Introduction to the Brainard Camp Clay Diary
Laura J. Waterman
"Your experience, education, family and the way of viewing the world all shape what you would be as a survivor."
– Laurence Gonzales, Deep Survival: Who Lives, who Dies, and Why
David Brainard's Camp Clay diary is a meticulously kept account of the daily happenings at Cape Sabine on the Ellesmere Island coast, where the men of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition lived as castaways through the long and desperate winter of 1883–1884. In this spot, Lt. Adolphus W. Greely and his twenty-five men were faced with surviving subzero Arctic temperatures, months of darkness, battering storms of gale-force winds, and starvation rations that left them on the verge of madness.
Brainard starts his diary entries with the multiple temperature readings over the course of the day, perhaps supplied to him by Edward (Ned) Israel, their astronomer and youngest member, only twenty-one. He notes the temperature inside their hut: twenty to thirty degrees higher than the outside air, but nonetheless below freezing. He notes precisely the weather changes of the day. He must have written his entries in the evening, perhaps after their meager meal. He could have been half reclining in the buffalo hide sleeping bag that held two other men, straining to see in the flickering light of the blubber lamp, a dirty fuel that left a greasy grainy film on hands, faces, and clothing.
He writes about their daily routine: the diligent hunting of Pvt. Long and the Greenland native Jens Edwards; his own success or lack of therof at the shore, netting the tiny crustaceans that composed much of their diet. He enumerates who is ill, who has recovered, and who, in the end, dies. His entries show a great concern for the men; one senses the responsibility he feels for their well being, especially for his commander's health. David Brainard was more aware than anyone of the importance of keeping Lt. Greely alive. He writes on May 5, 1884, "If the C.O. does not pull through the Expedition will have lost its best friend + the full benefit of our three years work lost." Brainard knows that without Greely's leadership the men would splinter; with him alive they have the possibility to operate as a unified group, helping each other. This was very much on Brainard's mind.
He writes about food. Talk of food dominates their conversations. He breaks into his entry for March 22nd, by enumerating imaginary food contributions from many of the men. Brainard wants to remember these dishes so he can eat them when he returns home.
We learn from the Camp Clay diary who were the workers and who were the slackers and who were the men who seemed only to care about themselves. The whole spectrum of human nature is here. Brainard wants to think well of these men and is eager to compliment those who step to the fore. But he does not refrain from giving his opinion of the thoroughly rotten apples. "Whisler," he writes on May 3rd, "was caught in commissary store house by Bender. He had forced the lock + was eating bacon + had a large piece (about 2 lbs) in the breast of his blouse. He is the most abject cowardly + craven that ever disgraced mankind by his presence."
All the men of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition had been requested to keep journals by the U.S. government who had sent them up to the Arctic, and all knew they were to turn them over to the War Department upon return.
David Brainard, however, kept in his possession the notebook containing entries made from March 1st to June 21st, 1884. These entries concern the final months spent at their starvation camp. By March 1st they had lost only one man, Sgt. William Cross, morose and alcoholic from their earliest days, but between April 5th and the arrival of their rescue on June 22nd, seventeen men had died. Of the twenty-five men who made up the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, only six returned. The last man to die, Corporal Joseph Elison, succumbed on the voyage home.
That any were left to pick up their lives again is largely due to the energy and forethought of Sgt. David Brainard. The notebook that contained the harrowing story of those fatal last months at Camp Clay was given to the Dartmouth College Library by Brainard's step-daughter, Elinor McVickar. Brainard, twenty-four when he joined the expedition, Lt. Greely called "my mainstay in many things" and, after they returned home, often commented that there would have been no survivors left if it hadn't been for Sgt. Brainard. Brainard, himself, credited Sgt. George Rice, their photographer, a man of unbounded energy and spirit. Rice, somewhat of a loner, held himself aloof, though this in no way interfered with the expedition member's admiration of him. Brainard saw in Rice a sterling moral character endowed with an ability to sum up a man's strengths and weaknesses, and by some alchemy inspire others to act better than they otherwise might have.
Rice, sadly, died in the second week of April, 1884, in a heroic effort to bring them one hundred forty-four pounds of tinned meat, left half a dozen years earlier by a British expedition forty miles down the coast from Cape Sabine. Rice appeared to have had little regard for his personal safety, a fatal flaw that was part of his magnetism. Rice's tendency to overdrive himself alarmed Brainard, who exhibited a more balanced temperament and a greater control over himself both physically and mentally. He possessed a degree of steadiness and discipline that came to the fore when they were starving.
