GEORGE W. DELONG, LCDR, USN
George DeLong '65
Date of birth: August 22, 1844
Date of death: October 31, 1881
George Washington De Long was admitted to the Naval Academy from New York on October 1, 1861 at age 17 years 1 months.
Biography & Loss
George Washington DeLong was born in New York City on 22 August 1844. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1865 and was assigned to the steam sloop Canandaigua. Subsequently promoted to the ranks of Ensign, Master and Lieutenant, he was an officer in USS Juniata during her 1873 voyage to Greenland in search of the missing exploration ship Polaris. Lieutenant DeLong later served as Executive Officer of the training ship Saint Mary's. His experiences on the Juniata convinced Lieutenant DeLong of the value of Arctic exploration, and he joined New York newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett in planning an attempt to reach the North Pole in a ship specially strengthened to drift in the Arctic icepack.
Bennett purchased the British steam bark Pandora in 1878, renamed her Jeannette and turned her over to the U.S. Navy under the terms of a Congressional authorization to operate the ship, with Bennett bearing the costs. DeLong, who was to command the planned expedition, brought Jeannette from Europe to San Francisco, California, where she was refitted for ice navigation. In July 1879 he sailed for the Bering Strait, accompanied a crew of Navy officers and enlisted men plus a few civilian specialists. Jeannette entered the ice in early September and remained in its grip until June 1881, when she was broken open by its force and sank.
Lieutenant Commander DeLong then led his men on a heroic journey, of nearly three months duration, across the rugged ice to open water north of Siberia. There they launched the three boats that they had dragged along during their travels over the ice. One of the boats disappeared in a storm a few days later, its eight occupants becoming the expedition's first fatalities. The other two craft, including that commanded by DeLong, reached the Lena River Delta, where they landed at widely separated points. DeLong and his thirteen companions, suffering badly from frostbite, exhaustion and hunger, struggled southwards in an effort to find inhabitants. However, with exception of two men sent ahead to seek rescue, all died during October or the first few days of November 1881. The bodies of Lieutenant Commander George W. DeLong and nine of his men were discovered in March 1882 and, in early 1884, brought back to the United States for reburial.
From records of the US Naval Academy Graduates’ Association:
GEORGE WASHINGTON DeLong, Graduate No. 592.
Sea service, 12 years, 5 months; shore duty, 6 years, 11 months; unemployed, 1 year, 5 months; in service, 20 years, 9 months.
George Washington DeLong was born in the city of New York on August 22, 1844, and passed his childhood in Brooklyn, where he attended the public schools. On October 1, 1861, he entered the Naval Academy from the Third Congressional District of New York, and in September, 1865, was graduated number 10 in a class of 54 members. On November 15, 1865, he was ordered to the steamer Canandaigua, then at the Boston yard, and served in her with the European Squadron, being commissioned as Ensign, December 1, 1868, and as Master, March 12, 1868. On February 12, 1869, he was detached and placed on waiting orders, and the 16th of the following April commissioned as Lieutenant, to date from March 26, 1869. After a short leave he was ordered on April 28 to the Lancaster, at Norfolk, Va., where she was preparing to sail as flagship of the South Atlantic fleet, and reported on June 15, 1869, having been placed on signal duty in Washington during the interval.
On October 22, 1870, he was detached from the Lancaster and granted permission to return home. It was during this leave of absence that he sailed for Havre, France, and March 1, 1871, married Miss Emma J. Wotton, of that city; the ceremony taking place on the U. S. S. Shenandoah. On April 26, 1871, he was ordered to equipment duty at the New York Navy Yard, and then on January 19, 1872, to the Nantasket, of the North Atlantic fleet; from which, after cruising in the Gulf of Mexico, he was detached on the 19th of July of the same year, and ordered to the Frolic, flagship of the Port Admiral, at New York. On January 25, 1873, he was detached and ordered, on the 5th of the following February, to the Juniata, on the North Atlantic Station. Having been selected to go to the relief of the Arctic exploring steamer Polaris, the Juniata, under Captain Braine, sailed for the coast of Greenland in the early summer of the same year, and on August 2d Lieutenant DeLong left the ship at Upernavik, and with Lieutenant Chipp, Ensign May and six others, started in the steam launch on a search along the fast inshore ice to the northward toward Melville Bay. They reached within about 8 miles of Cape York, and returned after an absence of ten days and a perilous run of nearly 700 miles. Not long after this unsuccessful attempt Captain Braine learned that the crew of the Polaris had been rescued, and brought his ship back to New York, Lieutenant DeLong tendering his services to the Department in the event of another Arctic expedition. On January 13, 1874, he was detached and ordered to the Brooklyn, on the North Atlantic Station, where he remained till the 18th of November following, when he was placed on waiting orders for a month and then, on December 18, 1874, sent to the Nautical School-ship St. Mary’s, off New York City. On April 3, 1876, he was detached and ordered to the ironclad Lehigh, on the North Atlantic Station, as executive, and, on the 3d of July following, to command the same ship. On the 24th of August he was detached, and on September 1, 1876, ordered again to the St. Mary’s, off New York. On January 21, 1878, he was detached and granted leave of absence for one year with permission to leave the United States, and on the 22d of the next May this leave was extended six months. He was considered by the Department as in command of the Jeannette from July 15, 1878, was ordered to examination for promotion, April 30, 1879 (though not commissioned as Lieutenant-Commander until January 19, 1880, to date from November 1, 1879), and on May 8, 1879, to special duty at New York, and then to command the Arctic exploring steamer Jeannette.
