Modern history

FLAGS AND FANFARE

Wishing you and your brave comrades health, happiness, and success in your daring enterprise, and commending you and them to the protecting care of the God who rules the universe.

GEO. M. ROBESON, SECRETARY OF THE NAVY

On June 10, 1871, the Polaris, sporting a fresh coat of paint and festive bunting, slipped its moorings, steamed out of the Washington Navy Yard, and made its way down the Potomac River. Crowds of women in bright crinolines and men sporting top hats and broadcloth coats lined the banks, cheering and waving American flags while the navy band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The smell of fresh grass and magnolias mingled with the tang of pitch and coal smoke blown back upon the foredeck by the following wind.

Captain Hall leaned against the railing by the pilothouse and waved, while Captain Buddington shouted orders to the helmsman. Below decks Chief Engineer Schuman stalked among the bright brass cylinders of his new steam engine, oiling fittings and valves, cursing in German under his breath at his two firemen.

Only weeks before, Hall had hosted a reception aboard the Polaris for President Grant, Navy Secretary Robeson, and the Reverend Dr. Newman. Now the ship headed up to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for finishing touches under the careful eye of Mr. Delano, the navy constructor at that yard. George Tyson was not aboard, however, an absence that worried Hall. Tyson's commission languished on some bureaucrat's desk. Hall made a note to appeal directly to Robeson the minute the ship docked in New York. In their numerous prior meetings, the navy secretary had proved an enthusiastic and helpful friend.

Even Hall's official orders scarcely reached him before the ship sailed. “Having been appointed by the President of the United States, commander of the expedition toward the North Pole,” the orders read. Thoughtfully, Hall had underlined those words with his pen. The orders gave him two and one half years, but they left the actual length up to Hall. He could stay longer if he had enough supplies or cut it short if disaster struck. Like the directions from the scientists, his naval orders showed an obsession with documentation. Hall and anyone who could write were to keep journals. He was to collect them at the end of the expedition and collate them into his final report. With the bureaucrats ever mindful of the vanished Franklin expedition, Hall was instructed to seal progress reports in bottles and throw them overboard as the sea journey progressed. On land similar notes enclosed in copper cylinders were to be placed in stone cairns as the party moved north. Who came up with the idea of the floating bottles is unknown, but it demonstrates the naivete that pervaded the planning; a divided crew with conflicting goals expected someone in the government to find message bottles floating in the vast ocean.

Delano put the finishing touches on the Polaris in three days. During the layover the American Geographical Society held a reception. If the primary reason for going north eluded the government, the members of the society had no such misgivings. They were geographers and explorers like Hall, and they supported his lust for the North Pole. What could be placed on a map excited them. Bugs, fish, and shooting stars were secondary.

Speaking before the members of the society, Tookoolito charmed the members with her soft, accented English, and old Bill Morton brought tears to their eyes as he reminisced about his Arctic travels with Elisha Kent Kane. The good doctor had died in Havana in 1857 but still remained warm in the members' hearts. Even now there is an active Elisha Kent Kane Society.

Emil Bessel, perhaps recognizing he was among an unsympathetic crowd, muttered a few words of faint praise for Captain Hall's “enthusiasm,” calling that a “stimulus,” and expressed regrets over his limited English. These listeners' hearts were lost to exploration like Hall's rather than minute measurements. “If anything could be an additional stimulus to us during our trip, I think it will arise from the fact that such eminent men of science, such as compose this Society, are watching with interest the actions of our expedition,” he said. For someone who claimed to possess limited proficiency with the language, Bessel managed to come across as articulate.

There it was againthe reference to “science” as opposed to “exploration.”

The two men were well on their way to forming a dislike for each other. Hall's exchange of letters with Professor Henry and his complaint to Dr. Newton suggest he worried about Bessel and had even at that point stepped on the “sensitive” man's toes. And already whispers were circulating about Bessel's increasing rudeness to Captain Hall. It was becoming clear that Bessel regarded his commander as an unlettered oaf far beneath him in intellectual matters. His discussions with Hall wavered between condescension and outright insubordination. Bessel, in turn, embodied the threat to reaching the North Pole that Hall feared from the committee's massive scientific requirements, and served as a constant reminder of Hall's lack of formal education.

