Seaman Lewis A. Horton, USN

Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient from Taunton

By William F. Hanna

It was a cold, wind-driven rain that soaked Lewis A. Horton and his shipmates as they peered through the winter darkness sixteen miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. They were searching for the red light from a small lantern that had been fastened atop the gun turret of the USS Monitor as it foundered in mountainous seas during a December storm. Heralded as a marvel of maritime warfare when it battled the CSS Virginia to a draw off Hampton Roads in March 1862, the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad ship was in its death throes just nine months later.

Seaman Horton was witnessing this moment of history from the deck of the USS Rhode Island, which until earlier in the day had been towing the Monitor from Hampton Roads, Virginia south to Beaufort, North Carolina. In distress for most of the day as the Atlantic storm intensified, by nightfall on December 30 the shallow draft Monitor was sinking, and the crew had been ordered to abandon ship. Towlines had been cut and when Commander Stephen Decatur Trenchard, the Rhode Island’s captain, asked for volunteers to attempt to rescue survivors, Horton stepped forward.

Seaman Horton was no stranger to adventure. Born to a Taunton mariner in 1842, Lewis had first gone to sea, shipping out of New York, at age 14. In September 1860, Lewis’s father had been the master of a Taunton-based schooner wrecked in the Caribbean; it’s possible that the younger Horton was one of the rescued crew members from that vessel. In May 1861, a month after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, Lewis went to New Bedford and enlisted in the U.S. navy. He and approximately 35 other Taunton sailors were assigned to the USS Massachusetts, and they sailed that ship from the Charlestown navy yard down to Key West, Florida before going on station to enforce the blockade in the Gulf of Mexico.

Implementing the navy’s blockade of southern ports, especially early in the war, was a dangerous job that has been understudied by Civil War historians. In August 1862, word reached Taunton that at least 10 local sailors, including Horton, had been captured by the Confederates and imprisoned. They had been seized after the rebels recaptured a blockade runner that had previously been taken by the crew of the Massachusetts and was being towed into a northern port. Horton remembered the experience for the rest of his life, especially the three months he spent in Richmond’s notorious Libby Prison after having been shackled and marched through the streets of the city. He bitterly remembered the cruelty of the prison’s Confederate commandant, Lieutenant David Todd, who was also the half-brother of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. After his parole, Horton returned to duty and was assigned to the crew of the USS Rhode Island.

When it became apparent that the Monitor was about to sink, Commodore Trenchard ordered a pair of lifeboats from the Rhode Island to immediately row to the stricken ironclad and attempt to rescue as many sailors as possible. A third lifeboat was dispatched an hour later. Because the rescue boats were so small, Trenchard knew that it would take several trips from the Monitor to the Rhode Island to save everyone. Horton and six other sailors were assigned to one of the rescue craft, and he later remembered the ordeal as a “narrow escape from death.” Beginning at 11 P.M., with strong winds roiling the angry Atlantic, the rescue boats went in as close as possible to the storm-tossed Monitor and began transferring men from the sinking ship. This continued for the next four hours until the red lantern light disappeared and ironclad sank beneath the waves. Although the boats from the Rhode Island had managed to save 47 of the Monitor’s crew, 16 died before they could be rescued.

An 1862 engraving entitled “Loss of the Monitor.” Naval Historical Center photograph.

When the Monitor sank, Horton and his six cold, sodden colleagues were in the midst of their third run out to the stricken ship. They quickly found that their ordeal was far from over. The high seas, rain and generally poor visibility made it impossible for lookouts on the Rhode Island to spot Horton’s small rescue craft and after several attempts to signal the lifeboat, Commodore Trenchard reluctantly decided that the cutter had been lost and gave orders to return to port.

Throughout the day of December 31, 1862 the crew of bouncing lifeboat weathered the tempest that had claimed the Monitor. “The storm continued and we had a tough time of it,” remembered Horton. “Wet to the skin, without sufficient clothing, no food or water, we spent 18 hours before we were picked up. We were in an exhausted condition when we sighted a schooner and were taken aboard. Some of the men dropped from cold and exhaustion.” The schooner, itself struggling with the bad weather, brought the men into Beaufort on January 1, 1863.

The new year was not to be kind to Lewis Horton. He returned to the USS Rhode Island as the ship went on patrol chasing blockade runners in the West Indies and along the Atlantic coast. More than 30 years later, he described the accident that would forever change his life:

In November 1863, by the premature discharge of a gun on the Rhode Island, I was blown into the sea. When I was rescued it was found that both my arms to the elbow had been blown off and that one of my shoulders had been dislocated. I was loading the gun at the time of the explosion. The ship’s surgeon, Dr. Webber, amputated my arms. He did not expect me to live, and so wrote my folks at Taunton. As soon as I had heard of what he had done I dictated a letter home and told them that I was not only going to live but that I would be with them before long.

Upon his return to Massachusetts, Horton received extensive treatment at the Chelsea naval hospital, and perhaps it was there, at the age of 22, that he decided he would not allow his injuries to define the rest of his life. In March 1864, he married Francis Ellen Cass Goodwin, of Newburyport. Their marriage would endure for fifty-two years. He also embarked on a career that few would have thought possible for a man in his physical condition.

Each morning for 38 years Lewis Horton left his home in the Savin Hill section of Dorchester and reported for work in downtown Boston. He was a watchman and messenger at the U.S. Customs House on State Street, near the waterfront, and over the years he became one of the most respected and popular men in the city. Then — as now — there weren’t many full-time workers with his disability, and even fewer were those who overcame that particular challenge by learning to write while holding a pen between their teeth. But that’s what Horton did; driving himself to excellence, he became locally famous for his beautiful penmanship. Even more admirable, however, was the role he played as an unfailing inspiration to his colleagues. They knew him not for his naval exploits, but rather for the heroic humility, grace and good nature that characterized his life.

An 1898 drawing from a Boston newspaper depicting Lewis Horton at his writing desk in the U.S. Customs House, Boston.

In 1898, fully 35 years after the Monitor sank, word reached Boston that Lewis Horton had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism in the rescue of her crew. Although he still loved the sea, by then the old sailor’s maritime activities were limited to piloting his sailboat around Dorchester Bay as an official of the Savin Hill Yacht Club.

An 1898 newspaper illustration showing a sample of Lewis Horton’s penmanship below his Congressional Medal of Honor.

Horton never boasted about his military exploits, but he was extremely proud of his naval service and even wrote a 16-page account of his wartime adventures. His last public appearance came during a veterans’ parade just three weeks before he died, at 74-years old, on June 8, 1916. The Boston Globe’s obituary said that every businessman who visited the Customs House “ . . . will miss the first face that greeted him, that of the guardian of the department, one of the most efficient messengers and watchmen in the Customhouse service.”

Lewis Horton’s grave, Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston.

Lewis Horton was buried in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, 57 years before the wreck of the USS Monitor was discovered 16 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, in 240 feet of water. Among the first objects to be salvaged from the ship was the red lantern that had signaled the ironclad’s distress.

Red lantern recovered from the USS Monitor wreck site, August 1979. Naval Historical Center photograph.
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