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The Greely Expedition Plants the Flag ‘Farthest North’

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Buddy Levy relates an inspiring and harrowing tale in Labyrinth of Ice, his account of the Greely Expedition of 1881-1884.

The expedition was a maritime venture carried out by a ground force, the U.S. Army. In the brief Arctic summer of 1881 a multinational company of soldiers commanded by Lt. Adolphus Greely, a native of Newburyport, Mass., steamed northward from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Lady Franklin Bay, an inlet along the east coast of Ellesmere Island. Ellesmere lies west of northern Greenland across a narrow sea.

Adolphus Greely

There the adventurers constructed Ft. Conger, the northernmost encampment in the world at the time. Their chief goal was scientific research. Commander Greely’s ulterior goal, or personal “grail,” was to plant the U.S. flag “Farthest North,” breaking a centuries-old British record. If possible he wanted to reach the North Pole.

The Greely Expedition

The explorers indeed eclipsed the British record by a few miles. They mapped much of the region for the first time and conducted painstaking scientific observations. They also endured sunless winters lasting over 130 days, fraught with almost unimaginable cold and hardship. During November 1881, for example—before the worst of the long night set in—temperatures averaged -240 F.

The Greely Expedition’s accomplishments and derring-do at Ft. Conger constitute the inspiring part of the story. The back half of the book relates the harrowing part. The summer of 1881 was mild by Arctic standards, permitting the expedition to reach Lady Franklin Bay with little trouble.

But the summers of 1882 and 1883 were unusually severe. Ice kept resupply ships planned for each summer from getting through. In 1882 the lead vessel, Proteus, found itself icebound and crushed—compelling its crew to undertake a hazardous getaway to the south.

Greely opted to evacuate Ft. Conger in 1883 rather than try to wait out another long night. His orders directed him to retreat south that summer, while stores were starting to run low. The party managed to reach a designated rendezvous point at Cape Sabine, far to the south, yet was forced to improvise shelter to await a third relief expedition that might never come.


Salvation did come in 1884—for some of Greely’s party. By then 18 soldiers had succumbed to starvation or the elements. Seven survived, including Greely himself. Barely: physicians on scene testified that the rest would have perished within a day or two had ships not anchored off Cape Sabine when they did.

Si survivors of the Greely expedition with their rescuers

Such a nick-of-time rescue would never pass muster in Hollywood.

The survivors received a hero’s welcome in Portsmouth, N.H., where the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic squadron and flagship gathered to greet them. Afterward Greely and fellow survivors heatedly denied speculation that members of the party had cannibalized fallen comrades. While press sensationalism tarnished the expedition’s reputation to a degree, Congress eventually awarded Greely a seldom-seen peacetime Medal of Honor—the U.S. armed forces’ supreme decoration for valor.

Lessons Learned

Levy leaves the lessons from the Greely Expedition mostly implicit, but they stand out for all that. First and foremost, to describe the far north as forbidding operating grounds constitutes an epic understatement. Natural barriers obstruct human movement on a colossal scale. For instance, Greely’s band encountered one ice floe 15 miles long. It took nine hours to pass while drifting southward.

The ill-fated Proteus

The icy north’s fickle dynamism is likewise striking. Ice floes were perpetually in motion. Seafarers watched for “leads,” or narrow sea lanes, to open as bergs jostled against one another. Sometimes a lane would open, then—as with the luckless Proteus—close around a ship like a vise. On one occasion the soldiers confronted a seemingly impassable iceberg, only to discover a fortuitous narrow cleft through the berg and make their getaway. Another Hollywood moment.

Second, Levy’s account arouses historical vertigo. For instance, the late 19th century was not that long ago, yet cartographers speculated that an “open polar sea” lay beyond a rim of ice. The top of the world was a tropical paradise! The Greely Expedition helped dispel such fancies. The book shows that the past is a foreign country, in earth science as in so many disciplines.

Third, logistics, bureaucracy and politics were pivotal and intermingled. The expedition was an army affair, but Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln saw Arctic exploration as a waste. Lincoln dithered constantly, delaying the 1882 and 1883 relief missions while encumbering their prospects for success.

Henrietta Greely

Levy casts Henrietta Greely, Adolphus’ well-connected San Diego wife, as a hero of the story. Working through press and government contacts, Mrs. Greely shamed the U.S. government into mounting a third relief effort—an effort orchestrated by the U.S. Navy when many thought hope for rescuing Greely and his men was forlorn.

Henrietta Greely

Professional mariners took great trouble to outfit ships capable of withstanding pressure from ice floes. And they got moving. The navy flotilla set out in time to reach Cape Sabine early in the summer of 1884, helped by Queen Victoria’s loan of a suitable Royal Navy ship. No more dawdling.

Warming Seas

And lastly, some years ago the U.S. Navy’s chief oceanographer forecast that warming temperatures will cause the polar icepack to advance and recede with the seasons. (For more on Arctic strategy click here.) Warming will open Arctic sea routes to shipping on a more regular basis, but it could accent the geophysical dynamism Buddy Levy documents so vividly, making navigation even more perilous.

Labyrinth of Ice, then, furnishes a historical baseline for seafarers—and New Englanders with a nautical bent—to think about northern operations in the coming years and decades.

Adolphus Greely, safe at home with his family.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and the author, coauthor, or coeditor of ten books and hundreds of shorter works. An archive of his works can be found at https://navaldiplomat.com/.

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