Quite a Character – Carter P. Johnson

Carter P Johnson, sculpted by Mike Good

One of the more colorful characters of the US Army during the late 19th Century, Carter P. Johnson is the subject of a 90mm miniature sculpted by Mike Good. The figure is based on a illustration by Frederick Remington done in 1888  for Harper’s Weekly, titled  Lieutenant Johnson and the Tenth United States Cavalry in Arizona. This figure is also the “logo figure” for the Southern California Area Historical Miniature Society (SCAHMS) and was the “painter’s figure” at the 2011 California show. I entered this figure in the SCAHMS show and also in the Ventura County Fair this year and working on it made me curious about the real Carter P. Johnson. His story follows…

The most picturesque character in the regiment in those days was Carter Johnson, who remained in it until he was retired at Fort Robinson. The regiment will always cherish his memory and fighting qualities with many a laugh at his eccentricities, adventures and misadventures.… But he would require a whole book to himself. – Frank McCoy

Carter Page Johnson enlisted in the army in Virginia in 1876. He was a sergeant at the time of the 1879 Cheyenne outbreak from Fort Robinson, Nebraska. In 1882 he became one of the few non-commissioned officers to rise from the ranks to become an officer. A year later he was assigned to the Tenth Cavalry and sent to Arizona.[i] He later served in Cuba and Philippines. Major Johnson retired from the army is 1909 after 33 years of service. He came out of retirement in 1916 to command Fort Robinson briefly, before his death the same year.

Carter Johnson in the 1888 Harper's Weekly drawn by Frederic Remington

Chasing Indians in Arizona

For most of the troops there was little glory in this campaign. Their’s was the harder duty, to prevent outbreaks, rather than chase the renegades back onto their reservations. Their’s was the dismal duty to guard mountain passes, water holes, and trails that did not lead to glorious lighting.

The Tenth and the Fourth were in close cooperation during this campaign. The troops of the Tenth, under Lebo, Bill Davis, Carter Johnson, Ward, Grierson and others, were holding stations at Mescal Sorings in the Whetstones ; at Calabasas, under the Santa Ritas ; at Crhtenden ; at Tempest Mine, just over the line in Sonora, and at La Noria. The Fourth had stations on the south side of the Huachucas, at Bisbee, at Skeleton Canyon and to the east, with a few troops at Camp Bowie.

In 1887, about half the regiment pursued the “Kid,” one of Geronimo’s disciples. It was a hard campaign, but unsuccessful. He was never caught ; he may still be running. Lieut. Carter P. Johnson gained commendation by the skill, energy and endurance with which his outfit pursued this outlaw.[ii]

Adventures in Cuba

As 1st Lieutenant, Carter Johnson commanded black soldiers with Troop M of the Tenth Cavalry on a detached assignment with the Cuban forces.

“Joy came to the old soldiers of Troop M, when Lieut. C. P. Johnson was given a detachment from it and from the other oufits at Lakeland; they were to perform a “special mission” in Cuba. Better, they were mounted With them went General Munez and staff, 375 assorted Cubans, and a great quantity of arms and munitions for General Gomez. They sailed on the Florida, convoyed by the Peoria, on June 21st.”[iii]

The Expedition did not get off to a good start

“The Battle of Tayacoba was a disastrous American effort to land supplies and reinforcements to Cuban rebels fighting for their independence in the Spanish-American War. Repulsed at the port of Cienfuegos on 29 June 1898, the American force aboard the USS Florida went ashore near Tayacoba the following day. Prior to the drop off of mules, men, and materiel, a small landing party was dispatched to provide reconnaissance on Spanish outposts in the area. Rowing onto the beach, the force crept into the jungle but was discovered by Spanish scouts and soon scathed by enemy fire. Unable to retaliate or even protect themselves, the Americans retreated onto the beach only to find that their boats had been sunk by Spanish cannon fire.

Out on Florida, Lieutenant Johnson began organizing rescue attempts. The first four were dispersed by heavy enemy fire and forced to retreat, but the fifth, operating under cover of darkness and crewed by only four men of the U.S. 10th Cavalry, successfully located and repatriated American and Cuban survivors. Once the U.S. fighting men were safely aboard Florida, they promptly left the bay of Tayacoba.

All four rescuers, Dennis Bell, William H. Thompkins, Fitz Lee, and George H. Wanton, were subsequently awarded Medals of Honor for their heroism.” [iv]

The rest of the mission was more successful.

The SCAHMS 2011 winning Painter's Figure

“A landing was attempted near Tunas, but the Florida ran aground ; Spanish troops rapidly assembled and poured a hot fire on the two ships. The little gunboat Peoria was quite insufficient. Fortunately the larger gunboat Helena came along, towed the Florida off the sandbar, and gave the Spaniards a few whiffs of shrapnel. The landing was effected at Palo Alto, and made a junction with General Gomez July 3rd. The records cast little light on the doings of this detachment, but they ‘cooperated’ with the Cubans, without casualties, and the M troopers rejoined the regiment at Montauk in September.”[v]

“Some day the regimental history must have the account of his foray in Cuba in the summer of ‘98 with the picked troop that took in arms and supplies to Gomez, not forgetting the fight at Arroyo Blanco, where he had a fight with General Gomez as well as with the Spaniards, and pulled down the Cuban flag from the flagpole, and having no American flag at hand, ran up his blue blouse as a sign of capture, and threatened to shoot the first man that attempted to lower it.”[vi]

There is another view of this flag-rasing incident, from another Regimental history.

