A Western Dragoon

carleton 001

James Henry Carleton (Image from public domain)

Owing to his participation in the civilization of the American West, I have mentioned James Henry Carleton on several occasions —usually as a backdrop to conflicts with American Indians— as a senior in the chain of command.  I thought for this week it would be interesting to take a closer look at this distinguished military officer.

Carleton was born in Lubec, Maine on 27 December 1814, the son of John and Abigail (Phelps) Carleton.  John was a sea captain, which suggests that Carleton was raised in a home where his father was frequently absent.  He was apparently well-educated, as he obtained a commission as a lieutenant of militia for the state of Maine at the age of 24-years.  As a lieutenant, he participated in the boundary dispute with Canada, known to history as the Aristook War (often referred to as the Pork & Beans War) of 1838.  It was a year-long American-British confrontation involving both military and civilian personnel over the international boundary between New Brunswick, Canada and the state of Maine.  Several British were captured, but no one was killed.  Black bears did injure two Canadians, however, a tidbit of information that begs the answer to “huh?”  In any case, the issue was resolved by the Ashburton-Webster Treaty of 1842, which gave most of the disputed area to Maine, giving a militarily vital area between lower Canada and the Atlantic colonies to Britain.  A “right of way” was also designed to allow British commercial interests a transit route through Maine.  It is still in use today.

Subsequently, Carleton received an appointment to second lieutenant in the First Dragoons on 18 October 1839 and attended military training at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania [1].  In the next year, Carleton married Henrietta Tracy Loring of Boston, Massachusetts.  Henrietta accompanied her husband to his duty assignment at Fort Gibson [2] in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). She passed away at Fort Gibson in October 1841.

Carleton later served as assistant commissary of subsistence at Fort Leavenworth, accompanied Major Clifton Wharton’s expedition to the Pawnee Villages in Nebraska, and served as an officer on Col. Stephen Watts Kearny’s 1845 expedition to South Pass, and saw action in 1847 in the battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War. During this later engagement, the US Army employed well-aimed artillery fires to repulse a much larger Mexican Army outside of Buena Vista, a small village in the state of Coahuila, seven miles south of Saltillo, Mexico.

Carleton remarried in 1848 to Sophia Garland Wolfe, a niece of General John Garland.  Carleton served under Garland in the New Mexico territory in the 1850s. In 1858, Carleton commanded Fort Tejon, California and the First Dragoons (later designed the US First Cavalry Regiment). In 1859, he was ordered to investigate the massacre at Mountain Meadows, an incident during which Mormons, disguised as Indians, murdered 120 western-bound emigrants from Arkansas.

At the outbreak of Civil War, California governor John L. Downey commissioned Carleton to Colonel and appointed to command the First Infantry, California Volunteers.  He was later commissioned to Brigadier General of the California Volunteers and commanded the state’s column [3] on its march to the Rio Grande.  He commanded the Southern District of California from January to April 1861.

In September 1862, Carleton was advanced to brevet Major General and ordered to relieve General Edward R. S. Canby as the officer commanding the Department of New Mexico.  One of his first acts in this assignment was to reissue Canby’s order establishing martial law in the Arizona territory.  Carleton never acted to set himself up as a military governor, but the policy of martial law was necessary in order to carry out policies leading to peace and prosperity throughout that territory —although it is said that many of his policies in this regard did antagonize the people living in Arizona and New Mexico.  Still, the United States was at war and it was Carleton’s duty to secure the territory against Confederate intrigue.

The objective of the California Column was to drive Confederate troops out of the federal territory of New Mexico.  A relatively small Confederate force (the Selby Brigade, from Texas) had initially pushed out Union forces and then organized civilians to assist the Confederacy against the interests of the United States.  The column consisted of both infantry and cavalry units.  En route, the California Column confronted the Apache leader Cochise at the Battle of Apache Pass.

After eliminating the Confederate threat in New Mexico, Carleton created a system of spies throughout New Mexico and along the border of Texas to keep him advised of any rebel scheming that might place his command in jeopardy.  Beyond this, Carleton was faced with subduing hostile Indians.  It was in this regard that he sent Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson [4] against the Mescalero Apache with orders to “kill all Indian men” wherever found.  Relocation of these Apaches to the Bosque Redondo [5] was affected by February 1863.

General Carleton then began a campaign against the Navajo, ordering Carson (and others) to destroy all of these Indian’s crops in order to starve them into submission.  It was a strategy that brought immediate results. Eight-thousand Navajo surrendered and made the “long walk” to the reservation at Bosque Redondo.

Carleton envisioned turning these Indians into civilized Christian farmers while interned on the reservation, but the experiment ended up in failure.  Mescalero quietly escaped the reservation, even though facing death by saber or starvation.  Beyond this, the reservation at Bosque Redondo was an expense the US government didn’t need.  This consideration persuaded the government to release the Navajo back to their homelands.

In 1864, General Carleton sent Colonel Carson to chastise Kiowa, Comanche, and Kiowa-Apache (Plains Apache) Indians who were raiding wagon trains on the Great Plains. The major battle occurred at Adobe Walls on 25 November, and although the conflict resulted in only a few casualties, it was one of the largest engagements to occur on America’s Great Plains.

As might be expected, General Carleton’s tenure as a military governor became ensnared in territorial politics (casual reference here to the machinations in southeastern Arizona during the Cowboy War).  Carleton’s superiors had confidence in his ability, believing him to be an efficient and capable officer, but hostile criticism from among the political whiners of the time led to his reassignment in 1867.

