell A. (1973). "Wilkes Campsite Nomination form". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ Wilkes, Charles (1856). Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Vol. 4. G. P. Putnam.
  13. ^ 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'
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ Hartwell, Mary Ann, ed. (1911). Checklist of United States public documents 1789–1909. Govt. print. off. p. 661.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ 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',
  18. ^ Deichmann, Catherine Lynch (2003). Rogues & runners: Bermuda and the American Civil War. Bermuda National Trust. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-9693939-9-3.
  19. ^ Appletons' annual cyclopaedia and register of important events of the year: 1862. New York: D. Appleton & Company. 1863. p. 276.
  20. ^ a b Jeffries 1945.
  21. ^ The Stormy Petrel and the Whale, by David Jaffe, Port City Press, c1976.
  22. ^ Burial Detail: Wilkes, Charles (Section 2, Grave 1164) – ANC Explorer
  23. ^ "USS Wilkes (DD-441)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  24. ^ "USS Wilkes (TB-35)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  25. ^ "USS Wilkes (DD-67)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  26. ^ "USS Wilkes (T-AGS-33)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved March 5, 2011.
  27. ^ "Bainbridge Island School District". Retrieved 30 May 2012.
  28. ^
  29. ^ a b "Native Plants Hawaii – Viewing Plant : Wilkesia gymnoxiphium". Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  30. ^ "Review: The Forgotten Voyage of Charles Wilkes by William Bixby". Kirkus Reviews. 1 March 1966.
  31. ^ Harris, Robert R. (30 November 2003). "Review: Sea of Glory by Nathaniel Philbrick". The New York Times.


Further reading