George Lucas Hartsuff served as a Union general during the Civil War, but his first brushes with death happened years before he faced off against the Grey. On December 20, 1855, then-Lieutenant Hartsuff and a ten-man detachment of soldiers rose at daybreak and prepared to return to Fort Myers, Florida, after a routine survey mission. As Hartsuff and his soldiers made ready to break camp when a party of forty hostile Seminole Indians ambushed the camp. Four died in the initial exchange and two were wounded, including Hartsuff – a musket ball passed through his left arm and lodged in his chest. As his arm dangled at his side, Hartsuff took cover behind one of the mule-drawn wagons with three of his men.
One of the wounded soldiers loaded and handled muskets for Hartsuff to return fire with his one good arm. Another musket ball suddenly slammed into Hartsuff’s left side. He grasped his side to pinpoint the entry wound but discovered his leather holster and revolver stopped the bullet from piercing his thigh. Short on ammunition, Hartsuff ordered his men to disperse into the swamp and escape.
He tore through the dense foliage of the Everglades as his left arm dangled, limp at his side. He dripped with blood and the discomfort of his chest wound radiated with each step. Hartsuff suddenly fell into a deep lily pond concealed in tall grass. He stayed there, too exhausted to extract himself from the murky water sitting level with his neck. He remained still as one of the Seminole attackers called out in broken English, “Come out, come out.”
He stayed in the pond for three hours until alligators attracted by his blood forced him out. He stumbled toward a grove of palmettos 200 yards away and dropped there from sheer exhaustion. Hartsuff remained there until nightfall, then traveled a half a mile further under the cover of darkness, dragging his body along, too exhausted to stand upright.
Fort Myers was still fifty miles away and he was growing weaker with each passing hour. Hartsuff constructed a makeshift tourniquet to stop the bleeding and prevent an infection. He tore a page from his pocketbook and wrote his name and a brief account of the disaster on it by dipping his finger in his own blood. He pinned the piece of paper on his pant leg, and lay down, too weak to go on.
A detachment under Major Lewis Golding Arnold stumbled upon the unconscious soldier who refused to die. Arnold’s surgeon probed for the ball lodged in Hartsuff’s chest but decided that it would be best to leave the bullet. Hartsuff recovered by February of 1856 and was soon back in an active field command.
From September of 1856 to June of 1859, Hartsuff served a quiet position at the United States Military Academy. He requested to rejoin his company stationed at Fort Mackinac, Michigan, uninterested with the monotony of academia. Hartsuff left Chicago via Lake Michigan on September 7, 1860, aboard the wooden side-wheeler Lady Elgin.
The Lady Elgin held 300-400 passengers that included members of a militia unit accompanied by their wives, children, and friends. Also crammed on the vessel were fifty head of cattle stored below deck. Hartsuff was awakened by a large boom around 2:00 a.m. The 350-ton schooner Augusta, blinded in the heavy rain and shadow of the night, rammed into the side of the Lady Elgin. The bow of the Augusta penetrated the hull of the Lady Elgin below the water line. Hartsuff ran to the deck and began to pass life preservers down to the panicked passengers one-by-one.
Within fifteen or twenty minutes, the damaged ship began to break apart. Rather than go down with the ship, Hartsuff grabbed hold of a six-foot-long board and plunged into the frigid water. He paddled with all of his strength to escape being pulled under with the wreckage as so many others failed to do. Flashes of lightning revealed hundreds struggling to hold anything that could float. Hartsuff floated along until morning with the other survivors. He kept from succumbing to hypothermia by “thrashing my arms upon my breast” and by “keeping my body and limbs continually in motion.” All around him, other passengers floated on fragments of the vessel, furniture, and bloated carcasses of the cattle thrown overboard.
He paddled toward a fragment of the hurricane deck from the Lady Elgin the next morning. As it washed up aside him, he climbed onto it with four other male survivors. Hartsuff assumed a commanding role and gave specific orders to the survivors: “To avoid the similar capsizing of our frail bark, I instructed the men with me so to sit on it as to keep the edges under water; this enabled us to float faster with the tide, we passing many of the other rafts.”
Hartsuff and the others remained on the large piece of debris until it was within a half mile of the shore. The sight of land gave them a false sense of security. A wave crashed into the makeshift craft, throwing two of the survivors to their deaths. A moment later, the raft overturned. Hartsuff grabbed hold of a plank but when close to the shore, he crashed into the bluffs and was thrown into the water by the surf. He struggled to keep his head above water and was buried under the waves. Although the water was no more than three or four feet deep, after ten hours, he was so exhausted he was tossed around in the sand before he could gain his footing. Fewer than 250 passengers survived the wreck.
Hartsuff’s grit allowed him to overcome both encounters with death. He later saw extensive service as a Union general during the Civil War. In May of 1874, he contracted pneumonia, which surfaced in the scar tissue of his old wound to his chest. On May 16, 1874, Hartsuff’s providence finally ran out and he died at the age of 44. He is buried at West Point Cemetery.