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Ordeal In The Arctic

June 2024
21min read

As the debate about rescuing them droned on and on, Lieutenant Greely’s men were dying one by one

On Friday, September 14, 1883, black headlines filled the morning editions of American newspapers. The sturdy sealing ship Proteus, veteran of the Arctic seas, had been crushed in the pack ice of the Far North and sunk.

These headlines carried a message of impending tragedy, not for the crew of the Proteus—they had been saved, the papers noted—but for a brave army officer, Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely, and a twenty-five-man team of American Arctic observers. The Proteus had gone down in Kane Basin, between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, with her cargo of winter stores for Greely and his men; the public, aware that a similar relief mission had failed to get through the previous summer, knew that with the destruction of the Proteus the Greely party would be in desperate trouble.

Two years earlier, in the summer of 1881, Greely had left the United States with two other commissioned officers, a contract surgeon, nineteen enlisted men, and two Eskimo sledge drivers. In August they had reached their destination on Lady Franklin Bay, Ellesmere Island (then commonly termed Grinnell Land), a few miles from the coast of northern Greenland and five hundred miles from the North Pole, which no man had yet reached. The base, which Greely named Fort Conger, was the farthest north of a ring of observation stations to be maintained by eleven governments participating in the International Polar Year (actually two years) of 1881–83. The object: to gather and pool all kinds of knowledge of the Arctic as an aid to systematic exploration of the unknown top of the world.

Greely and his men built solid wooden barracks at the fort, and they had brought along supplies for an extended stay. But it had been agreed that in the event no relief appeared by September 1, 1883, the party was to start southward from Lady Franklin Bay, traveling in a small motor launch and three longboats brought along for the purpose. Supplies would be left for them at prearranged points on both the Greenland and Ellesmere shores of Smith Sound, three hundred miles to the south.

No supplementary provisions reached them in the summer of 1882. The drifting ice formed such a thick blockade between Greenland and Ellesmere Island that the supply ship Neptune was unable to make her way through Smith Sound and had to return with her mail and stores undelivered. The Proteus was therefore dispatched the following summer with fresh supplies and an Army party under the command of Lieutenant Ernest A. Garlington. Garlington had been instructed that if ice should halt the Proteus, he was to cache a winter’s supply of stores at the designated points on Smith Sound and then sledge northward to find Greely. Instead, he and his men had lost nearly all the supplies when the Proteus went down, and then fled the Arctic alter reaching their escort vessel, the Yantic.

Greely, of course, knew nothing of all this. Early in August, 1883, with food running low and no ship in sight, he loaded his men, their scientific equipment and records, and their few remaining provisions into the boats, tied the boats together in a string, and set off for Smith Sound.

This was a season of intermittent gales, which drove the party for weeks now east, now west, amid freezing rains and snowstorms. Frequently the men had to draw their frail craft up on the ice floe to escape being crushed. In fact, on September 14, the day the Proteus disaster became known in the United States, they had been adrift for nineteen consecutive days on a floe in the Kane Sea. They were at a latitude of close to eighty degrees north; autumn fog hid the shore; the roaring, grinding pack ice made any attempt to launch the small boats a suicide gamble. And they were heading for a desperately needed cache of stores that wasn’t there.

From Washington, meanwhile, the New York Tribune reported that the news of the Proteus “caused great and general uneasiness among officials of the War and Navy departments today, and some of them appeared to have lost all hope for the rescue of Lieutenant Greely.” A Washington dispatch noted: “Lieutenant Greely’s friends all describe him as a man whose energy and ambition exceed his powers of physical endurance, and this naturally deepens their solicitude for his safety.” In other words, he just might imperil himself and the party he led by foolishly trying to travel too far with inadequate supplies. From Newburyport, Massachusetts, Greely’s boyhood home, where his mother still lived, the press reported that the Proteus disaster “creates the most intense feeling here.”

Before the facts were fully known, newspapers all over the country began blaming, deploring, accusing, and demanding explanations. In the autumn weeks that followed, as the finger-pointing and name-calling continued, the party in peril in the Far North seemed almost forgotten. The press posed some grim questions for which no one had answers: Would Greely push south as planned? Could he make the journey safely, in view of the fact that the Proteus had not been able to penetrate the ice pack? Were his men still in condition for such a hazardous trip? If he reached Smith Sound, what would he do when he found that the Proteus had left no winter stores? Would he perhaps try to cross to the Greenland shore to search for friendly Etah Eskimos with whom he could winter? Or would he try to beat his way back northward to the solid wooden shelter at Lady Franklin Bay? Or would he remain at Smith Sound and hunt out the small, scattered food caches left by earlier American and British expeditions in recent years?

