BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Nathaniel Philbrick, author of "Sea of Glory: America`s Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842," what is this book about?
NATHANIEL PHILBRICK, AUTHOR, "SEA OF GLORY": It`s about the greatest voyage most people have never heard of. It`s an expedition launched by the U.S. government to do what James Cook had done for England, and other European explorers, to take America to the world, to plant a flag in the world, explore the islands that no one had any charts for, to go where literally no man had ever gone before.
LAMB: Who`s James Cook?
PHILBRICK: James Cook was the paramount British explorer of the 18th century that had opened up the Pacific, discovering islands at every turn. And he had had a team of scientists with him. And this is a function of the Enlightenment, and he opened up a whole new era of exploration in the name of science, but also in the name of empire.
LAMB: So this voyage started on what date? How many ships? How many men. And briefly, where did they go?
PHILBRICK: Yes. Well, it began August 18, 1888, left the Norfolk Navy yard, six vessels, 346 men, making it one of the largest voyages of discovery in the Western world. I mean, this is a huge undertaking for a small -- a big country but with a small navy. And they were to go around the world. They would eventually cover 87,000 miles, criss-cross the Pacific and venture down to really no -- down to the bottom of the world, towards Antarctica, where no one really knew what was down there.
LAMB: What was the purpose of it, and who paid for it?
PHILBRICK: It was paid for by the U.S. government, and one of the primary functions was to chart Pacific islands that no one had any charts for, at this point. People like the Nantucket whalers were going to places that not even Cook had been to. The Fiji group, for example -- there were no reliable charts of that. And so this was a government-sponsored expedition to survey, chart these islands. This expedition would chart 280 Pacific islands, creating 180 charts, and would really reinvent navigation in the Pacific.
LAMB: How long were they gone?
PHILBRICK: Four years, which was a year longer than they expected. And so some of these young guys who were midshipmen in the Navy, 18 years old, would come back, be 22-year-old men.
LAMB: They left with -- you said it was six ships. How many did they come back with?
PHILBRICK: They came back with three of them. They would lose -- one would be sent back. The store ship Relief was so slow that the commander sent it back fairly early in the voyage. But they would lose two vessels. One, a small schooner, would be lost in a storm off Cape Horn. The other would be -- the Peacock, the sloop-of-war, 118 feet, would be wrecked on the mouth of the Columbia River.
LAMB: Here is -- you tell me what it is. It`s not a photograph. What is it?
PHILBRICK: Yes, it`s a modern rendering of the U.S. exploring expedition by Mark Myer, a noted British maritime artist. And it`s showing the squadron, the six vessels, in Orange Bay, which is very near Cape Horn. And this was before they were about to head down south, one of two sails south to try to identify what was beneath the Antarctic Circle.
LAMB: Which one of these is the Vincennes?
PHILBRICK: The Vincennes is the large one on the left, with no sails up. The Vincennes was the flagship. The commander, Charles Wilkes, was on the Vincennes. And the Vincennes was one of the favorite ships of the U.S. Navy at this time. She was beamy, but she was very fast. And this would be her third trip around the world.
LAMB: How big would she have been?
PHILBRICK: A little over 120 feet, in that vicinity. And so not a huge naval vessel, by any means, but big enough to command a lot of respect when it pulled into a little coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific.
LAMB: How many men would she carry?
PHILBRICK: She would carry close to 200 -- 200 men. And what made this squadron unique is that, in addition to naval officers and sailors, there were scientists, there were artists. This was before photography, so there were people constantly making sketches and charts of what was going on. There were taxidermists. There were people there to repair the scientific instruments that were brought along.
LAMB: Which one on this -- these two pages in your book is the smallest vessel, and how big was she?
PHILBRICK: Yes. The two schooners, which are on the upper left, they were -- both of them were about the same size, Sea Gull and the Flying Fish, around 70 feet. They had been New York pilot boats before they became naval vessels. And so they were transformed into exploring vessels and set out around the world with these much larger ships.
LAMB: How long were they, again, and how many...
PHILBRICK: Just a little over 70 feet.
LAMB: How many people were on them?
PHILBRICK: Fifteen men, with a complement of about three officers. And so it was not much, when you`re rounding Cape Horn, to be in something that small.
LAMB: In 1838, what were the politics of the country? Who was president? And was there a figure of how much money was spent?
PHILBRICK: Yes. There was an initial funding of $150,000 to get things going, but more would go through. And that was a lot of money back then. And this had been started by the -- Andrew Jackson`s administration, but it had taken two years to get this going. And it would be the Martin Van Buren administration that would finally get the expedition launched in 1838. And the leader, Charles Wilkes, was an ardent Jacksonian Democrat, and definitely political connections had something to do with the fact that he was named leader of this expedition.
LAMB: In 1838, when this voyage began, how much of this had the United States already done? How many expeditions like this?
PHILBRICK: I mean, there was really -- global exploration was nil, when it came to America, at this point. There had been the Lewis and Clark expedition. That had left in 1803. And that had been called a voyage of discovery because they were looking for a waterway from the Mississippi to the Pacific. But after that, there were some very random attempts at exploration in the interior of the country. This would be -- the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838 was a whole new era, America`s first attempt to go at it head to head with the European powers that were launched on this real international rivalry to discover and explore the last unknown portions of the planet.
LAMB: You`ve mentioned Charles Wilkes several times. He`s obviously an important part of the book. And here`s the picture of him. It`s a painting. When was this done?
PHILBRICK: This was done soon after he returned from the expedition in 1842. And when the expedition left in 1838, he was a 40-year-old lieutenant who had spent most of his naval career on land. He had been head of the Depot of Charts and Instruments on Capitol Hill, where he worked out of his home, two brick buildings that had been originally built by George Washington as boarding houses. And there he had built an observatory, and it would later evolve into the naval observatory. But that`s where Charles Wilkes was. And he had a scientific background, not much of a seamanship background. And he had the political connections to get the appointment.