Hall rose last, and it was he, their explorer, who brought them to their feet when he spoke. Wisely, he thanked the government, especially mentioning his near worship of Secretary Robeson. Hall was learning to be politic. Uncharacteristically, he bared his soul to them.

“The Arctic Region is my home,” he confessed. “I love it dearly, its storms, its winds, its glaciers, its icebergs. When I am there among them, it seems as if I were in an earthly heaven or a heavenly earth.”

At the reception Henry Grinnell, whose two personally funded expeditions had done so much to foster polar exploration, presented Hall with a flag to be carried by the expedition. The banner was the same one that had been carried to Antarctica by Charles Wilkes on his ill-fated expedition in 1840.

“This is quite a noted flag,” Grinnell began, “and has seen peril by ice and sea. In 1838 it went with Wilkes' expedition to a higher latitude toward the Southern Pole than any American flag ever went before.”

Grinnell went on to enumerate the list of explorers who had carried the flag to the far ends of the earth. “Dr. Kane took it, with another expedition, to a still higher northern latitude.”

Hall idolized the dead Kane, as did everybody assembled. Then Grinnell carelessly mentioned Hall's nemesis, Dr. Hayes, the man who had nearly wrested the expedition from his hands. “When Dr. Hayes went on his expedition I loaned it again to him, and he carried it about thirty-seven miles higher than an American flag had ever been before.” Grinnell held out the standard. “Now, I give it to you, sir. Take it to the North Pole, and bring it back a year from next October.”

Hall must have seethed inwardly at the name of his enemy. Here was a challenge he would meet. He would beat Hayes's mark or die in the process.

Hall stepped forward and grasped the weathered banner. “I really feel from the bottom of my soul that this flag, in the spring of 1872, will float over a new world; a new world, in which the North Pole star is its crowning jewel.”

While members of the Geographical Society warmly applauded what they saw as a heroic link between both ice caps, seasoned salts viewed the presentation as something far different. Insubordination and strife had riddled the Wilkes expedition, leading eventually to Wilkes's court-martial. Bad luck hampered the Wilkes party, and to the superstitious sailors, anything associated with that trip carried the same stigma. Both Kane and Hayes had carried the flag, and they, too, had had problems.

Deepwater sailors are a highly superstitious lot. Facing the raw power of a storm at sea, a force able to make even the largest vessel seem insignificant, many a mariner has found religion. As Herman Melville wrote: “He who would learn to pray, let him go to sea.” Over hundreds of years of losing to the oceans, seamen learned to grasp at anything that might improve their odds. Traditions and superstitions abound, enough to fill a book. Don't start a voyage on Friday, never ship aboard with a black seabag, fresh-cut flowers brought aboard mean an impending deaththe litany goes on and on. Always stepping on board with your right foot first led to the common phrase, used even by landlubbers, of putting your right foot forward. First the Periwinkle's name had been changed to Po-laris, and now it would fly the colors of an ill-fated predecessor. It did not bode well.

Without thinking, Grinnell had laid another Jonah upon the Polaris.

Whether due to that or not, cracks opened in the Polarises organization. As the Polaris readied herself to sail, the cook, one of the common seamen, and one of the firemen jumped ship and deserted. Wilson, the assistant engineer, also vanished. Apparently Wilson and the fireman found working under Emil Schuman too loathsome to bear even for three days. The steward turned out to be consistently drunk and was set on the beach. Last, the ship's carpenter, Nathan Coffin, fell ill with an inflammation of the lungs and was hospitalized when the ship sailed. But at the eleventh hour Tyson's special orders arrived, and he clambered aboard. At this time he simply accompanied Captain Hall at the captain's pleasure. He would have to wait for the arrival of the coal tender Congress to receive his appointment as assistant navigator.

Below strength, the Polaris still steamed out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard on June 29 as the sun set over the land. The slanting rays of the sun flickering over the western landscape of buildings,trees, and squat hills fired the low-hanging clouds to the east. Tongues of crimson and orange licked along the underbellies of the nimbus and altocumulus clouds covering the harbor. So far, so good, many of the sailors sighed: Red sky at night, sailors' delight.

