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Sea of Glory

Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery by Nathaniel Philbrick

Reviewed by L. Bennett

Many years ago, I stood on a point high above Puget Sound in the state of Washington, and looked out at the gray water dotted with numerous ships and boats. The place I stood had been used in the 1840s as a reference point for determining latitude, longitude, and other observations by Charles Wilkes. He was a lieutenant in the US Navy and leader of the US Exploring Expedition. I duly noted the location in my field notes but gave only passing thought to what the expedition was about. When I spotted Nathaniel Philbrick's history of the voyage I could not resist the read.

As it turned out, the brief stop Wilkes made in Puget Sound was part of a government-commissioned exploration of the southern Pacific Ocean, mouth of the Columbia River, and Puget Sound. In addition to sailors, the crew included scientists with expertise in geology, paleontology, botany, and natural history; some were also artists. The fact that a mere lieutenant commanded a fleet of six sailing ships on a four-year journey was astounding. It was also the principal focus of Philbrick's narrative. I don't want to give away the details, but I found myself amazed by the depths to which Wilkes went to further himself and expand the goals of the expedition. In his eyes he was one of America's greatest men.

The narrative provides intriguing details about the ships in the fleet, the rigging and control of sailing vessels, and life onboard the ships. In the process, the author reveals the personalities of several officers and some of the scientists, and their courage when facing ice-encrusted decks, looming ice bergs, hostile island residents, shifting sandbars, killer waves, food shortages, and numerous other dangers. The ending of this history placed the expedition and the events that followed its conclusion into a broad context of American history. I was surprised by the many things we now take for granted that were actually brought about by this voyage. You'll have to read the book to find learn the many ways it was incredible.

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