LAMB: What was his rank? And I know that the rank is a story that goes all the way through the book.
PHILBRICK: Yes. Rank was very important to Wilkes, and it should have been, really. He was a lieutenant. And this is the peacetime Navy, and so there was -- you know, people were in line, waiting to become captains. And Wilkes was a fairly old lieutenant, but that`s what people were then. And he was in charge of this huge expedition. He would -- he had 30 or some lieutenants he was to command. And to command them, he needed to outrank them.
And he was under the impression that a secretary of the Navy was going to give him an acting appointment as captain, and he really deserved it. To lead something this size, he really needed to have that appointment. But his appointment was so controversial -- the Navy hierarchy was outraged that the secretary of the Navy basically wimped out, and in the last minute, did not give him his acting appointment to captain. And this would burn at Wilkes`s soul and I think really point to a level of insecurity at the beginning that would make it very difficult for Wilkes to command this expedition.
LAMB: Did they all know where they were going from the beginning?
PHILBRICK: Yes. Wilkes had written out a fairly detailed description of where they would go that was then approved by the secretary of the Navy. And it would be pretty close to where they would go. I mean, it was way -- it was too ambitious, the way -- it was a typical American operation, ambitious, underfunded and making it up as it went along. And the remarkable thing is how much of the to-do list they would accomplish.
LAMB: Go through the basic places where they went.
PHILBRICK: They headed out from Norfolk. They went to Madeira, off the western coast of Africa. And they would search out various navigational areas throughout the Atlantic; make their way to Rio de Janeiro, where they re-provisioned. And then they went down to Cape Horn, where they made their first stab to the south. They would sail to the South Shetland Islands and very close to the Antarctic peninsula. They would then head up to -- up the coast of -- western coast of South America to Peru, and then head out into the Pacific.
They would make their way across the Pacific, surveying and charting islands all the way, while the scientists collected specimens and artifacts. They would make their way to Sydney, Australia, in December of 1839. They would then leave from there, sail directly south and head to Antarctica and come across what they called the "icy barrier," head west, and surveying and charting the coast of Antarctica. They would then return to New Zealand, to the Fiji Islands, to Hawaii, to the Pacific Northwest, and then back the long way to the Philippines, to Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope and home to New York.
LAMB: Four years, 87,000 miles. How many men lost their lives on the trip?
PHILBRICK: Close to 40 men died during this trip, which is a pretty large figure. But when you consider where they went and the dangers they endured and the losses that similar exploring expeditions had, it wasn`t that bad, really. They would lose two ships, though, and one of the schooners, they would lose all hands in the storm.
LAMB: You had three men -- pictures of them or artist renderings on the page next to Charles Wilkes. One of them at the top is Charles Erskine.
PHILBRICK: Yes. Charlie Erskine.
LAMB: Who is he?
PHILBRICK: He was a 16-year-old sailor, a kid who had gotten to know Wilkes prior to this expedition, on a very short surveying operation of Georges Bank. And Charlie was a beautiful boy, as described by Wilkes. Charlie would make the mistake of taking some time off to see his mother when they were in Boston and would get whipped for returning to the ship late and would develop a hatred of Wilkes and would even think about trying to kill Wilkes in the early stages of the expedition, would not, and would go on to teach himself how to read and write during the expedition, and late in life would write an account of the U.S. Exploring Expedition that tells the story of the expedition from the perspective of a common seaman, which is very important.
LAMB: You tell a story where he was about to drop something on Charles Wilkes`s head.
PHILBRICK: Yes. Just, a few weeks into the expedition -- Charlie had been whipped by Wilkes earlier on and just had developed this need to get his revenge. And it had been at night. He was on the deck of the vessel and it was his watch, and he could see -- it was midnight. And he could see Wilkes -- through a skylight, could see Wilkes laboring over a chart. And Charlie took a belaying pin, a heavy metal cylinder, and suspended it over the skylight and was about to drop it on Wilkes`s head, thinking it would kill him, when he saw a vision of his mother. And his mother said, Don`t do it, Charlie. Charlie relented, Wilkes lived, and the expedition would go on.
LAMB: Who was William Reynolds?
PHILBRICK: William Reynolds was a 22-year-old "passed midshipman," meaning that he had passed an exam that would qualify him to be -- eventually become a lieutenant. He was from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And he was an unusual naval officer. He had the heart and soul of a poet. He loved to read, he loved to write. And throughout his naval career, which had begun when he was 16, he kept personal journals that he would share with his family back in Lancaster.
And William Reynolds began this expedition adoring Wilkes, as most of the young officers did, because Wilkes had gotten this great expedition off the ground in the beginning. But he ended up hating Wilkes. And Reynolds would keep a journal, a private journal that Wilkes would never see, that would swell to 250,000 words. It`s now at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, and it`s just an incredible document. It tells the secret story of what happened between Wilkes and his officers.
It also is a coming-of-age story, in which this 22-year-old kid becomes a great writer, because by the end of this expedition, he was writing at a level that I would -- I would compare to Melville, to Dana. I mean, it`s that good. And Reynolds wrote it all down, and it was a huge help for me in writing this book.
LAMB: Is the actual journal still -- the journal still at Franklin and Marshall?
PHILBRICK: Yes. They are at Franklin and Marshall. And actually, we`ll be publishing an edited version of Reynolds`s journal in 2004. And it really is a document that is very personal but also tells the story of this huge expedition in a way that is really important, I think, when it comes to American sea writing.
LAMB: Did all six of these ships sail together at all times?
