Two of my buddies, Steve Cook and Chad Wilman, have both recommended history writer Nathaniel Philbrick to me so I figured I should check him out. When I found a copy of SEA OF GLORY for two bucks at the local thrift store, I didn't think twice about buying it. Boy, am I glad I did.
SEA OF GLORY (2003) is an epic adventure story about a little known part of American history. In 1838, the U.S. government (mainly the U.S. Navy), commissioned an exploring expedition to chart, survey and map what was at the time, the largely unknown and unexplored Pacific Ocean. It was an enormous undertaking that would take a total of four years to complete. Six sailing vessels made up the squadron and they were manned with a variety of seamen (some experienced, others green) and scientists of various stripes.
They were also under the command of one Charles Wilkes, a man with severe psychological problems. A martinet with delusions of grandeur, Wilkes horribly mistreated his men, often punishing them with whippings and beatings that exceeded what maritime law permitted. He was petty, vindictive, untried and he desperately longed to acquire a higher rank. But as emotionally unstable as Wilkes was, he was a remarkable surveyor and many of his charts of Pacific islands and waters were still in use one hundred years later during World War II.
The Exploring Expedition, or Ex. Ex. as Philbrick refers to it, was given a formidable assignment. Wilkes and his crew explored the shores of Antarctica at a time when very little was known about that immense continent. They encountered fierce, cannibalistic natives and met spears and clubs with guns and swords. They ascended to the top of Mauna Loa, an active volcano in Hawaii, where the temperatures were both extremely cold and hot. Finally, they sailed to the Pacific Northwest to explore the deadly waters of the Columbia River. Along the way, vast amounts of specimens were collected that eventually became the cornerstone of the Smithsonian Institution.
But when the voyage was over in 1842, Wilkes didn't return to the United States a hero. Instead, he faced a military court martial brought by several crewmen who suffered under his hand and lash.
Philbrick makes the case that the Exploring Expedition should be as well known today as the similar expedition of Lewis and Clark. But Wilkes was his own worst enemy. His hubris, pride and ego constantly got in the way. He longed for so much more that he could never be satisfied with the truly remarkable achievements he had accomplished.
SEA OF GLORY is a page turner of a true adventure story, an epic voyage of discovery and exploration. It's also a penetrating and insightful psychological study of a man whose own quest for glory eclipsed everything .