The journal measures 7 ¾ inches by 3 inches. It opens from the 3-inch spine, like a ledger. Brainard would have found it easy to slip into a deep pocket, perhaps of his uniform coat. There is a worn red leather strip wrapping around the top and a triangle of red leather on the left bottom corner of the front and the right bottom corner of the back. The cover itself is a thick cardboard in shades of brown. The binding is broken and the journal shows rough use on the edges, the cover and at the corners, though less where the leather is. The pages are lined in blue and go the full 7 ¾ inches. Brainard, however, chose to write across those thin lines, using the three inch space. Often just two or three words fill up a line. Some clerk in some government office stamped a number on each page. These are rendered in blue ink and end on page 240. Brainard's last entry, on June 21, 1884, beginning with the words, "Our Summer Solstice," is seventeen pages later. The diary still seems to smell of too many men living in a confined, cold, damp space.
David Brainard wrote in pencil. The temperature in their hut moved from the teens into the twenties when their stove was lit for meals, but was always too cold to keep his ink thawed. He kept his lines very close. His penmanship is, when one becomes accustomed to it, readable, though he had written on May 3rd, still seven weeks before their rescue, "Will anyone ever be able to decipher this writing. It is in great part illegible, the sentences incoherent, and all written in a hurry and with great rapidity and under the most trying circumstances that our miserable conditions would admit of."
On August 9, 1883, Greely had ordered the men out of Fort Conger, the barracks they had built at Lady Franklin Bay, near Discovery Harbor, above the 82nd parallel. These Army men, ill-suited to the task, had made an open boat voyage down the Ellesmere coast, hoping to meet the relief ship coming up to meet them. They couldn't have known that for the past two years all relief attempts had ended in failure. They were thrown on their own resources, essentially abandoned by the government that had sent them up. After two months of being tossed about like flotsam by the baffling currents of the Kennedy Channel and the Kane Basin, and harried by the constantly moving pack ice, on September 29, 1883, they made a desperate landfall at a spot Greely named Eskimo Point, thirty miles south of Cape Sabine. It was the last possible place if they weren't to be swept to eventual death in the vastness of Baffin Bay; yet, their position was deadly enough as they were already in the gelid grip of an Arctic winter.
The next week was spent hauling their sledges loaded with what food they had, gear essential for their survival, and all the records of the meteorological work they'd kept over the last two years up to Cape Sabine. Here they were counting on finding supplies, stashed in piles of rocks called cairns, some left by themselves on the voyage up, some by the ships that had been unable to reach them. They found food, but not nearly enough to see them through the winter.
There was in a cairn, as well, a message from Lt. Garlington, informing them that he had sunk his ship: "It is not within my power to express one tithe of my sorrow and regret at this fatal blow to my efforts to reach Lieutenant Greely." But as Garlington's orders were to wait for Lt. Greely across Smith Sound on the Greenland side, fewer than thirty miles from where they were at present, the men desperately assumed that Garlington was there.
On Cape Sabine Lt. Greely paced off a space that measured 18 by 25 feet. He and his men constructed a hut of stone. They took the walls up to four or five feet, chinked them with moss and snow, poured over water, turning it to ice. They built an outer wall of snow blocks in a forlorn attempt to insulate and shut out the wind. Cape Sabine made an elbow that stuck out into Smith Sound and the wind was incessant. Their roof was the whale boat, up-turned, resting on oars, draped with a tarpaulin, with snow piled on top. For all 25 men, facing each other in two rows, most paired or tripled in the buffalo hide sleeping bags, there was, essentially, no personal space. Yet, David Brainard never missed a day of writing in his diary.
They sat in darkness. Lt. Greely allowed their lamp, fueled with blubber, stearin, alcohol, or bits of wood, to be lit only at mealtime in order to conserve fuel. On their voyage down the coast Greely had slashed their ration in half; now he cut it to less than a daily pound per man, one-fifth of what was required for Arctic living. He directed the cook to barely thaw the ice crystals on the small sheet-iron stove that filled the hut with smoke. They were always thirsty. They weren't getting enough to eat. They could not sit straight against the sloping walls. Each man's shoulders brushed his neighbor's. They had cold feet.
This was, as David Brainard wrote, the "miserable condition" in which they found themselves.