PHILBRICK: At times, they tried to, particularly when it came to surveying the islands. They would carefully coordinate their activities around the islands. Two of the vessels would take one side, typically, two would take the other side of an island and work their way around. And they could survey a typical 14-mile coral atoll in three-and-a-half hours. I mean, they got it down that well.
But then there were times when they would purposely split up. When they were in Hawaii, Wilkes would send two of the vessels into the central Pacific, where they would chart the islands that would figure so large in World War II. And then when they went down into the Antarctic, they would inevitably have to split up. The gales that would wrack the squadron would require them to go off into different directions.
LAMB: How fast did they sail?
PHILBRICK: You know, it depended, but in a -- going along at a good clip, they could get up -- the Vincennes, the flagship, could get up to 11, 12 knots.
LAMB: How often did they hit bad weather?
PHILBRICK: It depended where they were. In the Antarctic, it was bad weather almost every day. They weathered three different gales, dodging icebergs all the way. Cape Horn, a similar time, just gale after gale after gale. And then they would, you know, go up to the Pacific Northwest, and there, there were challenges of a different sort. It would be cold, wet, a lot of the time. But then the currents and the navigational hazards up there made their life a misery. So it was constant hazards.
LAMB: Did they ever come close to losing a ship entirely?
PHILBRICK: Yes. Off the Cape Horn -- they had finished their first stab south, and Wilkes was trying to coordinate the squadron to head up north to Valparaiso. And the -- one of the schooners was lingering there when they were hit by a gale, and they all -- it would be -- the Sea Gull would be lost with all hands, apparently, in the storm. They thought her mast may have tripped up, torn up the deck. But all 17 men were lost.
LAMB: Did they ever find anything?
PHILBRICK: No. They sent -- later, an expedition from South America would be sent down to look for them, but they never found anything.
LAMB: You have another rendering on this page, a man named William Hudson.
LAMB: How old was he in that caricature?
PHILBRICK: Yes. That was done during the expedition, and he was in his early 40s. He was the second in command of the U.S. Exploring Expedition. He was a good friend of Wilkes, probably his best friend in the Navy prior to this expedition. But unfortunately, Hudson, although he was a great seaman, did not have any surveying experience. And this would become a real burden to Wilkes as the years of the expedition unfolded because so much of this expedition involved surveying and charting, a very complex operation, particularly, in sailing vessels. And Hudson could get the ships there but was not much help when it came to the actual surveying.
LAMB: How did you get interested in all this, in the first place?
PHILBRICK: Well, for me, it began with my previous book, "In the Heart of the Sea," about a whaling voyage that went very bad. And what fascinated me about whaling, and particularly Nantucket whalers -- and I`m from Nantucket -- is that these guys were not only the greatest whale killers the world has ever known, they were some of the greatest explorers. And it was this era of global exploration, not only government-sponsored but part of the whaling fleet, China traders, that fascinated me. And at the end of "In the Heart of the Sea," the captain of the whaleship Essex goes out one last time and comes across a naval schooner off Peru. And that -- one of the officers on that schooner was Charles Wilkes, at 24 years old, who would 15 years later lead the U.S. exploring expedition into the Pacific.
LAMB: And did you -- when you researched him then, did you say to yourself, That`s a book?
PHILBRICK: No, I didn`t, not at first. I had gotten Wilkes`s autobiography, which is a mammoth book that Wilkes wrote late in his career in an attempt to redeem his legacy. And in it he describes his meeting with this whaling captain. And I was fascinated by who he was. I had heard about the U.S. Exploring Expedition. In fact, I read a little -- some about it when I was researching "In the Heart of the Sea," but I didn`t know that much about it. And then I began to realize, Look at all the things these guys did. Why don`t I know anything about it? So for me, it became kind of a detective story. This is an extraordinary expedition, something that I was never taught in high school or college. Why not? And so that`s when I decided this is the next story for me.
LAMB: Where`d you grow up?
PHILBRICK: I grew up in the maritime center of the universe, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But we would summer for a couple of weeks every summer on Cape Cod, where I developed a real love of the sea.
LAMB: What were your parents doing then?
PHILBRICK: My parents are both teachers. My dad`s a retired English professor, with a specialty in American maritime literature, and he was at Pitt, University of Pittsburgh. So that`s why we were there.
LAMB: And where did you go to college?
PHILBRICK: I went to Brown University.
LAMB: Studied what?
PHILBRICK: American literature, and was on the sailing team and was very much interested in the American literature of the sea. I took some history courses, but I was by no means a budding historian in college.
LAMB: Your first book was written when?
PHILBRICK: My first book was a sailing book written way back in `87. And we moved to Nantucket when I -- about that time, and I became interested in the history of Nantucket. "Moby-Dick" had been my bible, and moving to Nantucket was a real revelation. And so I began researching the history of the island, wrote two histories of Nantucket, both the whaling era and the Native American side of things, and then wrote "In the Heart of the Sea" about the loss of the whaleship Essex, which was the basis for the climax of "Moby-Dick."
LAMB: Again, what year, "In the Heart of the Sea"?
PHILBRICK: That was -- it came out in 2000.
LAMB: Somebody who lives on Cape Cod is a man named David McCullough, well-known for John Adams and a lot of other things. And it`s the only thing on the book -- the only endorsement in the book. Back of the book it says, " `Sea of Glory` is a treasure of a book, a spacious sea story, a first-rate history, a chronicle of the lengths men will go, the messes they can get into, in and out of, all in the quest of knowledge." It goes on. How did you get his endorsement?
LAMB: Well, we have a special bond. We both went to the same elementary school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Linden Elementary School. So -- and strangely enough, we both ended up living on islands off Cape Cod. He`s on Martha`s Vineyard. And so -- and he`s come to the island several times to speak in support of our local library, the Athenaeum, and we got the know each other.
LAMB: Where is Cape Cod? How big is it? How many people live there?
