Indian fighter, war hero, and a Bangor boy


Escorted by troopers from the 7th Cavalry, Comanche Indians ride toward the Great Council held on Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas on Oct. 16, 1867. Comanches and several other Plains tribes gathered to negotiate a treaty with the United States government. Stephen Decatur Carpenter of Foxcroft and Bangor fought Comanches while stationed at various Army posts in Texas in the 1850s. (Library of Congress Photo)

Not until six Confederate bullets accomplish what Comanche arrows could not does Bangor finally claim the Foxcroft kid named for a Navy hero.

Susan (Heald) Carpenters bears her husband, Joshua, a son in Foxcroft on May 14, 1818. A militia officer during the recently concluded war, Col. Carpenter names his bouncing baby boy Stephen Decatur to honor the American sailor of Barbary Pirate fame.

Joshua cannot imagine that his son will be a hero, too, albeit in other wars and at later times.

Stephen Decatur Carpenter graduates from West Point on July 1, 1840, joins the 1st Infantry Regiment as a shave tail lieutenant, and fights Seminoles, Mexicans, and Comanches, in that order.

American troops commanded by Gen. Winfield Scott land at Vera Cruz in Mexico on March 9, 1847. Stephen Decatur Carpenter of Foxcroft and Bangor participated in the assault and capture of Vera Cruz; when other American troops marched inland to attack Mexico City, Carpenter was assigned garrison duty in Vera Cruz. He was not pleased. (Lithograph by N. Currier, Library of Congress Photo)

He traipses from post to post in the Upper Midwest, where he marries Margaret Gear while at Fort Snelling in Minnesota. Her father apparently was Ezekial Gear, an Episcopal minister who served as the fort’s chaplain and as a missionary among local Indians. postings indicate that the Carpenters have a daughter, Alice. After her father dies years later, she will become a ward of Iowa resident John Gear, likely a relative of her mother, and later marries her ward’s son.

Margaret Carpenter later dies at Fort Terrett in Texas.

Then Stephan Decatur Carpenter establishes a Bangor connection. In 1856 he marries Laura Clark, the adopted daughter of the Queen City’s Richmond Hayward. The Carpenters soon have a daughter, Sara Elvira, whose birth date and location remained clouded.

Laura Carpenter accompanies her husband to Texas, where circa 1857-58 he establishes his Comanche-fighter bonafides. While stationed at Fort Lancaster, Carpenter rides out one day with the post surgeon and five enlisted men to find a tree suitable for a flagpole.

Far from the fort, 20 Comanche warriors ambush “the little party,” which “was saved only by the coolness and intrepidity of its leader,” Charles P. Roberts will inform a rapt Bangor audience during Carpenter’s funeral on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 1863.

A government draftsman drew this sketch of Fort Lancaster in Texas circa 1861. Army Capt. Stephen Decatur Carpenter, who hailed from Maine, was assigned to this fort when he and a small party of soldiers were ambushed by 20 Comanche warriors. The soldiers fought off their attackers; an arrow sticking through his hand, Carpenter shot two warriors dead with his pistol.

With Comanche arrows dropping around him, Carpenter conceals his men in the tall grass. The Comanches encircle their perceived easy pickings and finally charge; Carpenter orders his men to shoot.

“Captain Carpenter, with wonderful quickness of motion, dispatched two savages with his revolver in instantaneous succession,” Roberts will tell Bangoreans. Leaving behind five dead warriors and Carpenter with an arrow stuck through his hand, the Comanches flee.

But marital happiness eludes Maine’s Indian fighter. Laura dies at Fort Stockton, Texas in late 1860, possibly after giving birth to Carpenter’s son. Then when Texas secedes from the Union, Army Brig. Gen. David Twiggs betrays the Federal troops under his command in the Lone Star State; he surrenders them and every fort to Confederate militia.

Carpenter will have nothing of it. He commands Camp Cooper, an outpost on the road to California. When some 1,000 Confederate surround the fort and their commander demands its surrender, Carpenter tells them to go to hell.

“He … declared that rather than surrender as demanded, the bones of himself and his men should bleach on the prairie,” Roberts reports about six years later. “His subordinate officers, in council, shared the noble and heroic resolution.”

The Confederate commander realizes that the Comanche fighter will not hesitate to shoot. He negotiates a deal: If Carpenter abandons Camp Cooper, he and his men can march “with their arms and their country’s untarnished flag, to Indianola, the nearest place on the coast, seven hundred and fifty miles” away on Matagorda Bay, Roberts says.

Carpenter’s men probably march out with their weapons loaded and a desire for vengeance burning in their hearts. Twiggs, that traitor who will join the Confederate army and will not survive the impending war, has caused many loyal soldiers to languish in captivity.

