Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society


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Adolphus Washington Greely

By Henry Ludman




Among the expeditions that have been sponsored by the United States Government the Greely expedition ranks with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in importance.  Both opened new frontiers and added to man's knowledge of the unknown.  Whereas Lewis and Clark suffered one fatality, Greely lost nineteen out of twenty five men.


Adolphus Washington Greely was well versed in Arctic exploration literature and frequently wrote on the subject. His Expedition carried a library of more than a thousand volumes, more than a hundred of which dealt with the Arctic. This included the writings of Elisha Kent Kane who had pioneered during the 1850's what became known as the "American Route to the Pole".  This route was followed by Admiral Robert Edwin Peary.  But for the experiences of Kane and Greely, it is questionable if Peary could have planned so well his early explorations.


Sensational publicity and distortion of the facts portrayed survivors of the Greely Expedition as cannibals.  Greely knew what people thought, but beyond his testimony at Congressional and departmental hearings, where he presented sworn affadavits from the survivors that they had not practised cannibalism, he made no effort to defend his leadership.


It is paradoxical to note that it was not until Greely was 95 that he was awarded official United States Government recognition for his exploits@ i:n) 193 5, he was presented with the United States Congressional Medal of Honor, the fourth so honored for peacetime contributions, following Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, and Floyd Bennett, Byrd's pilot over the North Pole.


The commendation accompanying the Medal to Greely reads:


"For his life of splendid public service, begun 27 March 1844, having enlisted as a private in the United States Army on 26 July 186 1, and, by successive promotions was commissioned a Major General IO February 1906, and retired by the operation of law on his sixty-fourth birthday".


Adolphus Washington Greely was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on 27 March 1844, descended from a family that had resided in New England for two hundred years.  After graduating from high school at 16, he joined the Union Army, where he served with distinction for four years, becoming a Brevet Major.


Greely remained in the Army, after the Civil War, taking the reduced rank of second lieutenant.  His service in the Signal Corps led to a wide variety of assignments, in themselves providing a lifetime of excitement and adventure, where he developed a marked ability to get things done.  At the same time he had a compelling curiosity about meteorology.  Working as he did for several years in the Southwest and the Northwest laying telegraph lines, he wished for what we now take for granted: a weather forecast.  Greely felt that if preconditions for storms wre known, forecasts would be of great economic value.  Thus he became interested in the Arctic as a place to study the preconditions of storms.


By the 1870's, Greely had two goals: one to study the weather and the other to get ahead in the Signal Corps.  He was not a West Pointer and realized the necessity of doing something so outstanding that promotion would be assured.


What we call the Greely Expedition (1881-1884) was properly known as the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, which was one of two groups sent by the US Government to the Arctic as part of the International Polar Year.  The other expedition went north of Point Barrow, Alaska.  The Hayes Administration voted $25,000 for the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition.  Neither newly elected President Garfield nor Robert Todd Lincoln, Secretary of War, had any interest in the polar program and the signing of the necessary authorization was delayed until Greely called on Lincoln and forced him to do so.  Lincoln never forgave Greely for being so brash and what should have been automatic promotions were not forthcoming while Lincoln was in office.


As a result of long anticipation, Greely was able to sail from St. John's Newfoundland, 7 July 1 8 8 1, and arrived at Fort Conger, Lady Franklin Bay, 26 August 188 1, where he remained (as planned) for two years.  The supply ship scheduled to visit Fort Conger in 1882 was unable to penetrate the ice.  Pathetically, the master of the ship, an Army man, did not deposit supplies at obvious points that might have benefited Greely, or other explorers in need.  This was the first among many savage disappointments for the Greely party.


Greely had ample supplies for the second year at Fort Conger, during which period the men lived comfortably but not entirely happily.  There were three malcontents, one of whom, a lieutenant, resigned from the service and did not perform any duties for more than two years.  In any event, the party carried out the purpose of the expedition.  Many trips were to Grinnell Land, Greenland, etc, ranging over 2,500 miles.  One group went farther north than man had ever gone before, which surpassed the record held by Great Britain for more than three hundred years.  All the while records were kept of the weather, tides, etc.


When the ship that was to pick up the party in August 1883 did not arrive, Greely put into operation the preconceived plan for moving his men and equipment south.