PHILBRICK: Well, Cape Code -- I`m on Nantucket.
LAMB: I`m sorry. Nantucket.
PHILBRICK: Yes. Nantucket is about 10,000 year-round. No one`s quite sure how many people are there in the summer. It can get close to 70,000. It`s about 14 miles long, and it`s about 30 miles off Cape Cod. And it`s kind of schizophrenic living there. I mean, the summer crowds come, and then in February and March, it`s a very different story. But it`s a very tight community. It was a great place for us to raise our children. We moved there when our kids were 1 and 4. They`re now 19 and 21. And it`s a place where, obviously, the sea is never far away.
LAMB: Earlier, you talked about William Reynolds writing a private journal, and you also talk a lot about the public journals, the required journals...
LAMB: ...of all of the men. Explain that.
PHILBRICK: Yes. Well, about a couple weeks into the voyage, Wilkes issued an order that all his officers had to keep official logs of the voyage and that these logs had to be turned over to him at the end of the voyage. And needless to say, these would be self-censored documents, since everyone knew they were going to be turned over to Wilkes at the end. So they -- some of them are very detailed. Some of them are just perfunctory entries.
And -- but the result is there are a huge number of journals to draw on when working on this. There`s more than 20 of them at the National Archives in Washington. And there are other journals scattered at the repositories all over the country. There`s about half a dozen of them at the Beinecke Library at Yale. There`s Reynolds`s journal at Franklin and Marshall. And so it gave a vast number of documents to work with when researching this book.
LAMB: What -- you constantly talk about turning points in your book, where the men on these ships were affected by something that Wilkes had done. What are the major turning points?
PHILBRICK: Well, you know, I think the major turning point for a lot of these men occurred just off the coast of Peru, about a year into this voyage. As I said earlier, they had begun worshiping Wilkes, but Wilkes began to reveal himself hardly as the friend they all thought he was. He became what he called the martinet, someone who belittled and mocked the officers that he initially treated as his friends. And by a year into the voyage, the division line was very wide.
And Wilkes had expected to be -- get an acting appointment as captain. And when he left Peru, he -- and they were setting out into the Pacific, he thought that the chances that they would run into another U.S. naval vessel were very slim. And he appeared on a morning of August, 1839, on the quarterdeck of Vincennes wearing a captain`s uniform. His officers were astonished. And he said that, “Now that I am the self-appointed captain of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, I should be regarded as a commodore.” And he had happened to bring along the blue swallow-tailed pennant of a naval commodore, which he ordered to be taken to the masthead of the Vincennes. And then for the next three years, he would be the self-proclaimed commodore of the U.S. Exploring Expedition.
And this was a galvanizing moment. It showed his officers that this guy was willing to do just about anything he wanted to do, and -- even if they felt it was illegal. But for Wilkes, he needed that. He needed that -- to have that -- to be a commodore to lead this expedition. And even though it was something he had done for himself, it really energized his command.
LAMB: You say one of the main things that happened to him at the end of the whole voyage was that he was fined $12,000. For what reason?
PHILBRICK: Right. Well, when -- he was fined because he was legally a lieutenant. And he had been under the impression that he was going to be an acting captain. And so he had instructed his men to be paid as a captain and -- but when he returned and the government found out that he had been paid as a captain, even though he was legally a lieutenant, they said he had to return all the pay that wasn`t owed him. And Wilkes would fight it and actually win that one and -- because it was pretty much acknowledged he did deserve to be an acting captain.
LAMB: How much did the American people pay attention to this expedition when it was under way?
PHILBRICK: Well, you know, it was -- they paid some attention to it in the beginning, and particularly after it was announced that Wilkes had discovered Antarctica. President Martin Van Buren, the president who sent this expedition out, made this announcement to Congress in the fall of 1840. And this got some airplay. But unfortunately for Wilkes, Van Buren would lose the election and the Whigs would come in. It would be -- President Tyler would be president when Wilkes returned. And as soon as the Whigs came in, they tried to squash all publicity for this expedition. So that by the time they returned, four years after leaving, the American people had been in the dark for several years, really didn`t know what was going on. And this really frustrated Wilkes and his officers because they felt they had led one of the greatest expeditions ever to go out, and yet no one knew about it.
LAMB: A couple times during the -- in your book, you talk about it being a year-and-a-half since he had received a letter from his wife.
LAMB: And obviously, you think that his wife is very important to the story.
LAMB: You`ve got a -- one of the...
LAMB: ... portraits of her here.
PHILBRICK: Yes. Wilkes`s wife, Jane Renwick, was very important to him. He had -- for most of his professional career, he had lived and worked with Jane, and it`s clear she may have scripted some of the moves that got him this command. And he referred to her not only as his assistant but as his moderation. He had a fanatical personality that -- you know, he could push things too hard, and Jane would always rein him in. But when the expedition left, he was without Jane`s hand. And I think a lot of the problems that occurred early on in Wilkes`s command was because suddenly he was without his moderation, without Jane.
LAMB: Where had he met her?
PHILBRICK: He had -- they had actually grown up together in New York, both well-to-do families in New York City. And Wilkes was very good friends throughout his life with Jane`s brother, James Renwick, who was a professor at Columbia.
LAMB: Is this Renwick Art Gallery here the same name?
PHILBRICK: Well, yes. The Renwick who would design the Smithsonian Institution, the castle on the mall, was Wilkes`s nephew, was James Renwick`s son. And so, yes, they were -- there was a lot of the same family.
And so Jane was so important to Wilkes that -- what made it all the tougher was that communication during this expedition was very difficult. They were going to very far-flung reaches of the world, and it took more than two years for him to get mail from home. And he had had a daughter born just two weeks before the expedition left. You know, he knew she would have no memory of him. And so he was two years without any kind of information from her, and he may have come a little unhinged, in terms of his personality. And certainly, that -- his officers thought so.