Not Carpenter: He will shoot first and not ask questions later. For several weeks he leads his men on a trek across central Texas to the Gulf Coast, where as “the last U.S. troops which quitted Texas, they embarked for Key West,” Roberts reminds his listeners.

Sara Elvira and the baby boy, John, may accompany their father on the arduous journey. The details are sketchy; promoted to major on May 14, 1861, Carpenter soon leaves Florida for a recruiting assignment in Indianapolis. He probably visits Bangor, where 9½-month-old John dies on July 7. The toddler is buried near today’s Riverside Drive in Mount Hope Cemetery.

John Carpenter was 9-1/2 months old when he died on July 7, 1861. He likely died in Bangor; written evidence from 1864 indicates that he was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, where his father later joined him. (Brian Swartz Photo)

In Indiana, Carpenter recruits soldiers for the regular Army’s 19th Infantry Regiment while training raw Indiana state regiments. In early spring 1862, Stephen Decatur takes his regulars to Pittsburgh Landing, about 10 miles “up” the Tennessee River from Savannah, Tenn.

On Sunday, April 6, Confederate Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston hurls his large Confederate army at the poorly deployed Union army commanded by Gen. Ulysses Simpson Grant. The battle rages all day, and sunset finds Grant and his shattered divisions holding onto a final defensive line almost atop Pittsburg Landing.

Every available Union soldier hurries to help. Carpenter’s 19th Infantry regulars “had been huddled, during the night [of April 6-7], on board a steamboat, without room to lie down, exposed to a drenching rain,” Roberts describes the miserable weather that engulfed soldiers North and South that dark spring night.

“Without breakfast or even a mug of coffee,” Carpenter and his men “went into the work of retrieving the waning fortunes of the preceding day,” Roberts says. “Major Carpenter’s battalion (actually four companies) occupied” the center of the Union line, “which was hardest pushed by the enemy.”

Visitors walk among the cannons placed to mark Grant’s Final Line at Pittsburg Landing in Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee. Commanded by Maj. Stephen Decatur Carpenter, several companies of the 19th U.S. Infantry Regiment arrived at the landing long after the first day’s action ended at Shiloh in April 1862. Carpenter and his men marched past this spot. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Confederate troops launch an assault, evidently their last. “Seeing the imminent danger which menaced his position,” Carpenter asks Gen. Lovell Rousseau, “his particular friend, for an Indiana regiment which he had drilled, and had confidence in,” Roberts reports.

The Indiana boys march immediately, and Carpenter forms their regiment “in front of his nearly exhausted battalion.” Together the Indiana volunteers and the Army regulars repel the Confederate attack.

Carpenters loses 37 regulars on this bloody Monday, April 7, 1862. He later participates in the Battle of Corinth, Miss. and probably fights at Perryville, Ky. in October.

Three tourists walk along the Sunken Road at the edge of the Hornets’ Nest at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee. Stephen Decatur Carpenter and his 19th U.S. Infantry Regiment participated in the April 7, 1862 counterattack that drove off the Confederate troops so successful in the previous day’s battle. Carpenter and his men may have advanced across this terrain during the attack. (Brian Swartz Photo)

After that bare-knuckle, knockdown brawl that strewed the rolling central Kentucky hills with bodies and parts thereof, Confederate troops abandon the Bluegrass State. Union forces pursue them into central Tennessee.

On Dec. 26, Federal divisions leave Nashville to advance toward Murfreesboro, where Gen. Braxton Bragg has consolidated a substantial Confederate army. Carpenter leads about 150 men of the 19th Infantry Regiment; war, sickness, and deployments elsewhere have thinned its ranks.

On Tuesday, Dec. 31, each army commander envisions delivering a thundering left hook against his unsuspecting opponent. Confederate divisions quietly file through the pre-dawn darkness; Union troops awaken and leisurely prepare breakfast before launching their so-called “surprise” attack.

Screaming the Rebel yell, Confederate infantrymen strike first and strike hard. The Federal right wing all but collapses, but scattered companies and regiments form temporary bulwarks that buy precious time.

Commanding approximately 150 men of the 19th U.S. Infantry Regiment, Maj. Stephen Decatur Carpenter of Foxcroft and Bangor provided vital infantry protection to the gun crews of batteries H and M, 4th U.S. Artillery. Lt. Charles C. Parsons commanded the artillery at this site marked by two rifled cannon and a marker at Stones River National Military Park in Murfreesboro, Tenn. While aiming for Parsons’ cannons, the 8th Tennessee Infantry Regiment collided head on with the 19th U.S. Infantry; during the ensuing brawl, Carpenter rode his horse as he skilfully directed his men to meet the repeated attacks. Then six Confederate bullets struck Carpenter almost simultaneously; he pitched dead from his horse somewhere near this site. (Brian Swartz Photo)

Maj. Stephen Decatur Carpenter maneuvers his 19th Infantry to protect Batteries H and M, 4th U.S. Artillery as enemy infantrymen maneuver through the cedar thickets near the Cowan House ruins. He faces a full brigade commanded by Brig. Gen. Daniel S. Donelson, nephew of the late President Andrew Jackson.

