Adolphus Washington Greely

Adolphus Washington Greely

Greely, Adolphus Washington, 1844-1935, American army officer and arctic explorer, b. Newburyport, Mass. Entering the Union army at 17, he emerged a brevet major of volunteers at the end of the Civil War. In 1881, as a lieutenant in the regular army, Greely was given command of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition to establish one of a chain of international circumpolar meteorological stations. Although he was without previous arctic experience, he and his party performed notable feats of exploration; many hitherto unknown miles along the coast of NW Greenland were added to the map, Ellesmere Island was crossed from east to west, and Lt. James B. Lockwood achieved a new northern record of 83°24'. Relief ships failed to reach Greely's party encamped at Cape Sabine; when the third relief vessel arrived in 1884, all but Greely and six others had perished from starvation, drowning, or exposure. The survivors themselves were near death, and one died on the homeward journey. Greely's account of his tragic polar expedition is Three Years of Arctic Service (1886); another record is the diary of David L. Brainard, published as Six Came Back (ed. by B. R. James, 1940). The Congressional Medal of Honor was awarded him in 1935. His writings include Handbook of Alaska (rev. ed. 1925) and The Polar Regions in the Twentieth Century (1928).

See his autobiographical Reminiscences of Adventure and Service (1927); biography by W. Mitchell (1936).

Adolphus Washington Greely (1844–1935), born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, was an American Polar explorer, a United States Army officer and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Early military career

Greeley entered the United States Army at the age of seventeen, after having been rejected twice before, and achieved the rank of brevet Major by the end of the Civil War. Greely joined the regular Army in 1866 as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry. In 1873, Greely was promoted to First Lieutenant.

Lady Franklin Bay Expedition

In 1881, First Lieutenant Greely was given command of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition on the ship Proteus. Promoted by Henry W. Howgate, its purpose was to establish one of a chain of meteorological-observation stations as part of the First International Polar Year. The expedition also was commissioned by the US government to collect astronomical and polar magnetic data, which was carried out by the astronomer Edward Israel who was part of Greely's crew.

Greely was without previous Arctic experience, but he and his party were able to discover hitherto many unknown miles along the coast of northwest Greenland. The expedition also crossed Ellesmere Island from east to west and Lt. James B. Lockwood and David L. Brainard achieved a new "farthest north" record of 83°24'.

In 1882, Greely sighted a mountain range during a dog sleding exploration to the interior of northern Ellesmere Island and named them the Conger Range. He also sighted the Innuitian Mountains from Lake Hazen.

Two relief ships failed to reach Greely's party encamped at Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island. Thanks to the persistence of Greely's wife, Henrietta, the search was never abandoned. The ship called the Bear, built in Greenock, Scotland, first used as a whaler, was purchased by the U.S. to rescue the Greely party. By the time the Bear, and the ship Thetis arrived on June 22, 1884 to rescue the expedition (which by then had painstakingly relocated to Cape Sabine) 19 of Greely's 25-man crew had perished from starvation, drowning, hypothermia, and in one case, gunshot wounds from an execution ordered by Greely.

Greely and the other survivors were themselves near death; one of the survivors died on the homeward journey. The returning survivors were venerated as heroes, though the heroism was tainted by sensational accusations of cannibalism during the remaining days of low food. The story of this remarkable journey has been published numerous times, the most definitive of which is Abandoned: The Story of the Greely Arctic Expedition 1881-1884, written by Alden Todd. On his rescue, see Stephen K. Stein, "The Greely Relief Expedition and the New Navy" (International Journal of Naval History, December 2006).

Later career

In June 1886, Greely was promoted to Captain after serving twenty years as a Lieutenant and, in March 1887, President Grover Cleveland appointed Captain Greely as Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army with the rank of Brigadier General.

During General Greely's tenure as Chief Signal Officer of the Army, the following military telegraph lines were constructed, operated and maintained during the Spanish American War: Puerto Rico, 800 miles ; Cuba, 3,000 miles ; the Philippines, 10,200 miles. In connection with Alaska, then General Greely had constructed under very adverse conditions a telegraph system of nearly 4,000 miles, consisting of submarine cables, landcables and wireless telegraphy, the later covering a distance of 107 miles, which at the time was of installation was the longest commercial system regularly working in the world.

In 1906, Greely found himself serving as military commander over the emergency situation created by the San Francisco earthquake. In 1908, Greely retired from the Army as a Major General, having been promoted to that rank in 1906.

Personal life

Greely married Henrietta Nesmith in 1878.

In 1905, Greely accepted the honor of serving as The Explorers Club's first president.

In 1915, Greely invited the Italian polar geographer Arnaldo Faustini to the United States for a lecture tour.

Greely attended the First Presbyterian Church, Newburyport.


He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1935. Rank and organization: Major General, U.S. Army, retired. Place and date: ----. Entered service at: Louisiana. Born: March 27, 1844, Newburyport, Mass. G.O. No.: 3, W.D., 1935. Act of Congress, March 21, 1935.

Greely's medal was awarded in clear violation of the revised 1916 Army warrant requiring combat action and risk of life "above and beyond the call of duty." However, his Medal was the second Army presentation contrary to the combat requirement, as Charles Lindbergh (an Army reservist not on active duty) received the award for his solo transatlantic flight eight years before, in 1927. Until after WW II the Navy Medal of Honor could be awarded for noncombat actions, reflecting different criteria within the United States armed forces.

On May 28, 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a 22 cent postage stamp in his honor.

See also


  • Three Years of Arctic Service (1886)
  • Handbook of Alaska (rev. ed. 1925)
  • The Polar Regions in the Twentieth Century (1928).


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