A man of eclectic talents and persuasions, Alolphus Washington Greely (1844-1935) was one of the most ambitious figures of his day. Though primarily remembered for his famous North Pole expedition, Greely’s colorful career also included service in the Union army during the Civil War and, later, as commander of the U.S. Army’s Pacific Division. In the latter assignment, he was stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco.
Greely was born into an old New England family in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1844. He was seventeen at the outbreak of the Civil War and immediately attempted to enlist in the Union army. Though ineligable on account of his youth, legend has it he persisted and was refused on no less than three occasions. Frustrated after his third attempt, Greely returned home and chalked the numbers "1" and "8" on the soles of his shoes so that he might answer with integrity, "I am over eighteen." Greely was finally enlisted as a private with the 19th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. He saw action at some of the fiercest battles of the Civil War, including Antietam and Fredericksburg, and was wounded three times. Rising in rank from private to sergeant, Greely was eventually commissioned to command the 81st Colored Troops. At the war's end, Greely was a Brevet Major and continued to command black troops from 1865 to 1867 in the city of New Orleans, where he faced the challenge of occupying a defeated city ravaged by an epidemic of yellow fever.