Apr 20, 2015

Come to the Kensington Celebration of the Day of the Book!

Sunday, April 26, 2015, 11am-4pm
 Howard Avenue, Old Town Kensington, MD

Celebrate the Book * Street Festival * Rain or Shine 

This afternoon street festival celebrates the International Day of the Book with live music, author readings, open mic, activities for children and adults, storytellers, ...and books, books, books! Local authors, bookartists, publishers, booksellers, and literary groups line Howard Ave in Historic Old Town Kensington to show, sell, and discuss their works. All activities are free, rain or shine. Come celebrate with us! 

Some members of the History Book Club will be present, signing their books. 

Apr 11, 2015

Local Kensington History Event

APRIL 28:  Chris and Ed Hyland from the Bantrak Club will have a small train and trolley display and will speak on the Kensington Trolley line.  You’ll enjoy the stories related to the trolleys as well as the history of the line. Chris is a long time and quite active member of the History Book Club.

MEETING DETAILS -  All are welcome at KHS programs.  These are held at the Town Hall, 3710 Mitchell Street, in Kensington, on the ground floor.  There will be coffee and cookies at 7:00 p.m. followed by the Program at 7:30, and a brief business meeting.

Apr 10, 2015

Sea of Glory: The History of the U.S. Exploring Expedition

On the evening of  Wednesday, April 8th, eleven members of the History Book Club met at the Kensington Row Bookshop. The next day would be the 150th anniversary of Lee's surrender to Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse. That surrender ended Civil War fighting in Virginia and assured the failure of the Confederacy, the survival of the Union and the end of chattel slavery in the United States of America. The following week would mark 150 years since the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Clearly 150 years ago America changed forever.

The club met to discuss Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaliel Philbrick.
The U.S. Exploring Expedition (U.S. Ex. Ex.) consisted initially of six sailing ships of the U.S. Navy and 346 men, including officers, sailors and seven scientists. One of the ships would disappear en route to a rendezvous, never to be seen again. One would sink in the mouth of the Colombia River. One, the supply ship, would be sent back to the United States early in the voyage. One would be replaced at a mid point. More than 20 crew members died during the four year voyage, and others would be replaced; in total more than 500 men took part in the expedition.

The U.S. Ex. Ex. was led by Charles Wilkes, who was young for the command of such an ambitious undertaking; he was only a Lieutenant, also quite junior in rank for such a command. He was, however, experienced in making naval charts and familiar with the best methods and instruments for the purpose of the day. The other officers were similarly young and of relatively low rank for the responsibility they would bear. The scientists were experts in various descriptive sciences.

Perhaps the most significant purpose of the expedition was to produce charts to help the American whaling fleet reduce its losses from shipwrecks. Thus the U.S. Ex. Ex. was to chart Cape Horn and the southern tip of South America, many Pacific Islands, the coast of Oregon Territory and the Puget Sound. It was also to explore toward the South Pole and if land was encountered (as had been reported by whalers), to chart some of that land. Finally, it was to make scientific collections of plants, animals and artifacts of native cultures, as well as to study those cultures and their languages.

The Science and Map Making

The U.S. Ex. Ex. produced some 240 charts. Members of the club noted that the chart of the Pacific Island of Tarawa produced by the Expedition was still the best available to the U.S. forces as late as the battle for the island in World War II.

A member mentioned that her father had been exempted from regular military service during World War II, and she later learned that because of his marine chart making expertise he had been recruited to make wartime charts of Pacific Islands. Another mentioned a friend, who had been a naval officer surveying charts off the coast of Alaska; the friend said he had loved the job except that the sailors on the ship kept jumping ship -- willing to walk a hundred miles in the wilderness to the nearest town rather than continue the job of surveying that coast. Charting dangerous waters in adverse climates is a tough job even in modern ships.

The U.S. Ex. Ex. brought a huge collection of plants, animals, and artifacts back to the United States. The were exhibited in the Patent Building for some 15 years drawing 100,000 visitors a year. Later those materials were to form a significant portion of the original collection of the Smithsonian. We noted that for the descriptive sciences of botany and zoology, such collections are the basis for taxonomic studies. Often it takes decades before a final taxonomy is agreed upon, and sometimes new species are identified from museum collections very long after the item in question entered the collection. Moreover, good taxonomy is a necessary basis for almost all further work in those sciences.