Seventeen hours later the Polaris anchored at New London, Connecticut. The special stop was made to pick up Alvin Odell. A veteran of naval action during the Civil War, Odell came highly recommended to fill the slot of assistant engineer. John Herron and William Jackson signed aboard as steward and cook, respectively. Adding another fireman and common seaman brought the crew to full complement.

Word also reached Hall that the carpenter, Nathan Coffin, had recovered from his illness and survived the navy doctors as well, no mean feat given the state of medical knowledge at that time. Coffin would join them in Greenland when the Polaris rendezvoused with the Congress. The newly graduated chaplain, Bryan, also would arrive on the Congress. The Reverend Dr. Newman, never missing a chance to save souls, would ride along to administer his final blessing on the ship and crew when it left that last vestige of civilization. Now a full complement had signed on, twenty-five brave souls. Loyally following Hall on board the Polaris were “his Eskimo,” Ebierbing, Tookoolito, and their young adopted daughter, Puney. During his stay in New York, Ebierbing had drunk heavily, as have too many Inuit under similar circumstances. Both Hall and Ebier-bing's wife, Tookoolito, hoped the return to his homeland would effect his cure.

In regard to his own wife, Mary Hall, and his two children, young Charles and Anna, Charles Francis Hall essentially abandoned them in Cincinnati. Business and family were a closed chapter to him now. His burning desire to reach the North Pole left little room for anything else. They lived on the meager remnants of his liquidated business. For all her quiet suffering, Mary Hall retained her pride. When Lady Franklin learned from Henry Grinnell that Hall's wife was in financial need while Hall was missing in the Arctic in 1869, the lady sent Mrs. Hall a gift of fifteen pounds. Mary Hall refused to accept the money. Just before Hall's crucial lecture at Lincoln Hall, his wife traveled from Cincinnati to Washington to visit him. She brought along his son, whom Captain Hall had only seen for a total of three months of the boy's ten years.

One day before Independence Day, July 3, the Polaris weighed anchor and left New London. Departing at four p.m. to take advantage of the tide, the ship headed north. As night fell, a sudden squall struck the vessel, tested the strength of the new refitting, and shook out those men without sea legs.

Summer storms occur when low-pressure cells crossing the Atlantic from Africa warm along the Gulf Stream and pick up moisture before colliding with colder air from Canada and the Arctic. Strong winds and sheets of rain drive the seawater before them. When that block of water, rolling along like the world's largest and heaviest freight train, hits the continental shelf, especially the shallow underwater table called the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, steep, short breaking waves form. Such waves are unsettling and damaging.

The Polaris proved a sound ship. No seams sprang, and no hands were lost overboard. Some poorly stowed supplies broke loose and battered several storage holds, but that was all. Lightning flashes lit the night sky and claps of thunder smote the air, yet nothing struck the ship. Undamaged, it sailed on to its first port of destination, St. John's, Newfoundland. For all its Jonahs, the little tug turned Arctic explorer would deal kindly with all of its crew except one.

In 1870 St. John's existed for one reason only. It was the finest natural harbor on the eastern side of the island of Newfoundland. Ever since Europeans came to the New World, the thick schools of cod drew fishermen to the waters of the Grand Banks, and those men needed a protected shelter. The natural topography surrounding St. John's fit the bill nicely. Completely encircled by hills and mountains tall enough to deflect the raging winds, the harbor can be entered only through a narrow channel that blocks most entering waves. A mile long and half a mile wide, the calm waters within this rocky circle are ideal for anchorage. At that time commerce and community roughly divided the town in half. Oil storage tanks, ships' chandlers, and red-painted warehouses dotted the east, while the hills to the west sprouted fashionable clapboard houses and shingled-roof cottages.

Trouble reared its ugly head amid the placid waters and wildflower-covered slopes. Several seals on the boilers needed replacement, and the engine required readjustment. Also, the skills of their carpenter, now aboard the Congress, were sorely missed. Hall and Buddington tried unsuccessfully to hire a carpenter from the town to fix the battered storage compartments. Summer was the busy season for the fishing fleet, and everyone with the needed skills was either at sea or inundated with repairs on the local vessels. The carpentry work would have to wait until Coffin caught up with them.

