Adolphus Washington Greely was born March 27, 1844, in Newburyport, Massachusetts.
He entered the United States Army at the age of 17, after having been rejected twice before.
Greely achieved the rank of brevet Major by the end of the Civil War. He then joined the regular Army in 1866 as a Second Lieutenant of Infantry, becoming a First Lieutenant in 1873.
He married Henrietta Nesmith in 1878.
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. Another goal of the expedition was to search for any clues of the USS Jeannette, lost north of Ellesmere Island. 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″.
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.
Two consecutive supply parties failed to reach Greely’s party encamped at Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island in 1882 and 1883. In accordance with prior instructions, 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.
A rescue expedition, led by Capt. Winfield Scott Schley, the USRC Bear, a former whaler built in Greenock, Scotland, was sent to rescue the Greely party.
By the time the Bear, along with 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 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.
In June 1886, he 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.
During his tenure as Chief Signal Officer of the Army, military telegraph lines were constructed, operated and maintained during the Spanish American War.
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 of installation was the longest commercial system regularly working in the world.
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.
On February 10, 1906, he was promoted to Major General.
On April 18, 1906, Greely served as military commander over the emergency recovery from the San Francisco earthquake.
Then March 27, 1908, Greely reached the mandatory retirement age of 64.
In 1911 he represented the United States Army at the coronation of King George V.
Greely was awarded an Honorary Fellowship and the Daly Medal by the American Geographical Society in 1922.
Congressional Medal of Honor
Adolphus Greely received the Medal of Honor March 21, 1935.
Rank and organization: Major General, U.S. Army, retired.
Medal of Honor Citation:
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.” 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.
Adolphus Greely died October 20, 1935, in Washington, D.C. and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.
The USS General A. W. Greely (AP-141), launched November 1944, was named in his honor.
Big Delta Air Force Base, Alaska, was designated Fort Greely on August 6, 1955, in honor of Major General Adolphus Washington Greely.
On May 28, 1986, the United States Postal Service issued a 22 cent postage stamp in his honor.
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