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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 176

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This is the grave of Charles Wilkes.

Born in New York City in 1798 and raised by an aunt who would be the first person born in the United States canonized by the Catholic Church, Wilkes attended Columbia and then became a midshipman in the Navy in 1818. As he rose in the Navy, he became known as an explorer, surveyor, and scientist and rubbed elbows with other political and scientific elites of the early 19th century. So in 1838, Wilkes was named the head of the U.S. Exploring Squadron and sent to the south Pacific to see what was out there. This became known as the Wilkes Expedition. And it led to one of the most grotesque racist massacres in all of American history.

American whaling ships were also in these waters. The sailors on these ships often treated the people they met with the same kind of racist and white supremacist contempt they reserved for African slaves and Native Americans. Not surprisingly, violence could result. In Fiji, a couple of whalers had been killed. Wilkes decided to kidnap the chief named Ro Veidovi and charge him with the murders. Veidovi was actually taken back to the United States and charged for the crimes. He died one day after reaching New York, broken in spirit and health. The kidnapping of Vendovi only raised tensions. Shortly after, two sailors, including Wilkes’ own nephew, were bartering for food with the Fijians. We will never know quite what happened, but it went very, very wrong and the two were murdered. Outraged, Wilkes ordered the massacre of everyone he could find. Probably 80 Fijians were killed. He launched other raids, burning a town for the theft of a boat, for example. Wilkes hated these people. He is probably more responsible than anyone else for the popular conception that Fijians were savage cannibals. Wilkes was proud of these deaths, bragging about how the survivors came begging to him personally, and justifying it all by claiming the need to defend the American flag.

He was an excellent scientist and explorer but was also a really bad and abusive captain, to the point that he was court-martialed on his return for his treatment of his men and for losing a ship on a sandbar at the mouth of the Columbia River. Wilkes was by all accounts a really awful guy. He was terrible to his subordinate officers. On the Wilkes Expedition, he declared himself captain and commodore of the fleet and wore insignia suggesting such, even though he was only a lieutenant. His fellow officers despised him. He suffered only minor career damage though. He published a great deal from his explorations and became famous for his trip, which had lasted from 1838-1842, which included an attempt to explore Antarctica. Even though Wilkes and his officers largely had contempt for the scientists on board the ship, those people did a great job categorizing birds, describing landmarks and wildlife, and providing sketches of people they met through the Pacific world.

He continued to serve as a captain for a long time but remained out of the news until his second great blunder. During the Civil War, Wilkes’ ship was part of the blockade against southern goods. He took a very aggressive stance on British support for the Confederacy. In Bermuda, where he was only supposed to stay for a day, he stayed for a week, greatly alienating the British. He even fired on a British mail ship and assigned gunboats to blockade a small port Confederate ships were using. That’s fine and all except that of course Bermuda was British soil. Then Wilkes discovered that the two Confederate commissioners to England, John Slidell and James Murray Mason, were sailing on a British ship, the RMS Trent. So Wilkes stopped the ship in November 1861 and captured the two commissioners.

The Trent Affair was a disaster for the Lincoln administration. It outraged the British at a time when British support for the Confederacy was a real possibility. It was not until the Emancipation Proclamation that British popular opposition to the Confederacy grew enough to make Lord Palmerston’s desire to help out the Confederacy and break apart the United States became politically impossible. Many thought that the British and U.S. could go to war.

Luckily, this did not happen. Charles Francis Adams’ astute diplomacy in London forestalled the worst of the reaction and Lincoln disavowed Wilkes. Mason and Slidell were released and Wilkes was briefly retired. He was brought back in 1862 for more blockade work but was court-martialed again in 1864 for his attacks on Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who he hated. He was found guilty and suspended for three years. Lincoln reduced the suspension to one year and in 1866, Wilkes was promoted to rear admiral and retired for good.

Charles Wilkes died in 1877. In 1909, his remains were moved to Arlington National Cemetery, on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington, Virginia.

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