After that somber re-entry to civilization, Hayes gradually won recognition for his achievements. When he sought a position with the Union Army, President Lincoln himself took an interest in the matter. In 1862, Hayes was named director of Satterlee, a government hospital being built in West Philadelphia to treat wounded Union soldiers [“Penn Fights the Civil War,” Mar|Apr 2011].

There was no rulebook for managing federal hospitals, so Hayes had to improvise. The core of his staff was a group of Roman Catholic nuns, the Sisters of Charity, who proved to be reliable and industrious. By all accounts, Satterlee was a model institution that rose to the occasion when casualties arrived by the wagonload from such bloody battlefields as Second Bull Run and Gettysburg. Gettysburg posed a special challenge. In addition to thousands of Union soldiers, the hospital took in 175 wounded Confederate prisoners of war; when space inside the buildings ran out, the overflow had to be housed in tents pitched on the hospital grounds. With hardly a day off, Hayes stayed on the job until the war’s end. (Shortly afterward, the property was sold to a developer, who tore Satterlee down.)

Hayes now moved to New York, where he took care of a long-deferred task: writing an account of his Arctic expedition, The Open Polar Sea, which came out in 1867. Though he was honored by foreign geographical societies, at home the Civil War had all but erased his exploits from memory, and the book’s sales were middling.

Hayes hoped to return to the Arctic, where he might nail down his Open Polar Sea theory and even conquer the Pole itself. As a means to these ends, he proposed founding a colony of explorers, who would abide in the North for years on end, making forays until the ultimate prize was won. However, he settled for an advisory role on a pleasure cruise to Greenland in 1870. He relished reconnecting with friends from previous trips—Danish administrators of the island and Eskimos alike—and wrote a book about the excursion.

By now Hayes was nearing 40, making a modest living as a lecturer and author, and slipping into the role of Arctic éminence grise. When Congress asked his opinion about funding a polar expedition being assembled by an eccentric Cincinnati newspaper publisher named Charles Francis Hall, Hayes expressed grave reservations. Having run across Hall on several occasions, Hayes considered him a bumbler, especially compared with Hayes himself, who would have been glad to take charge of a federally sponsored expedition. Congress ignored Hayes’s warning, with dire results. Hall’s leadership was so erratic that up north a mutinous subordinate got rid of him by administering a fatal dose of arsenic. (The consensus at the time was that Hall had died of natural causes. Although Hayes publicly surmised the truth, he was not to be vindicated until a century later, when Hall’s body was exhumed and tests were performed.) Afterward, the expeditionary ship became separated from 19 of its crew members, left marooned on an ice floe, on which they drifted helplessly south for six terrifying months before being rescued.

One effect of the Hall fiasco was to dampen American enthusiasm for Arctic exploration. Asked by a newspaper reporter in 1875 whether he intended to lead another northern expedition, Hayes replied: “I cannot say that I really expect to, for I am not rich enough, and I have never found anybody willing to make the needed sacrifice. After the disastrous voyage of [Hall’s vessel], I hardly think the Government would aid another expedition.”

Later that year, Hayes reinvented himself as a politician when he ran on the Republican ticket for an open seat in the New York State Assembly. Winning handily, he soon became known for his efforts on behalf of society’s less fortunate members. In an exchange with a colleague who begrudged spending state money on insane asylums, Hayes made a cutting reply to a request for more information: “While I can give the gentleman … information, I cannot undertake to give him either heart or understanding.”

Meanwhile, a British Arctic expedition ended prematurely when most of the participants came down with scurvy because their leaders had ignored Hayes’s recipe for warding it off. At the same time, they called into question both his attainment of the farthest north record and the existence of the Open Polar Sea. Hayes defended himself in print, and the ensuing battle of words ended in a draw.

Assemblyman Hayes built a reputation as an anti-Tammany Hall Republican with an independent streak. Perhaps his most notable political effort was to push for construction of a railroad tunnel linking New Jersey with Manhattan under the Hudson River, a project that came to fruition a generation after his death.

Physicians tend to be autocratic, as do hospital administrators and leaders of expeditions. Hayes, of course, was all three. Re-elected several times (to one-year terms), he began to lose patience with the ponderousness of the legislative process. In exasperation, he berated witnesses at hearings and even snarled at his own colleagues (the irascibility may have been caused in part by the heart trouble that eventually killed him).

Six years after it started, his political career came to a sudden end. The streets of Manhattan had become so filthy that citizens rose up and formed an independent group to lobby for creation of a separate street-cleaning department that would report directly to the mayor. Hayes and other Republicans objected that the proposal would give too much power to the incumbent mayor, a Democrat. The New York Times sided with the reformers, and the dispute degenerated into scurrilous name-calling. The Times went so far as to suggest that Hayes’s opposition derived from a devious and ghoulish motive: he wanted poor people, who voted heavily Democratic, to die from diseases picked up on the putrid streets because Republicans would thereby gain an edge at the ballot box. Widely criticized as an obstructionist, in the fall of 1881 Hayes was pressured by his own party into not running again.

Late that same year, he died after a brief illness. When his relatives came up from Pennsylvania to settle his affairs, they discovered that he owed back rent on his apartment. They were able to retrieve his papers, but little else. It was a sad finale, but not an ignominious one. In an era of influence-peddling, bribery, and boodle, Hayes stayed clean. He parlayed his medical degree into, first, the Arctic adventures he craved and, then, into a vital non-belligerent contribution to the Civil War. He leapt from one important job to the next and performed at a high level in each. Not quite 50 when he died, Isaac Hayes packed a full lifetime of leadership into his relatively brief time on earth.


Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of The Washington Post Book World.

 


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FEATURE: Pointing the Way to the Pole By Dennis Drabelle
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From 1862 to the Civil War’s end, Hayes served as director of Satterlee, a federal hospital built in West Philadelphia that treated thousands of Union soldiers and also took in 175 wounded Confederate prisoners of war. Lithograph by Charles Magnus, 1864. From the Library Company of Philadelphia.
Images Hayes brought back helped inspire paintings like Aurora Borealis (1865, oil on canvas), by Frederic Edwin Church. Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Eleanor Blodgett.


 

 
 
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