Captain Charles Wilkes, USN. Carte de Visite photograph taken circa 1855-62. Wilkes commanded USS San Jacinto in 1861. Collection of Captain A. F. Clifton, MC, USN, 1939. NHHC Photograph Collection, NH 92562.
By Devon Sorlie, Staff Writer
Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Since the Navy’s inception in 1775, America’s Navy today continues to depend on the prowess and leadership of its people. Although they have always gone to sea in the finest ships and used the best equipment their nation could provide, it’s America’s Sailors who are the source of the Navy’s success. It is their commitment to their mission, their ability to operate independently, and their willingness to stand up for what they believe is right; People Matter! On this date in 1861, one such Sailor thrust himself onto the international stage standing up for what he believed… and not for the first time.
Today is the 152nd anniversary of the infamous “Trent Affair,” a diplomatic stare-down between the United States and the United Kingdom caused after a U.S. ship, the USS San Jacinto, stopped the British mail packet RMS Trent and arrested two Confederate diplomats James Mason and John Slidell, on Nov. 8, 1861.
The Confederate diplomats planned to visit London and Paris to lobby officials to recognize the Confederate States of America as a separate entity from the United States, thereby allowing allied military support from the UK, as well as possibly halting the U.S. naval blockade off their southern ports. The Southern military remembered when the French blockaded the exit for British general Lord Charles Cornwallis, who surrendered to American forces in Yorktown on Oct. 19, 1781. They knew without the support of a foreign navy’s intervention, they might lose the war.
Avid students of military history may recall Great Britain’s reaction to the arrest of Mason and Slidell: They were affronted their former upstart colony commandeered one of their mail ships. In retaliation, Great Britain sent thousands of troops to Canada. The threat of widening the Civil War into an international conflict ceased when President Abraham Lincoln disavowed the action of the USS San Jacinto’s captain and set the prisoners free. In doing so, he mitigated the potential of being sandwiched between a two-front military engagement with the Confederacy in the south and Great Britain to the north.
Front and center of that controversy was the San Jacinto’s commanding officer, Capt. Charles Wilkes, who ordered the shot fired across the bow of the Trent. The future rear admiral had a history with controversy that resulted in a couple of court-martials and the nickname “The Notorious Wilkes.”
The Trent Affair wasn’t Wilkes’ first rash decision. In 1838, the then-Lt. Wilkes led what would be known as the “Wilkes Expedition” that left Hampton Roads, Va. Commanding the flagship USS Vincennes and five support vessels, Wilkes and his flotilla completed the last circumnavigation of the globe by sail over the next five years, which included exploring the American northwest and the Polynesian Islands. It was considered a huge success, with Wilkes collecting thousands of animal and plant specimens, created 200 nautical charts of the Pacific, and confirming the existence of a continental landmass in the Antarctic Ocean.
It was during those travels that Wilkes’ nephew and another sailor were killed while bartering for food on Malolo Island in Fiji. Wilkes’ retribution was swift. According to an island resident, nearly 80 Fijians were killed in retaliation.
While on a mission to measure gravity with a pendulum on the summit of the 13,680-foot volcano Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Wilkes hired hundreds of natives and his own men to make the trip. Rather than using an established path, Wilkes went his own way, taking longer than anticipated. As a result, his crew suffered from snow blindness, altitude sickness and foot injuries.
Wilkes logged 87,000 nautical miles over the five years, returning without two ships and 28 men. He was court-martialed for the loss of one ship and for the mistreatment of his officers and enlisted crew. He was acquitted on all charges except for illegally punishing men in his squadron for which he was reprimanded.
Upon his return, Wilkes wrote several books, including the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, published in 1844. American author Henry Melville used Wilkes’ 5-volume Narrative as research for characters and background settings in his 1851 book, Moby-Dick, and some historians believe the unduly-harsh disciplinarian Capt. Ahab was based on Wilkes.
After two promotions, Capt. Wilkes was assigned to command San Jacinto to search for the Confederate commerce destroyer Sumter during the early days of the Civil War. Wilkes’ often violated British rule by staying more than one day in port at the British colony of Bermuda, where Wilkes’ gunboats blockaded St. George’s Harbor, a key base for Confederate ships. When he heard a British ship was carrying Confederate envoys to London, the San Jacinto chased down the Trent in international waters to apprehend Mason and Slidell.
Wilkes briefly considered commandeering the Trent “as a prize for resisting the search and carrying these passengers…but the reduced number of officers and crew, and the large number of passengers on board bound to Europe who would be put to great inconvenience, decided me to allow them to proceed,” Wilkes explained in his report to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.
Initially, Wilkes was heralded as a hero. The New York Times published a story about their native son Nov. 17, 1861, stating “The whole country now rings with applause of his bold action.”
But that hero status changed when the British – who had tried to stay out of the increasing tensions between the northern and southern states — upped the ante by sending thousands of troops into Canada.
After his actions were disavowed in the Trent Affair, Wilkes’ relationship with the Navy Department and Welles became strained. When Welles wrote in a report that Wilkes’ was too old to have received his promotion to captain, Wilkes angrily responded in a letter, which resulted in Wilkes being charged and found guilty of insubordination and disobedience of orders during his second court-marital April 26, 1864. President Lincoln suspended Wilkes’ three-year sentence to one year and dropped other charges, perhaps to make up for disavowing Wilkes’ part in the Trent Affair.
Wilkes was promoted to rear admiral on July 25, 1866, at the age of 68. He died in 1877 and his remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery where his tombstone states “He discovered the Antarctic continent.”
Four ships have been named for Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes: torpedo boat Wilkes (TB-35); World War I destroyer Wilkes (DD-67), and World War II destroyer (DD-441). In a nod to Wilkes’ penchant for travel, an oceanographic survey vessel Wilkes (T-AGS-33) was launched in 1969.
Those ships all honored Wilkes, his discoveries, bravery and strong sense of justice.