By Ken Zurski
Robert Todd Lincoln, President Abraham Lincoln’s first son, outlived his father by 26 years. He also lived 17 years more than his mother, who died at the age of 63. As for his three brothers, tragically, they all died young, including the Lincoln’s third son, Willie, who succumbed to illness in the White House at the age of 11. Robert was still in his teens at the time of Willie’s death. And yet, despite being the only Lincoln child to live to an old age, Robert’s adult life is understandably overshadowed by the legacy of his father.
But Robert Todd Lincoln lived a fascinating life of 82 years. A life filled with military service, politics, great wealth and something he and not his famous father can claim: a sea named after him.
The Lincoln Sea is nothing special to look at.
Scientists will point out its geographical and oceanic importance, like most seas, but not much more. It’s desolate, extreme, and doesn’t bear resemblance to a conventional sea at all. It’s almost completely covered with ice.
The 25-thousand square miles the Lincoln Sea encompasses is located between the Arctic Ocean and the channel of the Nares Strait between the northernmost Qikiqtaaluk region of Canada and Greenland. Due to its year-round ice cover, not many have seen the Lincoln Sea up close, or make a point to visit. The nearest town in Nunavut Canada is so remote it is almost always uninhabited and appropriately named Alert, just in case someone may stumble upon it.
When most people find out there is a sea named Lincoln, their immediate instinct is to conclude that it is in honor of the 16th president, like most everything else.
But it’s not.
In 1881, Robert Todd Lincoln was President James Garfield’s Secretary of War when explorer and fellow soldier Lieutenant Adolphus Greely took a polar expedition financed by the government to collect astronomical and meteorological data in the high Canadian Arctic. A noted astronomer named Edward Israel was part of Greely’s crew. Secretary Lincoln reluctantly approved the risky venture.
The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, as it was called, was mostly smooth sailing at first followed by a harrowing and deadly outcome. After discovering many uncharted miles along the northwest coast of Greenland including a new mountain range they named Conger Range, Lt. Greely and the crew of the Proteus were forced to abandon several relief sites due to lack of supplies. They retreated to Cape Sabine where they hunkered down for the winter with limited food rations.
Months later, in July of 1884, nearly three years after the expedition began, the rescue ship Bear finally reached the encamped crew. It was a sobering sight. In all, 19 of the 25-man crew, including Israel had perished in the harsh conditions. Greely survived.
Even within his own department, Lincoln was criticized for not dispatching a second relief ship (the first one failed to make it through the ice). He rebuked the claims and defended his own actions by basing the decision on information provided to him by others. “Hazarding more lives,” as he put it, was not an option.
Greely also blamed Secretary Lincoln for his crew’s fate. But that was all. Most people understood how dangerous the mission was and Lincoln outlasted the backlash. He issued a court-martial for an outspoken War Department official named William Hazen, and gave Greely a pass, although the Lieutenant’s comments irritated him.
The naming of the Lincoln Sea was a bonus for the Secretary, of course. Although it’s easy to understand why Greely – if in fact he personally named the sea after his military boss – was motivated to do so, his actions after the disastrous mission would suggest otherwise. No record exists as to whether Lincoln was flattered by the attribution.
The naming itself is odd. Since President Abraham Lincoln had hundreds of cities, institutions and streets named after him, including the town of Lincoln in Illinois, which was named for Lincoln, the lawyer, before he even became president, you would think the sea distinction would be more identifiable. Perhaps the Robert T. Lincoln Sea would have been more appropriate. But that’s not the case. It’s the Lincoln Sea, plain and simple, on maps and atlases and in literature. So the confusion with the President is understandable.
Robert Todd Lincoln continued to serve as Secretary of War after Garfield’s assassination and through successor Chester Arthur’s presidential term. Under Benjamin Harrison, he served a short stint as U.S minster to the United Kingdom and eventually left public service. In 1893, Lincoln invested in the popular Pullman rail cars, made a fortune, and lived comfortably for the remaining years of his life.
And whether he liked it or not, the ice-covered and relatively unknown Lincoln Sea, is a part of Robert Todd Lincoln’s legacy. Not his father’s.