Leadership, valor, mentorship, vision logoMedal of Honor profile: MG Adolphus Greely

For lifelong service to the Signal Corps

Adolphus Washington Greely served most of his long Army career in the Signal Corps. The Signal Corps� fifth Medal of Honor winner was awarded his medal, in fact, by special act of Congress for that service, joining the elite ranks of Richard Byrd, Floyd Bennett and Charles Lindbergh as the only people to receive a Medal of Honor as a �special legislation� award.

Greely was born March 27, 1844, and enlisted in 1861 at age 17 in 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He saw action on some of the Civil War�s bloodiest battlefields: Ball�s Bluff, Antietam and Fredericksburg. He was wounded three times. In fact, at Antietam he was shot in the face and seriously wounded; historians think this wound was the reason Greely wore a big, bushy beard.

After rising from private to sergeant in 19th Massachusetts, Greely accepted a commission in 1863 in 81st Colored Troops. By the end of the Civil War, Greely was a brevet major of volunteers, and from 1856 to 1867 commanded black troops in the occupation of New Orleans.

In 1867 Greely was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Regular Army and was assigned to 36th Infantry. Stationed in the West (Fort Sanders, Wyo., and Fort Douglas, Utah), in his off-time he studied telegraphy and electricity. Also in 1867, he was detailed into the Signal Corps and served under GEN Eugene Carr during the 1869 Nebraska campaign against the Cheyenne Indians. He also saw duty at Fort Laramie, Wyo.

In 1870 Greely was assigned to Washington, D.C. His new duty was to help BG Albert Myer, founder of the Signal Corps, organize the U.S. Weather Bureau. From 1872 to 1873 Greely collected data and designed methods for the River and Flood Service. He became known as an adept meteorologist.

After serving as a �troubleshooter� in the construction of frontier telegraph lines, Greely volunteered in 1881 to lead an Arctic weather expedition. On a three-year stint to Ellesmere Island near the North Pole, Greely�s party amassed a great deal of data on Arctic weather and tidal conditions but was almost wiped out when relief ships failed to reach them for two successive summers. Eventually absolved of any culpability for his command of the expedition, Greely was recognized for his accomplishments. In 1886 he received the Founder�s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society of London and the Roquette Medal of the Societe de Geographie of Paris. In 1923 the American Geographical Society finally awarded him the Charles P. Daly Medal.

Greely Arctic Expedition 1881 Stereoscopic photograph taken by H.W. Kilburn of Greely's 1881 expedition to the Arctic. The photograph was later displayed at the Columbia Exposition. H.W. Kilburn was one of the family firm the Kilburn Brothers, who spent their lives in the field of photography. The Kilburn brothers were a branch of the family Kilbourne, according to Kilbourne family historian Jim Kilburn, and were related to MG Charles Kilbourne, the Medal of Honor recipient. Kilbourne wrote a series of four books titled An Army Boy in Alaska, which in fiction depicts Greely's real-life adventures.

While in the Arctic, Greely missed a promotion to captain but made that rank in June 1886. Then in March 1887, President Grover Cleveland advanced Greely from captain to brigadier general with his appointment as Chief Signal Officer as then-CSO BG William Hazen�s health failed. Greely served as CSO for the next 19 years. Greely reportedly was the �first volunteer private soldier of the Civil War to reach Regular Army general officer rank.�

Adolphus Washington Greely Greely in 1887, shortly after President Grover Cleveland advanced him to brigadier general and appointed him Chief Signal Officer.

As CSO, Greely fought and won the political battle to save the Signal Corps� very existence. He was responsible for many reforms in the Corps, including streamlining the Weather Bureau until its transfer in 1891 to the Department of Agriculture. Greely�s innovation led to the military use of wireless telegraphy, the airplane, the automobile and other modern devices. Representing the United States at the International Telegraph Congress in London and the International Wireless Telegraph Congress in Berlin in 1903, Greely worked to involve the United States in international agreements on communications.

After directing the Signal Corps through the Spanish-American War, he was promoted to major general in February 1906. He then was assigned to command the Pacific Division. Greely coordinated the relief activities in San Francisco during the earthquake and fire of 1906. As commander of the Northern Division, he negotiated an end to the Ute Rebellion of 1905-1906. Greely�s last assignment was commander of the Department of the Columbia.

Greely was retired for age (he was 64) in 1908. After a trip around the world, he helped found the National Geographic Society and the first free public library in Washington, D.C. He was active in many fraternal and service organizations.

On his 91st birthday, March 27, 1935, Greely was presented with a special Medal of Honor �for his life of splendid public service.� He died the following October and was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

One biographer believed Greely was �perhaps the foremost example of the small but important group of soldier-scientist-adventurers who led the nation into the 21st century.� When Greely died, acting Secretary of War Henry Woodring summarized Greely�s career: �The career of General Greely is a striking example of the contributions a soldier may make to civilization. The army salutes a brave comrade, a great leader, a distinguished scientist, a devoted servant of Republic.�

The Signal Regiment inducted Greely as a Distinguished Member in 1998.

Acronym quickscan
CSO � Chief Signal Officer

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