Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Death of a Hero

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Death of a Hero

By Adolphus Washington Greely (1844–1935)

[Born in Newburyport, Mass., 1844. Died in Washington, D.C., 1935. Three Years of Arctic Service. 1886.]

NEAR midnight of April 6th, Sergeant Rice and Private Frederick started southward to Baird Inlet. They went to attempt the recovery of the hundred pounds of English beef which had been abandoned in November, 1883. Such abandonment, it will be remembered, was necessary to save the life of Sergeant Elison, then dangerously frost-bitten. The journey had been proposed by the two men about the middle of March, but I had persistently objected to it, foreseeing the great chances of a fatal result. The men, however, represented to me the desperate straits to which we were reduced, the value of the meat if obtained, their confidence in their ability to find the cache, and the certainty of their strength being sufficient for the journey. They asked but one favor, that they be permitted to make the attempt on the same ration as that issued to the general party—four ounces of meat and four ounces of bread daily. In such case they said no injury could result to the party in the event of failure. The provisions might be increased, they could not be diminished.

At first I refused to countenance the attempt, but as the days passed and the strength of the party waned, and death to some seemed imminent, I felt the necessity of yielding. I accordingly decided on the trip, and fixed April 1st as the day of departure, provided the weather was good and our prospects not improved. The success of our hunters, Long and Jens, in obtaining birds, on March 27th, awakened hopes that the journey would not be necessary, and the departure was consequently postponed. Early April brought no relief, and game again failed. Christiansen’s death decided me. I no longer hesitated, but gave the final orders. The orders were verbal. Detailed instructions to such men on such an errand would have been unwise, if not culpable. Rice was regarded naturally as the leader of the forlorn hope, and to him the orders were given simply to go and do the best he could. I, however, cautioned him particularly against over-exertion, knowing his great ambition and fearing for his strength. He had not been well on Thursday, and I had asked him to be fair and candid, so that I might not send a sick and unfit man on so trying and dangerous a journey. I told him that Sergeant Brainard, ever willing and anxious to serve us all, had expressed more than willingness to go in his stead. He on Sunday noon came into my sleeping-bag, and had a long talk over the situation. Rice declared that he had recovered entirely from his indisposition, insisted that he was as strong as Brainard, and that the duty should come to him, not only as the originator, but on account of his knowledge of the locality and his familiarity with the appearance of the ice as gained from two trips to Isabella.

In order to avoid the long detour through Rice Strait, he decided to go direct across Bedford Pim Island.

The sledge, loaded in the morning, was hauled during the day to the crest of the island by Lieutenant Kislingbury, Brainard, Ellis, and Whisler. They returned about 6 P.M., thoroughly exhausted by their labors. Whisler was much bruised from frequent falls on the glacier by which they had descended.

After a final consultation with me, Rice, in default of other sleeping-place, his bag being with the sledge, crept in with his comrade, Lynn, who had just died. He slept for a short time with the dead, unconscious that in a few hours he, too, would pass away.

When Rice and Frederick started, our hearts were almost too full for utterance, but we managed to send after them a feeble cheer, that they might know our prayers and Godspeed were with them on their perilous journey. Their outfit, though our best, was simple: A rough, common sledge (the one brought back by the rescuing squadron), a two-man sleeping-bag, a rifle, an axe, an alcohol-lamp, and a small cooking-pot. No tent was available; nor had there been, would their enfeebled condition have permitted them to haul it. For food, very much against their inclination, I increased the daily ration to six ounces of bread and six of pemmican, with a small allowance of tea. A cooking-ration of five ounces daily of alcohol was granted, and for medicinal purposes, if needed, a small quantity of rum and spirits of ammonia and a few pills were added.

The details of the journey, told us in simple, touching words by Frederick on his return, were substantially as follows:

The temperature was –8 (–22.2° C.) when they started. On reaching the summit of the island, where the sledge awaited them, a heavy gale was experienced. The descent into Rosse Bay was made through much deep snow, and the enfeebled men frequently pitched headlong into a drift, from which they always emerged breathless and exhausted. At last the ice in the bay was reached; but, contrary to their hopes, the wind increased and drifting snow filled the air. Struggling on as long as they could, they were finally compelled, about 8 A.M. of the 7th, to camp.