The seeds of dissension sowed by the unresolved questions of priority and command now sprouted roots. Bessel forcefully rejected any idea that Hall commanded him or members of his scientific corps, even though Captain Hall's orders specifically gave him overall command of the expedition. With his Prussian heritage, the meteorologist Meyer sided with Bessel, as might be expected. Their actions bordered on insubordination. While the two carefully avoided a direct confrontation, they seemed to be waiting, biding their time for the right moment to strike. That moment would not be far off.

Here again the foglike nature of the command structure created problems. If Polaris had been a full-fledged military vessel crewed and commanded by naval personnel, Bessel and Meyer would have been clapped in irons and sent home for court-martial when the Congress arrived. But they were not commissioned officers. Even Captain Buddington was without commission.

Hall found himself backed by Tyson and Morton, while Buddington and Chester waffled. Worse, the officers' quarrel spread below decks to the men. Soon they, too, dividedand along national lines. Not surprisingly, the Germans sided with Bessel. Reverting to their native tongue, knots of German-speaking crew members congregated in the fo'c'sle, more concerned that their fellow countrymen won the argument than with the goals of their mission.

George Tyson later related to E. Blake Vale:

A point of discussion arose as to the authority of the commander over the Scientific Corps. Strong feelings were mutually exhibited, which extended to the officers, and even the crew, among whom was developed an unmistakable feeling of special affinity on the score of national affiliation.

Here Hall should have acted decisively. But he didn't. Instead, he chose to bow to the wishes of Bessel. He backed down. “However, matters were smoothed over,” Tyson advised. “The Scientific Corps were left free to follow their own course, and the threatened disruption of the party avoided.” Members of the scientific corps were given a free hand to do what they wished. But the weed of dissension remained alive.

Charles Hall's lack of command experience obviously played a part in his abdication, as did his feelings of inferiority when dealing with the cultured Bessel. In the back of his mind hung the threat detailed to him by the shadowy parties in Washington. In addition, he had a tendency to overreact, and he knew it. On his first trip to the Arctic aboard the George Henry, he became convinced the crew thought he was eating their rations and meant him ill. Officially not a member of the crew, Hall had brought his own provisions. Food is a precious commodity in the Arctic and remained constantly in the back of the sailors' minds. Unable to convince the crew members that he ate only his own food, Hall took to his cabin and began a hunger strike. It took the intervention of Captain Buddington to resolve that crisis. Maybe Buddington reminded Hall of that episode.

But another, far darker incident weighed more heavily on his mind and caused him to back off. In the summer of 1869, Hall had killed a sailor named Patrick Coleman. At that time he had contracted with five whalers to aid him in his search for Franklin. An argument broke out on July 31 over whether the men were working hard enough. Presumably Hall was paying their wages and felt he was not getting his money's worth. Hot words flew back and forth, the sailors besting Hall with their experience in swearing. One man in particular, Coleman, fanned the flames and stood out as the leader. Hall implored him to cease his “mutinous talk and conduct” and laid his hand on Coleman's shoulder. The seaman took greater offense, doubling his fists, and prepared to launch himself at Hall. Normally Hall might have been a match for Coleman, but he feared the other four whalers would join the fray. And one of the rebellious men, Peter Bayne, held Hall's rifle. Sensibly, Hall demanded it back, and Bayne sensibly handed it over. The beleaguered explorer rushed out of the whaler's tent to his own tent with the rifle in hand. That should have ended the affair, but Hall next did something that is hard to excuse.

Seizing his Baylie pistol (a six-shot revolver) from his tent, Hall rushed back to confront Coleman. Again, he demanded to know whether Coleman still felt mutinous. The results were predictable. Coleman's blood was up, and he would not back down. The man's response grew more threatening, and Hall shot him.

Most seamen carry a knife for utility work aboard ship, so Coleman and the others might not have been completely unarmed. When faced with an unruly crew, a prudent sea captain would collect the men's blades and have the blacksmith strike off the pointed tips. Thus “tipped,” the knives could not be used to stab the officers yet still retained their function to cut line. A sailor carrying a tipped knife bore the stigma that he might be trouble. But no mention is made of any knife drawn during the argument. In a modern court of law, Hall's actions would constitute manslaughter, possibly even murder.

