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Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 Hardcover – November 10, 2003

4.4 out of 5 stars 158 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The expeditions of Magellan, Columbus, and Lewis and Clark have been well documented and are instantly familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in world history. But the average person is likely unaware of the U.S. Exploring Expedition or its mercurial leader, Charles Wilkes. This despite the numerous accomplishments and lasting legacy of the massive four-year project that involved six ships and hundreds of men. The "Ex. Ex.," as it came to be known, is credited with the discovery of Antarctica, the first accurate charting of what is now Oregon and Washington, the retrieval of thousands of new species of life, and the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution. Yet when Wilkes returned, instead of being hailed as a great man of science or a national hero, he was shunned by the President, ignored by the press, and was the subject of so much ill will on the part of his men that he was ultimately put on trial for a variety of offenses. In the portrayal presented in Nathaniel Philbrick's Sea of Glory, Wilkes is a passionate man, brash and enthusiastic, driven by seemingly impossible goals, many of which he actually accomplished. But he's also a petty, mean-spirited loner, egotistical enough to unilaterally give himself a promotion in the middle of the expedition. Without Wilkes' singularity of purpose, it's hard to imagine the mission being as successful as it was, but it's also hard to conceive a personality more poorly suited to leadership than the near-universally-despised Wilkes. Philbrick also skillfully reveals the insecurity behind the tyranny in excerpts from letters to Wilkes' wife, Jane. The accounts of the expedition's adventures are at various times exhilarating and tragic as the crew scales the volcanoes of Hawaii, becomes involved in a bloody war with Fijian natives, and struggles merely to stay alive while at the same time not killing Wilkes. Philbrick's compelling narrative and meticulous research provide a vivid picture of the triumphs and hardships of the exploration age. --John Moe

From Publishers Weekly

After chronicling the sinking of the whaleship Essex in In the Heart of the Sea, Philbrick attempts to rescue from obscurity the U.S. Exploring Expedition's 1838-1842 circumnavigation of the world and its cartographic and scientific accomplishments. With a strong narrative pull but an anticlimactic story arc, he chronicles the six-vessel squadron's Pacific escapades. Instead of a grisly page-turner, however, Philbrick follows his bestselling tragedy with a drawn-out success story. More than a tale of the Ex. Ex's journey, the book also profiles the expedition's egomaniacal commander, Lt. Charles Wilkes; the psychological warfare he waged against his officers; and the near-miraculous survival of the squadron despite Wilkes's perverse leadership and lack of nautical experience. Wilkes was, however, an accomplished surveyor, and the Ex. Ex. mapped hundreds of Pacific islands, 800 miles of the Oregon coast, 100 miles of the Columbia River and 1,500 miles of Antarctic coast. The expedition's scientists made groundbreaking contributions in ethnography, biology and geology (their collections formed the basis of the Smithsonian Institution). Particularly noteworthy among Philbrick's gripping passages are his descriptions of brash navigation in the Antarctic-but too much of the book bogs down in Wilkes's petty politicking, as he degraded talented men and promoted incompetent ones so as not to be outshone. After four years at sea, he had alienated nearly every officer and returned home to a court-martial. "Instead of a thrilling tale of discovery and incredible achievement, [America] heard more about the flawed personality of the Expedition's commander than anyone wanted to know," Philbrick writes of Wilkes's 1842 trial, in which he was acquitted. Unfortunately, this spoils the retelling, too. Maps not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Viking; 1st edition (November 10, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 067003231X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670032310
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.5 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (158 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #129,161 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on January 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
You have heard of Lewis and Clark, but you probably never heard of the US South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838. If its leader, US Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, had had his way, the Ex. Ex., as it was known, would still have been sung internationally for the inarguably tremendous contributions it made to geography, biology, and simple adventure. In addition, it started the still-lasting partnership between the US government and the sciences that, say, does the exploring upon Mars. Wilkes, to a large extent, made the expedition successful, and also defeated himself by preventing it from being universally celebrated. _Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U. S. Exploring Expedition 1838 - 1842_ (Viking) by Nathaniel Philbrick tells an amazing adventure yarn of real explorers, and real human flaws that by turns endangered and enabled the exploration efforts.
There were unprecedented logistical tasks in assembling the expedition, which at its start consisted of six ships and 346 men (including nine scientists). Senior officers had trouble putting the expedition together, and the Navy gave the task to the forty-year-old Lieutenant Wilkes. Philbrick writes, "Wilkes was a great man. But he was also vain, impulsive, and often cruel." He took offense easily, and would not be placated by offenders. He remained aloof from his officers. When things went wrong, he was quick to assume that his men had been incompetent or malevolent. Philbrick concludes that a more self-confident and capable leader probably would not have brought the expedition greater success, although it could have brought greater on-board contentment and post-expedition fame.
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By A Customer on November 25, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This author writes very well and captivates you from the first pages. The history of this voyage is fascinating and was unknown to me. That, combined with the well drawn characters make for a very interesting and enjoyable read. This author manages to write a historical story that keeps you interested without having to "invent" dialogue or enhance the characters to make them more interesting.
I read this author's In the Heart of the Sea (Excellent!), and became interested in the seafaring genre and can also recommend Batavia's Graveyard (riveting) and the Pirate Hunter.
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Format: Hardcover
This book was a very enjoyable read to me, and would likely be so for anyone interested in the age of exploration, nautical adventure, or travels to exotic lands. It tells the complete story of a four year long expedition launched by the U.S. Navy to basically complete the map of the Pacific, primarily told from the point of view of the young officers, most experiencing their first major responsibility and command.

