Today, the California Diamond Jubilee Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin remembers the last voyage of the Central America from California to New York.
After stopping at Havana, she met an Atlantic hurricane and after a brave fight by crew and passengers she sank on September 12, 1857.
From The United Service, A Monthly Review of Military and Naval Affairs of March 1903:
A Hero of the Old Navy.
“On the 12th of September, 1857, at 8 p. m., the United States mail steamer ‘Central America’ foundered in a gale in latitude 31 ° 45′ N., near the outer edge of the Gulf Stream, with most of her passengers, the California mail, and an immense amount of treasure.”
Such was the paragraph that took grief and desolation to many homes and evoked sympathy from all hearts on the morning of the 14th of September, 1857.
She was commanded by William Lewis Herndon, U. S. Navy, who went down with his ship, leaving a glowing example of devotion to duty, Christian conduct, and true heroism that will live forever.
Captain Herndon was a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, born on the 25th day of October, 1813; the son of Dabney Herndon, of that place, and the fifth of seven children.
He was named after William Lewis, U. S. N., who was lost on the United States brig “Epervier” in 1815.
Herndon was but fifteen years old when he entered the navy, and up to the date of taking command of the mail steamer his record was as honorable and distinguished as it was possible for an officer in time of peace to make; and wearying of routine duty, Herndon, in accordance with a custom of that period, asked and obtained leave to accept command of one of the Pacific mail steamers, the “Central America,” which at the time of her loss was coming from Aspinwall to New York via Havana, carrying four hundred and fourteen passengers, a crew of one hundred and one, a heavy mail, and two million dollars in gold.
All went well with the steamer from Aspinwall to Havana, where she touched on the 7th of September, putting to sea again on the morning of the 8th.
The ship was in splendid trim, the crew in fine spirits, and captain and passengers well content at the prospect of a safe and near ending their long voyage.
The weather was magnificent, and with wind from the trade-wind quarter at northeast, there was nothing to apprehend.
That night everyone went to bed in the peace and security that confidence in the ship and her commander gave.
At midnight the wind freshened. By day-dawn it was a gale that increased in violence and blew from north-northeast.
Up to the forenoon of Friday, though the passengers were anxious, the captain felt no fear, for the steamer behaved admirably and gave every reason for the hope that she would weather the storm.
On the afternoon of the 11th it was discovered she had sprung a leak.
The sea ran mountains high, the wind blew with terrific force, and the noble vessel, heeled over on her larboard side, was laboring heavily.
The leak was so large that by 4 P. M. the water had gained sufficient depth to extinguish the fires on one side and stop the engine.
Bailing gangs were organized, assisted by the passengers, who worked in relays, and nobly did their utmost to aid the weary crew.
Much of the freight and all the passengers were sent to the windward side to trim the ship, and thus relieved, she once more moved on an even keel and the fires were re-lighted.
Higher and higher ran the sea, fiercer and fiercer howled the wind, more and more laboriously went the ship, without intermission the pumps were worked, and without relief the gangs bailed, using buckets, whips, and barrels to fight the water, which, in spite of all, gained until once more it reached the furnaces and extinguished fires that were never more to be rekindled.
Now, indeed, gloom settled over the steamer, and, at the mercy of the waves, she was wallowing in the trough of the sea like a log.
She was a side-wheel steamer, with not a little top-hamper, and an ugly thing to handle in such a situation.
The storm-spencer had been blown away, and the fore-yard was sent down during the night.
Attempts were made to get her before the wind, but no canvas was stout enough to withstand its violence.
After the head-sails had been blown away, Captain Herndon ordered all the clews of the foresail to be lashed to the deck, thinking he might hoist the yard, if only a few feet, show canvas, and get her off, but scarcely was the yard well clear of the bulwarks when the pitiless fury of the wind seized and took it entirely out of the belt-ropes.
The foremast was cut away, the fore-yard made into a drag and thrown overboard, and bits of canvas spread in the rigging aft, hoping to bring her head to wind, but the effort was fruitless.
Yet all through that long afternoon and longer night of Friday, crew and passengers worked without ceasing, and hoped without despair, but when the grim gray dawn of Saturday brought increase rather than subsidence of the tempest, hope failed, and the gallant captain and his brave, tried company saw that everything that skilled seamanship could do to save them had been done and the ship’s fate was sealed.
With this despair came a new hope, — if not all, some lives might be saved, and each breathed a prayer that of the some he might be one.
They were in a part of the ocean frequented by vessels, a passing steamer or some sailing craft might rescue them, — ’twas thus Herndon encouraged their despairing hearts, so that they answered his call for a “Rally all!” with cheers.
The lady passengers took their turn at the pumps. The act so inspired the men that they went to work with renewed ardor, whipping up barrel after barrel of water to the steady rhythmic measure of the sailor’s working song.
About noon of Saturday the gale showed the first signs of abating, the wind blew less fiercely, the lowering clouds lifted, the sky brightened, and once more the hope grew strong, the flag was hoisted “Union down,” and minute guns were fired.
About three o’clock a vessel hove in sight, women cried their joy, and loud huzzas went from the throats of the wearied men.