After a long-overdue furlough from duty, he assumed command of the US Fourth Cavalry in Texas and served in this capacity until the summer of 1872.  Illness involving severe eczema led to his medical leave until December of that year.  While traveling aboard ship from New Orleans to the Texas coast, Carleton contracted bronchitis from which he never fully recovered.  After arriving in Texas, he further encountered pneumonia and, while hospitalized in San Antonio, passed away on 7 January 1873.  He was survived by his wife Sophia and three of his five children. General Carleton published several accounts of his military experiences.  His son Henry Guy Carleton was a noted journalist, playwright, and inventor.

Additional reading:

  1. Hunt, A. Major General James H. Carlton, 1814-1873: Western Frontier Dragoon. Glendale: Clark, 1958.
  2. Hutton, P. A., ed. Soldiers West: Biographies from the Military Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
  3. Keleher, W. A. Turmoil in New Mexico. Santa Fe: Rydal Press, 1952.
  4. Thompson, G. The Army and the Navajo. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976.
  5. McDowell, D. The Beat of the Drum. Santa Ana: Graphic Publishers, 1993.


[1] Carlisle was the location of traditional Indian trails bordering Letort Creek in the mid-1700s and the point of departure for traders and settlers heading westward over the Allegheny Mountains.  In 1756, a brief military encampment preceded a more permanent settlement a year later during the so-called French and Indian Wars (Seven Years’ War).  After the American Revolution, Carlisle became the frontier gateway in Pennsylvania.  In 1794, Carlisle Barracks became the center of intense military activity with the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion.  The Barracks continues to serve as the US Army Training and Doctrine Command and the US Army War College.  It is the nation’s second oldest active military base.

[2] Fort Gibson was initially created on 21 April 1824 as an army cantonment.  It was part of a series of fortifications established to protect its western border after the Louisiana Purchase.  Fort Gibson assumed a primary role in the Indian Removal activities after 1830.  The fort is located near the present-day city, Fort Gibson, Oklahoma.

[3] The California Column was a force of Union volunteers sent to Arizona and New Mexico during the Civil War.  The command marched 900 miles from California, through Arizona and New Mexico territory, to the Rio Grande, and then east to El Paso, Texas.  The march took place between April and August 1862.

[4] An Indian fighter of some reputation, Carleton was first commissioned in the US Army in 1839.  He took part in the Mexican-American War, served in the US Dragoons in the American West, and participated in the 1844 expedition to the Pawnee and Oto.  In 1861, Carleton raised and was appointed Commanding Officer of the 1stCalifornia Infantry.  Later that year, he replaced Brigadier General George Wright as Commander, Military District of Southern California and the Department of New Mexico.  In April 1862, Carleton was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the California Column.  Carleton’s resume included either leading or participating in the Apache Wars, Navaho Wars, and the Texas-Indian Wars.

[5] Known among the Indians (Apache, Navajo) as the long walk, the forced relocation involved approximately 400 miles.  The distance may have had a dire effect on the elderly and infirm, but it was not a particularly punishing distance for a healthy person.  Depending upon whose report one reads, between 200 and 300 Indians died along this trail which occurred over several segments.  Not every Indian broke the promises made to Carleton, but several bands did go back on their word and as a result, the entire tribe suffered consequences.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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9 Responses to A Western Dragoon

  1. Andy says:

    This general had a varied and interesting career. To have ended it in San Antonio is ironic to me, since I did the same though at a somewhat lesser rank and for different reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      It was a different time, Andy. Back then, senior officers transitioned from state militias to positions in the regular army. The military was quite small back then, so once an officer had ingratiated himself into the political “who’s who” of the time, it was a simple matter of being the only guy with some experience being available at the time and place he was needed most. We might wonder how did a mere lieutenant of cavalry, graduating from the USMA in 1861 become a brevet brigadier general of US volunteers in 1863, aged 23 years? In 1864, he was a brevet major general in the regular army; in 1865, major general in the regular army; later than year, a major general in the US volunteers. That was George Armstrong Custer’s story; within ten years, he was a lieutenant colonel commanding a cavalry regiment, an officer whose arrogance, lack of experience with hostiles, and a dearth of common sense resulted in his death and those of his men in 1876. Custer was an idiot; I feel sorry for the men under his command.


  2. Kid says:

    The long walk was also called the Apache Trail of Tears. There are also “Apache Tears” along the route which are small dark rocks that are transparent when polished.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:
      There were only two forces able to kick Apache ass: Comanche and US Cavalry, the latter of these came late to the dance. The Comanche pretty much eradicated the Eastern Apache, and then ended up pushing the Western Apache deep into the mountains and deserts of the southwest and Mexico. One wonders, if the Apache were such badasses, then how did the Comanche destroy them? Well … a couple of reasons: first, the Apache did have horses and were good riders, but they used horses for transportation. When their animals broke down, the Apache would go off to a ranchero and steal more. A broken-down horse was dinner to the Apache. The Comanche, on the other hand, were natural horsemen. They did steal horses (no one was better at this than Comanche), but they also raised their herds to unbelievable population levels. I read somewhere that the average adult warrior owned 20 head of horse. Comanche did more than ride horses; they quite literally lived on the backs of their horses. Second, while the Apache were badass fighters, they couldn’t hold a candle to the Comanche, couldn’t match the Comanche in sheer numbers of warriors, and the Comanche could always find the Apache camps when they wanted to practice up on their fighting skills. The Apache was so predictable … the same could not be said about the Comanche/Kiowa groups.


  3. Indian fighter, general officer, spymaster.
    Not something you see much of these days. 🙂


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