Art Beat: UK historian says Lt. Greely had black soldiers killed, eaten

Mike Dunham
U.S. National Archives via PBS

Last month in this column, I resolved to read less nonfiction and more fiction. I didn't know fulfillment would come so quickly -- and between the covers of the same book.

British naval historian Andrew Lambert's "The Gates of Hell" (Yale University Press, 2009) is a rambling, repetitive addition to the great pile of books about John Franklin, an arctic explorer who vanished in the Canadian archipelago in the 1840s.

Lambert's thesis is that Franklin did not die trying to find the Northwest Passage, as is often said, but in a quest for magnetic data; that the tragedy was twisted by his heirs and the British government in ways that would drive other explorers and millions of English soldiers to their deaths in the early 20th century; that the link between those deaths and the "cardboard image" of Franklin manufactured by the late Victorians unfairly caused posterity to discount his achievements as a leader, scientist and humanitarian.

Lambert disdained writers who offer spurious hypotheses and unprovable theories to churn up sensationalism. "Historians should check that their evidence would stand up in a court of law," he chided.

So true.

But my hooey alarm went off when the book turned to the 1881 expedition led by U.S. Army lieutenant Adolphus Greely, namesake of the military base near Delta Junction. Greely's party, Lambert writes, "survived by resorting to cannibalism in a very military fashion. The black soldiers were eaten first, then the white, and then the officers by rank" (p. 303).

That cannibalism occurred during Greely's expedition is amply supported by forensics and testimony. But "Gates of Hell" is the first place I've read about the "military fashion" in which it was conducted. It's also the first time I've heard of any black soldiers in the rolls.

In his footnotes Lambert attributes this information to "The Coldest Crucible" by American historian Michael Robinson. I checked it out, but found no mention of black soldiers or the selection of enlisted men as aperitifs and officers as entrees. I emailed Robinson to ask whether I had missed something. He confirmed that there were no blacks on the expedition and referred me to British historian Leonard Guttridge's thorough account of the expedition, "Ghosts of Cape Sabine," which likewise said nothing concerning cannibalization by rank. Robinson also directed me to photos of the explorers, none of whom appear to have been African-American insofar as the camera can be trusted.

I emailed Lambert, a much-published professor of naval history at King's College London and something of a celebrity on made-for-television maritime documentaries, asking him to confirm his source for the claim. His reply wasn't very convincing.

"The evidence is in the expedition report," he said, "particularly the sequence in which the men 'died' or were 'executed' for disciplinary reasons. While Greely was hardly going to write that he had done so, the rank of the survivors suggests clear discrimination."

But the list of seven survivors includes four privates, two sergeants (one of whom died shortly after) and only one officer: Greely himself. The roster of the men, their ranks and their dates of death reveal no obvious pattern. If anything, one could argue that the privates ate the sergeants and lieutenants.

I made that point to Lambert, who said he'd dig into his notes and get back to me. I'll pass along any pertinent revelations.

But without further substantiation, I think the "military fashion" assertion falls short of evidence that would stand up in court.

That corpses were used as a source of food by some of Greely's men is widely acknowledged. Whether Greely or any of the survivors participated in it remains a matter of conjecture. That lower-ranking soldiers were purposely killed first is not supported by the facts and the allegation that black soldiers were eaten at all is demonstrably false. Guttridge notes that in the main burial site found by the rescue party, the body of the only minority on the team, astDavid Israel, a Jew, uniquely showed no signs of butchering.

It's a matter of real history that Greely commanded black Union soldiers in the Civil War, a conflict in which he was wounded at least twice. But it was for his non-combat achievements that he received, shortly before his death, the rare tribute of a peacetime Congressional Medal of Honor. The PBS history program "American Experience" has a documentary about the expedition and an excellent website for those wanting to know more.

Like Franklin, who is credited with the "discovery" of Prudhoe Bay in his early years, Alaskans remember Greely for something other than the misadventure he's most famous for. As head of the Army Signal Corps during the Gold Rush era, Greely did Herculean work to establish widespread electronic communications across the territory.

Happy Marmot Day

Our annual Marmot Day poem is posted at If you forgot to send someone a card, just forward the poem to them. Also posted, assuming the computer is working, is our take on last night's concert by the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra.

Short plays sought

The Fairbanks Drama Association and Looking Glass Group Theatre invite Alaskan residents to send their best 10-minute plays to be considered for the 13th Annual 8x10 Festival of New Alaskan Plays.

Eight selected plays, none lasting more than 10 minutes, will be given rehearsed staged readings at the Festival, April 25-26, at the Hap Ryder Riverfront Theater in Fairbanks. Only one entry per person will be accepted and all entrants must be Alaskans. No musicals or children's plays will be considered and casts should have no more than eight actors. The deadline for submissions is March 15 and electronic submissions are not accepted. Authors should send five copies of their scripts to:

Fairbanks Drama Association / Looking Glass Group Theatre

1852 Second Avenue

Fairbanks, AK 99701

There are other rules to follow. Contact Peggy MacDonald Ferguson at or call 456-7529.

Daily News photo show

The Daily News photo editor, Anne Raup, will present the upcoming talk for the American Society of Media Photographers Alaska at 7 p.m. Feb. 4 at the Anchorage Museum. Raup will show some of the eye-popping shots taken by our colleagues this year and discuss how photojournalism is evolving in the era of instant communication. Enter by the doors on the Seventh Avenue side. Admission is free.

Screenwriting boot camp

The Alaska New Media Career Training Center has invited film and television writer Chris Keane to town to teach a two-month intensive workshop on developing a story for a feature film or television series. The cost for the program is $1,500. Alaska residents may be eligible for reimbursement through the state of Alaska's Individual Training Accounts program, set up to help prepare Alaskans for work in the field of cinema or television. For more information, contact David Lyman at


Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.