Originally created 11/10/99

Soldier given Medal of Honor



Heroes' Overlook at Riverwalk Augusta is a fitting tribute to the military personnel of the local area who have risked their lives in carrying out our nation's aims.

Prominent among those honored are our two Medal of Honor winners. One, Lt. Col. Jimmy Dyess, the only man to win the Carnegie Lifesaving Medal in peacetime and the Medal of Honor, posthumously, during World War II, has been featured in news stories and memorial services in recent years. Not as well known is the unique career of Augusta's first Medal of Honor winner, Mason Carter.

Carter was born in Augusta in 1834. His father was Virgina physician John Carter. His mother was Martha, daughter of Gen. Thomas Flournoy, Augusta lawyer and veteran of the War of 1812. The baby was named Cary Carter.

In 1848, at the age of 14, Cary entered the U.S. Navy as an acting midshipman. For eight years, he alternated between duty at sea and attendance at the new Naval Academy at Annapolis. His service took him to the Mediterranean Sea and along the eastern seaboard of the United States, but he tried and failed three times to pass the final examination for graduation from Annapolis. Finally, in 1856, he resigned from the Navy in disgust.

Cary Carter lived in Washington for the next few years, married and fathered a daughter. Perhaps unwilling to face family and friends at home, and with no training or education other than his sea duty, in 1860 he joined the Army under the assumed name Mason Howard. On his enlistment application he said that he had been born in New Orleans, that he was a seaman, and that he was unmarried. The new recruit was shipped off to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) to fight Comanches.

The Civil War soon followed. With Texas seceding from the Union, all U.S. troops in the Indian Territory were withdrawn to Kansas. Carter, now a corporal, and his unit joined the army of General Nathaniel Lyon in fighting against Confederate attempts to win Missouri for the South. At the Battle of Wilson's Creek, near Springfield, Mo., in August 1861, the general was defeated and killed and Carter was severely wounded in the leg.

Unlike military officers, who are allowed to resign their commissions at the pleasure of the government, enlisted soldiers are bound to a term of service by their oaths of enlistment. A soldier who leaves service without a discharge before his enlistment is completed can be charged with desertion. Hundreds of U.S. Army and Navy officers honorably resigned their commissions in 1861 to join the South or to retire into private life. Hardly any enlisted men deserted.

Despite being Georgia-born and having three brothers in Confederate service, Mason Carter remained true to his oath. Possibly influenced by his years in the Navy or by estrangement from his family, Carter, still using the assumed name of Mason Howard, accepted a commission in the regular U.S. Army in the spring of 1862. Perhaps still unsure of his loyalties, the Army shipped him off to New Mexico to fight Indians.

Indian fighting and frontier duty remained his occupation for the next 25 years. He took back his family name in 1869, calling himself Mason Carter thereafter. In 1868 he divorced his first wife, and in 1870 he remarried and fathered two more children. He also took his daughter from his first marriage into his home. Duty took him to Kansas, Colorado, Montana and Texas. Wherever he went, his family accompanied him.

After the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876, Carter, still a lieutenant, and his regiment remained on duty in Montana. In September 1877 they were called on to cut off the flight from Oregon to Canada of the Nez Perce Indians under Chief Joseph. Carter, with a company of about 20 mounted infantrymen, joined a column under Col. Nelson Miles that intercepted the Indians at a place called Bear Paw Mountain on Sept. 30. The Nez Perce were peaceful and did not want to fight, but they also did not want to surrender.

Miles ordered a direct attack on Chief Joseph's camp while another force attempted to encircle the Indians and cut off their retreat. The first attack failed, and Miles decided to cut the camp off from its water supply. To prevent Indian access to a nearby creek, Carter led his dismounted company, only 17 men present, into their camp under heavy fire. This attempt also failed. In his attack, Carter lost six of his 17 men but himself was unharmed. The Nez Perce surrendered four days later, Chief Joseph making his famous speech: "From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."

Miles went on to a distinguished career, ending up as commanding general of the Army. His marriage to the niece of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Sen. John Sherman did him no harm in Washington. But Miles never forgot his old officers. In 1894 he endorsed an award of the Medal of Honor to Mason Carter for "most distinguished gallantry in action against the Nez Perce Indians at Bear Paw Mountain, Montana, on September 30, 1877, in leading a charge under a galling fire in which he inflicted great loss upon the enemy." Carter was the only native of Georgia to win one of the 416 Medals of Honor given out for the Indian Wars.

Carter continued on active duty until his retirement in 1898. In 1878 he won promotion to captain, and in 1894 he was given the brevet, or honorary rank, of major. His last duty assignment was at McPherson Barracks, now Fort McPherson, near Atlanta.

In the meantime, he had reconciled with his remaining relatives in Augusta. After retirement, he was professor of military science at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tenn., for 10 years. He died in San Diego in 1909 and is buried at Point Loma veterans cemetery there.

When Carter retired from Sewanee, the students wrote in their yearbook that he was "a Southerner of the fine old type, simple in his natural refinement and dignified, with unfailing courtesy." His cousin wrote, "He has won his position by gallant service."

The residents of Augusta can be proud that they have been represented in the armed forces by men who performed their duties as gallantly as Jimmy Dyess, Mason Carter and the other Heroes of the Overlook.

REACH Russell K. Brown, local historian and author, at (706) 868-6450 or russell@csranet.com