Civil War US Regular Major Stephen Decatur Carpenter, 19th US Infantry-Devoted to Duty

Stephen Decatur Carpenter

Stephen Decatur Carpenter

Biography: Stephen Decatur Carpenter (1818-1862) was a United States Army officer from Maine who served in the Regular Army from 1840 to 1862. He graduated from West Point and was commissioned in the 1st Infantry Regiment, where he would serve until 1861. Carpenter served in various garrison assignments in Florida, Minnesota and Texas, participating in the Indian Wars, and the Mexican War and attaining the rank of captain. In 1861 he was assigned as  major in the 19th Infantry. He was killed in action on 31 December 1862 while leading a battalion of the 19th Infantry at the Battle of Stones River, Tennessee.. Carpenter was married twice and was the father of three children.1

An Army Officer’s Career: Carpenter served in the 1st Infantry from 1840 to 1861. Officers in the 19th century army were assigned to regiments and could plan on serving in their regiments until a vacancy through death or resignation opened up a billet for major. Promotions were based on strict seniority. From time to time the army was expanded and new promotion opportunities appeared. In 1861 President Lincoln expanded the regular army adding  nine new infantry regiments. Carpenter was selected to be a major in the new 19th Infantry.  He was brevetted twice; to  lieutenant colonel for action at Shiloh and to colonel for action at Stones River.

Carpenter’s Devotion to Duty: Carpenter accepted his role as an army officer and was apparently determined to serve his country, come what may. He originally was appointed to the  West Point class of 1839 but had to resign because he was not academically prepared. He returned to the academy in 1836 and graduated with the Class of 1840.

Carpenter was married to Margaret Gear, mother of his daughter Alice. She died in Texas and Carpenter married Laura Clark (1856), mother of his daughter , Sara Elvira and his son, John. Laura died in Texas and Baby John died in Maine about in 1861. Neither tragedy dissuaded Carpenter from carrying on.

During the Mexican War the 1st Infantry was assigned to the army under Major General Zachary Taylor and fought in the Battle of Monterey but was later transferred to the army commanded  by Major General Winfield Scott that was to invade Mexico and capture Mexico City. Carpenter participated with his regiment in the Siege of Vera Cruz but the 1st Infantry was left behind as the garrison of the city when the rest of the army marched off to glory deeper in Mexico. Carpenter was also on sick leave from 1847-1848, no doubt a victim of the vomito (the fever that recurred in the Mexican lowlands around Vera Cruz.). He had to be evacuated to the United States. Again not deterred from duty Carpenter rejoined his regiment in Texas. He established the army post at Fort Lancaster  (in what is now Crockett County) an outpost situated to guard the  San Antonio-El Paso military road. He and his men were gathering timber for the post when  they were attacked by Comanche  Indians and Carpenter was wounded. 2

The War of the Rebellion: Of the five companies of the 1st Infantry in Texas only three escaped capture by the rebels when the state seceded in 1861. Two of the escaped companies were ordered to Key West, Florida: among their number, Captain Carpenter. In May of 1861 Carpenter was promoted to major, 19th Infantry. He reported to Regimental Headquarters in Indianapolis and immediately commenced training the men from civilian life who would become the officers and soldiers of the regiment. He led the 19th in the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862) and the Siege of Corinth (May 1862) as part of the Army of the Ohio. Later in the year the 19th was brigaded with other regular units to form the Regular Brigade of the Army of the Cumberland, that organization’s tactical reserve. The brigade distinguished itself at the Battle of Stones River, Tennessee in December 1862. Sent to buy time for the Army of the Cumberland while it formed to repel a rebel attack, it ambushed  advancing rebels  “performing one of the Regular Army’s most significant feats of arms” , saving the Army of the Cumberland. When it was time to withdraw from the ambush the Regulars had to cross a cotton field that was swept by enemy fire.  In order to decrease casualties crossing the cotton field, Carpenter allowed his men to break formation,  ordering his men to “scatter and run”  He saved many lives but was himself killed as he cantered on horseback behind his soldiers. His body was recovered by Private Joseph R. Prentice (who received the Medal of Honor). He was mourned by his soldiers “for he was as a father to us”. 3

Carpenter was originally buried on the field of Stones River but removed to Bangor, Maine’s Mount Hope Cemetery in 1863 and interred beneath what was the first of many Civil War Monuments to be erected across the United States. In 1881 Carpenter was re-interred in Mt. Hope and now rests beside his infant son, John.  4

Battery Carpenter at Fort McKinley in Portland Harbor is named for this officer.

Major James B. Ronan is a Fellow of the Company of Military Historians
1. Francis B. Heitman. Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army 2 Vols. (GPO, 1903; reprint, Olde Soldiers Books, Fredericksburg, 1988) contains the dates of Carpenter’s  appointments, V.1, p. 284.

2. Carpenter’s descendants live in the Northeast and Mid-West. His eastern descendants shared documents regarding his resignation form West Point.  His portrait is the posession of his Mid-Western descendants. He is shown in the dress uniform of a US Army field grade officer current in the 1860s. The double row of buttons indicates field grade. Family data is from “War Hero’s Descendants Met Him 150 Years Later”, BDN Blogs, Bangor Daily News, 12 September 2013, available at the website accessed 11 November 2013. George W. Cullum, Biographical Register of the Officers and Graduates of the U. S. Military Academy, 1891, available at the web site accessed 11 November 2013. Vol. II, p.56 is another summary of Carpenter’s service. Cullum mentions his wounding but Heitman in an “ Alphabetical List of Officers of the Regular Army…Killed or wounded in Action, V.2, p. 17 only mentions Carpenter’s death. Heitman does not mention, in “Alphabetical and Chronological List of Wars…”  the skirmish in which Carpenter was wounded, either.  Fort Lancaster available at the web site file:///J:/Carpenter/Brief%20History%20%20%20Texas%20Historical%20Commission.htm accessed 11 November 2013.

3. “The First Regiment of Infantry”, in Theophilus Rodenbough and William L. Haskin, ed. The Army of the United States (GPO, 1890; reprint, NY: Argonaut, 1906) p. 406.  Mark W. Johnson,  That Body of Brave Men, The U.S. Regular Infantry and the Civil War in the West (NY: DaCapo, 2003) contains much information on Carpenter during the Civil War as well as the the 19th Infantry. Quotes are from p. 245 and p. 294.

4. Johnson, ibid. Burial details are from p. 313-314 and 617.


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