American naval explorer and Antarctic explorer of English parentage. After three years in the merchant marine, he joined the US Navy as a midshipman in 1818, studied under Ferdinand Hassler, founder of the US Coast and Geodetic Survey, and from 1826 to 1833 served in two surveying expeditions. He was appointed in 1834 as head of the recently established depot of charts and navigational instruments of the Navy Department, out of which were to grow the National Observatory and the Navy Hydrographic Office.
When in 1836 Congress approved plans for a national expedition to the South Atlantic and South Pacific Oceans, to explore the islands and waters with a view to the promotion of whaling and of commerce in general, Wilkes was sent to Europe to purchase the necessary scientific instruments. On his return he was promoted lieutenant and given the command of the expedition of six ships.
The expedition sailed in 1838, and after a season of surveying and scientific studies in the Samoa group of islands, Wilkes set out on an Antarctic cruise with the object of sailing as far south as possible between the longitudes of 160° E. and 45° E. Antarctic land was sighted on 19 January 1840, and in spite of adverse weather and ice conditions, and the poor state of his ship and crews, Wilkes sailed along the coast of the present Wilkes Land for a distance of 2,400 kilometres (1,500 mls.), sighting land at frequent intervals and naming the region, for the first time, the Antarctic Continent.
After returning from Antarctica Wilkes spent most of 1841 in a long survey of the coast of western North America, finally returning to New York in June 1842, having accomplished a monumental task of surveying and scientific exploration. Far from being loaded with honours, however, Wilkes was court-martialled for exceeding his authority. He was acquitted and spent the next few years writing up the official narrative of the expedition.
In 1861, at the start of the American Civil War (1861–5), he was in command of the Federal cruiser San Jacinto and figured in an international incident when he stopped a British mail steamer in the Bahama Channel, north of Cuba, and removed two Confederate commissioners, James Mason and John Slidell. Although Confederate sympathizers in Britain hoped to use this incident to involve Britain against the USA, the British government contented itself with a polite protest and a successful request for the release of the two men. The incident made Wilkes something of a naval hero to the American public, and in 1862, with the rank of acting rear admiral, he was placed in command of a special squadron to operate against the Confederate commerce raiders in the West Indies and around the Bahamas.
Although Wilkes accomplished as much as was possible considering the small number of vessels under his command, he was court-martialled again in 1864 and convicted of disobedience, disrespect, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming an officer. He was sentenced to be reprimanded and suspended from duty for three years, but the suspension was later reduced to one year, and in 1866 he was placed on the retired list with the rank of rear admiral.
Subjects: Warfare and Defence — Maritime History.