Adolphus Washington Greely MOH

b. 27/03/1844 Newburyport, Massachusetts. d. 20/10/1935 Washington DC.


Adolphus W Greely MOH

Greely was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, on March 27, 1844, the son of John Balch Greeley and Frances Dunn Cobb Greely. He was educated in Newburyport and was an 1860 graduate of Brown High School (now Newburyport High School). After having been rejected twice, on 26 July 1861, he joined the Union Army for the American Civil War, enlisting in the 19th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Over the next two years he worked his way up the enlisted ranks to first sergeant.

On 18 March 1863, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 81st United States Colored Infantry. He was promoted to first lieutenant on 26 April 1864 and to captain on 4 April 1865. After the war he received a brevet promotion to major in recognition of his meritorious service. He was mustered out of the Volunteer Army on 22 March 1867.

During his Civil War service, Greely took part in several battles, including Ball’s Bluff, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. From 1865 to 1867, Greely took part in the post-war occupation of New Orleans. He was commissioned as a second 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. Greely was detailed for service with the Signal Corps from 1871 to 1880, and he was promoted to first lieutenant on 27 May 1873.

With the Signal Corps, which also included the Weather Bureau, Greely was recognized as an expert weather forecaster. His efforts helped establish the floodplains of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers, which facilitated Corps of Engineers flood control projects. In addition, he oversaw planning, construction, and maintenance of several telegraph lines, including lines in remote areas of Indian Territory, Texas, Dakota Territory, and Montana Territory.

In 1881, First Lieutenant Greely was named to command the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. 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 USS Jeannette, lost in the Arctic two years earlier.

The expedition sailed on the steamship SS Proteus. Greely was without previous Arctic experience, but he and his party succeeded in discovering and exploring much of the coast of northwest Greenland. The expedition also crossed Ellesmere Island from east to west, and James B. Lockwood and David Legge Brainard achieved a new “farthest north” record of 83° 23′ 8″ on Lockwood Island. In 1882, Greely sighted a mountain range during a dog sledding exploration to the interior of northern Ellesmere Island and named it the Conger Range. He also sighted the Innuitian Mountains from Lake Hazen.

Greely’s party ran into difficulty when two supply parties failed to reach Greely’s encampment at Fort Conger on Ellesmere Island in 1882 and 1883. In accordance with his instructions, Greely decided in August 1883 to abandon Fort Conger and travel south. His team reached Cape Sabine expecting to find food and equipment left by the supply ships, but these had not been provided. With winter setting in Greely and his men were forced to remain at Cape Sabine with inadequate rations and little fuel.

A rescue expedition, led by Capt. Winfield Scott Schley on USRC Bear (a former whaler built in Greenock, Scotland), was sent to rescue the Greely party. By the time Bear and the ships Thetis and Alert arrived on June 22, 1884, 18 of Greely’s 25 men had perished from starvation, drowning, hypothermia, and, in one case, a gunshot from the execution of a soldier ordered by Greely as punishment for repeatedly stealing food.

In June 1886, Greely was promoted to captain. 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, he oversaw construction, operation, and maintenance of numerous telegraph lines during and after the Spanish–American War, including: Puerto Rico, 800 miles (1,300 kilometers); Cuba, 3,000 mi (4,800 km); and the Philippines, 10,200 mi (16,400 km). Greely also oversaw construction under adverse conditions a telegraph system for Alaska consisting of nearly 4,000 mi (6,400 km) of submarine cables, land cables and 107 mi (172 km) of wireless telegraphy, which at the time was the longest regularly working commercial system in the world. 

Greely’s innovations as Chief Signal Officer led to the Army’s fielding of wireless telegraphy, airplanes, motorized automobiles and trucks, and other modern equipment. He represented the United States at the 1903 International Telegraph Congress in London and the 1903 International Wireless Telegraph Congress in Berlin. As an expert on the telegraph, Greely worked on some of the first international telecommunication treaties.

On February 10, 1906, he was promoted to major general and assigned to command the Pacific Division. In 1906, he commanded the relief effort that followed the San Francisco earthquake. As commander of the Northern Division, Greely was responsible for negotiating an end to the 1905-1906 Ute Rebellion. Greely commanded the Department of the Columbia in 1907. His terminal assignment was commander of the Department of Dakota in late 1907 and early 1908. In 1908, Greely reached the mandatory retirement age of 64.

Greely received the Medal of Honor in 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 was the second person (after Frederick W. Gerber) to receive the award for lifetime achievement rather than for acts of physical courage at the risk of one’s own life.



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