The U.S. government's funding of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition was an original and daring plan, the equivalent of the early days of space travel. The United States found itself part of the International Polar Year, a dozen European countries, the U.S. and Canada cooperating in a scientific venture. It was entirely new. Not new was Arctic exploration. The British, in particular, had sought a Northwest Passage through the Canadian archipelago for more than three centuries, claiming the discovery in the mid-1880s. The North Pole was another magnet. All attempts met in failure of the ultimate goal and had cost the lives of many men and loss of fine ships sunk under the ice. The thirty-year fruitless search for Sir John Franklin, lost in 1845 with all one hundred and twenty-eight of his men, finally brought crushing home the tragic waste of Arctic exploration.
It was an Austrian scientist, Karl Weyprecht, who, in the mid-1870s changed the direction of Polar history by urging that the countries band together in scientific study of the Arctic. Such was the mandate of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition.
Greely was sent up with three meteorologists, an astronomer, one photographer, a physician/naturalist, and a number of tough and seasoned enlisted men, most of whom had fought in the Indian Wars of the 1870s, to assist in the record keeping. Their base at Lady Franklin Bay was just five hundred miles from the Pole. From here they could explore and map—a goal was to exceed the Farthest North set by the British. Lt. James Lockwood, along with Sgt. David Brainard, and Greenland native Frederik Thorlip Christiansen accomplished this in June 1882. But of more scientific value were the records they amassed on tides, currents, wind direction and velocity, precipitation, barometric pressure, temperature, magnetic declination, ice core samples, astronomy, natural history, botany, and more.
They were very far north, more isolated and harder to reach than any of the other stations. The plan called for a relief to arrive in the summer of 1882 with fresh men, food, and equipment. If the ship could not make it through, then another attempt would be made the next summer. If this failed, Lt. Greely could abandon Fort Conger. He could travel by sledge along the shore, or he could take the launch and the open boats down the Ellesmere coast. Either way, at Cape Sabine he would find supplies. Or he could cross to Littleton Island, just off the coast of Greenland, thirty miles from Sabine, where he would find not only supplies that would have been left for him, but the Etah Eskimos who lived there. This plan was made in Washington before they left, by Army men who knew little about Arctic travel. Greely himself, a part of the plan, had never been near the Arctic.
There is a story of how David Brainard joined the Army that seems to define the character of this young man, born December 21, 1856, to a dairy farming family in Norway, New York. He was the fifth of his parents'—Alanson and Maria's—seven children, with his education extending through the State Normal School at Cortland. The story he told was about how he traveled from his home to Philadelphia on September 13, 1876, to view the Centennial Expedition—a World's Fair, where on display was the country's achievements in industry and agriculture representative of the Machine Age. David might also have visited the U.S. Naval Observatory's Arctic exhibit where he would have seen relics from the Franklin Expedition, lent by Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall.
On his way home, in the process of changing trains in New York City, he couldn't locate the ten dollar bill he had saved for his ticket. He would not permit himself to wire his parents for the money to get him out of this scrape. Instead, perhaps thinking of his older brother Henry who, as a teenage soldier had fought in the Civil War, David, only nineteen himself, took the free ferry to the U.S. Army post at Governor's Island and joined up.
While in the act of putting on his new uniform the missing ten dollars turned up in his own shirt pocket. But that didn't mean he could skip out. He was Private David Brainard now! As Glenn M. Stein points out, this young man couldn't have known that he was on his way "to becoming one of those rare individuals in military history who rose from Private to General by pulling himself by his bootstraps." 1
Interestingly, Brainard, though an excellent soldier, never felt himself temperamentally suited to Army life. His achievements in the Indian Wars of the 1870s saw his promotion to corporal and then to sergeant by 1878. He had arrived at Fort Ellis, Montana Territory, just three months after Custer had met his ignoble defeat at Little Big Horn. Here Brainard fought against the Northern Cheyenne and Sioux Indians, then in the spring of 1877 his Troop L of the Second Cavalry was ordered to report to Col. Miles at Fort Keogh. Here, against the Sioux chief, Lame Deer, at the Battle of Little Muddy Creek, Brainard suffered gunshot wounds to his right hand and right cheek, affecting his eye. Years later, in 1933, he was acknowledged for his bravery with the Purple Heart.
In the summer of 1877, David Brainard was selected to be part of a small cavalry troop hand-picked to escort General William Tecumseh Sherman from Fort Ellis into Yellowstone. The General, then approaching sixty, was making an inspection tour of the West. Yellowstone had become the nation's first national park just five years before.