The Cowan House ruins split apart the attacking troops; the 8th Tennessee Infantry Regiment shifts to the west and runs squarely into the 19th Infantry.

The regiments shoot each other apart on terrain later called “Hell’s Half Acre.” The 8th Tennessee’s commander, Col. W.L. Moore, dies when shot in the heart, but his troops press Carpenter’s men backwards.

Seeing enemy soldiers overlapping his command’s flank, Carpenter tells his men to fall back. Confederate officers sense their advantage; “no sooner did the enemy see us retreating, than they opened fire on us again,” remembers Pvt. Joseph R. Prentice, assigned to Co. E.

“Scatter and run, boys!” he hears Carpenter shout. Confederates fire another volley, and six bullets simultaneously strike Carpenter — two in the head and four in the body; he pitches dead from his wounded horse.

The frightened animal bolts. “I was about to join the rest in the rush to a place of safety when I heard a horse bearing down on me like mad,” Prentice recalls.

The surviving 19th Infantry soldiers retain some cohesion as they retreat. Prentice joins them, relates what happened to their brave major, and volunteers to recover Carpenter’s body.

“Back I went at the top of my speed, and as soon as I entered the clearing the enemy’s sharpshooters opened a brisk fire on me,” Prentice says. “Still I was bound to find the major if possible, and knowing about where he fell, rushed to that spot.

“Bullets ploughed up little puffs of dust at my feet and whistled around my head,” he says. “A short spurt more and I was at the place.

“But, poor fellow, he was past need of human assistance,” Prentice recalls. “Nevertheless I picked him up and carried him to my rear, my ears filled with the mournful dirge of the bullets that threatened me at every step.”

Carpenter “was buried on the field, whence his remains were taken by his brother officers and sent to this city,” Roberts tells his audience 32 days later.

Ironically, an Army order promoting Carpenter to lieutenant colonel arrives in Murfreesboro not long after his death. The Army ships him home to Bangor; his body arrives on a Maine Central Railroad on the evening on Monday, Feb. 2, 1863.

On Saturday evening, the Bangor City Council meets in special session to resolve “that the Mayor and Two Aldermen … be a committee to procure a burial lot” for Carpenter and “that the City Council will attend his funeral.”

So Joshua Carpenter, the War of 1812 veteran, outlives his heroic son and attends his Episcopalian-themed funeral at Norumbega Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 11. Two local militia companies — the Independent Fusileers and the Independent Volunteers — escort Carpenter to the hall and then to Mount Hope Cemetery.

Attorney Charles P. Roberts delivers the eulogy, and with the Bangor Band playing appropriate music, the flag-draped coffin rolls out State Street to Mount Hope Cemetery.

Proclaimed “a Bangor boy” after his death at Murfreesboro, Maj. Stephen Decatur Carpenter was lauded during his Feb. 11, 1863 funeral in the Queen City. He was buried beside his son, John, in Mount Hope Cemetery; their grave sites literally became part of the Soldiers’ Monument, dedicated on June 17, 1864. In autumn 1881, other Carpenters had father and son exhumed and relocated to a Central Avenue plot overlooking the Penobscot River. (Brian Swartz Photo)

“The funeral car … was preceded by a color guard of returned and wounded soldiers, bearing the ensign of the Union,” the Whig and Courier reports on Feb. 12. Carpenter’s relatives — including his elderly father, who now lives in Houlton — accompany the body to a gravesite near the intersection of today’s Riverside Avenue and Monument Avenue in Mount Hope Cemetery. There he is buried alongside his little boy.

On Friday, June 17, 1864, local dignitaries and a large crowd gather near Carpenter’s grave to dedicate Bangor’s Civil War Memorial, now called the “Soldiers’ Monument.” According to its engraving, the monument was erected “In Memory Of Our Citizen Soldiers Who Died For Their Country.”

The names of fallen Bangor (or Bangor-affiliated) soldiers are etched on three sides. Stephen Decatur Carpenter tops the list on the side facing intown Bangor.

Relatives relocate Stephen Decatur and John Carpenter elsewhere in the cemetery in 1881. They now lie in plot 718CG, just off Central Avenue.

Yet Stephen Decatur Carpenter lives on. As he marched toward Murfreesboro in late 1862, Carpenter brought with him his school-age daughter, Sara Elvira. She survived her father and mother, married, and had children. Her descendants live into the 21st century.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at