Friday, February 12, 2010

A Mystery Solved! - The True Story of the "Last Casualty"

On February 3rd I told you the story of an unfortunate man who was found in the military hospital at Tallahassee when Union troops occupied the city. To refresh your memory, here's a brief except from an article about him that appeared in The New York Times on July 13, 1866:

When the United States forces took possession of Tallahassee they found this man in the (then) Confederate hospital, and he has not been heard to speak since. His face ever wears an expression of most anxious care. The moment any one enters his room he turns with an imploring glance, intensified by an expression of fear. Oh! That look can never be forgotten – so full of petition, dread and woe! He wrings his hands incessantly, and seems just uttering some earnest request; but never speaks. Repeated efforts have been made to induce him to write. But he takes the pen mechanically, as he does everything else, and gazes up into your face with that same earnest look of undefined supplication and dread.

No one in Tallahassee knew who the man was, although some thought they might have seen him wounded in action at the Battle of Natural Bridge on March 6, 1865. Now, thanks to a great email from blog reader Cindy Brown, we can answer the mystery.

According to General E.D. Townsend, who served as Adjutant General in Florida in 1866, he took an interest in the case of the unfortunate soldier and had him sent to the Government Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. In his book, Anecdotes of the Civil War in the United States, Townsend included a letter from the director of the hospital dated January 29, 1869:

You will recollect the case of late private Houghton as that of the unknown man who was admitted to this hospital November 28, 1866, from the general army hospital at Tallahassee, Florida, in which he had been under treatment for about fifteen months, having been received as a destitute sick person, and under the supposition that he had been a Union prisoner among the rebels, and who was identified in your office on the 23d of August, 1867, as Thomas B. Houghton, late, etc., husband of Elizabeth E. Houghton, of Ontario County, New York.

Houghton did not speak while in the Tallahassee hospital, and has not spoken since he has been under the care of this institution till last Saturday; and it thus appears that he was entirely dumb for a period of three and one half years, and, as he was in a feeble, passive condition, and did not speak when admitted to general hospital, the disuse of his voice probably antedated that period many months. I now intend to address another communication to you in relation to this case when its history and result are more fully developed.

Houghton was a private in the 140th New York Volunteers, his service records show that he was killed in 1862. Clearly, the unknown man from Tallahassee could not have been the Union soldier he was thought to be by the late soldier's wife and Federal authorities.

Fortunately, the story did not end there. As the man improved, according to General Townsend, his memory returned:

Time wore on, and I occasionally heard that our patient was progressing favorably. His wife had gone home, preferring to leave him in the Government Hospital, where he could have far better attendance than she could otherwise procure. He steadily improved, and began to converse a little. He was employed at light labor, and grew robust in health. Suddenly, one day, when some one addressed him by the name of Houghton, he laughed and said that was not his name. He gave another name, and, when asked if he did not belong to the One Hundred and Fortieth New York Regiment, he said " No." A few days after, he said, with a peculiar chuckle, that he had never been a Yankee soldier, but had been overseer of a plantation in Georgia, or, as he called it, " a negro-driver." When Dr. Nichols heard this, he questioned him at different times, until the man stated that he was a native of Georgia. He gave the town where he lived, and the names of persons residing there and elsewhere in the State. He said he had gone into Florida on business, and had been drafted into a company of Florida conscripts ; that he lost his mind soon after...

Unfortunately, Townsend's account does not reveal the man's true identity and his name remains a mystery. Because he had received a head injury, he may well have been an unknown casualty of the Battle of Natural Bridge.

To learn more about the battle, please visit

1 comment:

Terry Sirmans said...

I bet you can find out more if you keep digging. The personal stories of the war are more interesting than the battles.