Ordeal In The Arctic

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But this was not a case of wasteful spending, Hale protested. Neither the President nor the Navy should be restricted by money limits when it came to rescuing Greely and his men.

“What guarantee is there,” asked Ingalls mockingly, “that this expedition, disappearing into that profound abyss, not being heard of for two years … is not to be followed by others upon which the same vast expenditure is to be entailed?” Rescuing Greely this year was the issue, replied Hale. The question was “whether the American Congress will abandon them now or seek once more to relieve them.”

As the debate was warming up in the Senate, Greely in the frigid shelter at Cape Sabine some three thousand miles to the north was noting in his journal that he had “read a great deal to the party from Spofford’s American Almanac.’ The statistics regarding crops and articles of food are extremely interesting, as well as tantalizing, to us.” Lieutenant James B. Lockwood scrawled: “It is a great effort for me to expose my hands long enough to write this journal; they soon get cold and numb.”

Back in the Senate, Hale informed his colleagues that steam sealers and whalers of the type required to venture into the ice would cost between $75,000 and $140,000 each. Only a few such ships existed, he said, most of them in British and Canadian ports.

How about building the ships in the good old U.S.A.? inquired Senator William P. Frye of Maine, needling his fellow down-Easter.

This was pure bluff, but for the sake of home-state pride, Hale refrained from telling Frye so on the Senate floor. The government simply could not take the risk of designing, building, and equipping the ships in winter with time so short, he replied coolly, and after a few more protectionist huffs and puffs, Frye sat down.

Up jumped Ingalls again, to propose an amendment fixing a spending limit of $1,000,000. After a long struggle during which several penny-pinching proposals even lower than Ingalls’ figure were barely rejected, the Senate killed all idea of a ceiling on spending for the relief of Greely.

Hale began to breathe easily after an upsetting couple of hours, and felt the resolution would soon be passed. But he reckoned without the venerable Eli Saulsbury of Delaware, who proposed an amendment providing that the Navy relief expedition “be composed of volunteers.” Shaking his white locks, Saulsbury declaimed: “I will not grant to the President the power to assign whom he may please to this dreadful service!” Hale declined to argue the point, and the Saulsbury “volunteer” amendment was approved by voice vote, after which the resolution quickly passed without recorded dissent.

The fact that the Senate had added Saulsbury’s eight-word amendment required that the bill be sent to a House-Senate conference committee for resolution of the minor difference, rather than directly to the President for signature and action. And during the four days that the conference committee chewed over this issue in Washington, several of the suffering party at Cape Sabine were growing sick from chewing used tea leaves, seeking the tiny bit of extra nourishment they might afford. On January 26 Lieutenant Greely, on Dr. Pavy’s advice, had to order a stop to this practice.

So desperately eager was Hale for the relief work to get under way that he decided the Senate should not insist on its amendment in conference. In reporting back to the House on this matter, Representative Randall read a letter from Navy Secretary Chandler stating that, as a practical matter, volunteers would be sought for the relief party.

The House approved the conference report quickly, but in the Senate Ingalls and Saulsbury, now joined by John R. McPherson of New Jersey, aimed their oratorical torpedoes directly at the relief squadron. The resolution had been sent to the wrong committee in the first place, said Ingalls. Just because the relief party would be run by the Navy did not mean the legislation belonged to the Naval Affairs Committee! The spending of money was the heart of this matter, and therefore it should have been sent to the Appropriations Committee. (Ingalls was a member of neither, whereas Hale sat on both.)

Besides, Ingalls cried, the Senate was always giving ground in its differences with the House. This had to stop, or the Senate committees might just as well be declared “auxiliaries and annexes” of the House Appropriations Committee. He made it sound as if American constitutional government were tottering.

Despite Hale’s valiant effort to direct the Senate’s attention to the simple issue of speeding help to American servicemen in peril, a majority of senators present sided with the obstructionists.

The vote, on January 31, found only twenty-five senators in favor of the conference report (with the volunteer amendment stricken from it) and twenty-seven opposed, with twenty-four senators absent. A full week had passed since Saulsbury had thrown his “volunteer” monkey wrench into the rescue machinery. It was now at a standstill.