William Lewis Herndon was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, 13 October 1813. He was appointed an Acting Midshipman from Virginia 1 November 1828, accepting the appointment 1 December 1828. Warranted a Midshipman 15 February 1834, from 1 November 1828. Passed Midshipman 14 June 1834. Lieutenant 25 February 1841. Commander 14 September 1855. Lost at sea 12 September 1857.
Herndon's first service was on the USS Guerriere at Norfolk, Virginia, under orders of 11 December 1826. He was detached from the Guerriere 28 December 1831, and on 6 February 1832 was ordered to the Constellation, on which he served for about two years. He served on the Fairfield and the Independence on the Coast of Brazil, 1837 - 1840.
On 13 August 1841 he was ordered to Mobile, Alabama to take command of the Revenue Cutter Jefferson, engage a crew for her and proceed with her to Indian Key, East Florida, where he was to transfer her to Acting Lieutenant John Rodgers, and receive from him the command of the USS Wave. He assumed command of the Jefferson, and reported on 27 September 1841 that he would sail from Mobile next day. No record of transfer to the Wave is found. He was detached from command of the USS Madison 30 July 1848.
On 10 September 1842 he was ordered to the Depot of Charts, Washington, DC and served there and later at the Naval Observatory until September 1847. After a brief service on the Cumberland and the Iris of the Home Squadron, 1847 - 1848 (Mexican War Duty), he was again ordered to the Observatory 2 October 1848, where he served until 22 July 1849, when he was ordered to the Vandalia, Pacific Squadron.
While attached to the Vandalia, orders were sent to him on 20 October 1850 to proceed to Lima, Peru, and collect from the monasteries and other authentic sources information concerning the head waters of the Amazon and the region of country drained by its Peruvian tributaries. Then to visit the monasteries of Bolivia for the same purpose. The object of assigning to him this service was stated to be with a view of directing him to explore the valley of the Amazon should the consent of Brazilian Government be obtained. On 8 February 1851 he wrote from Lima, reporting his arrival there in obedience to the Department's orders, on 15 February he was detached from the Vandalia and ordered to special service in South America, and on 8 March passports for himself and Passed Midshipman Lardner Gibbon, who was to be associated with him in the exploring expedition, were sent to him.
The party left Lima 21 May 1851 for the interior. After a time it was thought best to divide the party, and on 1 July Herndon and Gibbon separated, taking different routes. Herndon followed the main trunk of the Amazon to its mouth, and embarked for the United States from Para, Brazil, on 12 May 1852. In July 1852 we find him in Washington, where it appears he remained during 1853, engaged in preparing his report.
The Report of the Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon was published by the direction of the Navy Department in Senate Executive Document No. 36, 32d Congress, 2d Session. It is a most interesting book, and is published in two parts, Part 1 by Herndon and Part 2 by Gibbon.
On 8 July 1854 Lieutenant Herndon was ordered to the USS San Jacinto in which he cruised to England, France and Spain and the West Indies in 1854 - 1855. On 14 June 1855 he was detached from the San Jacinto and ordered to the Potomac, Home Squadron, on which he served until 1 October 1855. On 26 October 1855 he was ordered to the command of the Pacific Mail Steamer George Law, all vessels of that line being required by law to be commanded by officers of the Navy. This vessel, the name of which was changed to Central America, foundered at sea off Cape Hatteras in a gale of wind 12 September 1857, while on a return voyage from Aspinwall to New York.
Commander Herndon's friend and relative, Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury, wrote an account of the disaster for the Navy Department, compiled from various newspaper accounts. Of Herndon he wrote, "He went down with his ship, leaving a glowing example of devotion to duty, Christian conduct, and true heroism." This letter, dated 19 October 1857, was published in the "National Intelligencer," and can probably be found in the file of this publication in the Library of Congress. From it the following details have been culled:
The Central America touched at Havana 7 September, leaving there on the 8th with a full list of passengers, 474, men, women and children, most of them returning from California, and about $2,000,000 in gold. Her crew, all told, numbered 101, making a total on board of 575 persons. About midnight of the 9th the wind freshened to a gale, which continued to increase until the forenoon of the 11th, when it blew with great violence from the North Northeast. Up to this time the ship had behaved admirably, but about forenoon of the 11th it was discovered that she had sprung a leak. The leak gained so rapidly that by 1 P.M. the water had risen high enough to extinguish the fires on one side and stop the engine. In spite of every effort the ship soon lay at the mercy of the waves. Crew and passengers worked manfully, pumping and bailing all the afternoon and night, but when day dawned the violence of the storm was still increasing.
Finding that all that energy, professional skill and seamanship could do to weather the storm and save the ship were unavailing, the Captain directed his energies to saving the lives of those on board. Being in a frequented part of the ocean he encouraged the passengers with the hope that a passing vessel might come to their rescue if they could but keep the ship afloat until the gale abated. His words were received with cheers. All went to work with a will bailing up water by the barrelful, the ladies lending what aid they could. The flag was hoisted "Union down," the signal of distress to any vessel that might sight it.
About noon of the 12th the storm abated somewhat. A vessel hove in sight and was asked for help, but could give none, and passed on her course. At 3 P.M. the brig Marine of Boston, Captain Burt, heard the minute guns and saw the signals of distress, and ran down and lay by the Central America. Her boats were lowered and filled first with the women and children, who all arrived alongside the brig and were safely taken on board. Each boat made two trips to the brig before night, carrying in all 100 persons. The boats passed back and forth as long as they were serviceable. The Marine had drifted several miles from the steamer. Perfect order and discipline prevailed and great personal heroism was shown. Even after the ship had gone down and her passengers were left in the water clinging to whatever they could lay hands on, acts of courtesy were passed among them.
As one of the last boats left the sinking ship Captain Herndon gave his watch to a passenger with a request that it might be delivered to his wife. He tried to send her a message, but the only words he could say were "Tell her---." After this he went to his stateroom, put on his uniform, removed the oilskin covering which concealed the band around his cap, threw it on deck, took his stand by the wheel-house, holding on by the rail with his left hand. A rocket was sent up, the ship gave a last lurch; as she went down he uncovered. His last order was to a boat heard approaching to keep off; to have come nearer would have swamped her; she was already disabled. Forty-nine of the passengers were picked up floating in the water that night and next morning by the Norwegian bark Kllen, and three more by the English brig Mary. The total number saved was 152.