George Lucas Hartsuff

Major General George Lucas Hartsuff

By Spessard Stone

George L. Hartsuff was a career U. S. Army officer, for whom Fort Hartsuff, the forerunner of Wauchula, Florida, was named.

George Lucas Hartsuff was born on May 28, 1830 at Tyre, New York and in 1842 moved with his family to Michigan. In 1848, he entered the Military Academy at West Point, from which he graduated nineteenth in a class of forty-three in 1852.

After one-month garrison duty in New York, Lt. Hartsuff was posted to Fort Brown, Texas, where he served on scouting and escort duty during a time of uneasy relations with Mexico. When yellow fever epidemic struck the Gulf coast, he was stricken in December 1853 and given up for dead, but recovered after a long convalescence. Returned to duty in June 1854, Lt. Hartsuff joined the Second Artillery at Fort Meade, Florida on July 1, 1854.

Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, had in the spring of 1854 initiated new policies to exert pressure on the Indians to force them to emigrate. This included moving south the reserved Indian lands along the Peace River so that settlement in present-day Hardee County was permitted and began in the fall of 1854. Furthermore, the Army's exploration of Indian country was intensified, with Lt. Hartsuff becoming the main surveyor. In October 1854, Lt. Hartsuff explored the country between and eastward of Lt. Henry Benson's blazed route from Fort Meade to Fort Thompson (LaBelle) and recommended slight changes in Benson's route. In December, he explored the country between Fisheating Creek and along the Caloosahatchee River.

In 1855 the Army began to erect a new cordon of forts and and intensified reconnoitering in the Lake Okeechobee and Cypress areas. On January 22, Lt. Hartsuff was appointed topographical engineer to survey the country in the vicinity of Big Cypress and Everglades. He aided Capt. Henry Pratt and Arnold Elzey in choosing sites, respectively, for Fort Drum and Fort Shackleford. His excursions into the Big Cypress resulted in his discovery of several Indian villages, including that of Billy Bowlegs, chief of the Seminoles. In June, due to the rainy season, actions were suspended, and Lt. Hartsuff turned in his maps and report. In the latter he concluded that the country was uninhabitable except by Indians and nearly impregnable in the event of war.

Meanwhile, the Indians protested to Capt. John C. Casey, the Indian agent, that the incursions would inevitably lead to a renewal of hostilities.

On December 7, 1855, 1st Lt. Hartsuff with six mounted men, foot soldiers, and two teamsters, manning two mule-drawn wagons, left Fort Myers to resume exploration of the Big Cypress. He was ordered, "Treat the Indians with kindness, courtesy, Indians will not attack unless provoked." They soon encountered some inauspicious omens. On December 10, an Indian man and boy, herding hogs, were seen, but tried to elude them. The next day they found the abandoned Forts Simon Drum and Shackleford, both burned, and three villages deserted. Entering Billy Bowlegs' village on December 18, they discovered it had been uninhabited for some time and the garden unkempt. Upon leaving, some of them took a bunch of bananas. Continuing, they on December 19 came upon more deserted villages.

At about 5:00 a.m. on December 20 as the soldiers were breaking camp on a pine island to return to Fort Myers, sixty-five miles way, a Seminole war party, to the screams of war hoops, opened fire and two soldiers and the two teamsters, illuminated by the camp fire, fell dead. The noncommissioned officers, Sergeant Holland and Corporal Williams, were on the far side of the camp, but Privates Hanna Murtagh, joined by Privates William Baker and Otto Hersch, began shooting at the Indians, and a fire-fight ensued. In their return fire, the Seminoles wounded all the privates, except Hersch. Lt. Hartsuff from the door of his tent began firing. After suffering a wound that broke his left arm, he sought the cover of a wagon where he had Baker load for him and continued to fire. He was stunned when a ball hit his holstered revolver. A third ball lodged in his chest. The intrepid soldier was forced to withdraw. The others having already fled, Lt. Hartsuff ordered Privates Baker and Hanna to save themselves. While hiding in a lily pond, Lt. Hartsuff was taunted by a Seminole, who called out in good English for him to come out. After burning the wagons and killing the twelve mules and two of the horses and stealing the others, the Seminole war party, having thus commenced the Billy Bowlegs War, or Third Seminole War, withdrew.

The other survivors soon reached Fort Myers. In the evening of December 21, Private Hanna, having left an exhausted Private Baker at a camp fifteen miles away, arrived, and early next day came Sergeant Holland and Corporal Williams, followed by Private Otto Hersch in the afternoon. An ambulance was sent to get Private Baker. (Available references do not indicate when Private Murtagh joined his comrades.

Defensive measures were put into effect, and a relief squad, composed of Capt. Elzey from Fort Myers and Major Arnold from Fort Denaud, was dispatched.