(Similarly, the collections of artifacts and the dictionaries of native languages made before the native cultures had extensive contacts with the outside world are still invaluable to anthropologists and ethnologists.)

As a result of prodding and lobbying by Charles Wilkes, who himself quickly produced a five volume history of the U.S. Ex. Ex., the Congress continued to fund the scientific work necessary to understand and document the materials collected by the Expedition; thus scientific works based on the Expedition findings came out for years after the ships returned. The earlier Lewis and Clark expedition had failed to follow up its explorations with published science.

Author Philbrick wrote that the U.S. Ex. Ex. led to the creation of
  • the Smithsonian Institution (as a scientific organization as well as a museum), 
  • the United States Botanical Garden (to house and display the live plants from the Expedition), 
  • the United States Hydrographic Office and 
  • the Naval Observatory. 
Thus the Expedition was instrumental in the creation of some of the first important scientific and technological organizations in the United States. Moreover, after the U.S. Ex. Ex., the Congress came to accept that the financing of science and technology was a function of the federal government.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York was not founded until 1869. Charles Peale opened a museum to the public in Philadelphia on July 18, 1786 and his son Rembrandt Peale opened a museum in Baltimore in 1814, but public museums were rare in the early days of the United States. However, private individuals had collections of curiosities and there was considerable public interest in seeing exhibits of materials from other lands and from the frontier.

Evidence was produced by the U.S. Ex. Ex. scientists in support of a proposal by Charles Darwin; he had suggested that as volcanic islands of the Pacific sank, the coral reefs surrounding them grew, thus maintaining the upper levels near the surface of the sea. In this way, after eons of time there would remain only a coral reef enclosing a lagoon and the underwater remains of a volcano. The U.S. Ex. Ex. also produced evidence that volcanic islands occurred in linear chains, with the youngest volcanoes at one end and the oldest and most eroded volcanoes at the other end; this finding was an important piece of evidence leading to the theory of plate tectonic motion.

Perhaps the most telling comment by author Philbrick is that prior to the U.S. Ex. Ex., while some people had done science in the the United States (and the colonies from which it was formed) they were amateurs; it was only after the Expedition that someone could plan to make a career as a professional scientist, earning a living from his scientific work.

Several members of the group were high school teachers, and they asked why the U.S. Ex. Ex. was not part of the High School history curriculum. One answer was that the Expedition had been created under the administration of Andrew Jackson, but returned when John Tyler was in office. The Tyler administration was not willing to give credit to Jackson's initiative. Another reason suggested was that there were courts martial after the voyage which reduced public acclaim for the Expedition's work. Still another reason proposed was the history of anti-intellectualism in American life. (A member took a crack at the question in a blog post after the meeting.)

The Route of the U.S. Exploring Expedition
The Adventure

In this book, author Nathaliel Philbrick chose to emphasize the adventures experienced by the members of the Expedition. There was certainly plenty of adventure in the round the world trip made in sailing ships in the first half of the 19th century.
  • The U.S. Ex. Ex. not only sailed around Cape Horn, one of the most dangerous places in the world for sailing ships, but stayed there to chart the region. It seems that one ship was lost with all hands in that effort.
  • Several of the Expedition's ships then went south, finding a channel through the ice toward the South Pole. The U.S. Ex. Ex. was one of the first if not the first expedition to make sight the Antarctic continent. Philbrick describes how it dealt with iceburgs, storms, dangerous lee shores, and freezing cold to chart 1500 miles of the coast.
  • Then after a brief stop at Valparaiso, the Expedition went on to the Fiji Islands where its members charted the dangerous waters, faced angry and warlike natives who were cannibals (yes, they would eat members of the expedition that they killed or captured). A member who had lived in Valparaiso described it as one of the greatest places in the world to live; he would certainly have jumped ship there rather than face what was still before the men on the U.S. Ex. Ex..
  • On landing in beautiful Hawaii, the leader of the expedition chose to climb its highest volcano -- over 14,000 feet in altitude. When the locally hired bearers could not continue, he sent back for sailors to carry the heavy equipment and supplies to the top of the mountain (in order for Lieutenant Wilkes to measure the local gravity). That involved a difficult climb over sharp and cutting lava surfaces, which were snow covered at the higher elevations of the volcano. Of course, at the top there was some danger of being killed by gases from the caldera or even by falling into red-hot lava. The crew built huts at the very peak, where they experienced a storm with hurricane force winds and sub freezing temperatures.
  • A U.S. Ex. Ex. ship was lost trying to navigate the mouth of the Columbia River. It is one of the most dangerous places in the world were some 2000 ships have been lost -- the equivalent of one per month for more than 150 years. As the ship was breaking up, grounded on shoals, a small boat went out from shore again and again, successfully rescuing the entire crew. Then a small group from the Expedition traveled by land from the mouth of the Columbia River to San Francisco harbor, pioneering in unexplored territory.
We discovered what seemed to be a gender divide in the group over this account of the adventures of the members of the Expedition. Several women member of the group found this discussion excessive if not unnecessary. On the other hand, the men in the group seemed to find the book's combination of history of science and history of an adventurous voyage to be quite interesting and readable. We eventually seemed to settle on an opinion that the author had a right to choose how he would tell the story of the Expedition, but that readers also had a right to avoid the book if they objected to its detailed description of the dangers and hardships faced by its members.

The People and the Interactions

Charles Wilkes
A considerable portion of the book focuses on Charles Wilkes and his relations with the officers and crew that served under him.Wilkes was an experienced surveyor, who knew about the latest equipment and techniques of his time; he had successfully led a smaller team to chart U.S. coastal waters. However, he lacked the seamanship and the experience in command at sea that would have been expected of someone in command of such an expedition.

Many more senior officers had been considered for the command; some had refused it (perhaps wisely) while others had been dropped from consideration for various reasons. Wilkes was given the command of the Expedition, but denied the rank of Captain that should have gone with it, and denied the title of Commodore that would normally be attached to someone in command of a group of navy ships.

The navy is rank conscious, and the U.S. Ex. Ex. took place many years after the War of 1812. Promotions had been scarce for decades and officers were probably more concerned with rank than they might otherwise have been. It was noted that many of these young officers would later serve through the war with Mexico and the Civil War, when promotions were frequent, and that those officers would reach very high rank. Wilkes, without specific authorization to do so, assumed the uniform of a navy captain and flew the ensign of a commodore for years on this voyage. We assumed that his doing so was noted by his junior officers with disapproval. He also sometimes assigned commands to officers when other, more senior officers were available in the flotilla; that clearly engendered resentments.

We also noted that Wilkes, who had been close to his officers on a previous charting effort and at the start of the U.S. Ex. Ex., seems to have changed behavior radically early in the four year voyage. He became isolated from his officers and his discipline became more harsh. Philbrick suggests he became arbitrary and sometimes unjust in his treatment of subordinates. We noted that in the 1840s it was common for ship's captains to isolate themselves from crew and officers, and that discipline was much harsher than would be accepted today. Books by Patrick O'Brian and the Mutiny on the Bounty Trilogy were cited, as was Rocks and Shoals: Naval Discipline in the Age of Fighting Sails.

Wilkes' orders were secret, which seemed more appropriate for a military expedition than a scientific and technical one. That secrecy was likely to have contributed to the anxiety of the crew. Indeed a member commented on the ward room reaction as each new destination was disclosed, and each seemed even more dangerous than the previous ones. Still, secret orders to captains and commodores were common at the time.

It was noted that long naval voyages in sailing ships were subject to mutinies. Sailors might jump ship in port and never return. Strong disciplinary measures were thought at the time to be necessary. A member noted the danger of judging actions of people in the past by the standards of our time.