Hall then turned on his heel, walked out of the tent, and handed his pistol to one of the startled Inuit who crowded outside. Returning to the fallen Coleman, Hall dragged the wounded man over to his own tent, half expecting the sailor to gasp an apology with his last breath. But Coleman refused to die, much less repent.

Stricken now with guilt or remorse, Hall resolved to nurse the critically wounded Coleman back to health. Only moments before, he had aimed directly at this same man's heart, resolved to kill him. The avenging angel had instantly transformed into Florence Nightingale. Days passed as Hall tried everything he knew to save Coleman. Coleman died two weeks later, on August 14, having endured a slow and painful demise from infection and probably peritonitis and pneumonia. Two days after Coleman's death, the whaling ships returned to Repulse Bay. On the day the ships left to hunt whales, Hall awoke to find himself alone. His remaining whalers had deserted. Again, he was alone with the Inuit.

Killing a man quickly is bad enough. Killing one of your own companions is even worse. Watching someone's protracted demise from your bullet, hearing his labored, gurgling breath, changing his fetid dressings in the close confines of a small tent, and watching his skin pale and mottle as his life slowly drains away must be horrendous. No doubt it seared deeply into Charles Francis Hall's mind.

No official action came of the shooting. Judge Roy Bean might have been the only law west of the Pecos, but that far north there was no law at all. What authority visited this desolate notch along the western edge of Foxe Channel came and went with the whaling ships that wintered there. And that authority related only to the captain's law aboard his own vessel. That summer the whalers had long since sailed in search of the humpback.

On his return to New York, Hall dutifully confessed his actions to his patron Henry Grinnell, who found that no one wanted authority for that desolate region. Repulse Bay, where the shooting had taken place, lay beyond the territorial borders of the Dominion of Canada. Years later Peter Bayne claimed that Coleman and he had discovered evidence as to the whereabouts of Sir John Franklin's grave from Eskimo and thus earned the enmity of Hall for their meddling, possibly adding revenge to the cause of the shooting.

One thing is certain: The cold, isolation, alien landscape, and unforgiving ice make even the smallest slight grow out of proportion. In a place where the endless sky and boundless white land merge into one colossal landscape that assaults and overwhelms the senses, the value of a single human life diminishes to nothing. A person's very soul is threatened, so the mind turns inward in self-defense. Imagination and fear go hand in hand. Since everything is in short supplyfood, firewood, shelter, and warmthsurvival becomes the main preoccupation. The land dispenses with cockeyed optimists quickly. A hidden crevasse, fragile ice, a sudden storm and the unwary vanish forever. No doubt Hall reacted as he did because he knew that in the Arctic the glass is always half-empty, never half-full.

Stepping back from this confrontation only weakened Hall's command. The Germans aboard now saw their fellow countryman Bessel as stronger than Hall, and the science projects vaulted to equal importance with the quest for the North Pole.

Up to this time, Hall had regarded Bessel as lower in the command structure than the man's title of chief scientific officer implied. As late as June 20 Hall referred to Bessel's role as “naturalist and photographer” and “most likely … the surgeon” in a letter he wrote to astronomer Henry Gannett of the Harvard College observatory. Now Bessel had challenged his command, and Buddington had refused to support Hall.

In a quandary, Hall spent his days away from the ship, climbing the hills while the engine was repaired.

With the rift widening, the Polaris steamed north into the Labrador Sea and headed for the western coast of Greenland. Proceeding along that serrated coast, it took advantage of the northerly flowing West Greenland Current, which hugs the coastline. The usual banks of fog and walls of mist and drizzle greeted the ship, while the air grew cold and heavy with the reek of salt and rotting sea grass.

Reaching Holsteinsborg (now called Sisimiut after the modern tendency to restore the Inuit names to Greenland), the Polaris anchored. Here Hall hoped to purchase additional coal for his boilers and reindeer hides to clothe his crew. During his visits with the Inuit, Hall had recognized the value of using reindeer hides for outer clothing. The waterproof, hollow shafts of each reindeer hair provide natural buoyancy that aid the animals in crossing rivers and furnish superior insulation against the cold. At a time before synthetic fibers, no finer winter clothing could be found. The pullover style of the Eskimo parka with matching pants retained body heat much better than European dress, with its buttonholes and loose flaps. Wool loses its insulating property when it becomes wet. Hypothermia, frostbite, and death rapidly follow. Hall did not plan to repeat Franklin's mistake of requiring his men to wear wool and canvas coats.

