In early 1853, William Tecumseh Sherman was a captain of the United States Commissary Department, but he was looking for a change in profession. Around this time, some buddies sent Sherman an invitation to join a banking venture named Lucas, Turner & Co. Although Sherman enjoyed, and was comfortable in, his military life, he admitted that he would not mind a higher wage. Therefore, he petitioned his superiors for leave to journey to California to meet with his potential business partners and assess their banking operation.
From his location in New Orleans, Sherman boarded a steamship heading toward Nicaragua. Once he had arrived there, the passengers took smaller boats across the Nicaragua River and Lake, and made the rest of the voyage to San Juan del Sur by mule.
Now the passengers were ready to depart Nicaragua for California. Sherman boarded the propeller ship, S. S. Lewis, which Sherman later remembered was commanded by Captain Partridge. For the voyage, Sherman was given his own stateroom with three berths located on the deck of the ship. Little did Sherman know, however, just how dramatic his sea voyage upon the S. S. Lewis would turn out to be.
The first bit of excitement aboard the S. S. Lewis occurred when two women recognized Sherman to be a man of action. Naturally, they asked him to put in a word with the ship’s purser to move their chambers to the above-deck rooms, rather than their “unendurable” quarters below deck. Assuming a gentlemanly air, Sherman did as they asked and had them reassigned to the top of the ship. There was a problem, however, the purser moved the women into the two extra berths in Sherman’s stateroom—the purser’s log entry read, “Captain Sherman and ladies.” The two women’s presence became so overwhelming that Sherman asked to be assigned a new berth, and gladly moved in with five other passengers below.
When the S. S. Lewis had only about one day left of its journey to California, disaster struck. Around 4:00 A.M., Sherman awoke to a thud and the sound of grinding. Furthermore, the ship’s engine stopped and he heard panicked running on the deck of the ship. Sherman, who had slept in his clothes, emerged from the hull of the ship to a scene of crewmen guarding the lifeboats from frenzied passengers. Captain Partridge even threatened to use his firearm if the passengers would not calm down.
Once the passengers were calm, the crew ushered everyone into lifeboats and promptly reached the shoreline. Sherman himself, fearlessly snacking on some crackers and sardines he scavenged from a wet cupboard, patiently waited with the ship’s captain, attempting to calculate their position. He was one of the last passengers to leave the ship. Thankfully, no one was killed and very few, if any, were injured in the panic.
Once Sherman reached the beach, he immediately began another odd adventure. Sherman, along with an eighteen-year-old boy, ventured inland to ascertain their location and to find help for the passengers stranded on the beach. Soon, the two encountered four men living in a shack. These men told Sherman that a nearby schooner used by loggers would likely help Sherman reach San Francisco, where he could find adequate help to save the shipwrecked passengers.
With this new lead, Sherman and his companion hunted down the schooner. When he found the ship, Sherman was not very impressed. The schooner was manned by only two people—a captain (or “captain,” as Sherman wrote, quotations included) and a single twelve-year-old boy for a crew. Nonetheless, Sherman hopped aboard and the picaresque crew set sail.
The voyage, however, did not last long. Sherman only had time to get comfortable on one of the schooner’s logs before the bow of the ship began to submerge. In quick succession, the nose of the ship slipped under the water and the ship capsized, tossing Sherman and the others into the water. Fortunately, the ship, and the logs it was carrying, turned out to be very buoyant, and the upturned schooner remained afloat.
Sherman and the crew of the schooner were in luck; there were other ships nearby, which promptly came to their rescue. Sherman and the other waterlogged men were pulled out of the depths and ferried to safety. Once he made landfall, Sherman was able to send help to the survivors of the S. S. Lewis shipwreck.
So, after surviving two sinking ships, Sherman reached San Francisco and received a tour of his friends’ banking establishment. Ultimately, he took up the offer and resigned (temporarily) from the military to take a position at Lucas, Turner & Co. Yet, Sherman was a bit weary of his future. He wrote in his memoirs about the shipwrecks: “I was not in the least alarmed, but thought two shipwrecks in one day not a good beginning for a new, peaceful career.”
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman by William T. Sherman. Delaware: Renaissance Classics, 2012.