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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
We are struggling bravely for life, how bravely the world will probably never know, as none are likely to live to tell the tale. Words written in this journal are not adequate to describe the horrors of our situation …
In the next sixty days one man after another dropped away. On June 6 Greely was forced to the difficult decision of ordering the execution of Private Charles B. Henry, the physical giant of the party, who had been flagrantly stealing from the other eleven men still alive and menacing their safety. On June 21 both Greely and Brainard found themselves no longer able to write in their journals, maintained for three years past. While a wild storm howled about their tent, they lay down in their sleeping bags to await the end.
Near ten on the evening of Sunday, June 22, the crew of a Navy steam cutter off the Bear rounded a small point near Cape Sabine and came face to face with Sergeant Francis Long, the most physically fit of Greely’s men. He was heavily bearded, wild-eyed, gaunt, filthy—but alive.
“Seven left—Greely’s alive—Down there!” croaked Long, pointing to the snow-covered shelter. There followed as dramatic a welcome scene as ever took place between men on this earth. In another forty-eight hours the Navy party would probably have come upon a camp of dead men. As it was, the survivors resembled breathing skeletons. Among them lay one corpse, dead for four days, which they had been too weak to drag away.*
The tender care given Greely and his companions aboard ship brought them slowly back to a measure of strength—all but Elison, a quadruple amputee for five months, who died following an operation on the homeward voyage. When the squadron touched at St. John’s, Newfoundland, Schley sent Secretary Chandler a telegraphic report at once triumphant and tragic: Mission accomplished; Greely rescued. But of the original twenty-five men, only six were coming home. Chandler replied:
Receive my congratulations and thanks for yourself and your whole command for your prudence, perseverance and courage in reaching our dead and dying countrymen. The hearts of the American people go out with great affection to Lieutenant Greely and the few survivors of his deadly peril. Care for them unremittingly, and bid them be cheerful and hopeful on account of what life yet has in store for them. Preserve tenderly the remains of the heroic dead; prepare them according to your judgment, and bring them home.
In far-off San Diego, well-wishers showered congratulations on Henrietta Greely for having kept faith when they had despaired. Her heart overflowed with joy at the news of the rescue, and at the businesslike wire, sent collect from St. John’s, which read: “Perfectly well but weak. … Suit your convenience coming East. Shall take long sick leave. A. W. Greely.”
Fifteen days later, as the Bear, the Thetis, and the Alert steamed into the harbor of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, bearing the heroic survivors and their rescuers, the entire North Atlantic naval squadron was in line to greet them with flags fluttering and whistles tooting. Henrietta boarded the Thetis for an emotional reunion in the privacy of Schley’s cabin with the husband she had refused to surrender to a miserable death in the frozen Arctic.
On August 4 a triumphal parade, such as New Hampshire has hardly seen since, wound for hours through the old port city. The festivities were climaxed with an evening rally of speech-making at the Music Hall. Greely and his comrades, under doctor’s orders to rest, did not attend, but among the speakers, much applauded for their successful efforts to rescue the expedition, were Representative Randall, Senator Hale, and Secretary Chandler, a native son of New Hampshire and chairman of the evening. To him fell the duty of reading a brief message from his fellow Cabinet member, the absent Lincoln, who sent curt, proper greetings and thanks to Commander Schley “for his inestimable services to the survivors of Lieutenant Greely’s party.” From Lincoln to Greely and the surviving men—who as Army personnel were his own people—not a word.
This awkward silence was matched by the letter which Greely sent to the rally from his hospital room in Portsmouth Navy Yard. It was read on his behalf to the hushed throng by Henrietta’s brother:
… During our service in the North we tried to do our duty. If in our efforts aught is found of work accomplished or of actions done which touches the heart of the people, we shall feel that our labors and hardships are more than rewarded …