Charles was born in 1798. He is the son of John Deponthieu Wilkes.
He was [allegedly] the great nephew of the former Lord Mayor of London John Wilkes. His mother was Mary Seton, who died in 1802 when Charles was just three years old. As a result, Charles was raised by his aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton,  who would later convert to Roman Catholicism and become the first American-born woman canonized a saint by the Catholic Church. Wilkes was an American naval officer, ship's captain, and explorer. He led the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and commanded the ship in the Trent Affair during the American Civil War (1861–1865), where he attacked a Royal Mail Ship, almost leading to war between the US and the UK. His behavior led to two convictions by court-martial, one stemming from the massacre of almost 80 Fijians on Malolo in 1840.
Wilkes was promoted to the rank of commander in 1843 and that of captain in 1855. At the outbreak of the American Civil War, he was assigned to the command of USS San Jacinto to search for the Confederate commerce destroyer CSS Sumter. On July 25, 1866, he was promoted to the rank of rear admiral on the retired list.
Some historians speculate that Wilkes' obsessive behavior and harsh code of shipboard discipline shaped Herman Melville's characterization of Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick.
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