The book is comprehensive and chronological, starting with the intial concepts of the exploratory expedition which were cooked up by some very whacky people, including one who thought that at the south pole there would be a giant cave entrance to the middle of the earth! The tale then progresses in a manner that mirrors the nation's rise in scientific, technological, and military prowess. The exploratory expedition was itself intended to announce to the world that the U.S. could master the domain of the European powers of the day, specifically the naval power, expansionism, and spirit of discovery enshrined in the voyages of exploration to the last ends of the Earth. The voyage itself spurred the nation to develop the scientific and naval capabilities that helped to solidify the national character.

The voyage was headed by a strong willed, intelligent, but ultimately paranoid and cruel martinet. The contrast between his fortitude to keep the expedition moving forward and his capricious capacity for punishment, as told by the junior officers who had to walk the line between following orders and preventing desertion and mutiny among the ranks, was very interesting and well expressed by the author. This was the backdrop for a years long voyage that was at times both gruelling and exhilirating.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It was a review of this book in the National Geographic Adventure magazine which first caught my eye, and prompted me to purchase Philbrick's excellent narrative of the US Exploring Expedition. The Expedition sailed from Norfolk, USA, carrying the scientific and exploratory hopes of the United States on a trip to South America, Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and Asia that encompasses nearly 5 years. Over 500 men, in 6 ships left in 1838, to return in 1842, much reduced in number, but with enough scientific specimens (over 4000) to form a large portion of the Smithsonian collection. Commanded by Lieutenant Wilkes, the story of the US Ex. Ex has largely been forgotten, but Philbrick has produced a book which hopefully will bring to the forefront the achievements of the US Ex. Ex and its' men.
"Sea of Glory" is truly a spectacular rendition of events, as Philbrick portrays the deterioration of the relationship between Commander and his men, while journeying through some of most inhospitable seas in the world. Wilkes comes across as a near megalomaniac and odious character (almost immediately after beginning the expedition, he promoted himself Captain!), belittling the achievements of his underlings and inflating his own. It is a miracle that he was succeeded in bringing the expedition home largely unscathed. Nor does the story end there. The final chapters reveal the trials and tribulations of Wilkes (and other members of the expedition) as he realizes that he may be held accountable for his actions. Upon return of the expedition, there were no fewer than 5 court martials involving Wilkes and officers of the vessels comprising the expedition, largely petty incidents raised by Wilkes as revenge for perceived slights by the officers.
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