William Harding Carter and the American Army: A Soldier’s Story

by Ronald G. Machoian, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2006, $34.95.

William Harding Carter saw action, and change, during a military career that began during the Civil War and ended in 1918. Much of that change he helped implement, transforming the U.S. Army from a collection of citizen-soldiers to a modern, professional fighting force.

At age 12, Carter, son of a staunch Unionist in Tennessee, volunteered to carry dispatches for the Army of the Cumberland’s Quartermaster Department in 1864. After graduation from West Point in 1873, the young lieutenant reported to the 8th Infantry at Fort D.A. Russell in Wyoming. He even met Buffalo Bill Cody, forming “the very erroneous opinion that he was a fraud.”

Yet Carter did more than just observe and carry dispatches. He earned the Medal of Honor for his actions at Cibicue Creek, Arizona Territory, in 1881. Under a withering fire, Carter and two volunteers rushed to recover the body of Captain Edward C. Hentig. Private Henry Bird fell to Apache gunfire, but Carter and Private Richard Heartery dragged Hentig’s body to the perimeter. Then Carter rushed out again and retrieved Bird. “A courageous act,” author Ronald G. Machoian notes, “that under the conditions bordered on pure recklessness.”

Machoian, an Air Force officer and adjunct professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, follows the life and career of Carter, who also saw duty at Wounded Knee, S.D., and against Filipino insurrectos. Although Machoian shows Carter as far more than a swivel-chair general, Carter’s most important accomplishments did not come on the battlefield. At the turn of the century, he recognized that “the present status of our country before the world makes it absolutely necessary that preparation for war should be more general than ever.” He helped create the U.S. Army War College, called for the replacement of the state militia system with a better-trained National Guard and oversaw training of U.S. troops for deployment in World War I.

Machoian also depicts much of Carter’s family life; his writing of The American Army, which “summarized his professionalist perspective of American military policy and national preparedness”; and his feuds with Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood over Army policy and the path of that army. While Carter’s contributions in the field and in the war rooms have long been overlooked, Machoian helps fill that void with a thorough examination of the soldier from whose “tireless efforts grew a legacy of progress.”


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here