The illnesses and injuries that plagued George Lucas Hartsuff throughout his years in the United States Army cut short a promising career and led to his untimely death at the age of 43 in 1874. Solid and dependable, Hartsuff was a courageous officer who entered the war a lieutenant serving as the assistant adjutant general for the Department of the Ohio and then as the Chief of Staff to General William Rosecrans in western Virginia. By war’s end, Hartsuff was a major general, commanding all the Union forces on Bermuda Hundred. But Hartsuff’s true potential as a general was never realized due to the sicknesses he developed, and the wounds he suffered fighting the Seminole in Florida and his fellow Americans at the battle of Antietam.
George Hartsuff spent the first twelve years of his life in the small western New York village of Tyre, in Seneca County. Moving with his family to Livingston County, Michigan, in 1842, Hartsuff received an appointment to West Point six years later, graduating in 1852 ranked nineteenth in a class of forty-three. Upon graduation, Hartsuff was commissioned a second lieutenant by brevet in the 4th U.S. Artillery and assigned to frontier duty in Texas where the young officer fell seriously ill with yellow fever. In 1855, after recovering from his sickness, Hartsuff was sent to Fort Myers, Florida. Given command of a surveying expedition in December of that year, Hartsuff led ten soldiers into Seminole Territory near the Big Cypress Swamp. Having resolved not to tolerate any more incursions into their land, the Seminoles, under Chief Billy Bowlegs, decided to strike the American troops. On the morning of December 20, some forty Seminole warriors surrounded and then attacked Hartsuff’s men. During the short but bloody encounter, four U.S. soldiers were killed and three were wounded, while only three escaped unscathed. Hartsuff was among the wounded. Hit in the left arm, Lieutenant Hartsuff nevertheless continued to fire back at the Seminoles using muskets loaded and passed forward by two of his men. When a second shot struck Hartsuff in the chest, he told the surviving members of his party to save themselves and then sought shelter. Stumbling through the forest, Hartsuff fell into a pond. Neck-deep in water and suffering from his two wounds, Hartsuff had a difficult time getting out but was eventually able to do so. Without food or fresh water, Hartsuff lay on his back for three days before being rescued by American troops sent out from Fort Myers. Doctors cared for Hartsuff but were unable to remove the bullet that entered his left breast and struck his lung; indeed, it would remain in Hartsuff for the rest of his life. The attack on Hartsuff’s invading men is recognized today as the beginning of the Third Seminole War, which lasted for another two and a half years.
Having sufficiently recovered from his wounds, George Hartsuff, by this time a first lieutenant, was appointed as an instructor of artillery and infantry tactics at West Point in 1856, and held this position for three years. Hartsuff’s next assignment was to the frontier post of Fort Mackinac, Michigan. With misfortune seemingly his lot, Hartsuff was on board the Lady Elgin on the storm-tossed night of September 8, 1860, as the steamer made its way across Lake Michigan traveling between Chicago and Milwaukee. With visibility poor and the waters rough and restless, the Lady Elgin was struck by the schooner Augusta. 373 passengers of the Lady Elgin were lost as the boat sank. Lieutenant Hartsuff was one of the 155 survivors.
In early 1861, George Hartsuff was sent to Florida, where in the tense days preceding the outbreak of civil war, he served as assistant adjutant general for the Department of Florida. Stationed in Fort Pickens until July 21, 1861, Hartsuff was next assigned to the Department of Ohio where he served as assistant adjutant general. Throughout the first summer of the war, Hartsuff served in the mountains of [West] Virginia, and on August 3 became General William Rosecrans’s Chief of Staff. Promoted to the rank of captain in October 1861, Hartsuff got his first field command of the war in April 1862 after advancing in rank to brigadier general of volunteers. Commanding a brigade in Irvin McDowell’s Corps in the Shenandoah Valley in the spring and summer of 1862, Hartsuff led his men at the battle of Cedar Mountain but was on sick leave during the Second Bull Run Campaign.
