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Greely Expedition


In the summer of 1881 the United States sent two parties, both led by Signal Corps officers, one to Point Barrow, Alaska, and the other to Lady Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island in northern Canada, less than 500 miles from the North Pole. The expedition to Alaska, commanded by 1st Lt. Patrick Henry Ray, spent two relatively uneventful years there. The second party, led by 1st Lt. Adolphus W Greely, met a far different fate. When the scheduled resupply effort failed in 1882, the twenty-five men were left to fend for themselves in the frozen north. A relief expedition the following year, commanded by 1st Lt. Ernest A. Garlington, also failed to reach Greely's party. Garlington, facing a disaster of his own after his vessel sank and most of his supplies were lost, hastily withdrew south, leaving insufficient rations behind to sustain the stranded soldiers. Despite their precarious situation, Greely and his men continued their scientific work. They had also succeeded, during the first year of the expedition, in achieving the "farthest north" up to that time. But their subsequent ordeal was harrowing. When the rescue effort commanded by Capt. Winfield Scott Schley finally found Greely at Cape Sabine in June 1884, where he had retreated south according to plan, only the commander and six others remained alive, one of whom died soon thereafter. Unfortunately, sensational charges of murder and cannibalism initially overshadowed the accomplishments of the expedition.


Greely denied knowledge of such acts and was ultimately exonerated. In 1888 the government published his massive two-volume report, containing a wealth of information about the Arctic. Greely received numerous honors for his work, among them the Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographic Society of London.


He also became a charter member of the National Geographic Society, serving as a vice president and trustee of that organization. The outspoken Hazen publicly criticized Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln for his handling of the Greely affair. When Garlington's rescue mission failed in the fall of 1883, Lincoln had refused to send further assistance that year, leaving Greely and his men to face a third winter in the Arctic. Unwilling to abandon her husband and his men, Greely's wife, Henrietta, aroused public opinion and forced Lincoln to act. The secretary defended his actions in his 1884 annual report and censured Hazen for his criticisms. Ultimately, court-martial proceedings were instituted against the chief signal officer, resulting in a reprimand from President Chester A. Arthur.


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