Adolphus Greely

Who is Adolphus Greely

Born in Newburyport, Mass., on March 24, 1844, Adolphus Greely enlisted in the Civil War in 1861, serving valorously. Afterward he joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps, and he directed the erection of military telegraph lines from Texas to California and from the Dakotas to Washington Territory. A serious student of meteorology, and influenced by a fellow officer's promotion of polar exploration, Greely devoured the literature of the Arctic and determined to lead an expedition there. When Congress, in 1881, authorized American participation in the International Polar Year project to establish numerous circumpolar observation stations, Greely, by virtue of his experience, scientific background, and interest, was chosen to command the U.S. mission. Greely's party of 25 landed in northern Grinnell Land in August 1881 and established Ft. Conger, sending their ship home. In the next months the expedition's major scientific and exploration objectives were achieved. The outlines of Grinnell Land were fixed; invaluable meteorological, magnetic, biological, and oceanographic records were obtained; and on May 13, 1882, three men from the party reached 83°24'N, a new northing record. When relief ships failed to return in 1882 and 1883, Greely followed his original orders. He left Ft. Conger, hazardously moving south 200 miles to Cape Sabine, where the party spent the winter of 1883/1884 in unimaginable deprivation. By the time a rescue squadron arrived in June 1884, 18 of the 25 men had perished, one man was dying, and the remaining 6 were near death. The survivors were at first hailed as heroic explorers. But reckless charges of cannibalism soon leveled against them tainted their lives, even though all evidence strongly suggests their innocence. After Greely recovered his health, he resumed his career in the Signal Corps, advancing to chief signal officer in 1887. He published regional climatology studies between 1881 and 1891 and later built communication lines in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Alaska. Retiring in 1908, Gen. Greely devoted himself to study and writing. The story of his expedition had appeared as Three Years of Arctic Service (1886); later works included True Tales of Arctic Heroism (1912), Handbook of Alaska (1925), and The Polar Regions in the 20th Century (1928). A founder of the National Geographic Society, Greely contributed to its magazine and donated his collection of Arctic books and scrapbooks to the society. Honored belatedly by his government, Greely received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1935, a few months before his death.

 Adolphus Greely was truly an outstanding individual. His accomplishments included being the first private to GO; he lead a black unit during separation period; he was a National Guardsman; he commanded what we would call today USARPAC, NorthCOM, Corps EN, JTF CDR for SF Earthquake; during downsizing he was instrumental in retaining the Signal Corps. He was a prolific innovator who developed and used high tech ahead of the time. For more details on the career of this outstanding warrior, explorer and innovator checkout his biography at the American Heritage Center Foundation website: Fire & Ice: Adolphus Greely.

Portrait of General Greely

Lieutenant Greely's Arctic Expedition

The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, was one of two groups sent by the U.S. Government to the Arctic. A three hundred year old record (held by British polar expeditions) was broken for achieving the farthest point north toward the North Pole. But the cost in human suffering, as with so many early polar expeditions, was a terrible one. Lieutenant Greely, of the Fifth Cavalry, had instructions to establish a permanent station at the most suitable point north of the eighty-first parallel of north latitude. The expedition was organized for general scientific observation. Greely and his party set sail from St. John’s Newfoundland on July 7, 1881 with five boats with 40 days of rations. They arrived at Fort Conger, Lady Franklin Bay on August 26, 1881, where they remained for two years. One member of the group, a Lieutenant Lockwood, went farther north than man had ever gone before—to 83 degrees 24 minutes north latitude. All the while, records were kept of the weather, tides, etc. In July, 1883, The Proteus was to pick up the Greely party, but it sank on July 23, 1883 due to the actions of a stubborn Lieutenant Garlington, who refused to follow suggestions of the civilian crew. When the ship failed to arrive Greely put into operation the preconceived plan to move his men and equipment south. It was not until mid-September that the survivors of the ship sinking reached St. John’s and sent a message to Washington, D.C. On September 29th the desperate Greely Survivors reached Baird Inlet, but unfortunately found themselves adrift for thirty days on ice floe in Smith South. In the process, the party suffered the loss of several boats, food supplies and men. A winter camp was established and Greely found the cache of food enough for ten days. The men awaited rescue for eight months. An August 12, 1884, New York Times article reported that they were “shivering and starving in their little tent on the bleak shore of Smith’s Sound.” How even some of them managed to survive is amazing. Without big game and few small animals go there, survival was harsh. The party was forced to live upon boiled sealskin strips from their sealskin clothing, lichens, and small shrimps procured in good weather. Meanwhile back in Washington Greely’s wife wrote letters to newspaper editors and members of Congress, demanding action to rescue the party. Acrimonious debates raged in Congress , but a bill was authorizing the relief of Greely's men. The rescue effort consisted of three ships, the Thetis, the Bear, and the Loch Garry. After a difficult passage, the Greely party was found at Cape Sabine on June 22, 1884. At this time there were seven survivors; however one passed shortly after rescue. On August 2, 1884, the crew finally reached US soil. Several European scientific societies considered the Greely men heroes and struck medals in their honor. Greely was made a Captain soon after returning. In 1887, he became a Brigadier General. Greely was the first soldier to reach general officer rank having started as a volunteer private. Later, Greely became a Major General. He continued as a 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 efforts following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. He became the first American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for peacetime service.

We encourage you to take a look at our Adolphus Greely Gallery. We have posted photographs and more highlighting his Arctic Expedition, Civil War service, and other major accomplishments. In addition you can checkout these documents: The Hazen Court Martial, Greely Letter to Mr. Baird, and Howgate - Frank Leslie's Illustrations, Newspaper 5 JUN 1880. Finally, checkout Adolphus Greely on Wikipedia for additional information and resources.

Many thanks to Mr. Bob Gilbertbgilbert@civilwarsignals.org for the background and photographs he provided. Bob is a contributor to the Civil War Signal Corps Association website.