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Farthest North
Leonard Guttridge's
Ghosts of Cape Sabine

by Caroline Kettlewell

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Earth's Poles remained still mysterious and uncharted beyond the edges of human exploration, the last of the terrestrial unknowns. As such, the Poles exercised an irresistible hold over the imaginations of a small cast of adventurers, men driven by ambition, national pride, restlessness and romance. From 1827, when an English Royal Naval officer led the very first expedition mounted for the express purpose of reaching a Pole (the North) until December 1911, when Roald Amundsen planted Norway's flag at the South, the Poles lured as Earth's last great trophies.

In 1881, an American expedition set sail for Lady Franklin Bay on Ellesmere Island, just north of the Arctic Circle, twenty-five mostly Army men full of high hopes and Polar dreams. Its stated goal was to serve as part of an international year of scientific observation; in truth, its ambition was to bring glory to the Army Signal Corps that mounted it and wrest rights to the record of "farthest North" from the British.

Nearly three years later, a rescue expedition would stumble across what remained of that ambition: seven wasted men huddled in a collapsed tent on a rock-bound, inhospitable coast called Cape Sabine. In the tragic sequence of events that had brought these men to this place and this state, a sorry assortment of bureaucratic wrangling, political sparring, ill-conceived plans and worse judgement was played out against a harsh and unforgiving climate.

Ghosts of
Cape Sabine

Leonard Guttridge
320 pp.
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The ill-fated 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.


Those picking 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.


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