Ordeal In The Arctic

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There, on October 7, Sergeant George W. Rice found a message left by Garlington back in July. It bore the disheartening news of the sinking of the Proteus and the flight of the rescue party. But it held out some hope: a pledge that “everything within the power of man will be done” to rescue the brave men from Fort Conger. Greely decided to set up a permanent camp at Cape Sabine, twenty miles to the north, where a small supply of rations had been left by the English a few years before. To Cape Sabine the party painfully dragged their zealously guarded meteorological instruments and records, and there settled down, determined to husband their meager food and fuel and await relief, which they hoped might still arrive before winter closed down.

With the passing of one hungry day after another, each darker, colder, and more miserable than the last, the men began to realize that there would be no relief that season. Their mission was no longer scientific inquiry; it was mere survival. Their daily food ration was down to one fifth of normal; David L. Brainard, Greely’s steady first sergeant, dealt it out by the ounce without favoring himself by a shadow of a grain. Even so, Brainard calculated, it would last only until March 10.

All hands turned to a desperate attempt to bring in any kind of edible matter—tiny shrimp netted at the freezing shore, a sea bird, an arctic fox. (After a time, even the contents of the fox’s intestines were eaten.) The men boiled lichen scraped from the rocks and sealskin cut from their sleeping bags. They chewed and swallowed greasy candle stubs.

The hut which the party built for shelter was a low, rectangular stone wall insulated on the outside with packed snow. A canvas was hung in front as a door. A roof was rigged from bits of the smashed longboat, resting on rafters fashioned from the oars. Over this structure the abandoned men stretched tarpaulins, anchoring them with rocks at the outer edges.

No one could stand upright in the hut, and when all twenty-five men were inside there was scarcely place to move. But this was a blessing in disguise: in the winter that lay ahead the temperature inside the hut would almost never rise above freezing, and the proximity of their bodies would make for life-preserving warmth. What food the men managed to cook (or melt) on the tin stoves in the center of the hut was never hot by the time it reached their lips. Sickening smoke gagged and blinded them, and frequently, seized by a fit of coughing, they all had to rush outside for air. Clothing became encrusted with grease, dirt, and body wastes. Hair grew shaggy and matted, faces sallow and hollowed.

Despite their physical misery, the morale and courage of the Greely party were extraordinary. Friction and quarrels were frequent, but they were quickly forgotten in the lassitude that overcomes the half-starved. And there were incidents of self-sacrifice and grit almost beyond description. One four-man party set out in a November storm to search for a cache of meat known to be some miles distant, and returned with Corporal Joseph Elison a virtual basket case—his four extremities badly frostbitten. During the following weeks Elison’s feet and fingers began dropping off, and thereafter he was faithfully fed by his comrades.

Back in Washington, as December began, President Chester A. Arthur sent his annual message to Congress. He did not include the rescue of Greely amid the list of tasks facing Congress and the nation. But behind the scenes Henrietta’s efforts were beginning to get results. On December 17 the President, at long last, appointed a joint Army-Navy board whose purpose, said the Washington Evening Star, was “to consider an expedition to be sent to the relief of Lieutenant Greely and his party. They will meet at Washington on the 20th Inst.”

The board met for weeks, considered, and reported. A month later, on the strength of its findings, Lincoln and Secretary of the Navy William E. Chandler recommended that the President ask Congress for authority (and money) to dispatch an all-Navy expedition to the relief of Greely. Arthur at once transmitted an “urgent message” to Congress.

“The situation of Lieutenant Greely and his party … is one of great peril,” the President declared. “I urgently recommend prompt action by Congress to enable the recommendations of the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Navy to be carried out without delay.” It was January 17, 1884, some four months after the Proteus fiasco became known.

So slow were the wheels of government in those days that, in effect, the Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces had to ask Congress to permit him to spend money to save the lives of American army men. No legislation, then no rescue! It might seem incredible that Congress would hesitate on such a matter, but the ponderous grinding of the legislative millstones became a classic of delay.