Mason Carter was born on January 6, 1834, in Augusta, Richmond County, Georgia. His father was a highly regarded physician. His mother, Martha, was the daughter of General Thomas Flournoy, an Army General in the War of 1812. Perhaps this led him to a life of military service.
He was related to Cassius M. Carter, a San Diego County district attorney from 1902 until 1906, and the namesake of one of the theatres within the Old Globe Theatre complex in Balboa Park. He was also related to U.S. Senator James Murray Mason of Virginia.
He died on December 11, 1909, in San Diego, California and is buried at the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego. He was the first Medal of Honor recipient buried in the Rosecrans National Cemetery. He is buried next to his wife, Lucie, who died in 1938.
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to First Lieutenant Mason Carter, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 30 September 1877, while serving with 5th U.S. Infantry, in action at Bear Paw Mountain, Montana. First Lieutenant Carter led a charge under a galling fire, in which he inflicted great loss upon the enemy.
Mason Carter entered the service at Augusta, Georgia. At the early age of fourteen, in 1848, he entered the U.S. Navy as an acting midshipman. For the next eight years, he alternated between sea duty and attendance at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. His service took him to the Mediterranean Sea and along the eastern seaboard of the United States. He tried but failed multiple times to pass the final graduation examination from the Naval Academy. Finally, in 1856, he resigned from the Navy. He had no training or education other than his naval sea duty, so in 1860 he joined the Army under the assumed name Mason Howard.
As Mason Howard he was immediately shipped off to the Oklahoma Indian Territory to fight the Comanches. The Civil War soon followed and with Texas seceding from the Union, all U.S. troops in the Indian Territories were withdrawn to Kansas. Carter was now a corporal, and his unit was placed under the command of General Nathaniel Lyon.
At the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, near Springfield, Missouri, in August of 1861, Carter was severely wounded in the leg. He accepted a commission in the regular U.S. Army in the spring of 1862. As a proven Indian fighter, the Army shipped him off to the New Mexico Territory to fight Indians. Indian fighting and frontier duty remained his occupation for the next twenty-five years. He took back his family name in 1869, and thereafter called himself Mason Carter.
By 1876, Carter had been promoted to first lieutenant, and his regiment was placed on duty in Montana. In September 1877 they were sent to cut off the flight from Oregon to Canada of the Nez Perce Indians under Chief Joseph. Carter, with a company of about twenty mounted infantrymen, joined a column of the 5th U.S. Infantry under the command of Colonel Nelson Miles. Carter’s unit intercepted the Indians at a place called Bear Paw Mountain on September 30. 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 was ordered to lead his dismounted company of seventeen men into their camp. This attempt also failed. In this attack, under heavy fire, Carter lost six of his men. The Nez Perce surrendered four days later. Miles went on to a distinguished career, ending up as commanding general of the Army. In 1894 he endorsed an award of the Medal of Honor to Mason Carter. In 1878, Carter was promoted to the rank of captain, and in 1894 he was given the brevet rank of major.
Carter continued active duty until his retirement in 1898. After retirement, he was professor of military science at the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, for ten years, before moving to California. He died in San Diego in 1909 and was buried at the Post Cemetery at Fort Rosecrans on December 11, 1909.
He was a First Lieutenant in the 5th U. S. Calvary when recognized for his outstanding service, but he did not receive Medal of Honor until seventeen years later on November 27, 1894, by President Grover Cleveland.
Shown here are the medals Major Carter earned during his career. They include: