Winfield Scott Schley: A Hero, But Not Without Controversy

The 33 founders of the National Geographic Society were an adventurous and accomplished group. They included scientists, explorers, a journalist and a superintendent of the National Zoo. In recognition of the National Geographic Society’s upcoming 130th anniversary, we take a look at their stories.

From the Arctic to South America, from China to Sweden and seemingly everywhere in-between, Winfield Scott Schley boldly sailed the world’s oceans. Schley was born near Frederick, Maryland, on October 9, 1839, the son of John Thomas and Georgiana Virginia Schley. Although he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1860, it was near the bottom of his class, as he admitted that he held “pleasure and holidays in higher esteem than plodding study.” He served a year in Chinese and Japanese waters before the outbreak of the Civil War whereupon he attached to the West Gulf blockading squadron, serving in all the engagements of that fleet, including the capture of Port Hudson in 1863.

The years after the Civil War found the U.S. Navy stuck in the doldrums, but Schley’s buoyant personality seemed not to mind the endless cruises. Then, in 1884, he was put in command of the third Greely relief expedition, and finally succeeded in rescuing Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely and the remainder of his Arctic exploration party, only days before they would most likely have perished through starvation on the shores of Cape Sabine.

Winfield Scott Schley

On March 31, 1888, shortly after he helped found the National Geographic Society, Schley was promoted to captain. In 1891, while in command of the Baltimore, he suppressed an anti-American demonstration at Valparaiso, Chile. That same year, he commanded the party that took the body of John Ericsson, inventor of the naval screw propeller and designer of the ironclad Monitor, back to Sweden, for which he received a gold medal from the King of Sweden. Schley was promoted to commodore in February, 1898–just in time to play a pivotal role in the Spanish-American War. Commanding the “flying squadron,” Schley, in the absence of his superior officer, impetuously took direct command of the fleet and destroyed Admiral Cervera’s Spanish squadron in the harbor of Santiago on July 3, 1898. As a result, the war was nearly won and Schley was advanced to the rank of rear admiral.

In recognition of his role in the victory, he received many public testimonials, as well as medals and swords from various public bodies and organizations. But he was also embroiled in controversy over his role in the battle vis-a-vis his superior officer, and he felt compelled to request a court of inquiry to defend himself against charges of misconduct. This court generally frowned upon his conduct, but recommended no action be taken.

Admiral Schley retired in 1901. He was the author of The Rescue of Greely and Forty-Five Years under the Flag. Toward the end of his days, he championed the cause of Frederick A. Cook in the North Pole discovery controversy with Robert E. Peary, an action that often put him at odds with the National Geographic Society he had helped found. Both Schley and Greely, the man he had rescued, were bitter opponents of Peary.

Schley died in 1911 just a week before his 70th birthday and was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The destroyer USS Schley was named in his honor, serving in World Wars I and II.

Human Journey