Feature   Know Your Military

Medal of Honor Monday: Navy Seaman Lewis Horton

Dec. 30, 2019 | BY Katie Lange , DOD News

As we head into the new year, we would be remiss to not highlight one of the first-ever service members to earn the Medal of Honor as a noncombatant. Navy Seaman Lewis Horton served during the Civil War, and his time in the military included being a prisoner of war, a double amputee and a courageous lifesaver.  

Horton was born May 26, 1842, in Bristol, Massachusetts. He enlisted in the Navy in May 1861 when he was 19. 

A 1860s-era side-wheel steamship with two masts sits in water offshore.
USS Rhode Island
USS Rhode Island anchored off Newport, RI, in August 1866.
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command
VIRIN: 191219-N-ZZ999-384C

That summer, during the early days of the war, Horton was captured while serving on the USS Massachusetts and taken to a Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia. He was paroled and discharged in March 1862 and almost immediately reenlisted. 

His new duty station was the USS Rhode Island, and that's where he was serving when he earned the Medal of Honor. On Dec. 30, 1862, the Rhode Island was towing the ironclad warship USS Monitor as a terrible storm began, causing the Monitor to spring a leak and start to sink. 

Sketch of a small boat taking crewmen off the sinking USS Monitor in rough seas. The USS Rhode Island is in the background.
USS Monitor Sketch
An 1863 depiction of the wreck of the USS Monitor as it sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, Dec. 30, 1862.
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command
VIRIN: 191219-N-ZZ999-476C

According to the Gettysburg Compiler, a publication by students and staff of the Civil War Institute of Gettysburg College, Horton and six other seamen volunteered to take a rowboat out on a rescue mission to save the Monitor's men. The rescuers made two successful trips before returning for a third to discover that the Monitor had completely sunk. They were able to save all but 16 men. 

When the rescuers turned back, they were about 2 miles from the Rhode Island. But thanks to the rain and fog, they lost sight of the ship. 

According to the Gettysburg Compiler, ''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.''

Several Civil War-era sailors sit on the deck of an ironclad warship. A large, round turret is nearby.
USS Monitor Sailors
Navy sailors relax on the deck of the ironclad warship USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras, N.C. The photo was taken before the Monitor’s ill-fated wreck on Dec. 30, 1862.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 191219-O-ZZ999-793

The men had no food or water and very little to keep themselves warm in the cold, wet winter weather. After 18 hours, they were finally rescued about 50 miles from where the Monitor sank. 

All seven men survived and were able to rejoin the Rhode Island's crew by mid-January. Horton and the six other men -- Luke Griswold, John Jones, Hugh Logan, George Moore, Charles H. Smith and Maurice Wagg – were the first noncombatants to receive the Medal of Honor. 

Less than a year after the Monitor's sinking, on Nov. 3, 1863, Horton had both of his arms blown off at the elbow in a gun-loading accident, according to the Compiler. What remained of his arms had to be amputated immediately. 

The backside of a Medal of Honor attached to a clasp. Illegible engraving is on the medal.
Medal of Honor Star
The backside of a Medal of Honor similar to the one given to Navy Seaman Lewis Horton after he helped save the men of the USS Monitor as it sank in rough seas, Dec. 30, 1862.
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command
VIRIN: 191219-O-ZZ999-905C

Horton wasn't expected to survive the accident, but he did, and he went on to live a pretty full life. He got married, raised a family and even learned to race a yacht again, despite the loss of his arms. According to the Compiler, Horton was working at a Boston customs house for official government duties in 1893 when he learned he had earned the Medal – even though the citation was issued in 1865. 

''After being told by his local newspaperman that a Washington dispatch had been published looking for a Lewis Horton to accept his Medal of Honor, Horton seems to have replied in genuine shock,'' wrote Compiler researcher Sarah Johnson. ''Encouraged by the newspaperman to write to Washington and inquire, Horton replied that if the government wanted to send him a medal he figured they would find him. He received the medal shortly after and commented that he was glad to have it after so long a time period.''

Horton lived for another two decades. He died when he was 74 on June 8, 1916.

What a remarkable life!

This article is part of a weekly series called "Medal of Honor Monday," in which we highlight one of the more than 3,500 Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military's highest medal for valor.