Shipwrecked Generals: Heroism, Sacrifice, and Survival, Part 1

Mid-19th century shipwrecks. (LOC)

Maritime disasters — collisions, boiler explosions, and wrecks caused by storms — were common during the 19th century. For instance, the paddle steamer S.S. Arctic sank when it collided with another ship off the coast of Newfoundland on September 27, 1854, killing 88 passengers and crew. On August 20, 1852, the steamboat Atlantic collided with a steamer on Lake Erie, claiming the lives of over 150 passengers. Mexican War veterans were familiar with the Dayton explosion, which occurred on September 12, 1845, when two of the steamer’s boilers burst on its way to Texas’ San José Island, killing nine soldiers, including two officers, and wounding 17 others. Disasters plagued maritime transportation during the antebellum period.[1]

So, it’s not surprising that U.S. Army officers crisscrossing the country on duty or on leave ended up on some of these ill-fated ships. In three instances, two future U.S. generals and one Confederate general displayed feats of heroism, sacrifice, and survival. You might be surprised to find out who they were.

Floating to Salvation

While Major General George L. Hartsuff’s numerous hairbreadth escapes have been covered on the blog before, his remarkable near-death experience during a Great Lakes maritime disaster warrants mention again.

On the night of September 7, 1860, the Lady Elgin departed Chicago for Milwaukee. During the early morning hours, the steamer collided with a 350-ton schooner named the Augusta. First Lieutenant Hartsuff of the 2nd U.S. Artillery was among roughly 400 frightened passengers on the Lady Elgin when the accident occurred.

George L. Hartsuff. (The Soldier in Our Civil War: A Pictorial History of the Conflict, 1861-1865, Vol. 2, 1890)

The sound of the Augusta’s bow crushing the steamer’s hull woke Hartsuff. He jumped from his bed and hurried to the pilot house. When he reached the hurricane deck, Captain Jack Wilson pointed out the life preservers to him. Hartusff began to pass them down to the ship’s passengers until they ran out. Panic ensued, and passengers began to pull down the doors and other objects to use as flotation devices.

All Hartsuff could do as the ship came apart was to clutch his life preserver and wait. Roughly half an hour later, the Lady Elgin’s hurricane deck broke away and floated off. The ship’s hull sunk soon after.

“As she broke,” Hartsuff recalled, “I jumped with my life preserver — a board six or eight feet long and about one wide — into the water, which was at this time only a few feet below us, and pulled with all my might to escape from the mass of the wreck.”

He heard Captain Wilson encouraging the passengers still gathered on the hurricane deck that the shore was only a few miles off, and that if they kept calm and obeyed his direction, they might all be saved. Ten minutes later, Wilson’s voice went silent.

Hartsuff clung to his life preserver until daylight. He then climbed onto a large piece of the hurricane deck. Four other survivors were already on it.

Hartsuff observed many fragments of the wreck containing from two to four persons capsize, drowning all that were on them. To avoid this from happening to them, Hartsuff directed the craft’s passengers to keep its edges under water, so it prevented it from capsizing and enabled the party to float faster.

“By my instructions, our party most of the time turned our faces from the shore, and thus faced the waves, and in this way were enabled to watch the breakers as they came towards us and be prepared for them,” Hartsuff stated. “In this way we were several time saved from being washed off, while almost every one near us were carried from their frail barks and perished.”

Hartsuff also understood the importance of keeping his body temperature from dropping too low.

Sinking of the Lady Elgin. (University of Wisconsin Digital Collections)

“During the time I was on the wreck, I contrived to keep myself warm by thrashing my arms, catching piece of wreck, &c.,” he recalled, “and in this manner I saved myself from suffering from the cold, which proved so fatal to many.”

When the makeshift craft reached within a quarter of a mile of the shore, it broke apart, and two of the five men on it were washed off and drowned. A moment later, the remaining three men were washed off, and another drowned.

“My remaining companion contrived to regain the raft, and I again took to a life preserver which I found afloat, and on this I floated to the shore just below the bluffs,” Hartsuff remembered. “From the time I was swept from the raft, until I reached the shore, I was several times buried deep under the waves. When close to the shore, I was thrown from my life preserver and went to the bottom, and although, the water was not more than three or four feet deep, I was so exhausted as to be unable to rise, and crawled for some distance under the water until I reached dry land.”

One man pulled off his coat and gave it to Hartsuff; another took off his boots and put them on Hartsuff’s feet. Over 300 passengers perished in the catastrophe, but Hartsuff survived due to his quick thinking and determination to live.

On April 15, 1862, Hartsuff was promoted to brigadier general. He was shot in the hip by a Confederate sharpshooter during the Battle of Antietam. He survived the war, only to die from pneumonia in 1874, caused by an infection that surfaced around the scar tissue of an old Seminole War wound.[2]

To be continued…


[1] Gregory P. Sandukas, “Gently Down the Stream: How Exploding Steamboat Boilers in the 19th Century Ignited Federal Public Welfare Regulation,” Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard (April 30, 2002),

[2] “Statement of Lieut. Hartsuff,” Kenosha Telegraph (Kenosha, WI), September 13, 1860.

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