General Sherman, desiring to keep his party small and informal, took only two other officers, albeit colonels, his son, Thomas, who later became a priest, and four troopers, all privates. They traveled by horse and had a packer to manage the mules and transport the baggage. Sherman, who enjoyed "roughing it," kept his encampment simple, taking no tents, using simply tent flies to sleep on or for shelter. They took provisions for eighteen days and traveled in all about three hundred miles. Colonel Norris, Yellowstone's first superintendent, generously gave them pointers on where to catch the largest trout. Using grasshoppers for bait, Philip Henry Sheridan described standing on the river bank, twenty-five feet above the water where, "I could distinctly see the trout in immense numbers swimming around in the clear water. . . .The sport," he enthused, "was the best I had ever seen of this kind, and it is doubtful if it could be excelled upon earth." 2 They were disappointed in the game, not seeing many elk or antelope, but were amazed by the geysers, including Old Faithful, and the boiling mud and sulfur springs.
At night around the camp fire, Sherman, cigar in hand, fell into easy conversation with the men, entertaining them with stories of past campaigns, his own, as well as those from history, of men he admired, Alexander and Caesar, Napoleon and Wellington, and their own George Washington. It must have been a thrilling time for David Brainard. He was only twenty-one, but to have been included on this prestigious trip, judged able to hold his own in the company of the famous general, David must already have shown the strength of character, the attention to detail, the willingness—even eagerness—to embrace responsibility, all soldierly qualities that drew him eventually to Lt. Greely's attention.
By that point, however, Brainard hesitated to volunteer for an Arctic expedition that would prolong his tenure in the Army. His term of enlistment would end in less than a year and he looked forward to the unrestricted life of a civilian. He had, as Glenn Stein points out, "even saved the misplaced ten dollar bill to celebrate his discharge." But no doubt concluding this might be his one opportunity to experience an adventure of science and exploration in the largely unknown Arctic, Brainard volunteered and Lt. Greely appointed him his first Sergeant and Commissary Sergeant as well, meaning that Brainard would be in charge of the enlisted men and of their food supplies. Little could Lt. Greely have known how crucial to their survival David Brainard's appointment to this double duty would prove to be.
Brainard had almost left for the Arctic the year before, in 1880, when Capt. Henry W. Howgate of the Army Signal Corps, fired by Weyprecht's daring ideas of science and discovery, gained Congressional support for his plan to place a scientific colony at Lady Franklin Bay. Greely, a protégè of Howgate's, must have hoped to be placed in charge, but the command of the expedition was given to Lt. G. C. Doane.
Lt. Doane had gained attention by leading a government sponsored geological party into Yellowstone in 1871. It was on the strength of his report—the wonders of the geysers—that Yellowstone became America's first National Park on March 1, 1872. While Lt. Doane had an intimate knowledge of the Park, he was not given the position of its first superintendent. Instead, he spent the Indian Wars in active duty, based mainly at Fort Ellis.
But by 1880, as these wars had either killed or removed most Indians to reservations, Doane was summoned to Washington to take up the leadership of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. He had with him eleven men of his choosing, among whom was Sgt. David Brainard.
But no one went anywhere. Their transport, the Gulnare, a steamer purchased in Scotland, was declared unseaworthy, and Doane was forced to return with his men to Fort Ellis.
Howgate's plan—he saw it as a step in the actual colonization of the Arctic—carried too much of benefit to Americans to die. Here was the young nation's opportunity to be a player in an international team of scientists. Eleven countries would erect stations dotting the landmass bordering the Arctic seas. There was too much prestige for the U.S. at stake to fumble this ball.
This time Lt. Adolphus W. Greely was placed in command. He and Doane knew each other from their work on the military telegraph lines in the Western Territories. Each was aware of the other's interest in the Arctic. Each saw the command of this expedition as a stepping stone that would make his name. Doane was a fiery man and he fought to regain the position despite the pleadings of his wife not to go. He was newly married to a woman half his age whom he had known as a child and who would have gone with him if she'd been allowed. Doane was finally forced to decline and Greely was appointed. This new commander kept David Brainard, along with Pvts. Francis Long and Julius ("Shorty") Frederick, who had also traveled to Washington with Doane. Greely accepted the photographer, George Rice, and the doctor, Octave Pavy, both of whom had been selected by Lt. Doane. In the three years to come these five men would have opportunity to wonder how different might have been their fate—for better or worse, it is hard to say—if Doane had been in charge.
