01 September 2009

Sailor on Horseback

Samuel "Powhatan" Carter was the only American who simultaneously held a commission as a major general in the army and a rear admiral in the navy. I ran across this odd factoid when I visited a historic house in Washington, Tudor Place, which was built by Thomas and Martha Parke Custis Peter in 1815 in Georgetown. The Peters were the grandparents of Carter’s second wife, Martha Custis “Markie” Williams, and they were related to George Washington through his marriage to Martha Custis, Mrs. Peter’s grandmother. (Robert E. Lee was married to a Custis and therefore, Markie Williams Carter was related by marriage to both the first President of the United States and the commander of the Confederate forces in the Civil War.) When I heard the brief biography the docent gave of Samuel Carter, I thought there might be a play in it and I began to look into his history. This is what I discovered:

Samuel Perry Carter was born in Elizabethton, Carter County, Tennessee, on 6 August 1819, the first of three children. His parents were Alfred Moore Carter (1784-1850), a wealthy iron manufacturer, and Evalina Belmont Perry Carter (1797-1877), Alfred’s second wife. Carter County was named for Samuel’s grandfather, Landon Carter (c. 1756-1801), a hero of the Revolutionary War, and Elizabethton, the county seat, for his grandmother Elizabeth Maclin Carter (1765-1841). An illustrious family, probably the wealthiest in their part of the state, in the days of Samuel’s great-grandfather, John Carter (c. 1728-c. 1781), they even played host to the first governor of Tennessee, John Sevier. (Tennessee Williams’s father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, was a descendant of Governor Sevier--one reason the playwright chose his pen name.)

Samuel Carter was educated first at Washington College, a Presbyterian school in Limestone, Tennessee, graduating at 18, and then the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) where he transferred as a sophomore in 1837. (Most biographies identify Washington College as the school in east Tennessee, where Carter was from. A few sources, however, say it was the school that became Washington & Lee University, my own alma mater in Virginia. I’ve confirmed that this minority opinion is wrong, and that the Tennessee school is the correct one.) Carter never received a college degree as he was appointed a midshipman in the United States Navy on 14 February 1840, making his first cruise in the Pacific on the sloop Dale from 1840 to 1843, and then serving in the Great Lakes on the steamer Michigan in 1844 and patrolled the West Indies on the frigate Potomac in 1845. His choice of career, going to sea at the relatively late age of 21, is unexplained. (Carter’s contemporary and fellow East Tennessean, David Glasgow Farragut, who became the navy’s first admiral, went to sea at 9.) He faced low pay, reduced social standing, and excruciatingly slow advancement. Considering his family position and his status as oldest son, he was assured of a life of comfort and influence, and perhaps trading that for the uncertain, uncomfortable, and rigidly disciplined life of a naval officer was Carter’s way of rebelling against a life planned out for him.

In 1845, Midshipman Carter entered the the United States Naval Academy from which he graduated on 11 July 1846 as a passed midshipman (the equivalent today of an ensign), part of the first class to graduate from the new academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He was promptly called to sea duty at the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. He received his baptism of fire in the Siege of Vera Cruz, 9-28 March 1847, aboard the USS Ohio.

In 1847 and ’48, Carter was attached to the Naval Observatory at Washington (the former residence of the superintendent which now serves as the official home of the Vice President of the Unites States). From 1850 to 1853, Carter served as an assistant professor of mathematics at the Naval Academy. In 1855 he was promoted to lieutenant and was ordered to the USS San Jacinto of the Asiatic Squadron, and on this assignment took part in the bombardment of the Barrier Forts in the Pearl River in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, 16-24 November 1856 (part of the Second Opium War).

Returning to shore duty, Carter served at the Naval Academy as assistant to the executive officer from 1857 to 1860, but with the outbreak of the Civil War there came an abrupt change in his career.

In 1860, Lieutenant Carter was serving aboard the steam sloop Seminole of the Brazil Squadron which patrolled the South Atlantic. The 20-year naval veteran wrote a letter declaring that he would support the Union if war broke out, and the letter was published in his home state, coming to the attention of Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson (who would later become Abraham Lincoln’s vice president and, after the assassination, the 17th President of the United States). On 11 July 1861, with the influence of Senator Johnson, he was detailed from the Navy to "special duty at the War Department." At the request of President Lincoln, Carter reported to Secretary of War Simon Cameron who ordered Carter to proceed to East Tennessee, his native region where a large portion of the population remained loyal to the Union, for the purpose of organizing and training Unionist volunteers. Confederate occupation of the region foiled these plans, so Carter raised a volunteer infantry brigade and in March 1862 he was commissioned an acting brigadier general with the Union Army. He had not resigned from the navy, so he held commissions in both services.

