1. Skip to Menu
  2. Skip to Content
  3. Skip to Footer

James Henry Carleton (1814-1873)


James Henry Carleton was born in Lubec, Maine on December 27, 1814. He was the son of John and Abigail (Phelps) Carleton; his father was a ship captain. At age 25 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Maine militia in 1838 and participated in the boundary dispute with Canada known as the "Aristook War." He received appointment as a second lieutenant in the First Dragoons on October 18, 1839 and then trained at Carlisle Barracks.

In October 1840 he married Henrietta Tracy Loring of Boston. She accompanied Carleton to his duty assignment at Ford Gibson, Indian Territory, where she died in October 1841. Later in the 1840s, Carleton served as assistant commissary of subsistence at Fort Leavenworth, accompanied Major Clifton Wharton's expedition to the Pawnee Villages in Nebraska, 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.

In 1848 Carleton married Sophia Garland Wolfe, niece of Gen. John Garland. During the 1850s, Carleton served under Garland in New Mexico Territory. Summer 1858 saw him, his family and 700 raw recruits stationed at Fort Tejon, California as commander of the fort with the First Dragoons. In 1859 he was ordered to Salt Lake City to investigate the massacre at Mountain Meadows two years previous of 120 Arkansas emigrants. He concluded that it had been Mormons dressed as Indians.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Carleton was appointed to Colonel of the 1st Infantry, California Volunteers on July 26, 1861 by then-Governor John L. Downey. He would ultimately become Brigadier General of the California Volunteers and command the California Column on its march to the Rio Grande.  Carleton was in command in Southern California from January to April 1861.

In September 1862 he replaced General Edward R. S. Canby as commander of the Department of New Mexico. One of Carlton's first acts upon assuming command was to reissue Canby's order establishing martial law in Arizona Territory. Although he never attempted to set himself up as a military governor, he believed he had authority to carry through any policy he deemed essential to the peace and prosperity of the territory. Many of his actions antagonized the citizens.

In addition to securing the territory against Confederate intrigue, Carleton took steps to subdue hostile Indian tribes. He sent Col. Christopher (Kit) Carson and other subordinates against the Mescalero Apaches with orders to kill all Indian men "whenever and wherever you can fine them." By February 1863 the Mescaleros had been relocated on the new Indian reservation of Bosque Redondo on the Pecos River.

Carleton then waged war against the Navajos, ordering Carson and other officers to destroy all crops in Navajo country in order to starve them into submission. Carleton's strategy brought immediate results. Some 8,000 Navajos surrendered and then made the "Long Walk" to Bosque Redondo, where Carleton planned to turn them into Christian farmers.

The Bosque Redondo experiment ended in failure, however. The Mescaleros quietly fled the reservation and the Navajo captives faced death, disease and a constant shortage of food. The cost of maintaining Bosque Redondo persuaded the government to allow the Navajos to return to their homeland. Carleton's policies became ensnarled in territorial politics. Although his superiors believed him an efficient and capable officer, hostile criticism led to his reassignment in early 1867. After a long overdue furlough he returned to duty in 1868 with his regiment, the 4th United States Cavalry in Texas and served with regiment until summer 1872. He was granted six month leave in "cold climate" for chronic eczema problems in his legs and returned to duty in December 1872, probably by ship. He was hospitalized with bronchitis contracted en route; he never fully recovered and left New Orleans for San Antonio in the cold rainy season. After arriving on December 28, he contracted pneumonia the next day. He was hospitalized the day after that and died in San Antonio on January 7, 1873. Carleton and his second wife, Sophia, had five children; two died in childhood. He published several accounts of his military experiences and his oldest son, Henry Guy Carleton, became a journalist, playwright and inventor.

What Kind of Man Was Carleton?

He lived 58 adventurous years; he is intriguing as a human being, mostly because he was a very different man at different times. He was sensitive, emotional, and creative; a patriot through and through; a capable and dedicated military man who sometimes used an excess of disciplinary zeal; a good husband and father who had to leave his family when duty called; a compassionate peace keeper with Indians when conditions permitted but an implacable foe when necessary.

There were reports that he turned to alcohol in the twilight of his career, but moderate drinking was very common the frontier to combat loneliness. He was nevertheless a good soldier and a great leader at a time when he was desperately needed.


  • Hunt, Aurora. Major General James H. Carlton, 1814-1873: Western Frontier Dragoon. Glendale: Clark, 1958.
  • Hutton, Paul Andrew, ed. Soldiers West: Biographies from the Military Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
  • Keleher, William A. Turmoil in New Mexico. Santa Fe: Rydal Press, 1952. 
  • Thompson, Gerlad. The Army and the Navajo. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976.
  • McDowell, Don. The Beat of the Drum. Santa Ana: Graphic Publishers, 1993.


Donations Wanted! Civil War Artifacts and Books

Do you have Civil War related artifacts or books that you would like to donate to the Drum Barracks? Contact Museum Director, Tara Fansler, at 310-548-7509.