Unfortunately he was thwarted on both accounts. The remote settlement of Holsteinsborg had little coal to spare, and reindeer skins were scarce. The warming trend that favored thin ice for his expedition had also altered the annual migration of the reindeer.

Warmer weather meant less need to wander south in search of the lichens and moss the herbivores ate.

Meeting an old friend, Frederick Von Otto, who headed a returning Swedish exploration, Hall did receive good news. Von Otto's crew had sailed as far north as Upernavik. Baffin Bay was open. The ice field had receded. Only an occasional iceberg dotted the leaden water between Disko and Upernavik. Hall was elated.

In an instant he changed his route of attack. Originally he had planned to sail as far west as he could into Jones Sound, the gap between the saw-toothed fingers lining the bottom of Ellesmere Island and the top of Devon Island. Once the Polaris encountered ice too thick to drive past, the expedition would take off overland for the elusive Pole. That was the plan he'd presented to the academy and to the government.

But Von Otto's report changed everything. Smith Sound, directly north of Baffin Bay, might be breached. With skill and luck Hall could sail the Polaris through that narrow gap into Kane Basin and on into the Kennedy Channel. Only sixteen miles of water separated Greenland from Ellesmere Island at that spot. The Humboldt Glacier, with its towering columns of ice, flanked the eastern shores of Kane Basin. He would slip north of that devilish ellipse on the charts marking the eightieth parallel. Within six hundred miles of the North Pole!

He must act swiftly, he realized. The ice could re-form at any minute. He could not wait for his supply ship, the Congress, to arrive. Putting aside his feelings, Hall left word of his change of plans and ordered the Polaris to make for the island of Disko, the sharp-edged lump of rock jutting into Baffin Bay roughly halfway between Holsteinsborg and their final jumping-off port, Upernavik. Driving the engines full-out, the ship made the village of Godhavn on Disko in twenty-four hours.

For six anxious days, Hall and his crew fretted over the absence of the Congress. Every day they waited meant a missed opportunity. The captain used the time to purchase the precious furs and extra sled dogs the party would need. Disko had no reindeer hides either, so sealskins and dog skins were substituted. He also secured the services from the Danes of another Inuit named Hans Christian,whose renown as a dog handler and hunter were without equal. With Hans and Ebierbing, the dog teams now had expert handlers.

But Hans Christian was at Preven, 60 miles south of Uper-navik. To the first mate fell the yeoman's duty of taxi driver. First, Chester searched among the fjords in an open whaleboat for Karrup Smith, the district inspector of Disko and ranking Danish official. Paddling more than 175 miles up and down the coast, the mate returned with the inspector only to be sent off to fetch Hans Christian, the new Inuit addition.

On August 10, cheers rang across the deck of the Polaris as the black smoke and funnels of the Congress hove into sight. Larger than the Polaris, the supply ship carried much-needed coal and extra stores. Karrup Smith, delighted to be furthering diplomatic ties with the United States, readily allowed the extra coal and food to be stored in the government warehouse.

With the Congress came Tyson's written commission, and he officially became an officer. Up until that time he had served only at Captain Hall's pleasure, an extra cog not integrated into the machinery of command. More than a month had passed while the crew sorted out their tasks and tested the mettle of their officers. Like seamen since the beginning of history, Polarises sailors used that time to see what they could get away with, subtly probing their leaders for weakness and testing to find how slipshod their actions could be before they were called to task. Sailors can be either experts at efficiency or strict minimalists if not properly motivated. Regrettably Tyson's inaction during this time critically undermined his leadership. Lasting impressions were formed while he did nothing. Thus, his authority over them never fully matured. This weak link would make its results felt in the months to come.

Waving heartily back from the Congress was the theologian the Reverend Dr. John Philip Newman. By Newman's side stood the newly appointed astronomer and ship's chaplain, Mr. Bryan. Tucked inside Newman's coat pocket were special prayers for the expedition. One, to be opened and read only on reaching the North Pole, would never be used.