If this record had stopped here it would have added one more name to the long list of excellent officers that have served their country unknown to the general public and without other glory than the praise of their own order. According to the old saying, this, to a monk, was most grateful praise; but the longing for a wider appreciation can hardly be condemned in a more worldly calling, and when the proprietor of a great journal determined to fit out an expedition to the North Pole, an opportunity was offered that DeLong hastened to improve.
Such forms of newspaper “enterprise” have at least the advantage of calling attention from others of the viler sort, and there is always a possibility of their developing into an expenditure of private surplus for the general benefit that would go far toward solving a problem of much greater importance than the discovery of either pole.
In December, 1876, having obtained a two months’ leave of absence from the St. Mary’s, DeLong went to England to look for a suitable vessel, and selected the Pandora, whose owner had taken her twice to the Arctic regions; but the purchase was not accomplished till the following winter. Early in 1878 he returned to England, made the necessary preparations, and sailed from Havre directly for San Francisco on the 15th of July, reaching that port on the 27th of December. By an act of Congress, approved February 27, 1879, the newly christened Jeannette was accepted by the Government for the use of a North Polar Expedition, Mr. James Gordon Bennett meeting all expenses, and after an examination by a board of survey at the Mare Island Navy Yard, the vessel was strengthened, and such other improvements were made as were recommended by her commander. While his officers, Lieutenant Chipp, Master Danenhower, who had come with him from Havre, and Passed-Assistant Engineer Melville, superintended these preparations, DeLong was in Washington making general arrangements, but the month of June had passed before everything was ready for the start, and it was not until the 8th of July, 1879, that the Jeannette left San Francisco in the direction of Behring Strait. This route had been chosen by Mr. Bennett and the leader of the expedition under the influence of Dr. Petermann, a German geographer, who supposed Wrangel Land to stretch across the pole and to reappear as Greenland ; and it was thought that the warm waters of the Kurosiwo current flowing through the strait might open a way far to the northward. These lucubrations met the usual fate of such ponderous guessing. On the 2d of August the Jeannette reached Ounalaska, one of the Aleutian Islands, and in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy her captain wrote as follows: “I can but deplore that the necessity of loading the ship so deeply at San Francisco has made our progress thus far so slow, owing also to head winds and swell, as to make it doubtful whether we shall be able or not to profit by the open water in the Arctic sea, in our efforts to gain a high latitude this season.” After coaling ship, DeLong started on the 6th for St. Michael’s, Alaska, which he reached on the 12th, but the schooner that had sailed with him from San Francisco with coal had not yet arrived, and there was no news of the Swedish exploring steamer Vega, for which his orders required a search before proceeding north, unless it should be found that her passage around the northern coast of Asia had been safely accomplished. This delay was, in his own words, a serious embarrassment. When his consort came in he took on board what coal he could carry, ordered her to follow him across to St. Lawrence Bay, on the coast of Siberia, and sailed on the 21st of August. Upon arriving on the 25th he found a native chief who said that during the winter he had seen a ship frozen in in Koliutchin Bay, and that about three months before the Jeannette came she had spent a day in St. Lawrence Bay and then steamed south.
Although DeLong had “about come to the conclusion” that this was Nordenskjéld’s vessel, the Vega, he determined to go north to Cape Serdze Kamen, where the Swedish expedition had been last heard from. Sending home the coal schooner, he passed around the most eastern point of Asia and reached Serdze Kamen on the 29th of August. Here the story heard at St. Lawrence Bay was repeated in detail, but no written evidence had been left by the explorers, and as Koliutchin Bay was somewhat in his track, he decided to stop there, and ran in on the last day of August. As well as could be made out from the natives, the Vega had started east two or three months before (she had, in fact, been released from the ice on the 18th of July), and at last the Jeannette was free to shape her course toward Wrangel Land.
