“Adventures by Sea & Land”: A Disabled Veteran Tells His Own Story

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

Part of my job cataloging manuscripts here at the MHS involves revisiting older catalog records to improve descriptions and access. I recently revised the catalog record for the Lewis Augustine Horton papers, which the MHS acquired back in 1988, and I found a lot more in the collection than I’d expected.

Portrait of Lewis Augustine Horton, 1908
Lewis Augustine Horton, 1908

Horton served in the Union Navy during the Civil War, and his story is really remarkable. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for helping to save the lives of crewmen of the U.S.S. Monitor when it sank in a storm on 30 December 1862. He spent some time as a prisoner of war, including at the notorious Libby Prison. And on 3 November 1863, he suffered a terrible accident on board the U.S.S. Rhode Island, when a cannon he was loading discharged prematurely and blew him backward into the sea. Miraculously, he survived, but his arms were so badly injured they had to be amputated above the elbows.

On 24 March 1864, Lewis Horton married Frances Goodwin, and the couple had three children: Florence, Luella, and Aubin. Lewis was an avid yachtsman and worked for many years at the Boston Custom House, dying in 1916 at the age of 74.

The papers include very little original manuscript material. The bulk of the collection consists of a typed manuscript and photocopies of secondary material, somewhat disorganized but apparently compiled for a biography of Horton that was never published. The manuscript was written by “Mrs. Lewis A. Horton”—not Horton’s own wife, but Lois Ormes Horton, the wife of his grandson and namesake. It probably dates from the second half of the twentieth century.

Lois made a few factual errors in her biography of her grandfather-in-law—for example, his middle name and the date of his death—but she very helpfully annotated most of her material and identified images with captions. She was also the person who donated the papers to the MHS 32 years ago.

The most intriguing item is a 16-page original manuscript titled “Adventures by Sea & Land, L. A. Horton.” It begins: “In the month of Jan’y 1857 at the age of 14 years I left New York in the Wm. Mason…”

Page from “Adventures by Sea & Land” by Horton
First page of “Adventures by Sea & Land”

The manuscript describes incidents in Horton’s life, particularly during the war, but the fact that it was written in the first person gave me pause. Was this a transcription by Lois? A dictation? At first I missed its significance. Then I came across a newspaper clipping about Horton from the Boston Sunday Herald, dated 27 December 1959. One passage mentions a memoir: “the now-faded pages on which [Horton] had penned a modest account of his Civil War days.”

Could this be a reference to the very same pages I had in front of me? On closer inspection, I saw that the writing didn’t match Lois’s at all. I did a little more research and found several sources asserting that Horton could, in fact, write very legibly—by holding a pen in his mouth. But I still wasn’t sure I could definitely attribute this particular manuscript to him.

Two final clues clinched it for me. First, a photocopy of an 1870 document (Horton’s application for reimbursement for prosthetic arms) contains very similar writing. And second, the memoir is written, in part, on letterhead of the U.S. Treasury Department, the agency that administered the customs service and therefore Horton’s employer.

Stationery used by HOrton
Detail of stationery used for Horton’s memoir

Here are a couple of excerpts to whet your appetite:

The name of one brute is indelibly impressed upon my mind as one of the officers of the prison. He was a brother of the wife of President Lincoln, Lieut [David Humphreys] Todd; usually drunk he thought nothing of sticking a man with his sword if his orders were not immediately obeyed.

[After the accident in which he lost his arms] The first impression was that I was torn into a thousand pieces, but coming to the surface & treading water, kept up until a boat could reach me & rescue me just in time, for I was growing weak from loss of blood & the sharks were attracted by the blood.

The 1959 Herald article indicates that Horton’s grandson, Lewis Aubin Horton, inherited the manuscript. When he died in 1973, it passed into the hands of his widow, Lois.

Photo of Horton and grandson ca. 1903

Lewis Augustine Horton and his grandson Lewis Aubin Horton, ca. 1903

For more information about Lewis Horton, I recommend this terrific piece by William F. Hanna of the Old Colony History Museum, published just two months ago. And of course, please visit the MHS library to look at the collection yourself!