While the Congress came placidly on, insurrection seethed below decks on the Polaris. From Hall's cabin came the heated voices of the captain, Frederick Meyer, and Emil Bessel. Both men had picked their ground to openly defy their captain's orders. As he would later report, beyond the bulkhead the black steward, John Herron, listened in amazement. Two against one, he mused, both against the captain. Peering through a crack in the boards, the steward watched the drama unfold.

“I am the commanding officer of this vessel,” Hall fumed. “I ordered you to keep my journal. You are to write what I dictate.”

Meyer must have glanced furtively at the chief scientist. Seeing support in Bessel's dark eyes, he squared his shoulders. “I cannot, Captain. It interferes with my primary duties as meteorologist.” Meyer had considered adding the word regret but decided against it. From the corner of his eye, he saw Bessel nod his head.

“What?” Hall's face flushed.

From his hiding place, Herron held his breath.

“Captain, I must go ashore to take readings. I cannot remain on the ship to do your writing if I am to take those measurements. My orders from headquarters require me to do that scientific work.”

“Orders? What orders?” Hall towered over the smaller man, opening his meaty hands and closing them into fists. “Produce these orders!”

Meyer blanched. He had no such orders. He was only parroting what Bessel had told him to say. And unlike the newly arrived Bessel, Meyer's six years in the United States Signal Corps gave him much more to lose. His head dropped. On the verge of backing down, he opened his mouth.

But before Meyer could capitulate, Dr. Bessel stepped out of the shadows of the cramped cabin. To exacerbate their obvious dislike of each other, Hall had the odious habit of standing over him while talking, as if to emphasize their size difference. And Bessel hated looking up to him.

“Mr. Meyer is under my orders,” Bessel interceded smoothly. “He's a member of my scientific corps.” He emphasized the pronoun. “If he desires to go ashore to take readings, he is free to do so whenever be wishes”

Bessel watched smugly as Hall's face contorted in rage. “He will not!” Hall shouted. “If he disobeys my direct order, I'll send him back with the Congress. He can answer to his superiors in Washington.”

Visions of iron manacles flashed before Frederick Meyer's eyes. His career was ruined.

But Bessel appeared unaffected. “Mr. Meyer is under my authority, Captain. You cannot do that.”

“I can, and I will! I'm in overall command of this expedition. And I do have that in writing.”

Bessel shook his head slowly. He released a long-drawn sigh. “Very well, if you insist. But, if Mr. Meyer leaves, so will I.” Bessel paused to gauge the effect of his words. “I will go in support of him.” With satisfaction, the doctor watched his sentence strike the captain like a blast of icy sleet.

Now it was Hall's turn to blanch. Color drained from his face. The shadowy faces and whispered threats of those in Washington returned to haunt him. If Bessel left, Hall knew he would be replaced.

Bessel delivered his final blow with perfect timing. “And, Captain, I have the assurances of the German crew that they will leave with us….”

Seven days later Captain Davenport, commanding officer of the United States tender Congress, leaned against the binnacle of his ship and watched the Polaris steam away. The cheering from both ships no longer rang in his ears. His tars had long since turned back to their tasks as the shouting voices of the bos'ns urged them to achieve perfection. On a brave ship departing on a noble mission, it should have been a moment to savor. Unhappily the dirty tail of black smoke that dragged behind the Polaris sent a feeling of foreboding running through the skipper. Beside him stood the Reverend E. D. Bryan, who had come along to bid farewell to his oldest son, R.W.D. Bryan, the Polaris's new chaplain and astronomer. Next to the minister stood Capt. James Buddington, also a passenger aboard the Congress to see his nephew Capt. Sidney O. Buddington off. Davenport must have sensed their depression. He shook his head. A ship heading for trouble.

The open defiance of some members of the Polarises crew toward their captain sent a shiver through the seasoned sailor. Hall had confided in Davenport, offering him a glimpse of the troubles that beset the Polaris. Davenport knew that nothing of this sort could be tolerated on a navy vessel. In all his years in the navy, Davenport had never faced such a thing. He offered to clap the offenders in irons and drag them back to the navy yard for trial.

Strangely Hall declined. While Meyer was on loan from the army, Bessel was a civilian, the Polarises commander admitted. So were his entire crew, save for old Morton and a few others. And Hall himself did not strictly hold a naval commission. Neither he nor Tyson nor Buddington did. Trust Washington to splice a civilian crew onto a naval vessel, Davenport mused.

