Tales from a Boston Customs House: Lewis Augustine Horton

By Sarah Johnson ’15

One morning as he was preparing the morning paper, Boston-based Washington dispatch examiner Joseph O’Hare’s eye caught a dispatch noting the Medal of Honor was being awarded to a Lewis Horton for courageous acts while rescuing crew members of the U.S.S. Monitor off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 1862. O’Hare was particularly struck by the name of the man, since a double arm amputee veteran named Lewis Augustine Horton worked at the local customs house. O’Hare related the dispatch to Horton, noting the similar name, to which Horton reportedly responded in genuine surprise, “By Jove! It may be for me. I was one of the volunteers that went out in the Rhode Island’s cutter and saved the crew of the Monitor.”

Rhode Island and Monitor
In December of 1862, Horton was an ordinary seaman aboard the U.S.S. Rhode Island. On the night of December 30, the Rhode Island was towing the Monitor of Hampton Roads fame when a terrible storm started. In the storm the Monitor sprung a leak and began to sink. Horton and six other seamen volunteered to undertake a rowboat rescue mission to save the crew. All but four officers and twelve men were rescued. After two successful trips, on the third trip the men found the Monitor had completely sunk. After waiting for a period of time for potential survivors, the men turned the cutter about and began to make for the Rhode Island. The Rhode Island appeared to be about two miles away, but the rain and fog from the storm severely reduced visibility and the men lost sight of her. The men chose to row northwest in hopes of coming across another vessel patrolling the coast and continued to row all night long to keep them out of the strong northeast current that threatened to send them deep into the Atlantic Ocean.
Monitor crew
Listed as missing in action, the men were recovered after eighteen hours exposed to rough seas by the schooner A. Colby, fifty miles from where the Monitor sank. Horton and his comrades were able to rejoin their crew on January 10. These seven became the first non-combatants to receive the Medal of Honor.

Just under a year later, on November 3, 1863, Seaman Horton had both arms blown off at the elbow in a gunnery accident when the gun he was loading prematurely discharged. What was left of the arms that had rowed to the rescue of drowning seaman were amputated within the hour and the ship’s surgeon wrote Horton’s family telling them he most likely would not survive the accident. When Horton heard of this, however, he ordered a letter to be dictated to his family assuring them he would not only live, but that he would walk amongst them soon.

To be continued…


“His Bravery Rewarded: Lewis Horton, the Armless Veteran, Given a Bronze Medal by Congress.” Boston Globe. March 7, 1989. Accessed via ancestry.com.

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, I, 8:348, 8:356-357, 8:356.

Ron Owens, Medal of Honor: Historical Facts and Figures (Paducah: Turner Publishing Company, 2004), 22. Accessed via Googlebooks.


Library of Congress

Naval History and Heritage

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