The foregoing details are necessary for a correct estimate of DeLong’s responsibility. It will be found that they explain the following passage from the report of the Court of Inquiry: “The lateness of the season when the Jeannette sailed from San Francisco, her want of speed, and the delay occasioned by her search along the Siberian coast, under orders from the Navy Department, for the Swedish exploring steamer Vega, placed the commander at a great disadvantage on his meeting with the pack ice early in September, in the vicinity of Herald Island.” Ice was encountered almost immediately after starting north on the 31st of August, and on the 2d of September, when less than 100 miles from Wrangel Land, the ship was headed off by the solid pack and obliged to change her course to N.E. Herald Island was sighted on the 4th, and on the 5th, while attempting to reach it, she was brought up by the pack from 10 to 15 feet thick. On the 6th DeLong writes: “As far as the eye can range is ice, and not only does it look as if it had never broken up and become water, but it also looks as if it never would.” Still he hoped that the September gales and the Indian summer would open leads to Herald Island and prevent the necessity of wintering in the pack. But ice and ship now began drifting to the N.W. and it soon became evident that nothing more could be done that year. Wrangel Land, though often in sight towards the S.W., could not be reached for exploration, but Dr. Petermann’s continent proved to be an island around which they were slowly passing. Lieutenant Berry afterward found on its southeastern coast a good harbor where the Jeannette might have wintered in security if she had been able to hold her course after leaving the mainland of Asia. The winter routine was established on the 1st of November, and so wisely that almost without exception the health of the thirty-three officers and men continued excellent, notwithstanding the anxiety caused by the moving floes that often threatened to crush the ship between them. On the 19th of January the forefoot was bent and pumping rendered necessary until the vessel was abandoned; the consumption of coal destroying all hope of exploring when liberated from the ice.
But though, to use his own words, there seemed to be nothing ahead but taking home a leaking ship, the commander set an example of cheerful courage that lasted till the end. The following words from a passage in his journal describing the arctic night will recall to those who knew him the DeLong of happier days: “ Well, I can’t say what I want to. These outbursts are too much for me; I commence them and cannot finish them; I seem to know the tune but can never remember the words. Occasionally I go out on the ice on these beautiful evenings and try to make words express my feelings suitably; but a lot of dogs wrangling over an empty meat can, trying to find a meal in it, surround me and drag me down to plain matter of fact. So I take my half-frozen nose tenderly in my hand and lead myself back on board ship.”
In drifting he had “not even the satisfaction of going somewhere,” but crossed his own track without advancing. The physical discomfort was not great, and the bears and seals gave a supply of fresh meat that did much to preserve the general health, but at the end of December an inflammation of the left eye obliged the navigator, Master Danenhower, to go on the sick list, and notwithstanding the skill of Dr. Ambler, the ship’s able surgeon, he was afterwards unfit for duty. Toward April the ice ceased to grind and break; “its tumble, shriek, groan, and crash” were no longer heard, and for nine months they were free from this anxiety. But summer brought no release; the long day succeeded the long night without other effect than to open a few leads of water at a distance, and these disappeared almost immediately. The drift made another series of zigzags, and, in the language of the Journal, they “saw summer slip by without doing anything to retrieve their reputation; full of health and energy, with zeal to dare anything, and yet like captives behind bars.”
But they were not idle; a full meteorological record was kept, soundings were taken, the dredge was hauled, specific gravities and sea temperatures were taken, astronomical observations made, dip and declination of the needle observed, experiments made with ice, snow, and surface water, birds shot and skinned, and the ship's routine carried out in every detail. Early in the spring a wind-mill had been rigged to save coal in pumping.
The second winter was less full of cares and anxieties than the first, and on February 5, 1881, DeLong writes: "The cold seems to affect us less this year than it did last, and though our night has been longer it has passed away with seemingly greater speed. I cannot explain the first fact because it is contrary to general experience; the second, however, is easily accounted for by our exemption from pressures and ice movements.” Toward the beginning of the year 1881 the northwest drift became more steady, and on the 16th of March they were “astounded by getting sixty fathoms of water,” the deepest yet attained by them north of the Aleutian Islands. Jeannette Island was discovered on the 17th of May, about 500 miles northwest of Herald Island, and two days later more land was seen, to which the name of Henrietta Island was given. Here Melville landed on the 3d of June after a perilous sled and boat journey. Unfortunately about this time Lieutenant Chipp, whose conduct had shown the wisdom of his Captain’s choice, became very weak, and several of the party were suffering from lead poisoning by canned provisions. The drift began again to the westward and a general breaking up of the ice fields occurred. Early on the 11th of June the ice suddenly opened alongside and the ship righted to an even keel, the leak decreased, and “no difficulty was anticipated in keeping her afloat and navigating her to some port should she ever be liberated from the pack.” But on the afternoon of the next day the ice came together again, the ship’s sides were crushed, and she sank early on the morning of the 13th after all hands had escaped to the floe with boats, sleds, and provisions, Even now, according to the Journal, everybody seemed bright and cheerful, and after a few days of preparation was begun the toilsome retreat over ice and water. One month later Bennett Island was discovered, and from this point they hauled and sailed their three boats down between the islands of New Siberia, where they landed, to Semenovski Island. From here they set sail for the mouth of the Lena river on the 12th of September, Chipp and his party to perish in the gale that separated them; Melville, with Danenhower, to find safety with the natives of the coast; and DeLong to land on the 17th of September and begin the weary tramp that ended with his death.