It may have been at this time that Carter adopted the middle name Powhatan. The facts of this peculiar affectation are muddled, but one story is that he took Powhatan as a code name for his secret correspondence with the Union-sympathizing Tennesseans who remained behind Confederate lines instead of fleeing across the state line to Kentucky, a border state. Other accounts, however, assert that Carter obtained the nickname from his two younger brothers, William and James, who called him “Big Chief” when they were youngsters, and yet a third version has it that Carter took the name because he was a descendant of the 17th-century chief of the Powhatan Indians of Virginia (whose actual name was Wahunsenacawh). Samuel’s grandmother, Elizabeth Maclin Carter, was proud to declare that on her mother’s side, she was descended from Pocahontas, Powhatan’s daughter. In any case, Samuel Perry Carter became Samuel Powhatan Carter.

He was promoted to brigadier general on 1 May 1862, and led his troops on important, often daring raids from Kentucky territory into Tennessee, becoming renowned for his bravery and gallantry. His innovative and successful use of cavalry, which up to this point had been the strong point of the Confederate army under such dashing commanders as J. E. B. Stuart, John Hunt Morgan, John Singleton Mosby, and Nathan Bedford Forrest, earned Carter the nickname, “Sailor on Horseback.” On 30 December 1862, Carter began a campaign to conduct a raid into eastern Tennessee with a large cavalry force. His plan was to cripple the East Tennessee and Virginia Railroad and lay the foundation for an invasion of east Tennessee. Known as Carter’s Raid (and the subject of a book by that title), it was the first long-distance raid with a large force of Union cavalry, nearly 1,000 men, and it succeeded brilliantly by the time Carter and his horse soldiers returned safely to Kentucky on 2 January 1863. The plans for an invasion of Confederate territory were abandoned, however, when Carter reported that the mountain terrain was unsuitable for large-scale troop movements.

Brigadier General Carter continued to fight with distinction, defeating many Confederate commanders, causing untold damage to the Southern forces, and destroying much of their stores and equipment in the region. He was named commander of the cavalry division of the 23rd Army Corp in July 1863 and fought in many of the campaigns and battles in eastern Tennessee. He was brevetted major general of the United States Volunteers on 13 March 1865, commanding the left wing of the Union forces at the Battle of Kingston, North Carolina. (A brevet rank was a temporary promotion while an officer retained his permanent lower rank. It’s no longer used in the modern military.) He was even briefly in command of the 23rd Corps until he was mustered out of the volunteers on 19 January 1866.

During his army service, the navy had promoted Carter to lieutenant commander in 1863 and commander in 1865. He resumed his naval service, returning to sea duty in 1866 as captain of the steamer Monocacy of the Asiatic Squadron, sailing the waters in and around Japan until 1869. From 1870, having been promoted to captain in October, to 1873 he was Commandant of Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy. He was then appointed commander of the USS Alaska and served for the next two years in Europe. In 1877, the year he married “Markie” Custis Williams, Captain Carter was assigned to the Lighthouse Board, serving there until 1880. (Carter’s first wife, née Caroline C. “Carrie” Potts, had died in 1875.) He had been promoted to commodore (a rank no longer in use in the U.S. Navy, the equivalent of a brigadier general) in November 1878. In August 1881, Commodore Carter retired from the navy and in May 1882, he was made a rear admiral on the retired list.

“Admiral-General” Samuel P. Carter died in Washington, D. C., on 26 May 1891 at the age of 71. He was survived by his second wife, Martha Custis Williams “Markie” Carter; his younger son, Samuel Powhatan Carter, Jr., whose mother had been Carter’s first wife, Caroline C. Potts “Carrie” Carter; his younger brother William Belmont Carter, a Presbyterian minster. (Carter’s elder son, Alfred P. Carter, born while his father was teaching math at Annapolis, had died in 1869 at the age of 17; the same year his youngest brother, James Patton Taylor Carter, a Union colonel, also died.) Samuel Powhatan Carter not only held flag rank in both services, but he served in two wars, one, the Mexican-American War, as a naval officer; the other, the Civil War, as an army officer. But the peculiarity of his career was not Carter’s only distinction. He turned out to be a brilliant and resourceful cavalry commander, though his military training and experience had been at sea. He had the respect of both his fellow officers and the men who served under him and whom he looked after with sincere concern. Carter seems to have been one of those anomalies, a man who was just superb at what he did and who came along at just the right time to do it. He was “tall, handsome and dignified, graceful in carriage, and very affable.” He was not only loyal to the United States and the inhabitants of East Tennessee, whom he endeavored to protect from the secessionists they opposed, but he was generous and kind to his childhood friends. An officer who had served with Carter described him as "of sincere piety and undoubted courage.” He was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Washington on 28 May next to his first wife and older son.

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