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Ordeal In The Arctic
As the debate about rescuing them droned on and on, Lieutenant Greely’s men were dying one by one
June 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 4
Before the facts were fully known, newspapers all over the country began blaming, deploring, accusing, and demanding explanations. In the autumn weeks that followed, as the finger-pointing and name-calling continued, the party in peril in the Far North seemed almost forgotten. The press posed some grim questions for which no one had answers: Would Greely push south as planned? Could he make the journey safely, in view of the fact that the Proteus had not been able to penetrate the ice pack? Were his men still in condition for such a hazardous trip? If he reached Smith Sound, what would he do when he found that the Proteus had left no winter stores? Would he perhaps try to cross to the Greenland shore to search for friendly Etah Eskimos with whom he could winter? Or would he try to beat his way back northward to the solid wooden shelter at Lady Franklin Bay? Or would he remain at Smith Sound and hunt out the small, scattered food caches left by earlier American and British expeditions in recent years?
Every man in the country with any experience in the Arctic was interviewed for his speculations on Greely’s fate, and for proposals on what might be done to help him. Some suggested that new ships be sent at once, even if it meant that an autumn rescue mission, finding itself blocked by ice at sea, would have to land and force its way up the mountainous, unmapped Greenland coast into the teeth of the Arctic winter. Of course, most observers said, Garlington should be court-martialed.
Recriminations between the services began to find their way into the newspapers. Army officers claimed the Navy had bungled the job of getting Garlington’s mission ashore. The owners and crew of the Proteus were civilians, naval officers retorted; command responsibility should have been all-Navy, not divided among Army, Navy, and civilian rescuers. Besides, the Navy spokesmen added, a cavalryman like young Garlington belonged out on the western plains fighting Indians; he had no business in command of a seaborne rescue operation. The British press gratuitously suggested, in a superior tone, that the Americans, rookies in Arctic exploration, might best be rescued by civilian sealers from the ports of Halifax, St. John’s, or Dundee.
Amid the uproar, one American, fortunately, remained cool. She was Greely’s exceptionally beautiful wife, Henrietta. At the War Department, Secretary Robert Todd Lincoln—the undistinguished forty-year-old son of the great Civil War President—found this Greely business very trying. He had not been in favor of the expedition in the first place; it had been wished on his department by the outgoing administration. Now, after several days of hesitation, he announced that there would be no further attempt to rescue Greely that year; as for the future, he said nothing.
Henrietta decided to seek help elsewhere. She launched a determined campaign to prod the United States government into trying to save its own servicemen, among them her beloved “Dolph,” father of her two infant girls.
An appealing lobbyist, she quickly found her real friends: several key members of Congress, newspaper editors like her home-town friend Douglas Gunn of the San Diego Union, and Greely’s fellow officers, who believed the government owed to the men it had dispatched to the Arctic a debt on which it could not honorably renege. Steadily, as the weeks passed, these people lighted a series of fires beneath an inert, bureaucratic government still indifferent to Greely’s peril.
To her allies, and through them to the American public, Henrietta expressed deep faith in her husband. If any man could bring a party safely through the Arctic winter, he could, she said. The families of other members of the expedition could take heart. Surely, she urged, the men would survive to greet the relief which the government would, of course, dispatch as early in the coming spring as weather permitted.
For nearly three months Secretary Lincoln appeared to be more interested in crucifying Lieutenant Garlington than in rescuing Lieutenant Greely. A board met promptly to consider Garlington’s fate (it ended by merely criticizing his conduct); but none was called to discuss Greely’s.
While the War Department was castigating their would-be rescuers. Greelv and his men clung to their ice floe. In September the commander ordered that the launch be left behind, and two of the boats had to be abandoned to enable the men to sledge across the ice floes with one boat and their supplies. When a fortuitous wind drove their ice raft close to shore in Smith Sound, they managed on September 29 to reach land on Ellesmere Island after weeks of alternately ferrying and dragging their food and equipment toward the west.