LAMB: How many letters remain? And have you read them?
PHILBRICK: Yes. Well, one of the great surprises and joys of researching this book was to discover that in 1978, a large group of Wilkes`s papers was donated to Duke University. And they contained close to 100 letters written by Wilkes to his wife, Jane. And they really opened up a whole window into Wilkes`s personality because Wilkes was really an enigma to his officers. They couldn`t figure out what was going on. In these letters, Wilkes tells Jane everything, and they don`t always serve his reputation well, but they do give you an indication of the personal sacrifice he really went through because this was a family man. He had spent most of his professional life with his wife and kids, working at home. And then to be away for four years, to suffer the deprivations he went through, was very difficult.
LAMB: And how much did she get involved back here in Washington on his behalf while he was away?
PHILBRICK: Well, one of the things Wilkes hoped for that, even though he had named himself commodore, he was hopeful that the administration would give him the promotion he wanted before he returned to make everything right. And so as the expedition was winding down in his last year and it was clear that the Tyler administration was not going to give him the promotion, he began to write letters to Jane, do anything you can to help me with this promotion. And Jane worked very hard. She went all the way to the president several times. The president told her...
PHILBRICK: Personally. Told her, clearly, don`t come again. You`re not helping your husband`s cause. And she worked as hard as she could. And the problem was it was just an entirely different political climate, and all those connections that had served the Wilkes` family so well when the expedition set out were not helping them on the expedition`s return.
LAMB: There is a familiar name that in this book, it`s a Christmas flower plant that -- it`s prominent in this story. Poinsett.
LAMB: The fellow who had brought us the poinsettia?
PHILBRICK: Yes, that`s the man. And that`s the amazing thing with this story, this expedition. There are so many tentacles that go out there. Poinsett was the secretary of the war. When it was clear the secretary of the Navy in the Van Buren administration was not going to get this expedition out of the dock, Poinsett was brought in to make it happen. And none other than John Quincy Adams, who was then in Congress, went to Poinsett and said, all I want to hear is that the U.S. Exploring Expedition has sailed. And within a few months, Poinsett would appoint Wilkes to the command. It outraged the Navy, but Wilkes got it organized and got out there.
LAMB: How was the flower named after him?
PHILBRICK: Well, he -- Poinsett was -- before they were ambassadors but I guess consul to Mexico, and it was there that he brought the flower back that now bears his name.
LAMB: What are the other turning points in the voyage?
PHILBRICK: Well, one of the great turning points is when they do discover Antarctica. And they did not technically discover Antarctica, because sealers from Nantucket, Stonington, Connecticut and Britain back in the 1820s had sighted and even ventured on what we now call the Antarctic Peninsula, below Cape Horn. But there was no evidence that the land they saw was part of a huge landmass.
It would be Wilkes, he would be the first, going down from Sydney, Australia, to survey and chart a significant portion of Antarctica, and this would be a true turning point, where 1,500 miles of Antarctica to this day is called Wilkes Land, if you look on the globe. And this was really -- this was a towering achievement and would really make his men angry, in that Wilkes had pulled it off, and yet proud for their nation.
LAMB: You go into some detail with some narrative about a lot of the stops along the way, the Hawaii, the Fiji islands...
LAMB: Islands and all. Has this ever been done before? The descriptive nature of this?
PHILBRICK: Well, you know, the previous book about the exploring expedition is a wonderful book by Bill Stanton, written in the 1970s, and Bill Stanton is an historian of science. And so that is his focus. Mine is of more general interest. And so I do focus on the personalities involved in -- so go into some detail that is not in Stanton`s book, so I think the two books balance each other pretty well.
LAMB: So how did, when you were describing ships, you know, traveling along and seeing a glacier or fog, and all of that, how did you get the narrative on this?
PHILBRICK: Well, you know, one of the things I wanted to do was to make it come from the documents themselves, because this is so well documented. Every officer is keeping a journal. And you know, I really wanted to bring to life in some cases the sheer terror they were feeling. And making this happen, it was really William Reynolds` journal that made it real. Because Reynolds was a poet at heart, a great writer, and he was very interested in what this experience was doing to him personally. And that`s an unusual perspective to get in the 19th century, someone who is not only describing what he sees but describing his reaction to what he sees. And so it`s with Reynolds` voice that I felt like this is a way to get into the story that makes you feel as if you are there. Because you not only see it, you feel it.
LAMB: You say there are 346 men that left on the six ships in 1838 at the beginning, 40 were lost at sea, or killed, and I`ll ask you about that in a second. And then half of the ones that were left were on the ships when they got back. Is that all right?
PHILBRICK: Yeah, pretty much.
LAMB: How many then, how many journals? What, over 500 people were involved in the whole thing?
PHILBRICK: Yeah, but only the officers were keeping journals. So there were about 40 officers. And you know, there are, if you added them all up, there were about 25 journals.
LAMB: Where are they?
PHILBRICK: Most of them are at the National Archives in Washington.
LAMB: And how many have you read?
PHILBRICK: I have Xeroxes of the microfilms, and I have been through every one, one way or another. You know, one of the challenges of this was -- this was a huge, this was, you know, a cast of hundreds. Scene changes every three months. And I had to focus on specific personalities if I was going to render this in a way that you could relate to.
So that was the challenge, was to convey the scope, the grandeur of this expedition. And yet have the focus where you can have some personal element. And so I would scan all of these, you know, but I would find myself, OK, this is the day I need to bring to life, and then would go back and look at that specific date. And really let the narrative determine in some way where I would go in terms of the research.
LAMB: When did you start the book, and when did you finish it?
PHILBRICK: I started the book right after "In the Heart of the Sea," and I finished it...
LAMB: When was that, though?
