Carleton, James Henry (1814–1873)

By: Darlis A. Miller

Type: Biography

Published: August 1, 1995

James Henry Carleton, soldier, son of John and Abigail (Phelps) Carleton, was born at Lubec, Maine, on December 27, 1814. He was commissioned 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. Henrietta accompanied Carleton to his duty assignment at Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, where she died in October 1841. Later in the 1840s Carleton served as assistant commissary of subsistence at Fort Leavenworth, accompanied Maj. 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. In 1859 he was ordered to Salt Lake City to investigate the massacre at Mountain Meadows (1857). Stationed in California at the outbreak of the Civil War, Carleton became brigadier general in the California volunteers and commanded the California Column on its march to the Rio Grande. In September 1862 he replaced Gen. Edward R. S. Canby as commander of the Department of New Mexico. One of Carleton's first acts upon assuming command was to reissue Canby's order establishing martial law in New Mexico. He also devised a passport system to distinguish loyal citizens from Confederate spies. Although Carleton 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. Kit (Christopher) Carson and other subordinates against the Mescalero Apaches with orders to kill all Indian men "whenever and wherever you can find 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 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 early in 1867. He later joined his regiment, the Fourth United States Cavalry, in Texas. He died in San Antonio on January 7, 1873. Carleton and his second wife, Sophia, had five children; two died in childhood. Carleton published several accounts of his military experiences. His oldest son, Henry Guy Carleton, became a journalist, playwright, and inventor.

Aurora Hunt, Major General James H. Carlton, 1814–1873: Western Frontier Dragoon (Glendale, California: Clark, 1958). Paul Andrew Hutton, ed., Soldiers West: Biographies from the Military Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987). William A. Keleher, Turmoil in New Mexico (Santa Fe: Rydal Press, 1952). Gerald Thompson, The Army and the Navajo (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976).

  • Military
  • Confederate Military
  • Union Military
  • Soldiers
Time Periods:
  • Civil War
  • Antebellum Texas
  • Reconstruction
  • San Antonio
  • Central Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Darlis A. Miller, “Carleton, James Henry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 22, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995

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