Meanwhile Lt. Hartsuff, debilitated from his wounds, had begun a herculean labor to reach Fort Simon Drum. On the first day he was able to advance only about one-half mile and stayed hidden until the evening of December 22 when he painstakingly resumed his journey. Although without food, he managed to find a spring, by which he was refreshed. The next afternoon he started again. Nearing Fort Drum on the evening of December 23, Lt. Hartsuff fired his revolver as a signal, and deliverance was at hand. An accompanying surgeon probed two and one-half inches, but couldn't find the ball in Hartsuff's chest. He was then taken to the post hospital at Fort Myers.

On Christmas Day, Major Arnold's company arrived at the scene of the attack and buried the bodies of the four men.

From Fort Myers the news of the ambush was sent by the steamer Ranger to Fort Brooke (Tampa) where it arrived at about 11:30 p. m. on December 23 and was communicated to the people of Tampa the next day and to Fort Meade on Christmas Day. The dispatch reported only three survivors, with Lt. Hartsuff last seen with a broken arm and wounded in his side and, along with the remainder of his party, supposed killed.

The people of Hillsborough County responded with alacrity by organizing volunteer militia companies, captained by William B. Hooker and Francis M. Durrance, respectively at Tampa on December 24 and Fort Meade by December 29. Finding his command more than he anticipated, Hooker divided it on January 2, 1856 to form Capt. Leroy G. Lesley's Company.

On January 3, 1856, Hooker advised Governor James E. Broome posts had been garrisoned and provisioned at Fort Meade (20 men), Fort Hooker (24 men), Fort Hartsuff (25 men), and Fort Green (16 men), with the balance of 64 men on scout under Capt. Lesley to the south of Pease Creek (Peace River).

The settlers sought refuge at the forts. At Fort Hartsuff eight families gathered, while at Fort Green there were five families, at Fort Meade eleven families, and Fort Hooker (16 miles north of Fort Meade) six families.

Fort Hartsuff Marker

Marvin M. Edwards, recommended for a commission of second lieutenant, was assigned command of Fort Hartsuff, named, it was thought as a posthumous honor for Lt. Hartsuff. (The fort was located at now South Florida Ave., a half mile south of the Wauchula city limits.)

Lt. Hartsuff made an astounding recovery and by February 27 was commanding a 30-man detachment. He led scouting expeditions back into the Big Cypress and in June 1856 from Fort Myers to Charlotte Harbor and along Peas Creek. Meanwhile on April 23, 1856, Col. Monroe of Fort Brooke ordered that the post of Fort Hartsuff was to be broken up and the detachment there divided at the discretion of Capt. Hooker between the posts of Fort Meade and Fort Green. The settlement near the fort, however, retained the name of Fort Hartsuff.

Florida Peninsular, July 5, 1856

The war continued until May 1858 when Billy Bowlegs and about 160 Seminoles, Mikasukis, and Tallahassees, via the steamer Grey Cloud, sailed for New Orleans and thence to exile in Oklahoma.

Lt. Hartsuff, however, did not savor this event in person as on July 11, 1856, he had been posted to New York. There he temporarily served at Fort Columbus until being assigned in September 29 as an assistant instructor of artillery tactics at West Point where he served until June 14, 1859.

Thereafter, Hartsuff served with his company at Fort Mackinac until the fall of 1860. While stationed there, the steamer Lady Elgin, on which he was a passenger, sank in Lake Michigan. He was one of the last to leave the wreck as he aided others before escaping by floating on a piece of timber until washed ashore.

During the Civil War, he served with distinction. In April 1861, Bvt. Capt. Hartsuff returned to Florida with Col. Harvey to strengthen the defenses at Fort Pickens, Santa Rosa Island, Pensacola. He served in several major battles, including Antietam where he was severely wounded and for gallant and meritorious services there was promoted to Brevet Colonel on September 17, 1862. On November 29, 1862, he was appointed Major General of the United States Volunteers. General Hartsuff served in command of the Twenty-third Army Corps in Kentucky and East Tennessee and in command of the Bermuda front of the works before Petersburg.

After the war, he served as Adjutant-General of the Military Division of the Gulf and of the Military Division of the Missouri. In 1871 he retired as a major general.

Major General Hartsuff died from pneumonia on May 16, 1874 in New York City. The autopsy showed that the inflammation in his lungs was around the scar of the old Seminole wound. He was buried at West Point.

Sometime in 1874, Eli English moved to Fort Hartsuff where he opened a store, and the community was renamed English. In 1886, with the arrival of the railroad, the village became Wauchula.

See also Lt. Hartsuff Reports and Lieutenant Hartsuff and the Banana Plants

References: The Hartsuff family collection, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan; Florida Peninsular, December 29, 1855; Ray B. Seley, Jr., "Lieutenant Hartsuff and the Banana Plants, Tequesta 23, 1965; Canter Brown, Jr., Florida’s Peace River Frontier, 1991.

This profile is adapted from the author’s profile in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) of October 7, 1999.

January 17, 2001 & links = October 16, 2001