Ordeal In The Arctic


In the week that followed, the Greely party on faroff Ellesmere Island pinned their hopes on a desperate attempt by Sergeant Rice and an Eskimo named Jens to cross Smith Sound on the massed ice, hoping to find an Eskimo settlement somewhere down the Greenland coast and bring back help. But after four anxious days the pair reappeared through the mist, to report that swirling open water in the sound prevented a crossing. There was nothing to do but wait.

During the same week in Washington, Hale must have worked desperately behind the scenes. On February 8 he told the Senate that Secretary Chandler now promised that the rescue party, in effect, would be made up of volunteers, and that this should set at rest the fears some senators had expressed earlier. If no action was taken now, he told his colleagues, “any further activity for the relief of the Greely party ceases.”

Again Ingalls took the floor to upbraid Hale. The resolution still had not been considered by the proper committee, he protested. And while he was on the subject, might he inquire of the senator from Maine whether the rumor he had heard was true, that Secretary Chandler, without proper authority from Congress, was already negotiating with the British to buy a ship to send in search of Greely? If so, then there was a genuine emergency, and Congress should look into it.

No commitments had been made, Hale replied; but the Secretary was looking into the possible purchase of Newfoundland ships or Scottish sealers and whalers, which were just about the only vessels in the world that could buck the Arctic ice. If they should leave their home ports for the season before Congress acted, then they could never be purchased in time to help Greely. Turning on Ingalls with bitter sarcasm, Hale then poured out his resentment for the first time: “If Lieutenant Greely is to be left to perish with his followers, I hope they may die in a parliamentary manner, so that it shall be satisfactory, so that no question may be raised as to their violating any rule!”

“The Senator from Maine,” sneered Ingalls, “has repeatedly endeavored to enforce upon the Senate the idea that every moment was precious, and that lives might be periled by delay.” He repeated all the opposition arguments: the relief bill had been handled in unparliamentary fashion; only volunteers should go; Americans should be rescued in American-built ships; and again, expense.

Suddenly Ingalls offered Hale a deal. If he would agree to a money limit, say $500,000 or $1,000,000 (already voted down by the Senate) and a volunteer clause (which Chandler said was unnecessary), then Ingalls gave his assurance that the Senate would vote through a relief resolution in fifteen minutes.

But, Hale answered, this would merely force the House to reverse itself, or bring about another conference committee wrangle to delay matters. He rejected the deal and proposed that the Senate vote once more on Monday, February 11. Somehow over the intervening weekend Hale picked up sufficient votes to put the resolution across. The count this time was twenty-nine in favor, twenty-two opposed, twenty-five not voting.

The Greely relief bill was through, exactly in the form approved by the House twenty days earlier. From the time the President had called for authority to act, Congress had taken twenty-five days to grant it.

But Secretary Chandler had already been arranging, without waiting for authority, to buy one of the finest sealers afloat, the Bear, a ten-year-old craft built in Dundee, paying her Scottish owner, Walter Grieve, $100,000 for her. She was rushed to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for outfitting. Her companions were to be the Thetis, a similar vessel, and the Alert, a smaller ship presented by the British government to the United States as an earnest of its keen interest in helping the rescue of Greely. Secretary Chandler put the rescue squadron under the leadership of Commander Winfield Scott Schley, who gathered a splendid group of volunteer officers and crew and rushed his ships and men into readiness. First to clear port was the Bear, whose departure on April 24 was described by Schley as a big waterfront event in New York:

It was half past three in the afternoon when the advance ship, leaving her moorings at the Navy Yard, steamed slowly down the East River and out of the harbor of New York. The wharves on the Brooklyn and New York sides were thronged with cheering crowds of people, while the steamers and other shipping of the port were dressed with flags and pennants. The good wishes and godspeed were universal.

It was none too soon. As the Bear sailed, six men were already dead at Cape Sabine—the heroic Rice perishing of exposure in a storm while searching for food, the other five withered by starvation. As the Bear was passing Nantucket Island, Sergeant Brainard was writing in his journal: