Shipwrecked Generals: Heroism, Sacrifice, and Survival, Part 2

Foundering Steamship

On the morning of December 24, 1853, the steamship San Francisco encountered “the worst hurricane the Atlantic had ever seen” about 200 miles east of Charleston, South Carolina.[3] Around midnight, the air pump’s piston rod broke. The engine’s malfunction left the San Francisco immobilized and defenseless.

Charles S. Winder. (LOC)

Around 600 officers and soldiers of the 3rd Regiment of U.S. Artillery and their families were onboard. Five future Civil War generals were also on the ship, notably First Lieutenant Charles S. Winder.[4]

The mountainous waves pummeled the ship from every angle. Around 8 a.m., the sea carried away the vessel’s main saloon, paddle boxes, masts, and smokestacks. It broke the ship’s hurricane deck in half. All eight boats were washed away. Blow after blow reduced the ship to a wreck.

“The waves came against the vessel one after another with a crash, and with a force that would seem to crush the vessel,” Harriet Louise Gates, Colonel William Gates’ wife, recalled. “Each wave seemed to be harder, and it seemed to us that our vessel would be rent in two.”[5]

On Christmas Day, around 150 soldiers were washed overboard and drowned, among them Colonel John M. Washington.

“Each wave would dash more water upon us, and after it receded would return with renewed force. As the waves struck, voices could be heard simultaneously with ‘Oh God!’ all being in expectation that it would be our last,” Mrs. Gates remembered.

John M. Washington. (LOC)

Some passengers courageously worked day and night to keep the wreck afloat by helping to pump and bail water. Among them were First Lieutenant Charles S. Winder and his cousin First Lieutenant William A. Winder, the son of future Confederate brigadier general John H. Winder.

“The officers … worked with an effort almost superhuman,” Colonel Gates stated. “Of Lieutenants [John G.] Chandler, [James] Van Voast, and the two Lieutenants Winders, I cannot speak in terms of too high praise for their noble exertion. If anything was wanted, they did not require asking, but rushed to the spot eager to do all they could … The whole four worked with a zeal which is almost beyond commendation. If ever men deserved brevets they deserve them.”[6]

In the morning of December 28, the Kilby arrived at the scene. The sea threatened to swallow the ship, but Captain Edwin J. Low dispatched rescue boats to the wrecked steamer. The Kilby’s crew managed to cram 106 of the San Francisco survivors onboard. The two ships were tied together with a hawser (thick rope or cable) that evening, but it broke during the night, and the two ships became separated. Major Francis O. Wyse, Lieutenant John G. Chandler, Lieutenant Charles S. Winder, Lieutenant William A. Winder, 325 others remained on the wreck.[7]

Two ships, the Three Bells and Antarctic, later rescued the remaining San Francisco survivors. Charles S. Winder was one of the last men to leave the wreck. Of the over 500 passengers originally on the San Francisco, 275, or nearly half, perished.[8]

Wreck of the steamship San Francisco. (University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library)

On January 24, 1854, the Maryland General Assembly thanked Francis O. Wyse, Charles S. Winder, William A. Winder, and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Frank K. Murray, “for their courageous and gallant bearing during those trying scenes.”[9] Less than three months later, Charles S. Winder was promoted to captain for “soldiery conduct” on the wrecked steamer.[10]

Winder resigned from the U.S. Army in April 1861 and joined the rebellion. On August 9, 1862, he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Cedar Mountain while serving as a Confederate brigadier general.

Boiler Blows

On the morning of February 16, 1854, the Kate Kearney’s starboard boiler exploded as it pulled away from the wharf in St. Louis. The explosion destroying the steamboat and sent timbers and missiles flying. Dozens of passengers were killed and severely injured, among them Major Don Carlos Buell of the Adjutant General’s Department and Major Richard C. Gatlin of the 7th U.S. Infantry. Both U.S. Army officers were on military leave.

Don Carlos Buell. (Heritage Auctions,

The Albany Journal reported that the explosion was heard several squares away. Another newspaper said that a piece of the boiler two feet across and weighting 75 pounds and was thrown 200 yards, striking a fourth story window of a store. When it came crashing to the ground, it crushed a horse.[11]

Major Buell pulled himself from debris after a few minutes. When he heard the city’s fire alarm sound, although injured, he helped to extinguish the flames until relieved by St. Louis’ fire companies.[12]

Buell’s friend and a fellow U.S. Army officer, First Lieutenant Winfield Scott Hancock, said that if it hadn’t been for Buell’s “prompt and efficient action,” the wounded survivors would have perished.

“In times of danger, presence of mind in a soldier is expected,” Hancock wrote to the St. Louis Republican, “but it is thought that under the circumstances Major Buell’s conduct deserves especial notice, he having been previously so injured by the explosion that for some time afterward his life was despaired of.”[13]

Fifteen horribly burned and mangled passengers were rushed to the St. Louis Hospital under the charge of the Sisters of Charity. Several died a few hours later. Other injured were taken to and cared for at hotels in the city.[14] Major Richard C. Gatlin was slightly injured, but his 3-year-old son, John, died from his injuries 10 days later.[15] Doctors treated Buell at the Planter’s House Hotel. The physicians worried that Buell had suffered internal damage from inhaling the steam in addition to his external injuries.[16]

Richard C. Gatlin. (Heritage Auctions,

Two days after the disaster, Buell telegraphed his wife Margaret. He said: “Do not be anxious[.] I shall soon be up again[.] Do not think of coming[.]” He wrote his stepdaughters, Emma and Nannie Mason, the same day and said they should not be concerned for his welfare. Perhaps to relieve his wife’s anxiety, Buell referred to the explosion in a letter as “the little accident,” but admitted that it was terrible for some.

