1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wilkes, Charles

20744541911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 28 — Wilkes, Charles

WILKES, CHARLES (1798-1877), American naval officer and explorer, was born in New York City on the 3rd of April 1798. He entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1818, and became a lieutenant in 1826. In 1830 he was placed in charge of the division of instruments and charts, and in 1838 was appointed to command an exploring and surveying expedition in the Southern Seas, authorized by Congress in 1836. The expedition, including naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, taxidermists, a philologist, &c., was carried by the sloops-of-war “Vincennes” and “Peacock,” the brig “Porpoise,” the store ship “Relief” and two tenders. Leaving Hampton Roads on the 18th of August 1838, it stopped at Madeira and Rio de Janeiro; visited Tierra del Fuego, Chile, Peru, the Paumotu group of the Low Archipelago, the Samoan islands 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;[1] visited the Fiji and the Hawaiian islands in 1840, explored the west coast of the United States, including the Columbia river, San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento river, in 1841, and returned by way of the Philippine islands, the Sulu archipelago, Borneo, Singapore, Polynesia and the Cape of Good Hope, reaching New York on the 10th of June 1842. He was court-martialled on his return, but 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. Twenty-eight volumes were planned but only nineteen were published. Of these Wilkes wrote the Narrative (6 vols., 1845; 5 vols., 1850) and the volumes Hydrography and Meteorology (1851). The Narrative contains much interesting material concerning the manners and customs and political and economic conditions in many places then little known. Other valuable contributions were the three reports of James D. Dana on Zoophytes (1846), Geology (1849) and Crustacea (2 vols., 1852-1854). At the outbreak of the 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.” On the 8th of November 1861 he stopped the British mail packet “Trent,” and took off the Confederate commissioners to Europe, James M. Mason and John Slidell. Though he was officially thanked by Congress, his action was later disavowed by President Lincoln. His next service was in the James river flotilla, but after reaching the rank of commodore, on the 16th of July 1863, he was assigned to duty against blockade runners in the West Indies. He was disrated (becoming a captain on the retired list) in November 1862 on the ground that he had been too old to receive the rank of commodore under the act then governing promotions; and engaged in a long controversy with Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy. This controversy ended in his being court-martialled in 1864 and being found guilty on several counts and sentenced to public reprimand and suspension for three years. But on the 25th of July 1866 he was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral on the retired list. He died at Washington on the 8th of February 1877.

In addition to many shorter articles, reports, &c., he published Western America, including California and Oregon (1849) and Theory of the Winds (1856).

  1. This discovery was made on the 19th of January 1840, one day before Dumont d'Urville sighted Adelie Land about 400 m. farther W. That Wilkes discovered an Antarctic continent was long doubted, and one of the charges against him when he was court-martialled was that he had fabricated this discovery, but the expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton in 1908-1909 corroborated Wilkes. That part of the Antarctic continent known as Wilkes Land was named in his honour.