The old captain probably smelled the rot of politics in all this. Bessel was anointed by those nabobs in Washington, the Smithsonian, and the National Academy of Sciences. Bessel was their pick. If he came up lacking, it reflected poorly on their judgment. The waves would spread to the secretary of the navy until the waters of this mess lapped at the feet of President Grant himself. No wonder Hall was cautious.

To make matters worse, Hall was not a sea captain, and it showed. His crew sensed it, too.

But Hall should have been able to rely on Buddington. At least that man had his sea legs, even though they had been gotten on whaling vessels and not in the navy. Buddington should have known how to man a ship. Then Hall admitted to Davenport that Buddington liked the demon rum. When both ships transferred cargo, the sailing master got drunk. He had his little supply stashed away. Buddington also raided the pantry for milk and sugar like a three-year-old. Well, clap him in irons, too, the navy man suggested.

After deliberation, Hall realized his trip was doomed if Davenport sailed away with half his crew in the brig, and so he asked Davenport to make an appearance to strengthen his sagging command. The old commander cut an intimidating figure when he came over. Boarding the Polaris with two marines as honor guard, he insisted on being piped aboard. The men snapped to smartly when they saw his sword and all his gold braid.

When Davenport left the Polaris, order appeared restored. Captain Buddington repented his ways, and Meyer had signed a statement in the margin of Hall's official orders. “As a member of the United States naval north polar expedition, I do hereby solemnly promise and agree to conform to all the orders and instructions as herein set forth by the Secretary of the United States Navy to the commander,” it read. Break that oath, Davenport's presence hinted darkly, and Meyer would swing from the yardarm.

But then Hall once again backed down. After pinning Meyer like a butterfly in a collection box, Hall gave the man what he wanted. He relieved Meyer of his duties as secretary and appointed a young man named Joseph Mauch. Bessel won after all. From that day onward, Captain Hall would relinquish the scientific studies he had worked so hard to teach himself. To Bessel and his scientific corps would fall the pleasures of collecting the specimens, bones, rocks, and Native artifacts that Hall so loved.

Something else troubling happened. There was a saboteur aboard. Before the Polaris sailed again, the ship's machinery was tampered with. The special boilers designed to burn seal oil and whale blubber vanished. Someone had thrown them overboard, it seemed. Now the vessel could run the engines or heat the crew's quarters only by burning coal. And where they were headed, there were no coal stores except what they carried in their hold. All Hall's ingenuity to provide that backup plan went for naught.

Even the Reverend Newman weighed in to pour oil upon the troubled waters. The day before the Polaris sailed, he came aboard to read one of the prayers he'd written for blessing the enterprise. It borrowed heavily from the Psalms, especially the part about those who go down to the sea in ships and do their business upon the great waters seeing the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep. Whoever wrote that psalm had been upon the sea.

But the wise Newman had added something elsea plea for harmony. In deep, resonant tones, the minister's rolling voice sang out the lines:

Give us noble thoughts, pure emotions, and generous sympathies for each other, while so far away from human habitations. May we have for each other that charity that suffereth long and is kind, that envieth not, that vaunteth not itself, that is not puffed up, that seeketh not her own,that is not easily provoked, that thinketh not evil, but that beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things; that charity that never faileth.

That about covered it. If the men aboard the Polaris followed that exhortation, they would be all right. But it would take a strong sailor to live up to those wordsonce the dark and cold of the Arctic worked on them.

In his diary notation for August 10, George Tyson wrote:

Captain Davenport and Rev. Dr. Newman, who came up in the Congress, have had their hands full trying to straighten things out between Captain Hall and the disaffected. Some of the party seem bound to go contrary anyway, and if Hall wants a thing done, that is just what they won't do.

Out in the bay a squall line swept sleet and rain across the sea like a giant's whisk broom. Wind advancing before the rain tore wisps of spindrift from the tops of the short waves and roiled the sullen water. Patches of pewter sky, overwhelmed by the lowering clouds, merged with the leaden sea. Davenport watched the Polaris slip into the curtain of rain and fog.

Not a ship heading for trouble, the navy captain must have realized, but a troubled ship going in harm's way.

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