When George McClellan took command of the Union forces in Washington following the debacle at Second Bull Run, he relieved McDowell and designated his command the First Corps, Army of the Potomac. On the afternoon of September 16, McClellan ordered the First Corps, now under Joe Hooker, across the Antietam Creek and into position opposite the left flank of the Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Hartsuff’s Brigade—consisting of the 11th Pennsylvania, 83rd New York, and 12th and 13th Massachusetts—formed in advance of General James Ricketts’s Division early the next morning and advanced southward along the Smoketown Road toward Lee’s lines. Ricketts’s First Brigade, under the dashing New Yorker Abram Duryea, formed on Hartsuff’s right. As the sun was rising to the east, Duryea’s men became engaged with Confederate troops under Alexander Lawton in farmer Miller’s Cornfield. The fighting was savage, and Duryea found his brigade alone and unsupported by Hartsuff’s men to his left. Early in the advance, as his men cleared the North Woods, Hartsuff fell seriously wounded, and his brigade came to a halt in the resulting confusion of handing over command to Colonel Richard Coulter of the 11th Pennsylvania. Coulter was ultimately able to move the brigade toward the front, where they suffered terrible loss in and around the Cornfield and East Woods. By day’s end, Hartsuff’s Brigade had been reduced by half, losing some 600 men killed, wounded, and missing, out of the 1,200 that entered the battle.
Reports vary as to whether Hartsuff was felled by a sniper’s bullet or shell fragment. Regardless of its origin, however, the wound was to Hartsuff’s left hip. He tried to remain in the saddle, but he soon grew faint and had to be helped off his mount. Carried off the field, Hartsuff was taken to a nearby home where a doctor examined his wound. All efforts by him and other doctors later in the day to locate a bullet were unsuccessful; they surmised that the bullet had come to a stop deep within the pelvic cavity.
Hartsuff’s Antietam wound took eight months to heal. Indeed, he was unable to even walk until February 1863, and only then with the support of a cane. For his gallantry during the battle, however, Hartsuff was brevetted colonel in the Regular Army and on November 29, 1862, was promoted to the rank of major general of volunteers. Having sufficiently recovered to return again to the field in May 1863, Hartsuff was placed in command of the 23rd Corps in the Army of the Ohio. He served with his new command under General Ambrose Burnside in Kentucky and eastern Tennessee, but by the late summer of 1863, his health was failing him once more. His hip wound reopened, and he suffered from severe pain and numbness in his left leg and hip. Unable to ride any further, Hartsuff relinquished his command in November 1863 and sought out medical treatment.
Suffering not only from his wounds but from rheumatism as well, Hartsuff nonetheless returned to duty in July 1864, but was physically unable at this point to take active field command. He thus served on court-martial duty and behind a desk in the adjutant general’s office until March 1865, when he reported to General Ulysses Grant for assignment. Grant first gave Hartsuff divisional command in the 18th Corps, Army of the James, and then named him commander of all the Union troops then stationed on Bermuda Hundred. Following the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia the next month, Hartsuff, having previously been brevetted a brigadier and major general in the Regular Army, went on to head the District of Nottoway, in the Department of Virginia, a post he held until August 1865.
George Hartsuff remained in the army following the Civil War. At the rank of lieutenant-colonel, he served first in the adjutant general’s office in Washington and then held a number of offices in the Fifth Military District and in the Department of the Gulf. In poor health and in terrible pain, Hartsuff tendered his resignation from the army on June 29, 1871. Although still holding the rank of lieutenant-colonel, the army allowed Hartsuff to retire at the rank of major general because of the wounds he had suffered while in service.
The ailing General Hartsuff moved to New York City after his retirement, and there spent the final few years of his life. Early in May 1874, he developed a cold that quickly developed into pneumonia. He was dead just one week later, passing away on May 16, two weeks shy of his forty-fourth birthday. His remains were taken to West Point for burial. An autopsy revealed that Hartsuff’s pneumonia was caused by the infection on a scar on his left lung. The scar was itself caused by the wound he received nineteen years earlier battling Seminoles in the swamps of Florida. Remarkably, neither this bullet nor the one that entered his hip at Antietam were ever located.
General Hartsuff's Final Resting Place. . .