Brevet Major George W. Graham: Behind The Photo
I had been scrutinizing the photograph binders at the Frontier Army Museum for months. Buildings, many now gone, were identified. Men in uniforms, women in their Sunday best, lived on, frozen forever holding coffee and cake in images of parties long past. Moving on to the binders containing images of officers at Fort Leavenworth was more intriguing.
All of the photographs of those officers, some with their wives, fascinated me. Many of those photos showed the men wearing unofficial medals. Others provided a glimpse into their homes that still stand at Fort Leavenworth, KS. One man, however, refused to look at me.
He wears the rank of Major. His gray eyes look away, possibly in contemplation of his next move. His hat has the insignia of Tenth U.S. Cavalry embroidered and sewn on. His face shows scars.
Some of those scars were earned during Graham’s prior service as a Union officer in North Carolina. The New Yorker was chosen to lead a troop of mounted cavalry made up of local Southerners and quickly turned his L Company of the 1st NC Union Volunteers into a gang of thieves, looting and burning their way around the eastern part of the state. Because he was so reckless he was able to rob civilians and women on the streets, with his superiors content to look the other way. Despite a court-martial in 1863 he made the rank of Captain.
This was behind Graham as he posed for this photograph in 1869 at the studio of E. E. Henry in Leavenworth, Kansas, and he would suffer larger scars before his life ended.
Graham earned the brevet the year before he sat for the image. He was in command of Company I, Tenth U.S. Cavalry, at Fort Hays. Sent with his company to protect the construction of the Union & Pacific Rail Road west of Hays, Graham spent much of 1868 gambling at saloons and keeping company with his favorite “lady of town” at her house in Hays City.
Major Andrew K. Long, formerly President Johnson’s private secretary and now in the Dept. of Commissary and Subsistence, was a useful connection. 1st Lt. Graham, a New Yorker, pretended to be a native North Carolinian, using Long as a liaison to get in good with Johnson and score a brevet Lieutenant Colonelcy. Long wrote to the President, reasoning that Graham had served in the Civil War and as long as his current comrades had brevets, so should Graham. It was refused. He did earn the rank of Captain in August however.
Graham’s dangerous territory later extended to more than drinking dens.
In September and his troops left Fort Wallace to scout an area of the Smoky River in the Colorado Territory. Bivouacked near Sand Creek, possibly at the site of the famous Chivington Massacre, approximately 100 Cheyenne or Arapaho attacked. Another clash followed in October when Graham, Carpenter and their respective companies were ordered to escort Maj. Carr of the 5th U.S. Infantry to the Colorado Territory. After a surprise assault in which Graham lost control and fell off his horse, Lt. Myron Amick of his company rescued him, alone and vulnerable after the horse ran back to camp.
Graham was approved for a brevet as a major in March of 1869, retroactive to Sand Creek, necessitating travel to Washington, D.C. in April. Contemporary newspapers announced his arrival at the Planter’s Hotel in Leavenworth as he made his way East.
A copy of his oath as a Major, taken and signed on June 11, 1869, is on microfilm at the National Archives. Graham was in no hurry to get back with his new rank, where he would next be stationed at Camp Supply, Indian Territory (Oklahoma). He possibly visited his family in Crown Point, NY. Upon his return at the end of the summer he would find a different environment at Camp Supply.
The Army had been investigating a band of horse thieves in Kansas. An officer in the Tenth, Capt. Charles Cox, had been arrested for, among other things, stealing and selling government horses. Major George A. Armes, also of the Tenth, was making enemies in the regiment by writing letters of complaint regarding Graham’s behavior. As each letter was returned to Armes, he submitted another, each one more belligerent than the one before. One contained this statement about Graham: “Because an officer is a good gambler, a judge of intoxicating drinks, or a bully, it is therefore no reason why he should be shielded from the punishment his disgraceful acts so amply merit.”
The brass at the Tenth couldn’t ignore Graham’s behavior any longer.
Graham hadn’t been wearing his brevet rank long when he found himself in arrest, not only for incidents back at Fort Hays, but for his part in selling government property (horses) and public behavior with a woman listed in documents as a “notorious prostitute.”
Before he was officially ordered to Fort Leavenworth on November 26, 1869 for his court-martial he took opportunities to opine to the local newspapers about the “Indian situation.” He told the Daily Kansas Tribune on Dec 11th that, although eight companies of infantry and cavalry were stationed near Supply, he predicted more trouble in the future from the Native Americans. Strangely, Armes’s quarters were set on fire by unknown persons, destroying papers that were later called on in the court-martial. Graham had left two days prior.
He was not under house arrest during the time he awaited his trial, but was getting himself arrested and fined for such gentlemanly behavior as assault, driving fast through town, and engaging in “lewd behavior” with a married woman. Ironically, Armes was put under the highest levels of arrest for the crime of suggesting that Graham be put under the same! While Armes went hungry, (stipulations of his arrest stated that he was to have no contact with other men and yet had no meals brought to him) Graham was roaming the streets of Leavenworth City, his sociopathy causing him to become well known to the police in that town.
The charges against Graham were conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman, wrongfully and knowingly selling or disposing of government property, and conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline.
Carpenter was a witness for the prosecution. On the original board was Capt. George W. Yates, who would die at Little Bighorn. It also came out during the trial that another woman close to Graham was in Hays: his lawful wife, Josephine, who was listed as a witness but never spoke. Apparently she followed Graham to Kansas from New York, some sources claiming she had their infant in tow, and forced to take a job in a Hays hotel/restaurant because Graham refused to support her, preferring to run with the town’s bawdy girls instead. As for the horse thieving, papers in the form of bills of sale for the horses were missing from his defense papers. At the close of the trial Graham published a small booklet in his defense. The tract is remarkable in its criticism of the Judge Advocate, and reeks of Graham’s pompous and self-assured nature.
Found guilty in August of 1870 on two counts and one specification, he was sentenced to be cashiered, pay a fine, and serve time in prison. His prison time was never served, as General of the Army William T. Sherman signed off on Graham’s sentence but not the imprisonment.
About one year after Graham returned to Kansas and posed for this photograph with his new brevet rank proudly displayed, he was disgraced and alone and left Kansas. He did not return to New York and his family. He did not return to North Carolina, where he was still remembered as a damn Yankee. Instead he went further west, passing wild Hays City on the recently completed rail lines to the Utah Territory, then to Denver, leaving a trail of crimes until his luck ran out in a mining town near Cañon City, CO. He was known as “Major Graham” until (and after) his death. In 1875 newspapers around the country ran the gripping narrative of how “Major” Graham was shot to death in his attempt to jump a claim at a mine in Rosita, a small town in Colorado that he had robbed just the year before. Considering how difficult it had been to find even one photo, it fits the story to know that Graham lies in an unmarked grave in a ghost town.
No other images of George W. Graham have been unearthed. A rare group photo of officers of the Tenth Cavalry at Fort Riley from those early days is missing one of its officers: Graham. Even Civil War era photos have never surfaced. Numerous images of Union officers in those Carolina cities his unit occupied are missing the cavalry leader as well. Given his local notoriety, it is surprising that he is not illustrated in at least one newspaper in North Carolina. As for his Colorado crimes? There has been no image found of Graham wearing stripes.
A volunteer mesmerized by a lone image uncovered a fascinating story of a man. No doubt this man hides other scars. There may be another look at his face in an archives, attic, or antique shop. I believe “Major” Graham refuses to keep quiet.