In 1838, America was a young country, struggling to strengthen its internal economic, social, and political bonds while securing its tenuous place on the world stage beneath but separate from England and France, the empires of the age. In this setting the U. S. Exploring Expedition described in Philbrick's history struggled for life as it was being approved, funded, and assembled, struggled for survival as it launched and sailed around the globe, and struggled for lasting legacy as it returned home four years later.
While Philbrick tells the history of the expedition's exploration and scientific efforts, he also tells the personal story of the expedition's commander Charles Wilkes: his tempestuous personality, his mercurial leadership style, and his fractured relationships with his subordinates. Philbrick is what we would call a Type-A personality with a micromanaging leadership style, poor interpersonal communication skills, and a paranoid-neurotic personality. This deadly combination resulted in continual officer turnover as Wilkes cast men off ship at nearly every port of call, reorganized his staff among the six ships of the expedition to punish supposed infractions and some truly life-threatening situations as he issued wrong-headed or confusing orders at sea.
The result, writes Philbrick, was a series of courts-martial waiting back home that began almost as soon as he touched native soil. These acrimonious proceedings soured and obscured the truly monumental accomplishments of the expedition: It made advances in science, navigation, mapping, and political reputation for a country sorely deficient in every area. It brought back a huge mass of artifacts and research data that served as the basis of the collection of the Smithsonian Institution and provided raw material for dozens of scientific treatises for decades to come.
In Philbrick's capable hands, this fascinating tale has all the fictional power of The Caine Mutiny and Moby Dick (Melville studied the expeditions narratives while writing his masterpiece), and the historical power of the Mutiny on the Bounty, with its references to the difficult nature of leadership and discipline at sea.
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