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Some exploratory expeditions come back virtually intact. For instance, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from the Pacific coast 200 years ago this year after 8,000 miles of travel in 28 months, with only one man lost (at the very outset, apparently due to a bad appendix). But some do not return quite so intact. Consider U.S. Army Lieutenant Adolphus Greely’s record-breaking Arctic expedition of the 1880s, which came back with only seven of the 25 who set out three years before. But then, what to expect from soldiers and a leader who had never been to the Arctic?

What to expect especially when, for two summers in a row, their resupply ships never showed up? When also they lived for two years near the North Pole in a large rectangular structure built of wooden boards covered with tar paper and requiring tons of coal to stay heated? When they found themselves in total isolation, no local people nearby to help, no radio yet invented to transmit an SOS? And when, finally, dissension riddled their ranks and, as the starving expedition members began to die off, their commander ordered the execution of one man for stealing precious communal rations?

The fact is, ill-prepared in the extreme, they were stuck in “a region of which civilized men knew next to nothing even while it exerted a grip on his imagination,” as described by Leonard F. Guttridge in his book Ghosts of Cape Sabine: The Harrowing True Story of the Greely Expedition.

It truly was a horror story, apparently involving cannibalism by some expedition members, with Greely and his six fellow survivors nearly dead by the time they were rescued by Navy Commander Winfield Scott Schley in 1884 (one man died soon after their rescue). Widely criticized, both at the time and sometimes in the years since, Greely nonetheless managed to transcend what would have been a career-ending blot for most people, ultimately earning, on his 91st birthday in 1935, a rare Medal of Honor ordered by special act of Congress “for his life of splendid public service.” Greely, who died later that year, again was honored in 1985 as the subject of a U.S. commemorative postage stamp.

For Greely, born in Newburyport, Mass., military life began at age 17 as a private in the 19th Massachusetts Volunteers in 1861. By the end of the Civil War, several major battles and three serious wounds behind him, he had risen to the rank of brevet major.

Next joining the Regular Army’s signal service in 1867 as a lieutenant, he spent “many of his next 14 years…constructing transcontinental telegraph lines under hostile conditions,” noted U.S. Army Lt. Col. Charles M. Hall, in an article appearing in the Air University Review of September-October 1980. “At the end of this period, he advocated and was appointed leader of the successful but ill-fated Lady Franklin Bay Arctic Expedition of 1881-1884.”

With two supply ships unable to reach the Greely party on the eastern shore of Ellesmere Island two years in a row due to ice conditions (they did try), and nothing more heard from the expedition, Greely was presumed lost and so was passed over for promotion to captain. Confronted as he was with life-or-death issues for his entire party, however, Greely certainly had more on his mind than rank.

And there were successes for the inexperienced Americans in their Arctic foray—among them the record for farthest northern travel yet achieved by any of the hostile region’s explorers, an honor going to a three-man sledge party headed by Lieutenant James B. Lockwood and including Sergeant David Brainard. Of the three, only Brainard survived, later to become a brigadier general.

Meanwhile, Greely’s party mapped newly discovered geographic features, while also taking important meteorological, oceanographic and geophysical measurements, before abandoning its Fort Conger base after two years without resupply and, by standing orders, moving southward by boat to Cape Sabine to await rescue there. Sadly, that meant spending another winter in the freezing cold with inadequate shelter and few provisions.

While initially greeted in the aftermath with considerable shock as the expedition’s problems became known, Greely received his captaincy in 1886, but then leaped in rank in less than a year to brigadier general as he became chief of the Army’s Signal Corps.

From there Greely went on to a truly remarkable career. As Brig. Gen. “Billy” Mitchell’s mentor, he “laid the foundation for the Army’s assumption of an air service,” noted Hall. Long before that, however, according to the National Park Service, Greely obtained a $50,000 congressional appropriation for development of a “flying machine for war purposes” in 1898.

Further, he briefly was head of the U.S. Weather Service, at one time an Army agency. He was a founder of the National Geographic Society. As Signal Corps chief, he directed the laying of some 25,000 miles of telegraph lines and submarine cables during the Spanish-American War, providing communication links with Cuba, Puerto Rico, Alaska and the Philippines.

Later promoted to major general and based at the Presidio, Greely found himself in charge of the Army’s relief efforts in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. It’s not clear when he had the time, but in addition to his many scientific and official reports, he also turned out at least six books—one of them on a theme he personally knew well, True Tales of Arctic Heroism in the New World.


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.