Eriksmoen: Man of many firsts once lived in Bismarck

In North Dakota, Geography Awareness Week today through Saturday salutes Brig. Gen. Adolphus W. Greely, a former Bismarck resident. Greely was a noted polar explorer, the first director of the Weather Bureau, administrator of the Signal Corps, an...

Adolphus W. Greely
Special to The Forum

In North Dakota, Geography Awareness Week today through Saturday salutes Brig. Gen. Adolphus W. Greely, a former Bismarck resident.

Greely was a noted polar explorer, the first director of the Weather Bureau, administrator of the Signal Corps, and commander of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake relief operation.

He was a founder of the National Geographic Society, the first person in the U.S. Army to have risen from the rank of a volunteer private to major general, and the only person awarded the Medal of Honor for a lifetime of dedication and bravery. Fort Greely, the military installation in Alaska, is named in his honor.

Greely was born March 27, 1844, on a farm near Newberryport, Mass. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Greely enlisted as a private with the Newberryport Rifle Volunteers in April and reported for duty on May 23. In January 1862, Greely was promoted to corporal, the youngest man in his regiment to achieve that rank.

At the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 18, 1862, Greely was shot in the jaw and right leg. He was sent to the U.S. military hospital in Harrisburg, Pa., for six weeks and, shortly after returning to his unit, was awarded a field commission of second lieutenant. In April 1865, Greely was awarded the brevet rank of major and assigned to the 81st Colored Infantry. He remained with them until the conclusion of the war.


When the war ended, Greely enlisted in the regular army as a second lieutenant with the 36th Infantry. He was stationed at Fort Sanders in Wyoming Territory.

In 1868, the U.S. Signal Service was reorganized to form a separate branch of service, the U.S. Signal Corps, and Greely transferred to the new organization. In June, he was assigned as chief of the new U.S. Weather Bureau at Fort Monroe, Va. Under Greely's supervision, Weather Bureau observation posts were established throughout the country and recorded observations were made at standard times every 12 hours. In May 1873, Greely was promoted to first lieutenant.

Greely received orders in September 1873 for a new assignment: link all of the forts in Wyoming Territory with a telegraph system.

Greely's next assignment was to link Fort Abraham Lincoln, through telegraph lines, to Fort Buford in Dakota Territory, and Forts Keogh, Custer and Ellis in Montana Territory. Early in 1875, he moved to Bismarck and completed his work in August of that year.

Greely was then assigned to string a 2,000-mile telegraph network along the Texas-Mexico border. When that task was completed, he established telegraph service between Santa Fe, New Mexico and San Diego.

In June 1878, Greely married Henrietta Nesmith and returned to Bismarck because he was given an order to build a telegraph line from Bismarck to Oregon.

The next year, the U.S. and nine European countries agreed to participate in polar expeditions to set up observation posts in the Arctic and to study meteorological, astronomical and polar magnetic conditions. The U.S. established two posts at Point Barrow, Alaska, and one at Lady Franklin Bay, across the channel from northern Greenland. Greely was named to lead the Lady Franklin expedition, which would take place in the spring of 1881.

Greely selected the 24 men who would accompany him on the expedition. His choice for second in command was Lt. Frederick F. Kislingbury, the man who led a detachment of soldiers on the Standing Rock Reservation in 1876-77 to locate and round up all of the Indian ponies used by Indians in the Battle of the Little Big Horn.


Greely's group met with initial success as his party proceeded farther north than any previous expedition. In the summer of 1882, Greely awaited a supply ship with provisions and medicine, but it never came. Late in 1883, when no relief arrived - and with starvation, illness and injury killing off his men - Greely headed south to make his winter camp. In June 1884, four rescue ships arrived, but only seven men were still alive.

Newspapers such as the Bismarck Tribune wrote, "The story of the Greely expedition is one of heroism, fortitude and perseverance unexcelled in the history of the country. That they lived at all was a miracle. That they retained their sanity is almost unbelievable. It speaks volumes for the kind of man Greely was that he managed to hold his command together and to maintain some sort of discipline." In June 1886, Greely was promoted to captain.

In March 1887, President Grover Cleveland named Greely chief of the Signal Corps of the Army, and he was promoted to brigadier general. During the next 20 years, he was responsible for the construction of thousands of miles of telegraph lines and submarine cables in Alaska, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. On Jan. 13, 1888, Greely and 32 other explorers founded the National Geographic Society.

Greely was promoted to major general in February 1906. Greely retired from the Army on March 27, 1908.

On March 27, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt awarded the Medal of Honor to Greely. Greely died on Oct. 20 of that year and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Information about "Did You Know That" and all three volumes of the book is available at . The column and books are written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen. Reach the Eriksmoens at .

The Eriksmoens will be available for book signings at the Fargo Civic Auditorium from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

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