Regimental Division,
Office Chief of Signal

United States Army Signal Center, Fort Gordon, GA
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Header insignia for Distinguished Member biography pageDistinguished Member of the Regiment biography for

MG Adolphus W. Greely

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.

Enlisting in 1861 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. 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. In his spare time he studied telegraphy and electricity. In 1867 he was detailed into the Signal Corps and served under GEN Eugene Carr during the 1869 Nebraska campaign against the Cheyenne Indians. 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 adverse criticism 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.

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. He served in that capacity for the next 19 years. Greely reportedly was the "first volunteer private soldier of the Civil War to reach Regular Army general officer rank."

As Chief Signal Officer, Greely fought and won the political battle to save the Signal Corps’ very existence. He was responsible for numerous reforms in the Corps, including the operation of 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. A 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 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 MG Greely as a Distinguished Member in 1998.

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MG Adolphus Greely
Greely, circa 1887, shortly after President Cleveland advanced him  to brigadier general and appointed him Chief Signal Officer.

Last modified on:
April 04, 2012

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