In the summer of 1838, six oddly assorted ships rode at anchor in a Virginia harbor, awaiting orders to sail. After nearly twenty years of hesitation, confusion, and bickering, the United States of America was about to launch a voyage of exploration and scientific discovery that was to circumnavigate the globe.
The commander of the expedition was Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Navy, a lean, thin-faced man of forty. Disaster was an ever-present fear, for the ships under his command were already unseaworthy. And would his men be willing to obey him, a mere lieutenant, if disaster occurred in the frigid Antarctic waters?
Charles Wilkes's fears were to be borne out, for many in his crew deserted and his officers were rebellious; one of his ships was lost and several more were put out of commission; his scientific staff quarreled with him and each other. Nevertheless, Wilkes's expedition produced impressive results. His charts of the Pacific were still in use during World War II; he established that the Antarctic was a land mass; his explorations in Oregon opened up the territory.
The erratic trail of Wilkes and his ships from the United States, down along the Antarctic continent, up through the South Seas, and back home by way of the Oregon territory and the Far East, is thoroughly documented here and laced with the commander's words — for he kept a detailed diary — and those of his companions. The dangerous and often frustrating voyage of these ill-equiped ships and their unbending commander will long be remembered in the permannent annals of exploration.