The high wind and blinding snow rendered the lighting of the lamp for tea impossible, and so, without drink of any kind, they stretched their sleeping-bag on the ice, and, taking a few ounces of frozen pemmican, crawled into it for rest. They were confined to the bag for twenty-two hours by a violent storm, which buried them completely with snow. About 6 A.M. of the 8th they got out of their bag, but were too cold to cook until they had travelled an hour. A warm meal, with tea, refreshed them very much, as they had been nearly thirty-six hours without drink. About 7 P.M. that evening dark and blustering weather drove them to camp. Their sledge was drawn up between a large iceberg and the face of Alfred Newton glacier. The morning of April 9th broke calm and clear, and an hour’s travel brought them to our old camp at Eskimo Point. Being within six miles of the place where the meat had been cached, they decided to drop their sleeping-bag and a portion of their rations, expecting, with their lightened sledge, to reach the meat and return in one march.

Frequently open pools of water around the grounded icebergs caused long detours. At times the tidal overflow wet their feet, and their foot-gear froze solid the instant they touched the dry ice. To add to their misfortunes, about 11 A.M. a strong northwest gale sprang up, with drifting snow, which tended to chill and exhaust them. In a short time they were unable to see any considerable distance. Struggling on, by 3 P.M. they had reached the place where the meat had been abandoned; but, notwithstanding a very careful and extended search, they were unable to find any traces of it. No signs of their old sledge-tracks could be seen, and from the appearance of the place they inclined to the conclusion that the ice had broken up and moved out since their last trip the preceding autumn. Frederick at this juncture proposed that they return to their sleeping-bag, and resume the search on the morrow. Rice favored remaining, hoping it would soon clear and that the meat would be found. About 4 P.M. Frederick noticed indications of weakness in Rice, and reminded him of their mutual agreement to give timely warning of approaching exhaustion so as to avert disaster. Rice said that if they travelled a little slowly he would soon be rested, but in a short time he showed such signs of exhaustion that Frederick called a halt, and gave him a quantity of spirits of ammonia in rum until some tea could be cooked. After warm food and drink, Frederick in vain urged him to start to avoid freezing. His condition had now become alarming. He was too weak to stand up, and his mind continually reverted to home, relatives, and friends, and to the pleasures of the table in which he intended to indulge on his return. At the same time he appeared to realize his critical condition, and gave detailed instructions regarding his manuscripts and personal effects.

In the meantime Frederick did all possible for him. Although a driving storm of wind and snow, with a temperature of 2° (–16.7° C.), as shown by our camp records, prevailed, he stripped himself of his temiak (jumper), in which to wrap poor Rice’s feet. In his shirt-sleeves, sitting on the sledge, he held his dying comrade in his arms until a quarter of eight, when Rice passed away. Save the last half hour, this time was enlivened, as far as it could be, by cheerful jocoseness and lively remarks, in which Rice and Frederick had always indulged. It must not be thought a mockery, for death had been looked so long in the face that he had no terror for most of the party, and killing the present by distracting the mind had become a second nature to many of us. Frederick’s condition may be more readily imagined than described. Starved by slow degrees for months, weakened by his severe and exhausting labors, chilled nearly to numbness, he was alone on an extended ice-field with his dead comrade. His sleeping-bag was miles from him, and to reach it he must struggle against a cutting blast filled with drifting snow. Such a march might well daunt the strong and hearty, but to that weak, starving man it must have seemed torture and destruction. For a moment, he said, he thought he must lie down and die; it was the easiest thing to do. But then came to him the recollection of his starving comrades, who awaited his return with eagerness and hope. If he came not, some of those behind, he well knew, would venture forth and risk their lives to learn tidings or bring succor. Thus thinking he turned away from the dead to return to us, the living.

He reached Eskimo Point and his sleeping-bag too weak to open it until he had laid down a while and revived himself by a mixture of ammonia and rum. Recovering strength and vitality by sleep and a little food, he was unwilling to return to us until he had buried Rice, and to cover his comrade with snow and ice he walked ten or twelve miles over the floe.

Frederick’s return to us was a marvel of forethought, energy, and endurance. Dragging his sledge as far each march as his feebleness would permit, he took a little food, and getting into his bag drank a spoonful of ammonia and rum, which enabled him to sleep. As soon as he awoke, benumbed and stiff, he immediately got out of his bag, travelled on until he was thoroughly warmed up, then prepared tea and food, and marched on as far as possible. In this way he managed to bring back to us everything hauled out; and, astonishing to say, he turned in Rice’s rations, having done this work on the food allotted.