She ran down to the steamer, was hailed, heard, replied. Herndon asked for aid, told of the helpless women and children, and begged the captain to give him help. He refused and went on his course!
Oh, the bitter agony of that moment! Oh, the dark despair shrouding those hearts! But no word was spoken.
On went the pumps, down and up came the barrels, and tears were seen on every side.
Suddenly Herndon’s voice again rang out, — “A sail, men! a sail! Fire the gun!”
Down to them came the brig, the “Marine,” of Boston, and her captain (whose name should be here in letters of gold), “Burt.”
His vessel was sorely crippled, but this humane man brought his ship to, under the steamer’s stern, spoke to Herndon, encouraged him to hope, promised to lay by through the night, and nobly kept his word.
At once Herndon ordered his boats lowered, for the “Marine” had none that could live in such a sea.
It was an anxious moment. Equally dear was life to all, and Herndon feared the courage and resolve of his crew might fail, and that they would fill the boats, and leave the women and children to their fate; but not a man showed even a wish for this!
Crews were made up, and it was found there was one man needed in Black the boatswain’s gig.
Herndon was hesitating, when a sailor stepped up and offered to go; the man had been shipped at Aspinwall, and was not well known to the captain, who, in his so well remembered gentle voice, said, musingly rather than questioningly, — “I wonder if I can trust you?”
The sailor’s quick ear caught the words, and understanding all the doubt they expressed, looked at Herndon, his eyes filled with tears, but his voice steady and earnest, — “Yes, captain, you can trust me, for I have hands that are hard to row, and a heart that is oft to feel!”
Quickly Herndon took his hard hands, wrung them silently, and passed him to the vacant place.
The women and children arrived safely on the brig; but by the time each boat had made two trips, carrying in all one hundred persons, night had fallen, and the brig had drifted several miles to leeward from the steamer.
Again and again she tried to make her way to the wreck, but was too badly crippled.
As one of the boats was about pushing off at the last trip, Herndon took from his pocket his watch, and handing it to a passenger, tried to charge him with a loving message of farewell to his wife. “Give it to her,” he said, “and tell her, — tell her — tell her from me—”
Then shaking his head, he bowed his tear-stained face in his hands as though in prayer for the wife and daughter whom he would never see, and who, in losing husband and father, gave to the world a hero.
In a moment he recovered outward calm, and none again saw him give way.
The hurricane deck was being cut away; life-preservers had been brought up and distributed to those who would wear them.
The gloom of night settled, and Herndon directed Frazer, the second officer, to take charge of the arm-chest, and send up rockets each quarter of an hour.
The law requires every officer of the navy to show in himself a good example of the virtue and patriotism he expects to find in his men, and never was there a more perfect instance of a literal interpretation of this law than in Herndon’s case.
After giving his order to Frazer, he turned to his first officer, Van Rennselaer, and told him he would go below for his uniform. He went to his state-room, and in a few moments returned in full dress and took his stand on the wheel-house, holding by the iron railing with his left hand.
Frazer sent off a rocket. The ship fetched a heavy lurch, like a last sigh, and, as she sank, Herndon was seen, by the rocket’s glare, to bare his head and wave his hand, — then the waters closed over the bravest heart that was ever stilled, and night saw the most sublime moral spectacle the sea ever showed.
A few moments before going to get his uniform oars were heard ; Herndon hailed, and was answered from Black the boatswain’s boat, rowed “by hands that were hard, and a heart that was soft to feel,” who implored the captain to save himself.
Herndon called to him to keep off, fearing the small craft might be drawn down by the then sinking ship.
Eagerly, earnestly, the man plead, then imperatively Herndon ordered him to take whom he could pick up and go back to the brig; and, like a true sailor, he obeyed his commander.
This was the last order ever given by him, who, to the close of an unselfish, generous life, was forgetful of self and mindful of others.
Truly was his life grand and beautiful, and surely in his death was a new and greater glory given to the annals of the sea.
Forty-nine of the passengers and crew were picked from the waters that night and the next morning by the Norwegian bark “Ellen” — strangely enough the name of Herndon’s wife and daughter — and brought safely to Norfolk, Virginia.
Three more were saved by the English brig “Mary,” having drifted four hundred and fifty miles with the Gulf Stream.
The total number saved was one hundred and fifty-two; lost, four hundred and twenty-three.
One of the passengers thought he spoke in the water with Herndon that night; but, as he was not in robust health, it is not likely he ever rose after the ship went down.
We cannot better close this story of a heroic deed by a brave man than by quoting what his brother-in-law, Lieutenant Maury, said of him:
“Affectionate in disposition, soft and gentle in his manners, he won the love and esteem of his associates, and was a favorite throughout the service, and of all none knew him better or loved him more than I.”
It is known, of course, to my readers that Captain Herndon’s daughter afterwards became the wife of Chester A. Arthur, President of the United States.
R. Dorsey Mohun.
The California Diamond Jubilee Commemorative Silver Half Dollar Coin shows with an artist’s image of the brig Marine taking passengers from the distressed Central America.