PHILBRICK: About 2000, fall of 2000.
LAMB: Started the research then?
PHILBRICK: Yes, started the research in fall of 2000. And when I`m working on a book, the research and writing occur simultaneously. I do an initial level of research for about a year for this book, of collecting all the documents, getting a sense of where I want to go with each one. And then I begin to write and that -- and write and research. And so each -- so that then took me another two years. So it has been a solid three years.
LAMB: Where would we find you writing? Explain the circumstances or give us the visual account.
PHILBRICK: Yeah. Well, once I had assembled all these documents, they are stacked in my basement. I work in the basement of my house. And I got two rooms. One was basically all logs and files, and the other was where I was writing. And I would bring in what I needed for that specific day, and then move it out again, because it was just the logistics of all these logs was very difficult. And so I was working down in the basement of my house with my dog at my feet for a solid two years.
LAMB: Your tie has little sailboats on it. I assume that was done for purpose?
PHILBRICK: Yes, a good friend of mine, Eric Holch, who is a wonderful artist on Nantucket, not only does works of art but produces ties. And so I promised him I would wear this.
LAMB: By the way, in the middle of all of this, have you found another book that you`re working on?
PHILBRICK: Yeah. It is starting with a voyage but then moving in slightly different directions. Voyage of the Mayflower and the Pilgrims. Pilgrims and Indians. I`m fascinated with that, what happened there in Plymouth. Because it does not begin and end with the Mayflower and Thanksgiving. That is just the beginning. And I see it as a 56-year epic, really, that ends with King Phillips` war. The bloodiest conflict ever in American history. And I think that`s the real story of what happened in Plymouth.
LAMB: What year do you hope to have that out?
PHILBRICK: We`ll see. 2006, something like that.
LAMB: By the way, is this a full-time job for you or do you do other things?
PHILBRICK: Yeah, I`m director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies. But my excellent staff are the ones that keep things going on a day-to-day basis. And writing has become my full-time occupation.
LAMB: Another character you write about is a man named Wilkes Henry.
LAMB: Where does the Wilkes name come from?
PHILBRICK: Well, this was Wilkes,` Charles Wilkes` nephew. He was a midshipman on this expedition. He was the eldest son of Wilkes` widowed sister. And Wilkes brought him along. And over the course of this voyage, he became Wilkes` surrogate son. And they became very close.
Wilkes` difficulty with his officers made this all the more poignant. And it would be in Fiji where really the cataclysmic turning point would occur when it came to Wilkes, because Wilkes Henry would be with another officer negotiating with Fijian natives for some provisions. The expedition was running out of food as it was ending survey of the Fijian islands. And they were on the island of Malolo, in the western portion of the Fijis, when through a series of tragic misunderstandings, fighting broke out on the beach, and Wilkes Henry and another officer would die on the beach in hand-to-hand combat, their brains bashed out with -- by Fijian war clubs.
And it was impossible for Wilkes not to take this very personally. He would respond with absolute force and massacring the village that he felt was responsible. And Wilkes would be court-martialed at the end of his expedition. And one of the charges would be that he had illegally killed all these Fijian natives.
LAMB: There was a comment that he made somewhere along the way about the importance of the white man.
PHILBRICK: Yeah. Well, he was -- you know, this was typical of the time. The Wilkes expedition was by no means the first exploring expedition to run into native violence. James Cook had been killed on a beach in Hawaii. But once Wilkes had massacred the natives, the village, he brought those that were remaining together and basically gave them a sermon on the power of the white man, and that if they ever did anything like this again, he would return.
LAMB: There was somebody picked up on this voyage, a native, if I had read it correctly, his skull ended up in a jar or something.
PHILBRICK: Yes. Veidovi. Was probably the most important specimen, artifact brought back by this expedition. He was a Fijian native that several years before the expedition`s arrival in Fiji had killed a mate on an American vessel. And he had -- and Wilkes abducted him and instead of punishing him, killing him there, hanging him there, decided to bring him back to America and show him the power of America, and then return him to Fiji where he could instruct his compatriots on the power of America. Unfortunately, Veidovi would sicken towards the end of the voyage, die in New York the very day the expedition arrived. His head would be cut off and become part of the exploring expedition`s collections.
LAMB: Where is it?
PHILBRICK: It ended up in the Smithsonian Institution, along with all the 40 tons of specimens and artifacts brought back by the U.S. Exploring Expedition.
LAMB: Have you seen the head?
PHILBRICK: I have not seen the head. There was, I know there was an attempt to return the head to Fiji, and I am not clear exactly where things stand with that. But there - I have seen other artifacts and specimens brought back by the expedition.
LAMB: On both ends of this, a name I forgot to ask you about earlier, Elizabeth Ann Seton, and then on the other end of it, the names James Smithson, which we want to show some video that was taken here in a moment out at the -- where the Smithsonian keeps a lot of these artifacts. Elizabeth Ann Seton, before I forget it, how did she play a role in this story?
PHILBRICK: Well, she -- Wilkes` mother died when he was just 2 years old and he was put under the care of an aunt who was Ms. Seton.
LAMB: Who was?
PHILBRICK: She was would become, after her time with Wilkes, the infant Wilkes, would become Catholic and become America`s first native-born saint. And so Wilkes, who had grow up to be this tyrant of a commander, had a first experience with sainthood.
LAMB: And the other end of it, the name James Smithson, how did that get in the story?
PHILBRICK: Well, Smithson was an Englishman who died, leaving a large amount of money for -- it was not clear exactly what it would be for, and Congress had to figure that out. It -- this money would eventually become the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution, named for Smithson. And this expedition returned to America just as Congress was grappling with what to do with the bequest from Smithson.
