Horace Lurton: From Confederate Soldier to U.S. Supreme Court Justice



Horace Harmon Lurton was born in Newport, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, on February 26, 1844, the son of Dr. Lycurgus L. and Sarah Ann Lurton.


In the 1850s, the family moved to Tennessee, where Horace attended school in Clarksville, before going to the Old University of Chicago at the tender age of 16.


When the Civil War started, he joined the Confederate 35th Tennessee Infantry Regiment (formerly known as the 5th Tennessee Regiment, Provisional Army, and the 1st Mountain Rifle Regiment) in April of 1861. At some point early in the war, he was captured, with at least one story claiming this happened when the Confederates surrendered Fort Donelson, though his unit does not appear on the order of battle for that fight.


Lurton, of course, did not like being a prisoner and requested his release, writing on February 25, 1862 to a Colonel R.H. McClain, A.A.G. of the Union’s Department of the West: “application is hereby made…for the parole of the undersigned officer of the 5th Tennessee Regiment held as prisoner of war on board the steamer Nebraska. He is the only one of that regiment held as prisoner of war. He would humbly request that he be placed on his honor in any city or town the Commanding General may see proper to designate.”


No response to this request is on file, but Horace eventually found his way out of confinement. Continuing with the theme of uncertainty that surrounds much of his military career, official records do not show exactly how, though legend says he escaped.


He did soon find his way into John H. Morgan’s Confederate forces, joining company G of the 2nd Kentucky (Gano’s) regiment on August 25, 1862. (This unit became company G of the 7th Kentucky Cavalry.) Horace then was captured near Buffington Island, Ohio on July 19, 1863, at the end of Morgan’s “Great Raid” through Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio. His existing records from that time list him as a private in company G of the 3rd Kentucky Cavalry, though how or when he changed regiments is unknown.


He spent time at the Seminary General Hospital in Covington, Kentucky and at Kemper Barracks in Cincinnati before moving to Camp Chase in Columbus, Ohio and then to to Johnson’s Island.


He again did not enjoy his time as a prisoner, and his family and friends worked to secure his release. A petition from citizens in his home area, over the signatures of local judges, stated: His family is one of high responsibility and that Horace was then a prisoner of war at Johnson’s Island and had been a private in Company G 3rd Kentucky (Rebel) Cavalry.


The document explained:


He has been a prisoner about nineteen months. When he joined the army, he was only about eighteen years of age, of quick and sanguine temperament, and like thousands of young and thoughtless boys was swept into the ranks of the Rebellion by the passion and fury of the times. He is now willing and anxious as we are credibly informed to avail himself of the amnesty oath offered by the President and return a peaceful and orderly citizen of the United States.


This plea proclaimed:


no question but that if permitted to take the oath and be discharged he will faithfully abide by & discharge all his duties as a good and loyal citizen. We therefore trust & pray that it will be deemed compatible with the interests and mercy of the government to administer to him the oath & permit him to return to his home.


His father also mailed a letter, dated January 23, 1865, probably around the same time as the petition. He wrote:


My son, Horace H. Lurton, a prisoner of war, confined 14 months at Camp Chase, and five months at Johnson’s Island, petitioned the war department for his discharge in the month of September 1863 from Camp Chase, which petition was endorsed by His Excellency Governor Todd of Ohio and other important figures.


Since which time another petition was forwarded by citizens, endorsed by His Excellency Governor Andrew Johnson (in 1864, Johnson, of course, had been elected Vice-President of the United States) to all of which, no successful issues have followed.


He pressed on: It may be proper for me to say that my son went into the army without my advice or council, led away by the excitement of the times and from undue influence exerted by ‘stay at home patriots.’


The elder Lurton stated:


No one loved the union more than I, and in this sphere exerted more influence for its preservation, and no one would more gladly hail the return of union, peace, and concord. You will perceive that an early date I made efforts for his discharge and but for the helplessness of efforts would have continued…I am now induced to make another effort, because that I hear from my son that many are being discharged and, amongst them, some of our own citizens.


My son writes me that he is healthy, tired, both of war and prison, as was shown by his petition forwarded to Col. (William) Hoffman, commissary of Prisons, which petition I presume is still on file in his office.


I pray you therefore to extend that clemency which will cost you no sorrow, but gladden the hearts of parents, and bring to you this warm gratitude, and the consciousness of an act of mercy, which shall sooth many a sorrow. I know these pleas are numerous, and sometimes wearisome, yet remember that God the Father is thus judicious by the vast multitudes of His erring, rebellious children, for pardon and for peace and grow not weary or turns a deaf ear to their cry, but daily and hourly says go in peace, and sin no more. May He give you a like spirit to say to my boy…sin no more.


A note in Lurton's file states: “desired release from Camp Chase of Horace H. Lurton, prisoner of war. Release ordered by the President. Referred by the War Dept. for execution of President’s order.”


The page with the Presidential order first includes the notation: I have no hesitancy in recommending this petition for the favorable consideration of the President - Andrew Johnson.


That line is followed by: Let this prisoner take the oath of Dec. 8, 1863 and be discharged. A. Lincoln. Feb. 8 1865


Other stories claim that Luton's mother had visited the President to beg him to release her son, but the actual story was much less dramatic. He was released on amnesty Feb. 11, 1865 from Camp Chase (though no signed copy of the Oath is in the file.)


After the war, the former soldier earned a Bachelor of Laws Degree from the Cumberland School of Law and returned to Tennessee where he began his law practice. He was appointed a judge in Tennessee’s 6th Chancery Division in 1875 and in 1886 earned appointment to Tennessee’s Supreme Court. He also worked as a professor of constitutional law at Vanderbilt University for more than a decade, then, in 1893, President Grover Cleveland appointed him to the 6th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, based in Cincinnati, where Lurton forged a relationship with William Howard Taft.


When Taft became President, he appointed Lurton to the Supreme Court in 1910. Lurton was 66 years of age, the oldest person to be appointed as Associate Justice. He was a “constitutional conservative and opposed the concept that social changes be brought about through judicial interpretation.”


His Supreme Court experience was neither long, nor especially active. Oyez.org asserts that he “wrote infrequently during his brief tenure on the Court. He confined his talent, such as it was, to procedural issues or employer liability cases.”



Late in 1913, Horace Lurton fell ill and eventually passed away on July 12, 1914 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Clarksville, Tennessee.


Sources used for this include his file on Fold3.com, ancestry.com., findagrave.com, and additional webpages including the Campbell County (Ky) Genweb, supremecourthistory.org, britannica.com and oyez.org.


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