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Charles Wilkes

Charles Wilkes (April 3, 1798 -- Feb. 8, 1877) was an American naval officer, ship’s captain, and explorer. For the most part he performed as expected as captain of the ship Trent Affair.

However, he made a grave mistake when he attacked a British ship which almost led to war between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. This incident happened during the beginning of the Civil War.

He entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1818, and became a lieutenant in 1826.

In 1838, Wilkes was given command of a government exploring expedition that was charged with surveying the Southern Ocean. In addition, he and the civilian science scholars on board his ships were to determine the existence of all doubtful islands and shoals, as to discover, and accurately fix, the position of those south of the equator.

The expedition stopped at the Madeira Islands and Rio de Janeiro;

visited Chile, Peru, and New South Wales. From Sydney, Australia the ships sailed into the Antarctic Ocean in December 1839 and reported the discovery “of an Antarctic continent west of the Balleny Islands. Next the expedition visited Fiji and the Hawaiian Islands.

Proceeding north 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.

After having completely encircled the globe Wilkes had logged some 87,000 miles. However, during the voyage his expedition lost two ships and 28 men. When Wilkes finally returned to his home base he was court-martialed for the loss of one of the ships on the Columbia River bar, for the regular mistreatment of his

subordinate officers, and for excessive punishment of his crew. He was later acquitted on all charges except illegally punishing men in his squadron.

At the outbreak of the Civil War the Union needed seasoned naval officers and so Wilkes was given command of the USS San Jacinto. His assignment was to search for the Confederate commerce destroyer CSS Sumter.

Some historians speculate that Wilkes’ obsessive behavior and harsh code of shipboard discipline shaped Herman Melville’s characterization of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick.

The U.S. Navy must have thought that Wilkes deserved honor as several ships were named for Wilkes. For example, USS Wilkes, a torpedo boat and the destroyer USS Wilkes (DD-67) served during World War I. The destroyer USS Wilkes (DD 441) served during World War II.


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