Stormy Season: From Confederate Soldier to Shipwreck Savior, the Life of Washington Vickers



Because we have covered several shipwrecks, big storms and lighthouses here, we’ve talked a lot about “surfmen” (you can read an overview of them in this post here). Since that’s quite broad, I thought today we’d focus on just one of them for a little glimpse of what this life was like. Meet Washington Vickers:

Washington Vickers painting.

Washington Vickers, source.

Washington Vickers was born in 1842, in what is now Seaford, Delaware. By the age of 8, Washington was living with the Cottinghams. Whether the carpenter and his family took in Washington as an apprentice, an orphan, or out of charity is unclear in ancestry records.

Hailing from Delaware, and living in Maryland {both border states during the U.S. Civil War}, he chose to serve the Confederacy and fought with the Maryland Infantry. In 1863, Washington was wounded in the arm at the Battle of Gettysburg.




The pantry in the station.

Being a prisoner of war for either side was practically a death sentence (read about that experience here), but Washington was able to march with the army to Virginia and make his way to a hospital in Richmond. He was unable to fight for the rest of the war and instead spent his time on hospital patrol and as a nurse. His nursing skills would prove invaluable later. During his career as a surfman, he served as the sea community’s only immediate access to medical care.


The life-saving boat the surfmen used.



All the knots a surfmen had to know {and accidental self-portrait of a familiar scene: me taking a picture and my sister annoyed that I’m taking so long}.

After the war, Washington returned to Maryland and worked as a farmer. He and his wife lived with two black teenagers who they employed as help: Margaret Sampson, a 17-year old domestic servant, and Walter Teakle, a 15-year old farmhand. Both Margaret and Walter lived with the couple in 1870 and not with their parents. I’m unsure if they were formerly enslaved to the Vickers or hired after the war.

In 1878 Washington enlisted in the U.S. Life-Saving Service in Maryland, but first he had to sign an oath of amnesty as he’d fought for the South. By 1883 he had risen through the ranks to be promoted to Keeper of Station Indian River. Back in his home state, he earned a salary of $900.


The Life-Saving Station has been restored to its 1905 condition.


The table was always set to accommodate the surfmen’s unpredictable schedule.


Only the keeper, in this case Vickers, had their own room. The rest of the men shared a room with a view out the window to the water they were always watching.

Washington’s role as Keeper required him to be present at the station year-round but his wife, Henrietta, and their five children lived much further inland and nowhere near the Life-Saving Station. For 24 years he only saw them occasionally. Henrietta spent her time rearing the children and working as a school teacher.

In 1915 the Life-Saving Service became the U.S. Coast Guard. On that very day in January Washington Vickers retired from service. He was 72-years old and had served 37 of the 44 years that the U.S. Life-Saving Service had existed.




The view out the shared bedroom window to the water. The boat and equipment kept outside there were used as practice for life-saving drills.

In 1930 at the age of 88 he passed away having survived two of his children and his first wife. Washington was buried in Georgetown, Delaware next to his first wife Henrietta.


An ice box, telephone and pictures of the station as it was in the early 1900’s.


During his 20+ year career at Indian River, Washington led the rescue of numerous wrecks where 300 lives were saved. A couple notable ones are below:

The Red Wing, 1891
A fishing schooner, it was stranded and broke into pieces in the rough surf during high winds on the 22nd of October. The wind was blowing so hard that the surf patrol could barely see the water, the sand blowing in their faces. Washington Vickers was, usually away from his post, in town on official business. His crew had to work without his guidance. The turbulent water and the darkness made the rescue difficult and they had lost sight of the vessel. When it was finally located, in pieces, the search for the crewmen began but there wasn’t a trace of anyone in the wreckage.

As day broke the first body was found rolling in the surf. A sailor with his neck broken. Another body was discovered soon after, this sailor had broken legs, a testament to how rough the water had been and how destructive the wreck had been.



By noon six bodies had been recovered. All of the men had died from injuries received as the Red Wing had been battered in the surf, there was no evidence of drowning.

The six seamen were buried side by side in a little cemetery not far away. Four of them remain unknown. Only two of the men’s names have ever been found: John Johnson and Francis Mullen.

Strangely, in the cemetery plot for the Red Wing there are seven unmarked graves of seamen but the official Life-Saving records list the number of deaths as six.


Anna Murray, 1902
The Anna Murray became stranded at 5 a.m. in February of 1902. The strong winds and snowstorm left it invisible to the surf patrol until 9:30 a.m. A Lyle gun (a rope gun) was used to haul Washington on board to assess the damage. It was his personal motto that he never sent his men in to do a job he wouldn’t do. After 25 trips back and forth the crew of 10 men were all saved.




Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10