On December 22, 1853, a new steamship left New York on its maiden voyage. The San Francisco—perhaps the finest ocean-going vessel of its time—had been chartered by the U.S. Government to transport the Third Artillery to the Pacific Coast.
Two days out, the ship ran into one of the great hurricanes of maritime history. Sails and stacks were blown away, the engine was wrecked and scores of people were washed overboard, as the men frantically worked the pumps to keep afloat. A few days later, cholera broke out.
After two weeks adrift, the survivors were rescued by three ships. The nightmare wasn’t over. Two of the vessels, damaged by the storm, were no position to take on passengers. Provisions ran out. Fighting thirst, starvation, disease and mutiny, they barely made it back to land. Then came the aftermath—accusations, denials, revelations of government ineptitude and negligence, and a cover-up.