“[T]he very moment I can move I shall be on my way again,” he assured her. “I hope it will be but a few very days.”[17]

By February 21, Buell wrote to his wife telling her he had recovered a good amount of his strength and would start for Indianapolis that evening. By April, he arrived in Texas, apparently healed from his injuries.[18]

Richard C. Gatlin rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Confederate Army and served in the Department of North Carolina until relived from duty in 1862. Don Carlos Buell was appointed a major general in the U.S. Army and led the Army of the Ohio at Shiloh and Perryville. He was also relieved of command in 1862.

Looking Back

Maritime disasters continued to plague the United States into the Civil War. The Sultana explosion in April 1865 claimed the lives of over 1,000 passengers. U.S. Brigadier General George Wright and his wife, Margaret, both drowned when the steamer Brother Jonathan sank on its way north along the California coast on August 6, 1865. Sea transportation disasters were part American life into the 20th century.

The remarkable tales of heroism, sacrifice, and survival displayed by George L. Hartsuff, Charles S. Winder, and Don Carlos Buell were overshadowed by the events of the Civil War. To really understand the men who were senior leaders during the Civil War, we need to look back to the antebellum period — whether they were the wars they participated in, their private relationships, thoughts, and feeling, or the incidents that shaped them. It might even give us a greater appreciation for these generals, rather than judging them only by the events of the Civil War.

Editor’s note: You can read Part 1 here.


Citations 1 and 2 are in Part 1.

[3] John Stewart, The Wreck of the San Francisco: Disaster and Aftermath in the Great Hurricane of December 1853 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., Inc., Publishers, 2018), 71.

[4] The other four were U.S. brevet brigadier generals Charles Spencer Merchant, William Gates, Richard Sherwood Satterlee, and Martin Burke.

[5] The Wreck of the San Francisco,” The New York Times, January 16, 1854.

[6] “The Army and the Navy,” Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), January 23, 1854.

[7] Stewart, The Wreck of the San Francisco, 134.

[8] “Total Wreck of the Steamship San Francisco,” The Evening Post (New York, NY), January 14, 1854.

[9] Stewart, The Wreck of the San Francisco, 193.

[10] “The Appointments to the New Regiments,” Washington Sentinel (Washington, D.C.), March 21, 1855.

[11] “Awful Casualty al St. Louis,” Albany Journal (Albany, NY), February 20, 1854; “Explosion of the Kate Kearney,” The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, LA), February 25, 1854.

[12] “Major Buell,” The Weekly Union (Washington, D.C.), March 4, 1854; James T. Lloyd, “Explosion of the Kate Kearny,” in Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory, and Disasters on the Western Waters, 244-45 (Cincinnati, OH: James T. Lloyd & Co., 1856).

[13]Almira Hancock, Reminiscences of Winfield Scott Hancock (New York: Charles L. Webster & Co., 1887), 9-10.

[14] Lloyd, “Explosion of the Kate Kearny,” 244-45; “Latest by Telegraph,” Kenosha Telegraph (Kenosha, WI), February 24, 1854; “The Steamboat Explosion,” Quincy Whig (Quincy, IL), February 20, 1854; “Dreadful Steamboat Explosion,” Illinois State Register (Springfield, IL), February 17, 1854.

[15] “Telegraphic,” The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, LA), Mach 7, 1854.

[16] “Explosion of the Steamer Kate Kearney—Loss of Life—Twenty-Five to Thirty Persons Wounded and Scalded,” Memphis Daily Eagle and Enquirer (Memphis, TN), February 24, 1854.

[17] Stephen D. Engle, Don Carlos Buell: Most Promising of All (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 50-51; Don Carlos Buell telegraph to Margaret H. Buell, February 18, 1854, Don Carlos Buell to Emma and Nannie Mason, February 18, 1854, Don Carlos Buell to Margaret Buell, February 18, 1854, Don Carlos Buell to Margaret Buell, February 21, 1854, Don Carlos Buell Papers, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Kentucky.

[18] Don Carlos Buell to Margaret Buell, February 21, 1854, Don Carlos Buell Papers; “New-Orleans Correspondence,” Charleston Courier (Charleston, SC), April 29, 1854.

1 Response to Shipwrecked Generals: Heroism, Sacrifice, and Survival, Part 2

  1. That is awfully so sad the horror of the moment cannot be described by the passengers were seen groping their way through the water to the upper deck, we remained many hours upon the deck, the sea washing over us at every lurch of the vessel & the cold north west wind chilling us to the heart, not less than 100 human beings were clinging to spars,doors & such other fragments as they could obtain for preservation of their lives but the next wave sealed their fate and they were hurried without a moment’s notice into eternity, of the 700 onboard about 200 were swept overboard & 3 passing ships the Kilby The Three Bells & The Antarctic were able to aid the sinking ship & save many of the surviving passengers that is so awful

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