Last updated: November 27, 2017
As the National Park Service’s November “Preserving History and Culture” initiative draws to a close, we would like to offer this account as a salute to an act of American heroism at sea nearly 165 years ago.
On December 22, 1853, the steamer San Francisco set out from New York to San Francisco carrying almost 800 people, including 520 soldiers from the 3rd Artillery (and their wives and children). On Saturday the 24th, at around 4pm, strong winds and heavy seas disabled the engine. Around 9am on Sunday the 25th, a large wave broke over the deck, washing away the upper saloon and taking with it over 150 soldiers and families.
Over the next few days, the San Francisco lost its masts and the smokehouse, but the passengers and crew kept the ship afloat by bailing and pumping and tossing cargo overboard. On the 28th, the bark Kilby, storm-damaged itself, rescued about 100 soldiers before the seas forced the vessels apart. Although the vessels Three Bells and Antarctic also managed to save an additional 400 souls, nearly 300 people were lost when the San Francisco finally slid beneath the waves.
The tribute pictured here, now part of San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park’s museum collection, is a silver pitcher presented to George Gretton, 2nd officer of the San Francisco, for his “gallant conduct” throughout the tragedy (Gretton was one of the last crewmen to leave the ship).
Our maritime heritage is filled with acts of heroism and “gallantry,” and we are honored to remember the sacrifices that those Americans made, and preserve their memory.