On a crisp, clear afternoon in July 1879, a group of 33 men known officially as the U.S. Arctic Expedition left San Francisco on one of the most foolhardy missions in the history of exploration: to cruise through the Bering Strait and reach the geographic North Pole — entirely by ship.

To be fair, no one was expecting it to be an easy voyage. The brutal challenges of Arctic travel were well known by 1879, and the expedition’s hardy three-master — the USS Jeannette, equipped with a supplemental steam engine and a specially reinforced bow — was as prepared for heavy pack ice as any vessel of the time could be. But the notion that one could reach 90 degrees north latitude in a wooden ship, no matter how fortified its hull, proved to be hopelessly naive. And as Hampton Sides illustrates in his vivid new book, “In the Kingdom of Ice,” hopelessly naive notions rarely lead to good outcomes in the Arctic.

What the commander of the Jeannette, Lt. George Washington De Long, counted on was something called the theory of the open polar sea, a widely accepted belief that “the dome of the world was covered in a shallow, warm, ice-free sea whose waters could be smoothly sailed.” Why 19th-century scientists clung to this counterintuitive idea remains obscure; there was little hard evidence to support it, and numerous Arctic expeditions early in the century had ended in debacle among impenetrable ice floes. But authorities such as German geographer August Petermann remained convinced that one needed only to break through a “girdle” of pack ice surrounding the open polar sea to gain ready access to the upper latitudes. True, earlier efforts to do so by way of the waters around Greenland had come to icy grief, but De Long was trying a different and more promising route — via the north Pacific, where a (hypothetical) warm-water current (purportedly) created a “Thermometric Gateway” to the top of the world.

The Jeannette also had a few other factors working in its favor, not least of which were the deep pockets of James Gordon Bennett Jr. Though officially flying the colors of the U.S. Navy, the expedition was being funded by the wealthy publisher of the New York Herald, who was hoping to boost circulation with another triumphant adventure like Stanley’s 1871 quest for Livingstone. Bennett therefore made sure that the Jeannette was fitted out with all the latest in Victorian high technology — from Thomas Edison’s high-voltage arc lamps to Alexander Graham Bell’s fresh-from-the-lab telephones. (Neither engineering marvel, as it turned out, could be persuaded to operate once out in the field.)

But perhaps the expedition’s most valuable asset was De Long himself. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and well experienced in Arctic travel, he was, according to Sides, “a determined, straight-ahead sort of man, efficient and thorough.” Unlike many other heroic figures in history, De Long actually seemed to live up to his hyperbolic news releases. Judging from accounts left behind by various crew members, the commander was decisive but not imperious, strong-willed but flexible, practical but inspirational when necessary — all ideal qualities for a man called upon to shepherd a group of strong-willed individuals through trying circumstances.

No measure of capable leadership, however, could change the truths of nature. The Thermometric Gateway proved to be just another geographical fantasy, and less than two months after leaving San Francisco, the Jeannette was firmly imprisoned in the thickening sea ice near Wrangel Island. She remained there, in fact, for the next 21 months, drifting along with the ice pack while her crew survived on seals, polar bears, pemmican and hopes for warmer weather. Finally, during the spring thaw of 1881, just when it looked as if she might be freed, the Jeannette was crushed by shifting ice floes. Forced to abandon ship, De Long and his men set out on a 1,000-mile journey over half-frozen seas to the Siberian mainland — and that’s when the real trouble began.

In the interest of suspense, I won’t say how this surprisingly little-known expedition ended. The history of polar exploration sets a high bar for extreme physical ordeal — think John Franklin, Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott — and the tribulations of De Long and his crew stack up with the worst of them. Thanks to Sides’s copious mining of primary and first-person sources — including memoirs, official Navy documents, and De Long’s journals and private correspondence — readers get to experience at close range the Jeannette crew’s trek across the melting ice, this “sorry-looking set” in ignominious retreat from a nonexistent warm-water sea. Such, one is tempted to say, were the rewards of the Victorian era’s unscientific folly.

But let’s not be too smug. Toward the end of “In the Kingdom of Ice,” Sides reports that by 2050 or so, if recent climatology projections are accurate, the ice pack around the North Pole will melt away completely for parts of every summer. So the ghost of August Petermann might get his open polar sea after all — and if that happens, the unscientific folly will be entirely our own.

Gary Krist is the author of “The White Cascade” and “City of Scoundrels.” His new book about New Orleans, “Empire of Sin,” will be published this fall.


The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette

By Hampton Sides

Doubleday. 451 pp. $28.95