Lt. Greely's credentials held up well on paper. They showed stability, an executive ability, and an even temperament. He was zealous for this Arctic appointment. He was, as well, newly married and would be leaving two young children at home. Henrietta had married late. She radiated a calm demeanor and was not afraid to act. (That the few men left after their starving winter saw rescue at all, was largely due to Mrs. Greely's ability to launch a press campaign that compelled Congress to vote the appropriation needed to finance Greely's rescue.) Her husband described himself as possessing an irascible temper that he worked to keep under control. Sgt. Brainard said he had never heard Lt. Greely swear for those two years that they were at Fort Conger. Perhaps a little swearing on their leader's part would have benefited the rigid atmosphere. Greely hated what he called "blasphemous language," but some of his men he could never break of this delicious manner of annoying their commanding officer.
As a young man Greely had fought the full four years of the Civil War, then rose quickly in the Army's Signal Corps to become their top meteorologist, in charge of laying military telegraph wire from Texas to California as well as from the Dakota Territory west to Washington Territory. It was physically demanding work that called for excellent skills in organizing a complex system and in handling men. Greely excelled in both. But he was a strict disciplinarian, a style of leadership that proved unsuitable in the Arctic where an easing of stringent rules would have been welcomed even by these men, tough men, who, hardened by the Indian Wars and fifty below zero on the windswept Plains, were now living in the harshest circumstances of their lives.
It did not take long for the men to see that Lt. Frederick Kislingbury should not have come. He was only thirty-three, but already had lost two wives to illness. His four young sons he had left in the charge of his brothers. Greely personally invited him as they had worked together on the telegraph line. But, it appeared that Lt. Kislingbury missed his sons; perhaps he felt some guilt in deserting them. On the Proteus, on the voyage up, he had defied Lt. Greely, and during their first week on land declared that he would sleep through breakfast. Trivial as this infraction might seem, Greely could not live with an insubordinate officer. In his world orders were to be willingly obeyed or the officer had lost his usefulness to his commander. Greely penned a document that severed Lt. Kislingbury from the expedition. The ship was still in the harbor. But as Kislingbury was stumbling over the rocks and ice cakes to reach it, the Proteus's captain had broken free of the ice and was steaming away toward home.
The result of Kislingbury's offense meant that he was forced to remain until the hoped-for relief appeared that following summer. Meanwhile, he would pass the winter ahead with no official duties; indeed, no further role to play with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. The temperaments of both men remained fixed in a stand-off; Lt. Greely unable to speak the words that would have eased his lieutenant into offering an apology, and Lt. Kislingbury too proud to bend to offer one.
The situation with Dr. Octave Pavy was no better. Dr. Pavy was from a wealthy Creole family and much of his education had been in Paris. Greely had been warned of the doctor's combative ego. If he had reasoned it out, he might have foreseen that the doctor could refuse to recognize his authority. Dr. Pavy was a civilian-under-contract to the Army and was not compelled to obey Greely's orders. The doctor's hidden ambition was to reach the North Pole. This was his third attempt, but this prize was not a goal of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition. On the southward open boat voyage he attempted mutiny to seize the leadership from this man he regarded as beneath him. Greely's father was a shoemaker, and his mother, after her husband's death, supported her family by working in a factory. Both commanding officer and doctor were the same age, 37, at the start of the expedition. The doctor, however, was not without his moral shortcomings, having a young family in Paris as well as an American wife he had left living in her family's house in Missouri.
Despite these difficulties, the work of the expedition went well. Greely sent out exploring and mapping parties. The men made meteorological observations, some five hundred daily. They understood the importance of their work. They were proud to be a part of this effort, though Fort Conger could not have been called a happy place.
Brainard must have found a retreat in his storeroom, keeping track of their provisions, those in tins or dried, and the large supply of musk-oxen they had killed and kept frozen on tripods outside the fort. The men had shot many birds and some seals as well. Greely understood the importance of fresh meat in keeping his men healthy and free of the great killer of multi-year expeditions: scurvy. Brainard kept records on food consumed. He was in charge of their daily five-thousand-calorie diet per man and supervised the meals the cook, Pvt. Long, his friend from Fort Ellis, cooked for them.