Author Philbrick draws heavily on letters home, journals and memoirs of the voyage from the junior officers, and those documents show strong aversion to Wilkes and disagreement with his actions. Philbrick draws especially heavily on the writings of William Reynolds, one of Wilkes most effective critics. Reynolds had been very positive about Wilkes early in the voyage, but turned against him for the latter years of the Expedition; he is described also as a very effective writer. Certainly a group of those officers brought charges against Wilkes and testified against him in Wilkes' court marshal (he was found guilty of only one charge by the senior officers on the panel and continued in the navy rising ultimately to the rank of admiral.)

A confusion was unearthed. Charles Erskine, a crewman in the U.S. Ex. Ex. much after the Expedition published Twenty Years Before The Mast: With The More Thrilling Scenes And Incidents While Circumnavigating The Globe Under The Command Of The Late Admiral Charles Wilkes 1838-1842; that book is quite critical of Wilkes and Philbrick draws on Erskine's writings occasionally. A much more famous book is Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, a cousin of one of the U.S. Ex. Ex. scientists. Several of our members were familiar with the latter book which describes a voyage made at about the same time as the U.S. Ex. Ex., but shorter and to California. Some had apparently mistaken Dana's book for Erkine's book.

Most of the members present seemed to accept author Philbrick's apparent position that Wilkes lacked many of the command skills that would have made for a better shipboard environment. Others pointed out that his skill as a surveyor, his iron will, his dedication and perseverance in the carrying out the tasks set for the Expedition, and (yes) his leadership made the Expedition exceptionally successful. It was suggested by the latter members that while author Philbrick had mined existing sources extensively and considered the evidence carefully, he might be wrong in his conclusions about Wilkes. For the group as a whole, the question of Wilkes leadership remains open.

The Government

The book shows the federal government in the 1830s to be slow and indecisive in the authorization of the U.S. Ex. Ex.. Congress in the 1830s and 1840s seems unwilling to spend money on even important efforts for the promotion of commerce and trade. Politicians in both the Jackson and the Tyler administrations appear petty, and perhaps willing to put political advantage before the more general interests of the country; few seemed to fully appreciate the importance of the U.S. Ex. Ex. nor the magnitude of the task that was given to the Expedition leaders and members.

It was suggested that the 100,000 people a year visiting the U.S. Ex. Ex. exhibit for 15 years helped convince the politicians that funding science might gain them votes. A member commented: "What, ineffective government in the USA! Who would have thought?"

The Big Question

A member asked what seemed to be the big question -- why did the government assign so large a task to one big expedition rather than divide the tasks between two smaller expeditions? European governments were in fact mounting more but smaller expeditions at the time -- expeditions with far more limited objectives than those of the U.S. Ex. Ex..

It was suggested that there might have been several reasons for the U.S. government's choice. For example, there might have only been a limited number of officers available with the requisite skills to chart difficult shores, or there might not be enough of the needed equipment (very expensive at the time) to equip two expeditions, or that that was simply not the way the government chose to do it. ("There is the right way, the wrong way, and the navy way!") We failed to adequately explain to ourselves why that choice was made. 

It was noted that the class from which leaders were drawn in the United States in 1840 consisted of relatively few but quite distinguished families; Wilkes for example was the nephew of Elizabeth Ann Seton who established the first Catholic school and the first order of nuns in America; Wilkes' nephew, James Renwick, was a successful architect who among other projects designed "the Castle" building of the Smithsonian and the Renwick Gallery.

Final Comments

While the weather was finally nice for a meeting of the club, the turnout for the discussion was smaller than usual; there were reasons -- one person out of town, one or two not feeling well. Still with hundreds of downloads of the summaries of these discussions, we were surprised that a few more people don't come to the meetings.

The discussion was lively and spirited. People were caught up in the issues raised by the book. Perhaps the key issue discussed is why there is relatively little interest in how the modern world of our daily experience came to be. Certainly the history of science and technology is less frequently taught in schools than it might be.

For some of the member of the History Book Club, Sea of Glory was a page turner, combining important aspects of history with an adventure story and vivid descriptions of clashes among people dedicated to their professions and experiencing danger; for others, perhaps not so much.

Here is a blog post on the book by one of our members, written before the meeting.