Worn out by fatigue and exposure, and with but four days’ provisions, he and Dr. Ambler started south with their twelve companions across the half-frozen swamps of the Delta. They had no guide but an old chart, and were bewildered by the countless branches of the river which change with every flood.
But the spirit of the commander was reflected in his men, and they toiled on till the weakest could go no further; then, on the 9th of October, two were sent ahead for relief.
Their devoted Indian hunter, Alexey, spent his strength and died three days after bringing in the last ptarmigan, and the rest sank one by one till the 30th of October, when the record ends and but three remained alive. These, the captain, doctor, and one other, were found by the intrepid Melville in the month of March, [July 1st, 1882, was decided upon by the Department as the official date of Lieutenant-Commander DeLong’s death.] and were lying, with part of the papers, about a thousand yards from the rest, on higher ground; to use his words: “No doubt they saw that if they died on the river bed where the water runs, the spring freshets would carry them off to sea.” This attempt to drag the papers of the expedition to a place of safety was DeLong’s last effort in the line of duty; beset by misfortune in the start, he strove against hope, and when all was over, with the record of his failure beside him, lay down to die.
More than a year before the end he had written, “We have failed, and we and our narratives together are thrown into the world’s dreary waste-basket, and recalled and remembered only to be vilified or ridiculed.” But the world has echoed the judgment of his peers, and joined with the Court of Inquiry in honoring the captain’s dauntless spirit and the cheerful devotion of his crew. Such failures lead to victory. Louis Belrose, Jr.
From "Dangers of Naval Life" by Arthur H. Dutton, former Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, in the January-June 1909 issue of "The Overland Monthly":
Arctic exploration has claimed its victims in the navy as well as in civil life and the army. The deaths of Lieutenant Commander G.W. De Long and Lieutenant C.W. Chipp during the ill-fated Jeannette expedition of 1881, caused a profound sensation throughout the world, their tragic ends in the bleak Lena Delta region of Northern Siberia appealing strongly and deeply to the popular imagination.
George was survived by his wife and daughter. He has a memory marker in New York.
Midshipman, 1 October, 1861. Graduated 24 September, 1865. Ensign, 1 December, 1866. Master, 12 March, 1868. Lieutenant, 26 March, 1869. Lieutenant Commander, 1 November, 1879. Lost in the Arctic Regions, July, 1882. Jeannette.
The "Register of Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the United States Navy and Marine Corps" was published annually from 1815 through at least the 1970s; it provided rank, command or station, and occasionally billet until the beginning of World War II when command/station was no longer included. Scanned copies were reviewed and data entered from the mid-1840s through 1922, when more-frequent Navy Directories were available.
The Navy Directory was a publication that provided information on the command, billet, and rank of every active and retired naval officer. Single editions have been found online from January 1915 and March 1918, and then from three to six editions per year from 1923 through 1940; the final edition is from April 1941.
The entries in both series of documents are sometimes cryptic and confusing. They are often inconsistent, even within an edition, with the name of commands; this is especially true for aviation squadrons in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Alumni listed at the same command may or may not have had significant interactions; they could have shared a stateroom or workspace, stood many hours of watch together… or, especially at the larger commands, they might not have known each other at all. The information provides the opportunity to draw connections that are otherwise invisible, though, and gives a fuller view of the professional experiences of these alumni in Memorial Hall.
MIDN 2/c Benjamin Edes '65
MIDN 1/c Charles Kennedy '65
MIDN 3/c John Phelan '66
MIDN 3/c John Talbot '66
MIDN 3/c Lyman Spalding '66
MIDN 3/c George Totten '66
MIDN 4/c Charles Brown '67
George is one of 4 members of the Class of 1865 on Virtual Memorial Hall.
The "category" links below lead to lists of related Honorees; use them to explore further the service and sacrifice of alumni in Memorial Hall.