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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,440

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This is the grave of James Carleton.

Born in 1814 in Lubec, Maine, Carleton entered the military as soon as he could. He received a commission as a second lieutenant in 1839. This was during the Aroostook War, when crazy American frontier people in northern Maine wanted a war with the British to expand the boundaries of the state north. It wasn’t really a war, but the U.S. did prepare a bit for it. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842 settled this boundary for good, basically splitting the difference between the claims. Also, I’d like to note that another name at the time for the Aroostook War was the Pork and Beans War, which I think is vastly superior and I hope we can all unite in agreement on this point. Later, Carleton was in the Mexican War, including at the Battle of Buena Vista, about which he later wrote a book. Also, he had major literary aspirations. Just before the Aroostook War, he actually wrote Charles Dickens with samples of his writing, asking if he should move to London and became a major writer. Dickens responded and was like…..yeah kid, maybe find something else to do with your life.

Anyway, Carleton was in the military for the rest of his life. He was deeply involved in the genocidal campaigns the military launched against the tribes over the next three decades. He was in the 1st U.S. Dragoons in the West, first going out there in 1844. Probably the first major time Carleton enters into the record is his investigation into the Mountain Meadows Massacre. This was a terrible moment when crazed, paranoid Mormons slaughtered a party of white settlers moving through Utah to California and then blaming it on the Indians. This all came straight from Brigham Young, who believed, not without some justification, that the U.S. government wanted to destroy his experiment. But they killed upwards of 120 people, men, women, and children. To this day, many Mormons don’t want to talk about this. Anyway, Carleton was sent out to see what the heck was going on. He and his men gathered up 34 bodies they found and buried them in a mass grave. Carleton wrote a report, blaming it on the Mormons, and suggesting action, which really didn’t come.

Well, that was mostly a good action, but most of Carleton’s career would consist of bad actions. He also blamed the Paiute for participating in the massacre and he managed to kill some of them in revenge. He would be especially notable for his policy of total genocide against the Mescalero Apache. During the Civil War, after Carleton helped lead the defense against Confederate invasion (more on this in a second), the Lincoln administration’s top priority was to take real control over the Southwest, which the U.S. really didn’t have before this. It sent Kit Carson to round up the Navajo, force them off their traditional lands, and make them sit in the Bosque Redondo in eastern New Mexico, which killed off over a quarter of the tribe. Carleton’s job in this was to do the same to the Mescalero Apache. He established Fort Sumner, which is the town near the Bosque Redondo today, to hold the tribes. This was a terrible idea and people told him this at the time, There was nothing out there. The water was alkaline. People would suffer. Carleton didn’t care. He could control them and that’s all that mattered to him.

Control also meant death. This quote was Carleton’s orders to his men:

All Indian men of that tribe are to be killed whenever and wherever you can find them. … If the Indians send in a flag of truce say to the bearer … that you have been sent to punish them for their treachery and their crimes. That you have no power to make peace, that you are there to kill them wherever you can find them.

That, my friends, is genocide. And he and his men followed up on it. When Mangas Coloradas, the leader of the Mescalero, came in under a peace flag to talk truce, Carleton’s men murdered him. Then they cut off his head and sent the skull to the Smithsonian. This was a disaster. It made the Apache even more hostile to the United States and a lot of Americans would die in revenge over the next several years. But Carleton did round up the Mescalero and send them to Fort Sumner. Then he helped Carson out on the Navajo Long Walk. In fact, Carson operated under Carleton’s command. Then he sent Carson and others to crush the Comanche and Kiowa’s raiding on the western plains, though this was less successful because these tribes were nearly impossible to defeat in traditional battle, which ended up requiring the army to exterminate the bison to starve them into submission. In fact, Carson’s troops nearly got wiped out by a surprise act, though they did escape after setting a Kiowa encampment on fire.

If you ignore the genocide, which too many people do with Civil War generals, very much including William Tecumseh Sherman and Phil Sheridan, you can spin Carleton as a good guy too. That’s because he played a critical role in holding the West from Confederate expansion. Believe it or not, but there were a couple of very real Civil War battles in New Mexico and you can visit the ruins of one of them, right along the Rio Grande in a very remote part of central New Mexico. OK, it’s not Gettysburg or Antietam. Now, his forces out there were looking to fight Apaches as much as Confederates and did so, continuing the goals of genocide. But Confederate forces really wanted and needed the Colorado gold fields and tried to march north to take them. This was always going to be a disaster as there weren’t many people in Colorado who had any desire to join the Confederacy. But you can see why they would try to acquire gold reserves.

Carleton’s forces linked up with General Edward Canby, who then commanded Carleton, and they pursued Confederate forces under Henry Sibley back into west Texas and took control of the western edge of the Confederacy for the rest of the war. Carleton was named commander of the Department of New Mexico, where he remained for the rest of the war. There doesn’t seem to have been any real consideration to send him to the east to engage in the main fronts of the war. I guess the top brass saw him as useful where he was. Canby was moved east though and in fact received the surrender of Edward Kirby Smith after the latter tried to hold out after Lee’s surrender.

After the war, Carleton was promoted to lieutenant colonel in the 4th Calvary. Most of his work before had been in volunteer forces so while he was highly ranked in those, it was like being the MVP of a minor league baseball team. He was still in charge of Bosque Redondo but the mass suffering and death got the attention of the nation. Sherman intervened, allowed the Navajo to return to their homes (the Mescalero just sort of walked away) and Carleton was reassigned. It was a bad moment. Also consider how bad the treatment was given how indifferent the nation generally was to genocide in these years. Yikes. As the historian Megan Kate Nelson has noted, Carleton laid the groundwork for all of this because he wrote too much. He was a major micromanager and so he wrote literally everything down and sent it to his supervisors, whether they really wanted to hear it or not.

Carleton’s health was not great in these later years. He wrote heavily on military tactics and had so for years, so all the way back when the vile Jefferson Davis was Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, Carleton was seen as something of an expert on these issues and was commissioned to lead a study of European military tactics. He didn’t go to Europe though. He wrote other books as well as the Mexican War, among other military topics. He remained in the West and was stationed in San Antonio when he died in 1873, at the age of 59.

James Carleton is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’m not actually sure why since he was from Maine and was in the military forever. Maybe his wife was from the Boston area.

If you would like this series to visit other military officers engaged in the genocide against Native Americans, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. William Tecumseh Sherman is in St. Louis and Kit Carson is in Taos, New Mexico. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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