James Gordon Bennett became a wealthy man in journalism. He started the paper the “New York Herald,” which came to fame when he sent a reporter to the jungles of Africa to find one Dr. Livingston. Since then, Bennett used his wealth to fund expeditions to equal that level of press. That’s when he began a relationship with George Washington Delong.
DeLong graduated from the Naval Academy and was greatly influenced by the exploratory mission of the U.S.S. Polaris, which sailed towards the North Pole in the name of science. Her hull was crushed by the ice and the men mutinied against Captain Francis Hall before being rescued many months later (after Hall was poisoned). DeLong was captivated by the arctic and set about to fund a mission to exceed the distance the Polaris made in exploring the outer reaches of the North Pole.
In an age where there were no cell phones, google earth, computers, or satellites, DeLong’s mission was tantamount to what space exploration is to us today. The amount of preparation that had to go into funding and establishing a mission to the Arctic Circle was not only costly, but could be very dangerous. DeLong did his research, and, with the help of Bennett, he purchased a nice yacht, renamed the U.S.S. Jeannette, that was reinforced in San Francisco before the voyage commenced. For almost a year, DeLong spent most of his time consulting charts, the available maps, collecting supplies (which included two new inventions, Thomas Edison’s “arc lights” which were precursors to the light bulb, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone), and put together a group of men that were qualified and willing to travel to the unknown. 33 men in total set sail for the Bering Strait (the little strait between Alaska and Russia) in early summer, 1879. The plan was to cross into the Arctic before it became glazed over in ice. They were going to try to get as far North as they could before they were imminently trapped in the ice, waiting for the summer thaw of 1891. But they were delayed in Alaska looking for another expedition that was reportedly lost, and were soon trapped in the ice well before they wanted. They hunkered down in the ship for two years. It wasn’t until June 12, 1881 that the ship finally loosened from the ice. The ship, springing several leaks before it was unhinged from the ice, then plunged into the depths of the ocean, never to be seen again. I was reading that a Russian explorer is recently trying to find the remnants of the U.S.S. Jeannette.
The crew was forced to march across the arctic tundra with dwindling supplies and the onset of winter just around the corner. They posted up in small boats, reaching Russia before being split up. I don’t want to reveal much more, but this book is full of twists and turns that make it so good.
There are some interesting themes throughout the book. I think that DeLong was a masterful leader and his position as Captain (even though he was technically a Lieutenant in the United States Navy) should be emulated by military leaders today. He was graceful, smart, and most importantly, a servant to his crew. On very rare occasions did he act out of selfishness. When his crew suffered, he suffered. It seems like he knew what to do in every situation. I won’t reveal the end, but this mission turned out tragically but it’s sad to know that DeLong isn’t a more studied figure in the United States Navy. The characterization, again, seems to be made up. Hampton Sides builds the characters within the book to where you feel like you intimately know the individual. The story if full of tragedy, frostbite, amputated limbs, medical concerns, hunger, and mental illness and you feel the pain that the crew feels with each page.
I’ve never been so captivated by a non-fiction book. Sides is a master story-teller that you sometimes forget what you are reading are transcripts from journal entries. The book starts off very slow, but begins to pick up and you are left to wonder how the crew will survive the next twist. It is almost unimaginable that this all really happened. There are built in plot twists in the story that leave you astounded and wondering that if it really is indeed a fiction novel rather than a researched account of an event. This is a superb book and one of the finest, well researched books I have ever read. If you find non-fiction to be dry and boring, this is a book for you. The story will captivate you to the point where you can’t put it down. Rarely have I ever had to force myself to put a book like this down, but this page turner will definitely pique your interest.