Adolphus Greely

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Chief Signal Officer, U.S. Army
Adolphus Washington Greely
Adolphus Greely in 1887
Born (1844-03-27)March 27, 1844
Newburyport, Massachusetts
Died October 20, 1935(1935-10-20) (aged 91)
Washington, D.C.
Place of burial Arlington National Cemetery
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service 1861 – 1908
Rank Major General
Commands held Chief Signal Officer
Awards Medal of Honor
Charles P. Daly Medal (1922)
Signature Greely A W signature.svg

Adolphus Washington Greely (March 27, 1844 – October 20, 1935), was an American Polar explorer, a United States Army officer and a recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Early military career

Greely was born on 27 March 1844, in Newburyport, Massachusetts.

He began his long and distinguished military career shortly after the outbreak of the American Civil War. On 26 July 1861 he enlisted in the 19th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment at the age of 17, after having been rejected twice before. Over the next two years he worked his way up the enlisted ranks to 1st sergeant.

On 18 March 1863 he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the 81st United States Colored Infantry. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant on 26 April 1864 and to captain on 4 April 1865. After the war he received a brevet (honorary promotion) to major to rank from 13 March 1865 for "faithful and meritorious service during the war". He was mustered out of the Volunteer Army on 22 March 1867.

He was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the 36th Infantry Regiment of the Regular Army on 7 March 1867 and was reassigned to the 5th Cavalry Regiment on 14 July 1869 after the 36th Infantry was disbanded. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant on 27 May 1873.[1]

Lady Franklin Bay Expedition

Steamer Proteus in Arctic 1881
The six survivors of the U.S. Army's Greely Arctic expedition with their U.S. Navy rescuers, at Upernavik, Greenland, 2–3 July 1884. Probably photographed on board the USS Thetis.

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.[2] 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. Another goal of the expedition was to search for any clues of the USS Jeannette, lost in the Arctic two years earlier.[3]

Greely was without previous Arctic experience, but he and his party were able to discover many hitherto 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°23'8".[citation needed]

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

Two consecutive supply parties failed to reach Greely's party encamped at Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island in 1882 and 1883. In accordance with his instructions for this case, Greely decided in August 1883 to abandon Fort Conger and retreat south with his team. They reached Cape Sabine expecting to find food and equipment depots from the supply ships, but these had not been provided. With winter setting in Greely and his men were forced to winter at Cape Sabine with inadequate rations and little fuel.[citation needed]

A rescue expedition, led by Capt. Winfield Scott Schley on the USRC Bear (a former whaler built in Greenock, Scotland), was sent to rescue the Greely party. By the time Bear and ships Thetis and Alert arrived on June 22, 1884, to rescue the expedition, nineteen of Greely's 25-man crew had perished from starvation, drowning, hypothermia, and, in the case of Private Henry, gunshot wounds from an execution ordered by Greely.[4][5]

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.[6]

Stereoscopic image of the Greely expedition exhibition at the Columbian Exposition, 1893

An exhibition on the "Greely expedition" was part of the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and was captured on stereoscopic images.

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 him as Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army with the rank of brigadier general. (The only other Regular Army officer to be promoted directly from captain to brigadier general since the Civil War was John J. Pershing.)[citation needed]

During his 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 (1,300 kilometers); Cuba, 3,000 mi (4,800 km); the Philippines, 10,200 mi (16,400 km). In connection with Alaska, then General Greely had constructed under very adverse conditions a telegraph system of nearly 4,000 mi (6,400 km), consisting of submarine cables, landcables and wireless telegraphy, the latter covering a distance of 107 mi (172 km), which at the time of installation was the longest commercial system regularly working in the world.[citation needed]

In 1906, he served as military commander over the emergency situation created by the San Francisco earthquake. On February 10, 1906, he was promoted to major general and on March 27, 1908, he retired, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 64.[citation needed] In 1911 he represented the United States Army at the coronation of King George V.[citation needed]

On March 21, 1935, a special act of Congress awarded Greely the Medal of Honor in recognition of his long and distinguished career. He is the only person to be awarded the Medal of Honor for "lifetime achievement" rather than for acts of physical courage at the risk of one's own life. His was the second and last award of the Medal of Honor by the Army for non-combat service.[citation needed] (The other was to Charles A. Lindbergh for his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean.[citation needed])

General Greely died on October 20, 1935, in Washington, D.C. and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. His grave can be found in section 1, lot 129 grid N/O-32.5.[7]

Personal life

Greely attended the First Presbyterian Church, Newburyport, and married Henrietta Nesmith in 1878 and with her had six children: Antoinette in 1879, Adola in 1881, John in 1885, Rose in 1887, Adolphus in 1889, and Gertrude in 1891.[8] Henrietta was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and one of the founding vice presidents general of the Children of the American Revolution.

