Civil War Union Brigadier General Torbert

Hurricane Matthew of 2016, brings to the forefront another hurricane, albeit unnamed.  A hurricane in 1880 hit the same eastern coast of Florida that affected the Daytona Beach/Halifax shorelines, our ancestors, and the families whose members sailed on the Vera Cruz steamship, 136 years ago. 

So in 1880, the Vera Cruz sailed from Pier number 3 North River, New York, on Wednesday afternoon, August 15, 1880, with 28 passengers and 49 crew members.  The Vera Cruz was a steamship that was primarily used for transporting cargo between New York to Havana, Cuba and to Mexico.  Unbeknownst to the captain and crew, a hurricane was brewing and just 5 days after setting sail, they would be shipwrecked, and only 11 of those 77 aboard, would be alive to tell the story that involved  the assistance of Henry Lyon Botefuhr to those shipwrecked and Botefuhr’s property used as a temporary burial site for Brigadier General Torbert of the Union Army.  There are discrepancies in the number of lives on board the Vera Cruz, and hopefully I will be able to clarify that information later.

Knowing the story of the unnamed hurricane that capsized the Vera Cruz off the shores of the Halifax River and then Hurricane Matthew hit the area of my ancestors, my interest was piqued.  When did the naming of hurricanes begin?   According to most sites, including the Weather Online and the National Hurricane Center, West Indies hurricanes were first named after a particular saint’s day.  In the Catholic religion (General Roman Calendar) saint’s days were/are celebrated annually, so one could always know when the hurricanes occurred.   Much later, in 1953, hurricanes formally took on female names because the meteorological folks felt that the female names were appropriate for such unpredictable and dangerous phenomena.  Beginning in 1978, this sexist practice (in my opinion, and apparently others) was changed and today the hurricanes carry both male and female names. 

Our ancestor, Henry Lyons Botefuhr was an American born sea captain who was born of German parents.  He survived a ship wreck on the coast of Africa and then later fought to claim the remains of his sister-in-law (and cousin) who was killed after her ship was wrecked off the Island of Formosa (current day Taiwan). 

Captain Henry Lyons Botefuhr had lived in Swatow, China (now Shantou, China) and experienced the subtropical climate of temperatures that averaged 72 degrees.  His family resided in Hoboken, New Jersey where the temperatures ranged from 23 to 83 degrees and snow was an occurrence that must have been unbearable after the balmy winds of China.  So, the adventuresome Botefuhr wanted to find a climate that was similar in nature to Swatow, China and began his search that landed him sometime after July of 1870 in the hot, humid, mosquito infested, and wild shores of the Halifax River and Daytona Beach of Florida.

In August of 1880, JHL Botefuhr must have known the devastation that would befall ships as the storm clouds gathered, and the winds began to gust from the hurricane that pushed to shore, bodies of the passengers to the shores of Datyona Beach.  JHL Botefuhr manned a small boat during the midst of the hurricane to find and collect the body of General Torbert.

 Details provided by survivor Mr. A.K. Owen and the following was transcribed from the Herald.


