Lady Franklin Bay expedition (ironically, the bay was named in
honor of the wife of another Arctic explorer whose expedition
had come to grief) is the subject of Leonard F. Guttridge's Ghosts
of Cape Sabine. Guttridge, the author of several books on
naval history and arctic exploration, ably moves back and forth
between the expedition itself, riven by personal animosities
and diminishing confidence in its leader (Lieutenant Adolphus
Greely of the Signal Corps), and a fatal indifference on the
part of the U.S. government.
The twenty-five men of the expedition were left 1,100 miles
north of the Arctic Circle, comfortably housed and well-supplied.
Their understanding was that relief ships would resupply them
for at least two successive years. In the event that neither
relief should reach them (due to the unpredictable conditions
of far northern waters, where ice might bar passage in any season),
the party was to set forth southward to meet relief at a pre-designated
rendezvous where ample supplies would supposedly be cached. Laid
out mostly by Greely, the plan stated in plain terms that no
deviation should be considered or allowed.
As Guttridge illustrates, through an exhaustively researched,
widely dissipated record of letters, diary entries, court documents
and official government correspondence, each of the relief efforts
was a complete disaster, hampered by Greely's orders, poor organization
and the government's paralysis of opposition and apathy. The
ships never made it anywhere close. One sank with all its provisions
still on board. The others, unable to reach Greely, followed
the letter of their orders and returned home with virtually all
their relief provisions as well.
And so, at the end of the second summer, Greely (to the dismay
and near-mutinous objection of most of his party, who considered
his plan madness) duly ordered the abandonment of safe and still
reasonably well-provisioned Fort Conger in favor of a perilous
and uncertain passage southward through ice-choked waters. After
seven grueling weeks, most of them spent drifting helplessly
with the ice, they found no relief and no supplies and at last
were forced to hunker down on unwelcoming Cape Sabine, in a grim,
hastily-constructed stone shelter, where they would spend the
long, bitter winter slowly dwindling in number from cold and
starvation. Their troubles were compounded by personal animosities--many
of them, disastrously, between Greely and his men--that at moments
bordered on the homicidal. And when the third and final relief
expedition discovered the survivors, it was found that some among
the dead, hastily interred in shallow, gravelly graves, had been
subjected to post-mortem depredations--in short, cannibalized.
up Guttridge's book in search of a rousing tale of Arctic exploration
may be disappointed. Though the Greely party engaged in a series
of sledging expeditions, laid claim to a new record of "farthest
North" and kept extensive scientific records, these details
are not the focus of the book and get brief attention.
Instead, Guttridge's engrossing work is a minute accounting
of the long and painful denouement of poorly-laid plans, compounded
by bureaucratic indifference. Guttridge points out, for example,
that only one in the expedition (the doctor, who quickly grew
to loathe his commander and wrote in his diary, "If he could
read my thoughts, he certainly must have read all the contempt
I have for his person.") had any Arctic experience at all.
The Greely party, writes Guttridge, "had no idea how cruelly
the Arctic could play games with them."
From expedition diary entries, Guttridge paints the excruciating
toll taken by isolation, darkness, cold and hunger. "Most
of us are out of our right minds," one member of the expedition
scrawled. They were reduced to eating their own shoes and clothes.
Of the seven survivors, one was found to have nothing but suppurating
stumps left at the end of both legs, the result of severe frostbite;
having held out so long, he died on the passage home.
From the records of proceedings at home in the U.S., Guttridge
draws a picture of a nearly criminal abandonment of the party
on the part of the government, and an "inclination...to
foreswear responsibility." When, a tardy five months after
Greely's departure, the Signal Corps at last began planning the
first relief expedition, referring to Greely's "understanding"
that a ship would be coming to him, Secretary of War Robert Todd
Lincoln undermined the request for funds with an airy "I
know of no such understanding." As expectations for the
fate of the Greely party grew more dire with each passing year,
Guttridge writes, those at home connected with it grew more frantic
in their efforts to lay responsibility for the debacle at anyone
else's door. Each of the three attempts to reach the Arctic party
was cobbled together amidst rancorous dissent among those responsible
for its assembly.
Guttridge largely refrains from commentary and instead allows
the historical record to tell its own painful tale in the voices
of the men who took part. The book becomes less a survival story
than an object lesson in the way that a series of individual
bad decisions on the part of many players can compound each other
into disaster--a story that has its echoes in modern tragedies
like the Challenger explosion and the Waco tragedy. If, historically
speaking, the Greely party is little more than a footnote in
the annals of Arctic exploration, nevertheless in Guttridge's
book, it is brought powerfully to life once again in all its
human folly and ambition, tragedy and hope.