The Open Polar Sea: Lincoln and the Arctic Explorer

2/9/2021 cbw

By Dr. Daniel Worthington

Nineteenth-century America was restless; it was truly a land of explorers, immigrants, migrants, and travelers. For a people imbued with an expansionist spirit, the North Pole and the Northwest Passage symbolized the zenith of exploratory achievement. 

For many Americans, the voyages of American arctic explorers did more than advance science; they were victories of Yankee ingenuity and expressions, in the wake of the Mexican War, of Manifest Destiny and nascent American imperialism. Their adventures made these explorers international celebrities — heroes who generated a sense of national pride. Perhaps more symbolically, they unified a country being torn asunder by sectional conflict and slavery.

Count Abraham Lincoln among those caught up in the “Arctic Fever,” evidenced by his role in securing an appointment for Isaac Israel Hayes, a renowned Arctic explorer and physician who in the winter of 1862 applied for an appointment as a brigade surgeon. 

Hayes’s first taste of Arctic exploration came in 1853 when he joined Elisha Kent Kane’s second Arctic voyage, signing on as surgeon aboard Kane’s ship the Advance. Though he lost three toes to frostbite, Hayes survived the harrowing journey, returning home in 1855 to much acclaim.  Kane had trekked to the Arctic in search of survivors from Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition and an “Open Polar Sea” route to the North Pole. He returned without finding either Franklin or the North Pole, but he could claim an astounding discovery: his manservant had supposedly spotted the Open Polar Sea.

An illustration of a bear hunt from one of Hayes's books. (Internet Archive)

Theoretically, all that remained to get to the North Pole was to cross this sea, and Hayes would be the first to try. Unfazed by his mutilated foot, Hayes secured funds for a single ship, and in July 1860 he and a crew of fourteen sailed for the Arctic. Traveling 1300 miles, Hayes did not reach the Open Polar Sea but was convinced that it lay just beyond the final point reached by his expedition. 

Hayes and his expedition returned to the United States in October 1861 amid little fanfare. The Civil War had temporarily doused enthusiasm for Arctic exploration, leaving Hayes in debt and with little hope of obtaining funding for another venture. With limited employment options and eager to serve his country, Hayes offered his ship to the government and appeared before the Army Medical Board in hopes of becoming a brigade surgeon. On February 25, 1862, Hayes formally applied to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton for an appointment, asking the secretary to authorize the Medical Board to expedite certification of his credentials. 

Three days later, Andrew G. Curtin, governor of Pennsylvania, wrote President Lincoln to recommend Hayes’s appointment. Agreeing with Curtin that Hayes’s Arctic exploits earned him special consideration, Lincoln endorsed the governor's letter and submitted it to the War Department.

Lincoln also penned his own a letter in support of Hayes’s application.   “I would like for Brigade him to be appointed at once,” Lincoln wrote Secretary Stanton on March 1, “if consistent with the rules.”


Lincoln's letter supporting Hayes for a post in the Army (ALPLM)

Lincoln's letter and his endorsement of Curtin’s letter had the desired effect; in April, Hayes received a captain’s commission as brigade surgeon of volunteers. After a month of training in the Department of the South and inspection duty at Cape May, New Jersey, he transferred to Philadelphia to take command of a hospital being constructed in West Philadelphia. From May 1862 to June 1865, Hayes commanded the 4,500-bed West Philadelphia (Satterlee) Hospital, one of the largest army hospitals in the war. He was later promoted to major. 

A drawing of the hospital 

On June 27, 1865, feeling that his services were no longer required and eager to return to civilian life, Hayes resigned his commission. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana accepted his resignation on July 6, and on July 28, President Andrew Johnson brevetted Hayes to lieutenant colonel for service rendered.

After the war, Hayes wrote books about his expeditions and served in the New York legislature before dying of a heart attack in 1881 at age 49.

Worthington is director of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.

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