Adolphus Washington Greely
Adolphus Washington Greely was born on March 27, 1844, in Newburyport, Massachusetts. After twice being rejected for military service, Greely enlisted in the U.S. Army at the age of seventeen as a private in the 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He served throughout the Civil War, seeing action in several major battles. He sustained serious wounds on three occasions, and achieved the rank of brevet major of volunteers by the end of the Civil War. In 1886, he joined the regular Army as a second lieutenant in the 36th Infantry. In March 1873, Greely was promoted to first lieutenant in the Cavalry and served mainly in the West and in Washington, D.C.
Greely volunteered and was named head of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition in 1881. The purpose of the expedition was to establish one of a chain of meteorological observation stations as part of the First International Polar Year. In crossing Ellesmere Island, two members of the expedition managed to get farther north, at 83 degrees, 24 minutes north latitude, than any previous attempts.
The expedition established itself for two years of weather observations, at the end of which it made its way on small boats through two-hundred miles of treacherous Arctic waters to its assigned rendezvous with a relief ship, the . Weeks and then months passed, with the party unaware that had been crushed by icebergs. By the time another relief expedition arrived to rescue them, only Greeley and six of the original team had survived: nineteen men had perished from drowning, hypothermia, or starvation. At first Greely was criticized, but he was absolved after an investigation found that he had acted properly. The most definitive story of this remarkable journey can be found in Alden Todd’s book, . Adolphus Greely was promoted to captain in 1886.
In March 1887, President Grover Cleveland appointed Captain Greely as the Chief Signal Officer of the U.S. Army with the rank of brigadier general. During his tenure, nearly twenty-thousand miles of telegraph lines consisting of land cables, submarine cables, and wireless telegraphy were constructed, operated, and maintained by the Army in the U.S., Cuba, Puerto Rico, Alaska, the Philippines, and other locations. General Greely was a delegate to the International Telegraph Conference in London and the International Wireless Telegraph Congress in Berlin in 1903. In 1906, he was promoted to the rank of major general and oversaw the relief operation after the San Francisco earthquake and resultant fire. He retired from the Army two years later.
In January 1888, he joined with thirty-two other explorers and scientists in the founding of the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. General Greely was a frequent contributor to the National Geographic Magazine from the earliest days and lectured on many occasions before SAR members in Washington.
In 1905, Adolphus Greely accepted the honor of serving as the first president of the Explorers Club. In 1922, he was awarded an honorary fellowship and the Daly Medal by the American Geographical Society.
The award of the Medal of Honor presented to Greely, on his ninety-first birthday in 1935, would have been in clear violation of the revised 1916 Army warrant requiring combat action and risk of life “above and beyond the call of duty,” except that it was specifically authorized by a special Act of Congress. His award was the second Army presentation contrary to the combat requirement, as eight years earlier in 1927, the Medal had been presented to Charles Lindbergh, an Army reservist but not on active duty, for his solo transatlantic flight.
General Greely’s SAR National number is 1914 and his District of Columbia Society number is 114. His SAR patriot ancestor, Sergeant Joseph Greely, was a Minuteman who marched to Lexington on the alarm on April 19, 1775, and later contributed supplies to the Continental Troops. Greely’s SAR application shows that he resigned on March 14, 1914. He was “Reinstated April 3, 1935 and made a Member Emeritus by the District of Columbia SAR Board of Management.”
Major General Adolphus W. Greely died on October 20, 1935, at the age of ninety-one, less than a year after being awarded the Medal of Honor. He is buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.