Bandits and Confederates, beware: There’s a new “sheriff” in Tucson, Ariz. He’s James Henry Carleton from Lubec in far-away Maine, and he’s kicking desperado and Rebel butts all the way from Los Angeles to the Rio Grande.

Born to Abigail and John Carleton on Dec. 27, 1814, James Henry discovered an affinity for soldiering while serving with the Maine militia on the New Brunswick border in 1839. Liking the experience, he joined the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant on Oct. 18, 1839.

Later, battling Indians and Mexicans as Americans muscled their country’s western boundary to the Pacific Ocean, Carleton married Sophia Garland Wolfe in 1848. Her uncle, Gen. John Garland, commanded the Department of New Mexico during the 1850s; he arranged Carleton’s transfer to that remote region, which encompassed Arizona and New Mexico.

Assigned to command Fort Tejon, Calif. in summer 1858, Capt. Carleton rode the trails with Co. K, 1st Dragoons. In 1860, Carleton’s troopers traded blood and bullets with Paiutes in the Mojave Desert. By now a brevet major, Carleton gained priceless experience in handling troops in arid terrain.

By early 1861, California seethed with political intrigue. Numerous southern sympathizers plotted to seize the state; ordered to Los Angeles that April, Carleton and his troopers encamped near an Army depot guarded only by Capt. Winfield Scott Hancock, a future hero at Gettysburg. This move prevented Confederate sympathizers from seizing badly needed munitions.

Fiercely loyal to the United States, Carleton soon led the 1st California Volunteer Infantry Regiment. A meticulous, iron-fisted commander, Carleton molded the fledgling soldiers into tough warriors who marched east with Carleton in January 1862 to Fort Yuma on the Arizona border.

Jefferson Davis wanted California, Arizona and New Mexico (plus a few adjoining Mexican states) for the Confederacy in 1862. In February he sent Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley and some 4,000 Texans to capture New Mexico. When Sibley thrashed Union troops at Valverde on Feb. 21, the only senior Union officer standing between him and the Pacific Ocean was Brevet Col. James Henry Carleton, the roadblock from Down East Maine.

After Confederate Capt. Sherod Hunter led 200 mounted Texans into Tucson, Ariz. on Feb. 28, the Stars and Bars waved deep in the Southwest; Washington ordered Carleton to crush the Confederates running amok there. He summoned six volunteer cavalry companies, Army artillery and the 5th California Infantry Regiment to Fort Yuma. The soldiers headed east in March.

Carleton advanced his “California Column” segmentally along the Butterfield Overland Trail that crossed the Southwest. He placed at least a day’s travel between each section so men and beasts would not drain dry the precious water holes and wells.

First contact with Confederates occurred on March 6 south of Phoenix, when Texan cavalrymen snapped up a squad sent by Carleton to guard a grain stockpile. Then a brief skirmish — a lot of shooting, one California soldier wounded — took place at Stanwix Station 80 miles east of Yuma in late March.

On April 15, mounted California infantrymen learned from Indian scouts that 14 Confederate cavalrymen had camped near Picacho Pass, some 50 miles northwest of Tucson. Ordered not to attack until reinforcements arrived, the insubordinate Lt. James Barrett led about 20 troopers against the Texans. Both sides lost men, and the Confederates fled to Tucson, Ariz.

By then Southern fortunes had unraveled in New Mexico, where Union troops advancing from Colorado had defeated Sibley’s army at Glorieta Pass in late March and at Peralta on April 14. Scouts had already warned Sibley about the approaching California Column, and with his army and supplies dwindling, Sibley headed for Texas.

Two California cavalry companies charged into undefended Tucson on May 20. Confederate troops had already skedaddled for New Mexico, so the California troopers promptly raised the American flag.

Greeted by a four-cannon salute, Carleton rode into Tucson, Ariz. on June 7. The next day, a courier brought him news of his promotion to brigadier general.

Carleton quickly realized that civil authority had collapsed during the Confederate occupation. Assigned to Co. E, 1st California Infantry, Pvt. Eli Hazen described Tucson, Ariz. as “quite a town in size” that had attracted “murderous horse thieves and other fugatives (sic) from justice from the Pacific coast and Texas.” Of the almost 100 people buried in the local cemetery, “three … died [of] natural deaths, the rest were victims of crime and violence.

“The Bowie knife and revolver were the only laws recognized in this part of Arizona [where] gambling was the principal business carried on here,” Hazen recalled.

A stickler for discipline, Carleton literally cleaned up the approximately 100-horse town and established his headquarters there.

After seeing the miserable conditions in Tucson, Carleton declared Martial Law, according to Military History Online. “On his own, [Carleton] created the Territory of Arizona” and named “himself as governor.”

Hard-bitten California soldiers swept the town, “apprehending brigands, murderers, [and] southern sympathizers” before “trying them before a Military Tribunal, and either sentencing them to imprisonment at Fort Yuma or expelling them from the territory,” MHO noted.

Whether called “General” or “Governor” or “Sheriff” or “Your Excellency” — and he would have liked that last honorific — the proud Carleton moved swiftly after “a number of American desperadoes … put in an appearance,” according to “The California Column,” published by the Historical Society of New Mexico. The bad men never had a chance.

Writing to Gen. George Wright (then stationed in San Francisco) on June 10, Carleton reported that, “I shall send to Fort Yuma, for confinement, starting them today, nine of the cut-throats, gamblers, and loafers, who have infested this town to the great bodily fear of all good citizens. Nearly every one, I believe, has either killed his man or been engaged in helping to kill him.”

With order restored in Tucson, Ariz., Carleton rested his troops and animals before resuming his advance in mid-July. His trail cut through the aptly named Apache Pass, where on July 15-16 Union troops fought and defeated 500 Apaches led by the famous chieftains Cochise and Mangas Coloradas.

Carleton had a bonafide victory to add to his resume.

Far-ranging California Column patrols soon encountered Colorado troops pursuing Sibley’s disintegrating army in New Mexico. By the time Carleton arrived on the Rio Grande in August, his men had marched 900 miles through a searing Southwest summer.

Later named the Department of New Mexico’s commander, Carleton often fought hostile Indians. His soldiers crushed the Mescalero Apaches and the Navajos. Carleton then stained his stellar career by confining both tribes to Bosque Redondo, an Army-mandated reservation that devolved into a prototype concentration camp by 1865. Even today the Navajos refer to the killing journey to Bosque Redondo as “The Long Walk.”

After the Civil War ended, Carleton rejoined the regular Army to command a cavalry regiment. He died of pneumonia in San Antonio on Jan. 7, 1873, and lies buried in Lot 896 at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Mass.

Brian Swartz may be reached at or visit his blog at