And there was a real battle going on politically as to what it would become. Should it become America`s national museum? Should it become a library, a research center? And the U.S. Exploring Expedition would really sort of force things along, because they brought back more specimens and artifacts than all three of James Cook`s voyages combined, and just a huge amount of stuff. And they needed someplace to put it. And there would be an exhibit in the Patent Office building, but eventually the Smithsonian Institution would be founded to house the exploring expedition`s collection.
LAMB: And the amount of stuff they brought back?
PHILBRICK: Forty tons. I mean, it`s just huge. And much of it is in storage off-site in the Smithsonian and is there today.
LAMB: We are going to run some video, I hope, of what we found. Some of the stuff that they brought back. You can see it there. What are we looking at?
PHILBRICK: These are Fijian war clubs. And they would throw these clubs end over end. And that`s what would get the two officers of the U.S. Exploring Expedition.
LAMB: Where is this located, all this stuff?
PHILBRICK: This is in what they call storage pods. Each -- these are off-site in the suburbs outside Washington, where the Smithsonian stores the things that are not on display. Each one of these pods to me seemed about the size of Madison Square Garden. They are just cavernous. And anthropologist Jane Walsh gave me a tour of what U.S. Exploring Expedition artifacts are there. Here you can see, there you see Fiji islands. Now, those are the original tags from the U.S. Exploring Expedition of the artifacts brought back.
LAMB: These are kept in drawers. Do people get to see them?
PHILBRICK: Not unless you get the tour, no. These are not anything the general public can see. The Smithsonian did have an exhibit of the U.S. Exploring Expedition back in the 1980s.
LAMB: What are we looking at here?
PHILBRICK: These are artifacts brought back from the Pacific Northwest, wonderfully carved things from what is now Washington and Oregon state, and there you see, made for USXX. That is what the U.S. Exploring Expedition was known for short, and there we see Puget Sound, 1838.
LAMB: And he explored Puget Sound?
PHILBRICK: Yes. Wilkes would leave more than 300 place names in Washington State alone. This -- Major William Rich, he was the botanist who went with this expedition. And so this must be something from Polynesia -- yes, some of the mats that they brought back.
LAMB: Where did they have the room to carry 40 tons of material?
PHILBRICK: Well, they would store them in the hulls of their ship, in the hulls of the ship, and then periodically send things back.
LAMB: That`s Jane Walsh?
PHILBRICK: Yes, that`s Jane Walsh, who was so helpful to me with this. And here`s some of the cloth brought back from Polynesia.
It is just fantastic stuff. And some of it is extremely rare. Particularly they got to Fiji at a time where before a lot of changes came in and some of the things they brought back are just better than the things that they have at Fiji today.
LAMB: If you`re just a citizen, can you ask to see this stuff?
PHILBRICK: I`m not sure what the protocol is, and I do not want to get anybody in trouble there. These are more Fijian war clubs. They were different sizes depending on the type of fighting they were doing. And it`s the kind of club that could cleave a man in half.
LAMB: How much time did you spend looking at this kind of thing?
PHILBRICK: There`s a couple stages. Initially, there are some botanical bird skins, these kinds of things that are stored in the actual Natural History Museum. And I did a lot of that in the beginning. And then towards the end of the book, I wanted to see some of the things I had been writing about. And then got the tour that we are seeing here. And it was very important to really provide a tactile connection with what I had been writing about for all those years.
LAMB: Now, at the end of this voyage, what happened?
PHILBRICK: Well, that`s a feather blanket, very rare, brought back from I think California.
Well, at the end of the voyage, you know, this should have been met by the 19th century equivalent of a ticker tape parade. But Wilkes had angered so many of his officers, he had brought charges against some of his officers, who countered the charges against him, that the summer of 1842 was a series of court-martials. And so instead of celebrating the accomplishments of this expedition, it was Wilkes` personality that was put on display. Everything that went wrong was anatomized. And as a result, it became impossible for the American public to take any pride in this expedition.
LAMB: We really have not done justice to Charles Wilkes` personality as you do in the book.
PHILBRICK: Yeah, it`s hard to do justice.
LAMB: Well, just one example -- at the last moment, you say that he had some of his ships stop and do -- what, Rio de Janeiro survey while he went on so he could get all the credit?
PHILBRICK: Right. I mean, Wilkes was power hungry. And he wanted fame more than anything else. And he would just push it, push it, push it. And at the very end, he wanted to be sure he was the first to arrive in America. In his imagination, he thought there would be speeches, there would be parades. There was nothing, of course. But so he...
LAMB: Absolutely nothing.
PHILBRICK: Nothing, nothing, nothing. Just a little story in the newspaper, oh, they have arrived. And he immediately went down to Washington to realize that the Tyler administration was doing everything it could to bring charges against him, to hush up the accomplishments of this extraordinary expedition.
LAMB: Five court-martialed. Where were they held?
PHILBRICK: They were held on the North Carolina, ship of the line anchored in New York Harbor. And this is part "Caine Mutiny" courtroom drama, part O.J. Simpson trial. I mean, it was, all that summer all the papers were there, and it was -- they had a field day looking at all of the dirty laundry of the expedition.
LAMB: And they were all tried together?
PHILBRICK: It was one after the other, and Wilkes requested to be the last one. And so his officers were tried before him. No one knew -- the pronouncements were not issued until after, well after each trial. So everybody was left in limbo as to what was going to happen.
LAMB: You say William May was tried because he spoke to Wilkes in an insulting manner. And he was found guilty. What were the circumstances?
PHILBRICK: Well, he had -- this is towards the end of the voyage. Wilkes had said all the officers had to turn over all their goods. May had a box of artifacts he wanted to take back with him. He and Wilkes got in an argument over it. Wilkes said, don`t speak to me that way, I am bringing charges against you. May was found guilty of speaking disrespectfully to an officer, but all he got was really a reprimand.
LAMB: Robert Johnson.