Meanwhile, that ship had sunk due to the actions of a stubborn Army man who refused to follow suggestions of the civilian crew of Newfoundlanders who were experienced in Arctic sailing.  This was in July 1883.  A few days before the sinking the lieutenant had cached about ten days' food supplies at a prominent point; this was later found by Greely.  A supply of lemons wrapped in pages of the Louisville Courier Journal told of the inability of the 1882 supply ship to reach Greely.  As the ship was sinking the lieutenant could have put ashore a large supply of food for Greely, but he didn't think it necessary.  It was not until mid September that the survivors reached St. John's, where a message was sent to Washington, DC.


Inaccurate reports were submitted to the authorities and few people had concern for the well being of Greely.  President Arthur and Secretary of War Lincoln did nothing.


Meanwhile, working their way south, the party suffered the loss of several boats, food supplies and personal equipment.  An entire month on an ice floe took them nowhere.  Eventually, they reached land with all of their scientific equipment and two years' accumulation of raw data which they had diligently insisted be saved.


A winter camp was established but soon moved to where there should have been a cache of supplies.  The lemons were found, and from newspapers more than a year old, it was it learned why they had not been re-supplied in 1882.  How they managed to survive is still a mystery.  Sabine Point is one of the most desolate places in the Arctic.  No big game and few small animals go there.  When spring came, shrimp were plentiful but tiny: 1500 filled a gill and a gill is only one-quarter of a pint!


Meanwhile, in Washington, after it was too late to send a search party in the Fall of 1883, public opinion demanded that plans be made for an early spring departure of a search party.  Greely's wife wrote to everyone of import: newspaper editors, Congressman, etc., demanding action.  Some of the most acrimonious debates in the history of Congress took place over this issue.  Many bills were defeated, but one finally passed.  Unlimited funds were provided, plus a bounty of $25,000 for any sealer or other civilian who might locate Greely.


The Secretary of the Navy decided (since Lincoln was not interested and the Army had twice failed) that the relief party would be a Navy affair.  Four days after the bill had passed a relief ship arrived in New York from St. John's.  This was mid February 1884, so there was time to outfit the ship, select a crew, etc.  This ship was commanded by Captain Schley who, three years earlier had jokingly prophesied "some day the Navy will have to rescue that party".


Captain Schley had no Arctic experience but he knew how to handle a ship.  After a difficult passage, the Greely party was found at Cape Sabine on 22 June 1884.  At this time there were seven survivors (out of twenty five in the original party) but another died some days later.  Most of the eighteen had starved to death.  Greely and four others were so weak they had to be carried to the ship on stretchers.  Once aboard, the six made a quick recovery and by the time they reached St. John's on 17 July, they walked ashore on their own to heros' welcomes.


When the ship reached Portsmouth, NH on 2 August it was strictly a Navy show, headed by Secretary Chandler.  Secretary of War Lincoln did not send a message to Greely, then or later.  In any event the men enjoyed several days of celebration at Portsmouth and Newburyport.


Several European scientific societies considered the Greely men heroes and struck medals in their honor.


President Arthur was pleased that any of the party had been rescued but was quick to say that he never favored the exploration, doubted its results and made other sour comments.  Politicians demanded there be an end put to such folly and it was said that Congress would never again support an Arctic expedition.  Thus Admirals Peary and Byrd depended on public subscriptions for their early explorations.


Greely was made a Captain soon after returning and, in 1877, over the opposition of Lincoln's friends, became a Brigadier General, the first soldier to reach general officer rank having started as a volunteer private, after which he became a Major General.  Greely's trusted non-com, Sgt.  Brainard, remained in the Army to become a Brigadier General and a member of Kane Lodge F&AM, New York City, along with Greely.


Greely continued as the communications expert for the Army, installing telegraphic equipment in Alaska, the Philippine Islands, Cuba and Puerto Rico.  He established the first commercial wireless station in the world in Alaska.  He was a successful mediator in preventing Indian uprisings and directed relief following the San Francisco earthquake.  Greely was an early exponent of Army aviation and mentor of Billy Mitchell.  He was co-founder of the National Geographic Magazine.




Henry Ludman,19 April 1966

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