Carter joined the U. S. Navy at age 16, was a member of the Pacific Squadron during the war with Mexico, graduated from Annapolis in 1849, participated in expeditions to the Arctic, China Sea, and La Plata in South America until 1860, when he resigned and began service with the Confederate Navy. Following the Civil War, he returned home to Shirley plantation on the James River in Virginia where he lived as a planter until his death in 1888.
Carter was born on September 15, 1825, at Shirley, the Charles City County plantation of his parents, Hill Carter (1796–1875) and Mary Braxton Randolph Carter. In 1839 he and a younger brother enrolled in the first class to enter the new Episcopal High School in Alexandria. On March 30, 1842, at age sixteen, he joined the United States Navy as a midshipman and began a tour of duty that lasted six years. After initial assignment aboard the frigate Constitution, Carter sailed to the West Indies in August 1843 on the sloop of war Falmouth. During the Mexican War he served on the Savannah in the Pacific Squadron. Carter returned to Shirley in July 1848 and later that year entered the United States Naval School at Annapolis (in 1850 renamed the United States Naval Academy). In 1849 he graduated as a passed midshipman.
Title: Sir John Franklin
Sir John Franklin
During the next decade Carter joined three naval expeditions of scientific exploration and surveying. In May 1850 he set sail as acting master aboard the brig Rescue, one of two ships that the New York merchant Henry Grinnell fitted out to assist the British search for Sir John Franklin, whose expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage had not been heard from since July 1845. The navy took charge of Grinnell's expedition and prepared for its first mission to the Arctic seas. The voyage lasted about eighteen months, during which time Carter kept a private journal that is the only full, daily account of the failed rescue attempt. He was candid in his assessment of the expedition and its leadership, and his drawings further documented his experiences. The diary appeared in print in 1998.
By the autumn of 1851 Carter was safely back in New York City. Following a brief courtship he married Louise Humphreys on January 6, 1852, in Annapolis. They had two daughters. After a year's duty on the naval academy's Preble, Carter served from 1853 to 1855 as junior lieutenant and navigator on the flagship Vincennes, whose expedition exploring and mapping the China Sea, the northern Pacific Ocean, and the Bering Strait was the navy's hydrographic counterpart to Matthew Calbraith Perry's diplomatic mission to Japan. Afterward Carter returned stateside and was stationed at the Norfolk Navy Yard for two years. In 1858 he began a two-year tour of service aboard the steamer Argentina on an exploration of La Plata River and its tributaries in South America.
Carter was in Washington, D.C., preparing reports on the expedition along La Plata when the Virginia convention met to discuss secession from the Union. He resigned from the United States Navy on April 2, 1861, and on June 10 joined the Confederate States Navy as a lieutenant and was assigned to the steam tender Teaser, an armed tug deployed at Jamestown Island on the James River. Ordered the next year to duty aboard the Richmond, he was promoted to first lieutenant on October 23, 1862, to rank from October 2 of that year. In April 1863 he sailed to Europe to aid Confederate agent James D. Bulloch in equipping ships and purchasing supplies and became a valued assistant. Later Carter commanded the blockade runner Coquette, operating between Bermuda, Nassau, and the Atlantic ports. At Bulloch's request, Carter was ordered back to England and arrived in Liverpool on September 28, 1864. He was assigned to the French-built ironclad Stonewall outfitted in Copenhagen, but the Civil War ended before he arrived in United States waters. The Stonewall surrendered to Cuban authorities, and Carter returned to England, where he obtained a British master's certificate and joined the British mercantile marine.
At the urging of his father, Carter returned to Virginia and received a presidential pardon on August 22, 1866. He assumed management of Shirley plantation and over the next two decades became a prosperous farmer. Carter was treasurer of Westover Episcopal Church and in 1884 represented the Virginia State Agricultural Society at the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans. In his later years he compiled a family genealogy, published posthumously in 1951 as The Carter Tree. In December 1887 Robert Randolph Carter fell from a granary loft and never recovered from his injuries. He died on March 8, 1888 and was buried at Shirley.
September 15, 1825 - Robert Randolph Carter is born at Shirley, his parents' Charles City County plantation.
March 30, 1842 - Robert Randolph Carter joins the United States Navy as a midshipman and begins a tour of duty that lasts six years.
August 1843 - Robert Randolph Carter sails to the West Indies aboard the U.S. Navy sloop of war Falmouth.
1846–1848 - Robert Randolph Carter serves on the Savannah in the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron during the Mexican War.
July 1848 - Following the Mexican War, Robert Randolph Carter returns to his parents' Charles City County plantation Shirley. Later in the year he enters the United States Naval School at Annapolis.
1849 - Robert Randolph Carter graduates from the United States Naval School at Annapolis.
May 1850 - Robert Randolph Carter sets sail to the Arctic seas as acting master aboard the brig Rescue, one of two ships fitted out to assist the British search for the missing explorer Sir John Franklin. Carter keeps a diary of the failed mission.
January 6, 1852 - Robert Randolph Carter marries Louise Humphreys in Annapolis, Maryland. They will have two daughters.
1853–1855 - After a year's duty on the naval academy's Preble, Robert Randolph Carter serves as junior lieutenant and navigator on the flagship Vincennes. He participates in an expedition to explore and map the China Sea, the northern Pacific Ocean, and the Bering Strait.
1858 - Robert Randolph Carter begins a two-year tour of service aboard the steamer Argentina on an exploration of La Plata River and its tributaries in South America.
April 2, 1861 - Robert Randolph Carter resigns from the United States Navy at the beginning of the Civil War.
June 10, 1861 - Robert Randolph Carter joins the Confederate States Navy as a lieutenant and is assigned to the steam tender Teaser, an armed tug deployed at Jamestown Island on the James River.
October 23, 1862 - Robert Randolph Carter is promoted to first lieutenant in the Confederate States Navy, to rank from October 2. His duty is aboard the Richmond.
April 1863 - Confederate Navy officer Robert Randolph Carter sails to Europe to aid Confederate agent James D. Bulloch in equipping ships and purchasing supplies and becomes a valued assistant.
September 28, 1864 - After commanding the blockade runner Coquette, operating between Bermuda, Nassau, and the Atlantic ports, Confederate Navy officer Robert Randolph Carter is ordered back to England and arrives in Liverpool. He is assigned to the French-built ironclad Stonewall.
August 22, 1866 - Former Confederate Navy officer Robert Randolph Carter receives a presidential pardon and assumes management of Shirley plantation.
1884 - Robert Randolph Carter represents the Virginia State Agricultural Society at the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans.
December 1887 - Robert Randolph Carter falls from a granary loft and never recovers from his injuries.
March 8, 1888 - Robert Randolph Carter dies from injuries suffered in a fall and is buried at Shirley.
Categories Civil War, American (1861–1865) Antebellum Period (1820–1860)
Gill, Harold B., Jr. "Robert Randolph Carter." In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 3, edited by Sara B. Bearss, 88–90. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2006.
Cite This Entry
Gill, H. B., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Robert Randolph Carter (1825–1888). (2013, August 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Carter_Robert_Randolph_1825-1888.
Gill, Harold B. and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Robert Randolph Carter (1825–1888)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Aug. 2013. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
First published: May 18, 2009 | Last modified: August 19, 2013
Contributed by Harold B. Gill and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography.