Member of the Regiment biography for
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 Wars bloodiest battlefields:
Balls 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
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,
Greelys 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 Founders
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
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. Greelys 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. Greelys 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
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 Greelys 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.
Back to main Distinguished Member of the Regiment page
Regimental Special Projects Officer
Greely, circa 1887, shortly after
President Cleveland advanced him to brigadier
general and appointed him Chief Signal Officer.