Ordeal In The Arctic

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Fortunately for the beleaguered men in the Arctic, the forceful Representative Samuel T. Randall of Philadelphia pushed the rescue bill quickly through his House Appropriations Committee and brought it to the floor on January 22. But Representative Nelson Dingley of Maine, where shipyards were then as important a source of revenue as potato farming is now, sniffed pork for his district. He had caught rumors that the U.S. Navy planned to buy British ships, not American, for the rescue attempt.

Had the committee, Dingley blandly asked Randall on the House floor, “considered the possibility of obtaining a suitable American vessel or an American-built vessel under this resolution?” Would the committee “object to an amendment providing that if a suitable American vessel can be built or purchased within the time allowed, it may be done”? Randall managed to turn aside this pork-barrel feeler, and the gentleman from Lewiston did not press the matter.

To win the support of the perennial anti-spending bloc, Randall pointed out that the President would be authorized to purchase no more than three ships for the relief of Greely. Further, the resolution provided that the vessels were “to be sold after their return and the money arising from such sale covered into the Treasury. And the President shall submit to Congress on the first Monday of December, 1884, a full and detailed account of all expenditures and outlays made on account of this appropriation.”

Randall pleaded: “This appropriation is in obedience to humanity, to the agreement made with Lieutenant Greely.” As if in reply to those who might consider a new rescue attempt useless, the earnest Pennsylvanian cited the annual report of the Secretary of War. Written in a  let’s-keep-our-shirts-on tone, the section of Lincoln’s report dealing with Greely’s dire peril stated it as a fact that Greely could easily last a third winter in the Arctic, and that even if he should have journeyed in vain to Smith Sound to meet the Proteus, he could have safely retraced his steps three hundred miles northward to the winter quarters at Lady Franklin Bay!

Yet as the debate went on in the comfortable warmth of the House of Representatives, the Greely party, hungry and chilled in their improvised shelter amid the bitter darkness of the Arctic winter night, had just buried the first of their comrades to die of starvation. Greely and Dr. Octave Pavy, the expedition surgeon, at first tried to disguise the true cause of Sergeant William H. Cross’s death as “dropsical effusions of the heart,” in the hope of maintaining morale. But the desperately famished, weakened men were not fooled. Despair began to settle upon them.

The Administration plan outlined by Randall to the House recommended the purchase of two steam whalers or steam sealers of 500 to 600 tons displacement and also a smaller advance ship that could take greater risks in the ice. Mercifully, debate was brief, and the bill passed without dissent.

On the other side of the Capitol, Senator Eugene Hale of Maine showed a zeal for the relief measure equal to Randall’s. Within two days he had pushed it through the Senate Naval Affairs Committee and on January 24 brought it to the floor.

“This, all Senators must bear in mind, is the last expedition that can be sent,” Hale warned. “Unless Lieutenant Greely and his party are found this summer, they will doubtless pass away and we shall never hear more of them.”

Senator George G. Vest of Missouri, seated far back on the other side of the chamber from Hale, did not hear very clearly. Did Hale mean, he asked, this would be the last expedition to hunt for Greely, or the last Arctic exploration the U.S. government would sponsor?

Oh, definitely the last attempt to find Greely, Hale replied. If he was not found that summer, the party “must needs be abandoned … As to … whether any more expeditions will be sent for adventures arid scientific and semi-scientific purposes to the northern regions,” Hale continued, “I fully believe that this will be the last; that we shall never have for years to come any more of them …”

Then rose John James Ingalls, a Massachusetts-born lawyer educated at Williams College and transplanted to Kansas. “Mr. President,” Ingalls began in his ponderous, rolling style, “whatever secrets are secluded in that mysterious region that surrounds the North Pole, they are guarded by nature with the most zealous solicitude. The results of the disposition of man to penetrate every mystery upon the surface of this planet has been one uninterrupted succession of failures and disasters.” (As the lean, impeccably dressed Ingalls droned on, some senators must have heard Columbus, DeSoto, and Lewis and Clark turning over in their graves!)

Too much public money had been wasted on these useless adventures, Ingalls went on. No one could deny that if the Secretary of the Navy under this bill saw fit to expend $10,000,000, Congress would be compelled to make the necessary appropriation! Those who held the government purse strings, who stood guard at the sacred portals of the federal treasury, should put a stop to these fool trips to nowhere.