David Brainard was probably aware of an important detail about one of the men, Pvt. Charles B. Henry, that no one else knew, including Lt. Greely. Pvt. Henry was on the expedition under an alias. His real name was Charles Henry Buck, a minor change, but it seemed to have worked. While at Fort Buford, Montana Territory, Henry had forged his commanding officer's signature on orders for the fort's trader who brought their food supplies. A plentiful amount of food—meat in particular—seemed essential to Pvt. Henry's wellbeing. He had been caught and sentenced to two years hard labor, had escaped after one year, turned up in Deadwood, Dakota Territory, where he shot a Chinese-American for a gambling debt, went on the lam, changed his name, and re-enlisted. Henry came to the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition from Fort Sidney, Nebraska Territory, recommended by his commander, Capt. George T. Price, whom Greely knew. Henry was the last man to sign on.
The promised relief ship not appearing in 1882 or 1883, Greely made his decision to retreat down the coast. As they pulled into each bay or cape where food supplies were known to be in cairns, some placed by them on the way up, some by past British expeditions to cover their own retreats, David Brainard did an inventory of all they took with them into their boats. These lists are included in his Camp Clay diary in the entry for March 22, 1884, an example of Brainard's meticulous handling of food.
Sgt. Brainard's role on the expedition gave him complete control of all food supplies: what entered his commissary and what left it. He portioned out their rations meal by meal. At Camp Clay Pvt. Jacob Bender made him a scale on which Brainard calculated their portions to the one-hundredth of an ounce. When they arrived at Cape Sabine at the end of September, they possessed not much more than one thousand rations to carry 25 men through the next summer. That translates to forty days at full rations. Already no man was immune from the intense desire to eat. "This craving," Brainard wrote in his journal, "this constant gnawing of hunger is horrible. It brings with it visions of the most tempting dishes, which to us are most tantalizing as we have no means of gratifying the desires which thoughts of this kind produce." They talked incessantly about food. They recounted meals in restaurants from the Capital to New York to Chicago; they talked over every aspect of their mother's cooking. They dreamt of food, frustrating dreams of being passed by waiters who carried platters of meat swimming in gravy, vats of vegetables, steam rising, towers of rolls, always to some other table. Lt. Lockwood's diary is covered with entries about food: what he ate at his families' table, what he will eat when he returns home, and what he has just eaten at Camp Clay: a soup of a fox foot and a dog biscuit in a broth of shrimp, the tiny crustaceans that were two-thirds shell that Sgt. Brainard netted from the sea. Lt. Lockwood died on April 9th, their fourth man to die.
At Camp Clay his commissary was attached to their hut, near the entrance. It was constructed of snow blocks, roofed over with canvas. Not long after they had settled in, Brainard found a snow block tampered with, making it removable and giving access to an arm that could reach in. Pillaging food at Army forts was not uncommon. But here, where the fort trader was not going to be stopping by for resupply, such plundering had to be stopped. At Fort Conger, Brainard had kept an eye on the few men he was quite sure preyed upon his commissary, Charlie Henry being his prime suspect. He was determined to catch this private in the act, and did. Henry was to be sent back, along with Lt. Kislingbury when the relief came in the summer of 1882.
By the time Greely and his men had taken to the boats two years later, Pvt. Henry had gained 25 pounds. He had been their largest man to start with; now he was larger still. He was known for his prodigious appetite. Everyone knew his favorite meal was "Hamburg beef steak," as he put it, smothered in onions. He was the son of German immigrants, as were most of these privates who had fought in the Indian Wars on the Plains.
Brainard tried installing a loaded spring-gun in his commissary, but couldn't be sure it would work. He left it in place, however, to frighten them off. Even so, the thefts did not stop.
On the morning of March 24th they came close to dying through asphyxiation. The cook lit the stove without remembering to remove the rags that plugged the vent through their boat roof and the alcohol fumes filled their hut. Some of the men fainted, others pushed out their entrance. But Pvt. Henry hung back. He had his eye on the half pound of bacon Sgt. Brainard had issued for their breakfast. When they crawled back in—Brainard, in his diary, laments his frostbitten fingers in the -23 degree air—the bacon couldn't be located. But it didn't take long for the thief to reveal himself by ejecting the bacon which proved too much for his shrunken stomach. Brainard wrote, "To think that in our midst was a man with a nature so devoid of humanity as to steal food from his starving companions when they might be dying." George Rice wanted Henry shot. But in the end, Lt. Greely confined the thief to the hut. Still, the thefts continued. When a man was caught and brought before Lt. Greely he was always repentant and ashamed of his crime. Often he was in tears, realizing how his theft of food had injured the whole party. Pvt. Henry showed no remorse, and after the incident with the bacon, the men began to freeze Henry out of their conversations.
