Taissunani: March 27, 1935 – Adolphus Greely Awarded Medal of Honor


March 27 marks two anniversaries in the life of Adolphus Washington Greely. The first is his birth in 1844 in Massachusetts. At age 16, having graduated from high school, Greely joined the Army and fought in the American Civil War. In 1881 he volunteered to lead a scientific expedition to the High Arctic as part of the U.S. Army’s participation in the first International Polar Year (1882-3). Greely’s task was to lead a party of 25 men, mostly American soldiers, to establish a meteorological station at Lady Franklin Bay high up on the eastern coast of Ellesmere Island. It was expected that the party would remain in the field for two years.

Greely established his base camp at Fort Conger. Exploratory parties forayed out from that base to explore the coast and the interior of Ellesmere Island. One of these parties discovered the largest lake on the island, Lake Hazen. The expedition’s farthest north was reached in May 1882 at 83° 24′ north latitude, farther north than man had ever travelled, and surpassing a British record that had been held for over 300 years. Detailed records were kept of weather, tides and other observations of scientific interest.

The relief ship sent out in 1882 was unable to reach Fort Conger because of ice. This was not particularly worrisome because Greely had brought enough supplies for two years in the Arctic. The men remained comfortable enough during their second winter, although by this time there was dissension amongst the members.

In 1883 the supply ship again failed to reach their lonely outpost, so Greely put into operation his contingency plan. They abandoned Fort Conger and travelled south along the Ellesmere coast in a number of small boats. It was a treacherous journey. Several boats were lost, along with precious food supplies and equipment. Finally they reached Cape Sabine but could go no further. Food was in short supply, but Greely was always cognisant of his purpose and had stubbornly saved his accumulation of raw scientific data collected over two years.

A winter camp was established at Cape Sabine, a truly desolate spot with little game. The winter was one of extreme privation and desperation. Greely wrote at one point, “Certain of the party cannot be trusted if we come to extremes. I have my eye on a gun and will not hesitate to use it if the occasion requires.”

Meanwhile in Washington, political incompetence and infighting were the order of the day. Greely’s wife fanned the flames of popular support for a relief expedition to rescue her husband in 1884 and finally, after acrimonious debate in Congress, funds were provided for an expedition as well as a bounty for any sealer, whaler or other civilian who might first find Greely.

The U.S. Army having proved its incompetence, the relief expedition was organized by the U.S. Navy. In June of 1884 three vessels, the Thetis, Bear and Alert, all commanded by Winfield Scott Schley, reached Cape Sabine. But it was too late for most of Greely’s men. Most had starved to death. Only the commander and six men remained alive, and one of those died shortly after rescue. Greely and four of his companions had to be carried aboard ship on stretchers.

Greely returned a hero, but the subsequent investigation left a sour taste about the Arctic in the minds of American politicians. The president opined that he had never favoured such exploration and politicians vowed not to support Arctic exploration in the future.

Adolphus Greely remained in the Army and reached the rank of Major General, the first soldier ever to have started as a volunteer private and rise to such high rank. He was a communications expert for the Army, and installed telegraphic equipment in Alaska, The Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico. He acted as a mediator in Indian uprisings. He directed relief operations after the San Francisco earthquake, and was a co-founder of the National Geographic Magazine.

And throughout his career he was a prolific writer. Among many other titles, his own account of the tragedy of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, entitled “Three Years of Arctic Service,” was a best-seller.

Strangely, the greatest honour accorded Greely occurred only because he lived so long. It was not until March 27, 1935, his 91st birthday, that he was awarded the United States Congressional Medal of Honor. The citation began with the words, “For his life of splendid public service…”

Adolphus Greely died the following October. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

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