PHILBRICK: He was found guilty of being disrespectful, and he would, I think, get a year off. But would eventually continue and have a distinguished naval career.
LAMB: How about the doctor?
PHILBRICK: The doctor, Guillou, he was -- he was really the linchpin of the case against Wilkes. And in fact, the secretary of the Navy really encouraged him to do everything he could. He would be drummed out of the corps, but would get a pardon from Tyler and would return to the Navy.
LAMB: How about Robert Pickering?
PHILBRICK: Robert Pickering would also...
LAMB: No, I`m sorry, it`s Pinkney. I`m sorry.
PHILBRICK: Pinckney. Robert Pinkney.
LAMB: There`s a Charles Pickering.
PHILBRICK: Right, yeah, Charles Pickering, there`s quite a cast of characters here. But no, Pinkney would also -- would be out for a year but would return to the Navy.
LAMB: You said that six charges, not properly following instructions in surveying the south shore of -- is it Upolu?
PHILBRICK: Upolu, yeah.
PHILBRICK: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: Where is Upolu?
PHILBRICK: This is in Samoa. And you know, when you look at it today, these charges were frivolous. I mean, these were just -- one of the aspects of this expedition was these 340 guys saw way too much of each other. And for four years, they were living together, they were working together, they were fighting against each other. And so by the end of it, the charges they brought against each other to the public seemed pretty frivolous, and really were.
LAMB: In the court-martial of Charles Wilkes, what happened?
PHILBRICK: Well, you know, it seemed like they had an open and shut case against him. He had massacred a Fijian village, there is evidence that he lied about the date that he said he discovered Antarctica. There had been a rival French expedition, and he seemed to revisit his log. He impersonated an officer that he wasn`t.
All these things, Wilkes would get off with a reprimand, basically get off with a reprimand. The only charge that stuck was that he had whipped his men too many times. Twelve lashes was the legal limit without a court-martial. He had done three, sometimes four times that with some of the seamen. And that would be the only charge that would be -- that would stick.
LAMB: Here`s a picture of him, not a drawing. And he looks like he is ranked a little bit higher than a lieutenant.
PHILBRICK: Yes, he would make it to the rank of rear admiral, he would serve in the Civil War and become -- the fame he would achieve would not be attached to the U.S. Exploring Expedition. It would be attached to the Trent affair. Charles Wilkes would be the officer to take two Confederate diplomats off a British vessel, the Trent, and it would so infuriate England, England also came into the war on the side of the South, which would not have been good for the North, but Wilkes was crowned a hero when he returned with the Confederate diplomats to Boston.
But to prove his character`s destiny, Wilkes would return as a hero to the Navy, quickly get into trouble with the U.S. naval secretary, be court-martialed, and this time the charges would stick.
LAMB: How long did he live and what did he die of?
PHILBRICK: He lived into his 70s. He would die quietly at his home in Lafayette Square. He lived in the Dolly Madison house.
LAMB: Right down here across from the White House.
PHILBRICK: Yeah, right down here, yeah, yeah.
And by that time, he was working on his autobiography, trying to resurrect the reputation that he felt had been besmirched unfairly. And in the great irony, in the obituaries that were written upon his death, he was remembered as the hero of the Trent affair, but no mention made of the U.S. Exploring Expedition.
LAMB: Anybody alive today connected with the family?
PHILBRICK: Oh, yes. Yeah. I have had e-mails and talked to and written to several Wilkes` descendents on a recent book tour I was on. I ran -- I had the pleasure of meeting several descendants of U.S. Exploring Expedition officers. And so that has been - there is a descendant on Nantucket even. And so the expedition lives on. A certain few remember it.
LAMB: And his first wife, Jane, died when of what?
PHILBRICK: She died just really about five years after the return of the expedition. She was changing trains in New Jersey, fell, cut her leg, she developed blood poisoning and would die very suddenly, tragically in Newport, Rhode Island. And it would just crush Wilkes. She was really the love of his life. And he would eventually remarry and move into the house in Lafayette Square. And all his life, when he wasn`t fighting the Civil War, he would work to harass Congress to pay for the publication of the scientific reports and charts associated with the U.S. Exploring Expedition.
LAMB: How hard is it today to find his autobiography?
PHILBRICK: It`s not too hard to find. The U.S. Navy published it. You can get it through used books, those kinds of things. It is a fascinating document. It`s heavy reading. It`s vast. But it tells a story, the world -- the history of the world according to Wilkes.
LAMB: And you dedicate this book to?
PHILBRICK: My father, Thomas Philbrick.
LAMB: And why?
PHILBRICK: Well, he has sort of been the dissertation adviser I never had. He helped me a lot with this book. He not only encouraged me to pursue this topic, and in fact he had been at Pitt with William Stanton, who had written the previous book about this expedition. And he also transcribed all of William Reynolds` journal for me, my father did. Which is, you know, 250,000 words, that`s quite an undertaking. And so that the two of us are going to publish an edition of Reynolds` journal next year. And so reason enough to dedicate the book to him.
LAMB: Now, all of these collections are going to be on the Smithsonian Web site?
PHILBRICK: Right. While, sort of fortuitously, the Smithsonian libraries had been digitizing all of the publications of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, and only 100 copies of each publication were ever published by Congress, so they are some of the hardest to get publications out there. And so this is a real service. And so that you are going to be able to get on the computer and look at any page of any one of these documents. Some of these are hand-painted, you know, pictures of specimens brought back. They`re just beautiful.
LAMB: We only have 15 seconds. The big lesson of the whole story for you was what?
PHILBRICK: Character is destiny.
LAMB: Our guest is Nathaniel Philbrick. And this is what the book looks like. It is called "Sea of Glory: America`s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838 to 1842." Thank you very much.
PHILBRICK: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2004. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.