William Richard Carter was born on April 22, 1833, on the Nottoway County farm of his parents, Martha Anderson Craig Gregory Carter and Sharpe Carter, a farmer, sometime schoolmaster, and charter member of the Nottoway Library Society. Carter excelled in his studies at Hampden-Sydney College from 1848 until 1852, when he graduated with high honors in chemistry. Exhibiting talent as an essayist, he served as clerk for the college’s Union Literary Society and in 1850 and 1851 was elected vice president.
Recommendations from his professors led to Carter’s employment in February 1853 at the Flat Rock Female Seminary in Lunenburg County, but after two years he became restless. He inquired about buying a newspaper, but nothing came of it. Carter unsuccessfully sought the mathematics chair at Hampden-Sydney in 1856 and suffered another disappointment when Amelia Trotter ended their engagement. Discouraged and frustrated, he resorted to drink for a time before deciding to seek his fortune in the West.
By March 1858 Carter was living in Columbus, Mississippi, anxious to remove any stigma attached to his name in Virginia and optimistic about opportunities in the bustling town. He joined the Presbyterian Church and renewed contact with Amelia Trotter, who invited him to write but then rejected another marriage proposal. Soon after his arrival Carter published an essay, “Wealth versus Character,” in the Columbus Enquirer. Although he had lost his taste for teaching, he took a position at the Collegiate High School run by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and became so well regarded there that he was invited to purchase the two-story school. On January 1, 1859, he became both proprietor and principal in charge of eighty-five students and two assistants.
The demands of the school proved greater than expected and by April 1860 Carter had decided to sell the institution. Returning to Nottoway County by July 15, he began studying law and was admitted to the bar in April 1861. Carter had hardly settled into his new Richmond practice when Virginia’s secession from the Union prompted him to enlist on May 27 as a private in the Nottoway Troop. That same day he began keeping a field diary.
His unit was soon incorporated as Company E of the 3rd Virginia Cavalry. Carter was captured at Big Bethel on June 10, 1861, and held at Fort Monroe until his exchange twelve days later. On November 23 he was elected first lieutenant and on January 18, 1862, was elected captain to fill a vacancy caused by death. During the Peninsula Campaign the 3rd Virginia was attached to Brigadier General J. E. B. Stuart’s brigade but did not join in Stuart’s celebrated ride around the Union Army of the Potomac in June or in the Catlett’s Station Raid during the Second Manassas Campaign. Carter was absent from the Chambersburg Raid but entered a detailed description of it in his field diary. On November 7, 1862, he was promoted to major to rank from October 21 and on November 18 was elevated to lieutenant colonel, in which capacity he occasionally commanded the regiment. In a letter home that month he summed up his wartime experiences so far as “fighting, skirmishing, advancing, or retreating nearly every day.”
Carter performed bravely during the Dumfries Raid in December 1862 and at Kelly’s Ford in March 1863. During the Gettysburg Campaign in June he fought at Brandy Station and at Aldie and joined in the controversial Gettysburg Raid, although, as his diary notes, only the sharpshooters represented his regiment in the cavalry fight on July 3. During the army’s retreat his troopers fought a rearguard action against pursuing Union forces. Carter led the regiment at Raccoon Ford in October and was captured but escaped to participate in the rout of Union cavalry at Buckland Mills, also called the “Buckland Races.” In May 1864 his regiment was heavily engaged at Todd’s Tavern, Yellow Tavern, and Haw’s Shop. On June 1, the eve of Cold Harbor, he wrote his father that he was ill from nearly fifty days of constant marching and fighting. Ten days later Carter was wounded at Trevilian Station, in Louisa County, and taken to the general hospital at Gordonsville, in Orange County, where he died on July 8, 1864. He was buried at his father’s house, Hickory Hill (later Carter’s Hall), in Nottoway County.
Carter’s detailed, articulate field diary became a boon for researchers. In 1876 Sharpe Carter planned to publish it and obtained letters from former generals Fitzhugh Lee and Williams Carter Wickham testifying to his son’s military skills. Henry Brainerd McClellan borrowed it while writing Life and Campaigns of Major-General J. E. B. Stuart, Commander of the Cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia (1885). That same year the Southern Historical Society expressed an interest in publishing the diary in its magazine, but Carter’s compelling observations did not appear in print until 1998, when editor Walbrook D. Swank published Sabres, Saddles, and Spurs. That edition, however, was based unknowingly on a partial transcription covering only the period from July 27, 1862, to April 30, 1864. The original field diary, kept from May 27, 1861, to June 7, 1864, no longer survives, but a complete two-volume transcription, probably made by Sharpe Carter, is preserved at Hampden-Sydney College.
- Sabres, Saddles, and Spurs (Walbrook D. Swank, ed.; 1998)