Every man in the country with any experience in the Arctic was interviewed for his speculations on Greely’s fate, and for proposals on what might be done to help him. Some suggested that new ships be sent at once, even if it meant that an autumn rescue mission, finding itself blocked by ice at sea, would have to land and force its way up the mountainous, unmapped Greenland coast into the teeth of the Arctic winter. Of course, most observers said, Garlington should be court-martialed.

Recriminations between the services began to find their way into the newspapers. Army officers claimed the Navy had bungled the job of getting Garlington’s mission ashore. The owners and crew of the Proteus were civilians, naval officers retorted; command responsibility should have been all-Navy, not divided among Army, Navy, and civilian rescuers. Besides, the Navy spokesmen added, a cavalryman like young Garlington belonged out on the western plains fighting Indians; he had no business in command of a seaborne rescue operation. The British press gratuitously suggested, in a superior tone, that the Americans, rookies in Arctic exploration, might best be rescued by civilian sealers from the ports of Halifax, St. John’s, or Dundee.

Amid the uproar, one American, fortunately, remained cool. She was Greely’s exceptionally beautiful wife, Henrietta. At the War Department, Secretary Robert Todd Lincoln—the undistinguished forty-year-old son of the great Civil War President—found this Greely business very trying. He had not been in favor of the expedition in the first place; it had been wished on his department by the outgoing administration. Now, after several days of hesitation, he announced that there would be no further attempt to rescue Greely that year; as for the future, he said nothing.

Henrietta decided to seek help elsewhere. She launched a determined campaign to prod the United States government into trying to save its own servicemen, among them her beloved “Dolph,” father of her two infant girls.

An appealing lobbyist, she quickly found her real friends: several key members of Congress, newspaper editors like her home-town friend Douglas Gunn of the San Diego Union, and Greely’s fellow officers, who believed the government owed to the men it had dispatched to the Arctic a debt on which it could not honorably renege. Steadily, as the weeks passed, these people lighted a series of fires beneath an inert, bureaucratic government still indifferent to Greely’s peril.

To her allies, and through them to the American public, Henrietta expressed deep faith in her husband. If any man could bring a party safely through the Arctic winter, he could, she said. The families of other members of the expedition could take heart. Surely, she urged, the men would survive to greet the relief which the government would, of course, dispatch as early in the coming spring as weather permitted.

For nearly three months Secretary Lincoln appeared to be more interested in crucifying Lieutenant Garlington than in rescuing Lieutenant Greely. A board met promptly to consider Garlington’s fate (it ended by merely criticizing his conduct); but none was called to discuss Greely’s.

While the War Department was castigating their would-be rescuers. Greelv and his men clung to their ice floe. In September the commander ordered that the launch be left behind, and two of the boats had to be abandoned to enable the men to sledge across the ice floes with one boat and their supplies. When a fortuitous wind drove their ice raft close to shore in Smith Sound, they managed on September 29 to reach land on Ellesmere Island after weeks of alternately ferrying and dragging their food and equipment toward the west.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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 …

I must, however, state that never for a moment in our darkest or gloomiest hour did we doubt that the American people were planning for our rescue, through their representatives, all that lay in human power and skill. From day to day, as food failed and men died, that faith and that certainty gave strength to us that lived. I need not tell you what you well know, how the Secretary of the Navy set heart and soul on our relief, and, by imbuing his subordinates with his own indomitable energy, started the relief vessels in an unprecedentedly brief time …

Greely’s praise for Chandler, Schley, and the Navy was unstinted. But he never mentioned the name of the Secretary of War.


*Subordinate in the minds of the relief party and the public at large, but significant for the future, was the recovery of the scientific records that Greely and his men had worked so hard to compile and sacrificed so much to preserve. In addition to precise meteorological data, these included new information on terrestrial magnetism and new maps of Greenland's northern coast virtually proving it an island. Not the least of the expedition's feats was proving also that a party properly equipped and supplied could spend two years safely and comfortably in the Arctic without succumbing to scurvy—until then the scourge of every extended venture into the far north. Greely's voluminous report—and those of other International Polar Year stations—greatly aided Peary and others in later assaults onthe pole.


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