After the Civil War, Greely became a companion of the District of Columbia Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States - a military society composed of Union officers and their descendants. He was also a member of the Sons of the Revolution, the General Society of the War of 1812 and the Grand Army of the Republic.[citation needed]

In 1890, he became a founding member of the District of Columbia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) and was elected as the society's vice president. Upon the death of Admiral David D. Porter in February 1891, Greely became president of the District of Columbia Society of the SAR.[citation needed]

In 1905, he accepted the honor of serving as the first president of The Explorers Club and in 1915, he invited the Italian polar geographer Arnaldo Faustini to the United States for a lecture tour.[citation needed]

Honors and awards

Military decorations and medals:

Medal of Honor citation

General Greely received 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.


For his life of splendid public service, begun on March 27, 1844, having enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army on July 26, 1861, and by successive promotions was commissioned as major general February 10, 1906, and retired by operation of law on his 64th birthday.

Greely's medal was awarded in contradiction to the revised 1916 Army warrant requiring combat action and risk of life "above and beyond the call of duty."[9] However, his medal was the second, and last, 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 WWII the Navy Medal of Honor could be awarded for noncombat actions, reflecting different criteria within the United States armed forces.

Other honors

He was awarded the 1886 Founder's Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his Polar expeditions.[10]

He was awarded an Honorary Fellowship and the Daly Medal by the American Geographical Society in 1922.[11]

On May 28, 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a 22 cent postage stamp in his honor.[12]

USS General A. W. Greely (AP-141)

The USS General A. W. Greely (AP-141), launched November 1944, was named in his honor.

Fort Greely

Big Delta Air Force Base, Alaska, was designated Fort Greely on August 6, 1955, in honor of Major General Adolphus Washington Greely. [13] [14]

Dates of Rank

  • Enlisted, 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry - 26 July 1861
  • 2nd Lieutenant, 81st US Colored Infantry - 18 March 1863
  • 1st Lieutenant, 81st US Colored Infantry - 26 April 1864
  • Captain, 81st US Colored Infantry - 4 April 1865
  • Brevet Major, Volunteers - 13 March 1865
  • Mustered out of Volunteers - 22 March 1867
  • 2nd Lieutenant, 36th Infantry - 7 March 1867
  • 2nd Lieutenant, 5th Cavalry - 14 July 1869
  • 1st Lieutenant, 5th Cavalry - 27 May 1873
  • Captain, 5th Cavalry - 11 June 1886
  • Brigadier General, Chief Signal Officer - 3 March 1887
  • Major General, US Army - 10 February 1906
  • Retired - 27 March 1908 [15]

See also


  • Three Years of Arctic Service (1886)
  • Handbook of Alaska (rev. ed. 1925)
  • Reminiscences of Adventure and Service (1927)
  • The Polar Regions in the Twentieth Century (1928).


  1. Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1789 to 1903. Francis B. Heitman. Vol. 1, pg. 473.
  2. Guttridge, Leonard F. (September 1, 2000). "Ghosts of Cape Sabine: the harrowing true story of the Greely expedition". Arctic Institute of North America of the University of Calgary. Retrieved April 14, 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Berton, Pierre (1988). The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole. Toronto: Random House of Canada Ltd., p. 437
  4. Schley, Winfield S Commander, US Navy [1887] 1884 Greely Relief Expedition Washington Printing Office (via American Libraries)
  6. "American Experience: The Greely Expedition". Retrieved February 1, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Adolphus Greely". Claim to Fame: Medal of Honor recipients. Find a Grave. Retrieved February 12, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "Adolphus W. Greely (1844-1935) Papers, 1844-1871; 1908-1909" (PDF). Peabody Essex Museum. January 2012. Retrieved 2 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Barrett Tillman. Heroes: U.S. Army Medal of Honor recipients. New York: Berkeley, 2006, p. 94
  10. "List of Past Gold Medal Winners" (PDF). Royal Geographical Society. Retrieved 24 August 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. "American Geographical Society Honorary Fellowships" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 26 March 2009. Retrieved March 2, 2009.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Scott catalog # 2221.
  15. Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1789 to 1903. Francis B. Heitman. Vol. 1, pg. 473.

Further reading

  • Abandoned in the Arctic (2009), a documentary film about an attempt to recreate Greely's journey Abandoned in the Arctic web site
  • Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value). Powell, Theodore: "The Long Rescue", W.H. Allen, London, 1961. Ellsberg, Edward: "Hell on Ice", New York, 1936.
  • Todd, A. L. (1961). Abandoned; the story of the Greely Arctic Expedition, 1881-1884. New York: McGraw-Hill. (2001). Abandoned : the story of the Greely Arctic Expedition, 1881-1884. Fairbanks, Alaska: University of Alaska Press. ISBN 1-889963-29-1 <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Robinson, M. F. (2006). The coldest crucible: Arctic exploration and American culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (2006). The coldest crucible : Arctic exploration and American culture. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-72184-1<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links