When we struck the breakers we were turned over six times before coming to the surface and our raft went into fragments.  Not being able to see the land, and not knowing what this new feature was, we called out a “Goodbye!” as we drifted apart, and after a terrible ordeal of ten minutes more were thrown upon the beach, ten miles north of Mosquito Inlet and opposite to Daytona, Volusia county, Fla.  At daybreak we met Charles Smith, Second Assistant Engineer.  He came in about a mile above us.  Soon after this we saw a house, fronting on the Halifax River, opposite Daytona.  This proved to be the home of Mr. Botefuhrs, a character unique as he is kind, and he has travelled on every continent.  He and his good wife gave us coffee and smoked fish, and then he and Drumgool went to the beach to look for General Torbert in particular and for others in general.  I went also, but my eyes would not permit me to stay.  The storm was still raging, and the destruction to the orange trees, houses and property on shore was great.  One woman at Port Orange was dashed to the ground by the wind and had her shoulder dislocated.  About noon James H. Kelley and Mason Talbot, seaman, came to the house.  They came in after daylight, about three and four miles north of us.  We were all much cut, bruised and nearly naked.  At night two corpses were reported, four and six miles above us.  Charles Smith and I started before sunrise Tuesday to see these, while Mr. Botifuhr and the others went south.  The first corpse was that of “Whitehead” (John Kohn), of the engine room.  He had evidently been killed by a blow on the back of the head.  From citizens I learned that of General Torbert.  I sent word to have him put in a coffin; and then I returned to Mr. Botefuhr, and he and I took a boat and sailed up the Halifax River six miles, to the peninsula side of New Britain, and there found the remains of General Torbert under cover.  The coffin was furnished, but was too small, having been made by guesswork.  Nr. N. W. Pitts discovered General Torbert floating in the surf, about eight A.M. Monday.  He ran and pulled him ashore, but had to get assistance before he could get him entirely out of the water, so that he could have a good rubbing.  The General’s pulse was beating, his body warm and the blood was running from a wound over his right eye when found; but an hour’s rubbing failed to restore animation.  The probability is that Mr. Torbert reached the brakers in good health but was there struck in the face by the fragment he was on and stunned, so that he was drowned before he could again control his actions.  His life preserver kept his head but partly out of the water.  His clothes were but little torn, he wore his shoes, his ring was on his finger, and on his chain was his Masonic badge, but no watch.  In his pants pockets several letters and dispatches.  Mr. Pitts and his friends did everything in their power to restore the General to life, failing in which they showed his remains every mark of respect.



The body was placed in our boat and Mr. Botefuhr and I passed most of the night against tide and wind, in regaining Daytona.  It is sad for me to sit there on that quiet night beside the quieter body.  The General and I had been traveling company most of his last month on earth.  He was a man of sterling qualities, generous to a fault, a man of sterling qualities, generous to a fault, a man one soon learned to trust and to love.  He was confident of weathering through the storm.  I was certain that my end had come.  How strange that he should be there and I here – that I should live and he be dead.


Before sunrise, Wednesday, September 1, under the palmettoes in Mr. Botefuhr’s garden, we laid General Torbert in a well dug grave.  Mr. Botefuhr and his wife, Charles Smith, Thomas Dramgool, Mason Tolbert, James H. Kelley and I were present.  We buried him in his clothes, sewed securely in a new double woolen blanket, and put his life preserver under his head.  It was my wish to bring the body North at once, but the strict quarantine regulations in the South during the summer months prevented.  I made arrangements with William Jackson, the leading merchant of Daytona, to ship the body North in November, we to send the proper casket to him.”

The body of Gen. Torbert was disinterred and placed on the steamer "Western Texas" at Jacksonville, and arrived in New York City, September 29, 1880.

Boston Globe 1880 0904 (additional)

A severe storm swept over the central portion Florida on the 1st 2nd inst. Post roads were flooded, bridges washed away and mail communication seriously interrupted between Ocala and Tampa, on the west coast of Florida.

1880 News Papers that tell the story of The Vera Cruz and General Torbert's death: 

    The New York Times (original Pages) (transcribed Page)        The Herald (original page) (transcribed page)

  • Globe News Paper (original)                                                    Brookfield New York (original)


General Alfred Torbert

Find A Grave for General Torbert

First buried on JHL Botefuhr's property, his body was disinterred and moved to Milford, Deleware and buried with Military Honor.

Sister ship to City Vera Cruz

City of Vera Cruz

This wreck was located by fishermen in 1980, and is currently under an admiralty salvage lease held by Shipwrecks Inc.  She lies in 78 feet of water, and her Loran position is 60910.45 and 44-71,65.  Her steam engines rise 30 feet off the ocean bottom.  Source 14,94 (Nielson, Robert R. “Florida Jewelry Wreck, Wreck of the City of Vera Cruz. “Vol. 1, No. 1, pp27-31).


1880 US Army and Navy Journal

US Army and Navy Journal

This PDF is 131 pages and is a memorial of Gen. Torbert, and was published with the committee having charge of his funeral services.  It describes in detail the life of General Alfred TA Torbert and his burial.

NewsPaper Articles

NewsPaper Articles about City Vera Cruz (see above)

The Herald, The New York Times and the Brookfield New York Courier