Dr. Pavy stole food from his patient Joseph Elison, who had frostbitten his hands, back in November, in the attempt led by George Rice to obtain the 144 pounds of English meat. Elison's hands, and feet, too, were now stumps. The doctor had been feeding him by hand, and helping himself to Elison's ration. Everyone had become aware of this, but Lt. Greely feared if he confronted the doctor, Pavy would refuse to care for them. Despite his difficult personality, Dr. Pavy was an excellent physician.
By early June, twelve had died and of those left few were able to perform their needed chores of chopping ice for water, breaking up barrels for firewood, emptying the urine tub, or cooking their two meals a day. With Brainard, along with Pvts. Long and Frederick, out searching for food, Lt. Greely had little choice but to let Pvt. Henry, at this point their strongest man, take over as cook. When he was caught several times lifting morsels out of the pot with his fingers, Lt. Greely wrote out the execution order: "This order," he penned, "is imperative and absolutely necessary for any chance of life." And Pvt. Charles B. Henry stood before the firing squad on 6 June 1884.
But Lt. Greely had overlooked a crucial point that was not mentioned in Brainard's diary. There was only one serviceable rifle in camp, the .45-70 caliber Remington that Pvt. Long used for hunting. This put Sgt. Brainard, and Pvts. Long and Frederick, companions from their Indian Wars days, now designated by Lt. Greely to carry out the execution, in the position of deciding who would fire the fatal shot. The three men made it known that they had drawn lots, and had sworn never to reveal who killed Pvt. Henry. While these three men went to their graves keeping their silence, one can imagine that David Brainard, in his senior position as top sergeant over these privates, would have taken on this duty. His strong sense of responsibility to Lt. Greely and to the expedition could hardly have allowed him to do otherwise.
Nor does Sgt. Brainard's Camp Clay diary mention anything about the cannibalism. That the bodies were cut was evident. Commander Winfield Scott Schley, who arrived at Cape Sabine on June 22nd, had been ordered to bring the dead home. He had the bodies exhumed from their shallow graves and saw that six had been cut into. But when the cannibalism began is not mentioned in any of the diaries returned after the expedition.
The body cutting could have started in secret (Pvt. Henry? Dr. Pavy?). Sgt. Brainard could have noticed the graves had been disturbed—the bodies lay under only a thin layer of gravel—as he passed almost daily over Cemetery Ridge to reach his shrimping grounds. He could have talked it over with Lt. Greely. Cannibalism happened on long exploring expeditions when the grub ran out, famously in the Arctic on the Franklin Expedition. Cannibalism happened on trapping or exploring trips in the American West when men were caught out late in the season. On June 4, Brainard wrote in his diary: "An arrangement made between the Commanding Officer and four others and myself by which our condition will be ameliorated." The cannibalism might well have become official after that. And the job of dividing out the portions would have fallen to Sgt. David Brainard.
What an extraordinary man he was!
On Wednesday, April 23rd, with only nineteen days provisions left, Brainard wrote: "This life is getting almost unbearable—it is horrible. I am afraid we will all go mad. What keeps us up in my own case is the thoughts of home a clear future with many enjoyments that I can expect. The faces of my friends + family rise up before me with reproachful looks whenever I think of faltering." His early life on the dairy farm in Herkimer County, New York, meant he would have been up in the dark and out with his father and brothers milking cows. As a child he would have understood the imperative of what milking meant: a twice daily chore that occurred every day of the year. He would have understood the meaning of a routine which required the whole family to take part.
Perhaps David Brainard thought of those dairy cows, of the sense of purpose they gave to his life, when he was at the water's edge, dipping his net made from a burlap sack, harvesting shrimp for the men. He made that mile-long trek between their hut and the shore twice or even thrice a day. Often it was snowing, the wind was blowing, and the temperature was well below zero. He had to climb up and over Cemetery Ridge. On the way back he carried twenty pounds or more of the little crustaceans in buckets of equal weight attached by a strap across his shoulders, in the way he had carried pails of milk, using a yoke. His constancy took discipline, but it took more than that. It took the kind of devotion he had seen and been a part of on his parents' farm. A few of the other men, Shorty Frederick and Francis Long, their Greenland native Jens Edwards, were unsparing of themselves in this way.