While most black troops were participating in the actions around Santiago [and San Juan Hill], Troop M of the 10th Cavalry had joined General Gomez of the Cuban Army and took part in several actions. Their activities, once again unheralded, earned the Congressional Medal Honor for four of its enlisted men. “These soldiers of Troop M were isolated from other American forces about three months while they fought with the Cuban insurgent army, they participated in several notable engagements, these cavalrymen would be the only mounted troops during the Cuba campaign, four privates, Dennis Bell, Fitz Lee, William H. Thompkins and George H. Wanton, won particular distinction for staging a daring rescue operation on June 30, 1898 at Tayabucoa. But here again, there was an obstacle to overcome. ‘The whole company came near getting massacred on account of his (1st lieutenant  Carter P. Johnson), getting drunk. After the Cubans and his command had taken a fort and a block house, he got a barrel of rum, got drunk, pulled down the Spanish flag and ran up his blouse as the American flag. He was given just one-hour  to leave the fort. He ordered his men to fire upon the Cubans, which they refused to do, as they would have been massacred had one shot been fired.’”[vii]

Captain Johnson and the Absentee Utes

In October, 1906 Capts. Carter P Johnson and Robert G. Paxton of the Tenth Cavalry were sent from Fort Robinson to investigate and negotiate with a band of about 116 armed Ute Indians that refused to return to the Uintah Reservation. On October 31, Captain Johnson made arrangements through interpreters for a conference with the Utes between the Army and Indian camps near the Powder River. After difficult debate and discussions with Indians, they agreed to go the Fort Meade while a delegation was sent to Washington to request a transfer to the Cheyenne River (Soiux) reservation. Captain Johnson was in immediate charge of the Utes at Fort Meade and oversaw the ultimate transfer of them to the Cheyenne Reservation by June 30, 1907.

The division commander, from whose report the above account is summarized, quotes Colonel Rogers report on Captain Johnson’s services as follows:

“I wish to call attention to the excellent manner in which Capt. Carter P. Johnson, Tenth Cavalry, has performed the difficult duty to which he was assigned. Through his good work it has been possible for me to immediately engage the Indians in conference and carry out the instructions of the department commander and the authorities at Washington. Throughout all his work has been tactful, energetic, and resourceful, and since my arrival he has been loyal and invaluable in assisting and supporting me.”[viii]

Carter P. Johnson and Fort Robinson, Nebraska

On March 9, 1916, a large force of bandits under Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico. burning several buildings, killing eleven civilians and nine soldiers, and wounding many others. In retaliation the Punitive Expedition was organized under Gen. John J. Pershing, and additional troops hurried to the border. On March 14 the remaining Twelfth Cavalry troops at Fort Robinson, quickly left the post for Columbus.

After the sudden departure, only eleven soldiers and five civilian employees remained at the post. A military station, regardless of its garrison, needs a commanding officer so on March 31, Major Carter P. Johnson came out of retirement to command the almost vacant post.

This assignment was Johnson’s fifth tour of duty at Fort Robinson. He had been there in 1877 as a Third Cavalry private at the time Crazy Horse was killed. In 1878–79 he again served at the post with the Third as a corporal during the ill-fated Cheyenne Outbreak. In 1882, he was appointed as a second Lieutenant in the Fourth Infantry and again assigned to Fort Robinson. The next year Johnson transferred to the Tenth Cavalry, where he spent some years with the regiment on duty in the Southwest.

After serving in Cuba and the Philippines, Johnson arrived for duty at Fort Robinson with the Tenth Cavalry. Not desiring further overseas service, he transferred to the Eighth Cavalry, just before the Tenth left for the Philippines in 1907. In 1909 after thirty-three years of active duty, he retired at Fort Robinson as a major, and moved to a ranch west of the post on White River. Now, in 1916, he returned as commanding officer, Johnson was serving in that capacity when he died of heart problems at Alliance on December 12, while returning from a trip to Wheatland, Wyoming. As an efficiency report once said, Carter P. Johnson was “an excellent soldier and efficient officer.”[ix]

Today, Carter P Johnson Lake is located on the grounds of Fort Robinson, Nebraska.

The SCAHMS figure portrays Lt. Carter P. Johnson while he served with the Tenth U.S. Cavalry in Arizona, 1888 and is based on a sketch by Fredrick Remington that appeared in the Harper’s Weekly. It was sculpted by Mike Good.


[i] Voices of the American West, Volume 2: The Settler and Soldier Interviews of Eli S. Ricker, 1903-1919[i]

[ii] The history of the Tenth Cavalry, 1866-1921 – compiled and edited by Major E.L.N. Glass, Tenth Cavalry.

[iii] The history of the Tenth Cavalry, 1866-1921 – compiled and edited by Major E.L.N. Glass, Tenth Cavalry. “Chapter IV Cuba and Philippines,1898-1902”

[iv] Battle of Tayacoba from Wikipedia.

[v] The history of the Tenth Cavalry, 1866-1921 – compiled and edited by Major E.L.N. Glass, Tenth Cavalry. “Chapter IV Cuba and Philippines,1898-1902”

[vi] The history of the Tenth Cavalry, 1866-1921 – compiled and edited by Major E.L.N. Glass, Tenth Cavalry. Letter of Frank McCoy

[vii] A Unit History of the 10th Cavalry Regiment an Article by Anthony L. Powell

[viii] Annual Reports of the Secretary of War, Vol. 3 1907.

[ix] Fort Robinson and the American Century, 1900-1948 by Thomas R. Buecker

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1 Comment

Filed under Indians, Painting, SCAHMS, US Cavalry

One response to “Quite a Character – Carter P. Johnson

  1. Belle zars

    Check out NY Times November 1, 3 and 7, 1907 for further adventures of Carter Johnson. Probably one of his most notable efforts at negotiation with the Utes. Would appreciate if anyone knows the whereabouts of the report of his meeting with the Utes on Feb. 17, 1907 at Fort Duschene, Utah.

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