On Friday, May 2nd, seven weeks before their rescue, Brainard voices both despair and humor as he contemplates his own death: "The future looks very dark for us but as for myself I have lost all fear of death + now look forward to it as a relief from our terrible sufferings. My emaciated frame is nothing but a bundle of bones—it would not make a respectable hat rack." It is his ability to maintain such perspective that kept him motivated and alive.
What makes his diary so compelling is his ability to articulate his own moments of despair, even of hopelessness in a way that objectifies his wretchedness by merely giving us the facts. There is no self pity in the entry for Saturday, May 31st, when, after a blizzard that left them wet through from the drift blown into their bags, he writes: ". . . as we had no solid food consequently [we] had nothing to eat during the day—not even a swallow of water. Of all the days of misery of my life this caps the climax. If I knew that I had a month more of this sort of existence before me I would stop the engine this moment as I do not consider 50 years of pleasure a sufficient reward for another months [sic] suffering misery equal to the one just passed."
It's clear, as well, in the Camp Clay diary how much Brainard had the men in mind. He was concerned that some of them could not digest the shrimp. He worried about his baits. They must be fresh enough for the shrimp to feed on. In many of the entries he writes about his diminishing strength. This concerns him. He hopes that when he gives out there will be someone who could take over his job. David Brainard did not give out. But it was a close shave.
When Commander Schley arrived on June 22nd he found the men pinned down by a storm that had been going on for several days. They had not been able to feed themselves or get water. Schley saw that they had been so pounded in their already weakened state that in another 48 hours the seven he had found alive would have been dead. They had eaten the leather on their sleeping bags. They had eaten the seal skin on their boots. They had harvested lichens and kelp, reindeer moss and saxifrage buds. But no one had been shot for food. It could very well have been David Brainard's presence that ensured that would not happen.
The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition can be seen as the defining moment of David Brainard's life. He had acquitted himself well. He did not need the Army to rise in the world, but this man who had felt himself unsuited by temperament to Army life received his commission to second lieutenant and distinguished himself with every post he held. He returned to the west and his postings with the Second Cavalry took him to Washington Territory, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. As a major during the Spanish-American War and Philippine-American War, Brainard was chief commissary of the U.S. military forces. In 1914 Colonel Brainard became the U.S. military attaché in Buenos Aires until the eve of America's entry into World War I in April 1917, and by the middle of that year he received his final promotion, to brigadier general. His medals and honors include the Charles P. Daly Medal from the American Geographical Society in 1925, and a medal from the Explorers Club (an organization he helped found and presided over) in 1929. He was also honored by the American Polar Society and the Royal Geographical Society.
He made a short and unsuccessful marriage after his return from the Arctic, then remained single until two years before his retirement, when in 1917 he wed Sara Guthrie (née Hall), and gained a family with her daughter, Elinor, whom Sara had brought into the marriage. General Brainard died on March 22, 1946, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Sgt. David Brainard had not always agreed with Lt. Greely's decisions, specifically, Greely's choice to leave Fort Conger in late summer of 1883. The evening after the attempted mutiny Brainard wrote in his diary, "What a fine spring retreat could be made from Ft. Conger with sledges & how much less our sufferings would be compared with what they are now and will be one or two weeks from now." Yet, Brainard, who was instrumental in causing Dr. Pavy's mutiny plot to fall apart, did not speak with his commanding officer of the attempt. In 1940, five years after his command'ing officer's death, the mutiny story appeared in print in the publication of David Brainard's diary titled Six Came Back. Sgt. Brainard understood what it meant to be loyal, more important, he knew how to make this loyalty work for the good of Greely's expedition. At Camp Clay, Greely learned how to be the kind of leader his party needed. He was, basically, a humane man, and when they were struggling for their lives, this humanity emerged.
In later life, after both men had lost their wives and were living in Washington, they would meet to dine at the Cosmos Club on the anniversary of their rescue, June 22. Greely and Brainard, the last two left among the survivors of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, would choose a menu from the many dishes discussed when they were starving at Camp Clay and Sgt. Brainard had promised himself to eat on his return. One wonders if perhaps he would have chosen Pvt. Henry's "Hamburg beef steak."
2. Travel Accounts of General William T. Sherman to Spokane Falls, Washington Territory, in the Summers of 1877 and 1883, by William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Henry Sheridan, Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington, 1984. Originally published in 1878.