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Joseph Alton Sladen was born in Rochdale, England, on April 9, 1841. Following his father James Sladen's early death, his family relocated to Lowell, Massachusetts, where young Joseph began working in mills and factories at age nine while attending school intermittently.  

In 1862, Sladen enlisted in the Union Army, joining the Massachusetts 33rd Infantry. He participated in significant battles, including Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Around the time of Gettysburg, Sladen joined the staff of General Oliver Otis Howard, initiating a professional relationship that would last for decades. He was awarded the Medal of Honor, with a citation for bravery at the Battle of Resaca in 1864, where he voluntarily joined the fight and inspired his comrades.

 After the war Sladen continued his service in the army, transitioning into the post-war era with an important assignments as aide-de-camp to General Oliver Otis Howard (who had lost his right arm at the Battle of Fair Oaks in 1862) and in the Freedmen's Bureau, the organization charged with supervising nearly 4 million liberated enslaved people.

As an extension of his work with General Howard with the Freedman's Bureau, he participated in the the creation of Howard University, serving as the school's secretary and at the same time earning a Medical Degreed from Howard University in 1871.

Sladen's most notable contribution during the Frontier Indian Wars was his involvement in the 1872 peace negotiations with the Chiricahua Apache leader Cochise. As General Howard's aide-de-camp, Sladen journeyed through New Mexico and Arizona, a pivotal expedition he detailed in his account "Making Peace With Cochise." This successful mission led to a treaty with Cochise, marking a significant achievement in the fraught relationships between Native Americans and the United States government during this era.

After the successful mission with Cochise, Sladen's military career continued in the West. In 1874, when Howard was assigned as commander of the Army's Department of the Columbia, Sladen joined him in Portland, Oregon. Here, Sladen's duties were diverse, ranging from aide-de-camp to assistant adjutant and acting judge advocate. This period was marked by significant engagements, including the Nez Perce War of 1877 and the Bannock War of 1878, where Sladen's expertise and experience were instrumental. In later years Sladen faced personal challenges, including severe injuries leading to the loss of his leg.

Sladen's service in the West was not without personal challenges. In 1875, a riding accident at Fort Walla Walla, Washington, resulted in a severe leg injury, leading to amputation. Despite this setback, Sladen continued his service with determination. In 1876, he sustained another injury to the same leg, further complicating his physical condition. Nevertheless, Sladen's resilience and commitment to his duties remained steadfast.

In 1881, Sladen's path once again intersected with Howard's when the latter was appointed Superintendent of the United States Military Academy. Sladen served on his staff as the academy's adjutant. The following year, Howard University awarded him an honorary Master of Arts degree in 1882.

Sladen's military career in the West culminated with his assignment to Fort Omaha, Nebraska, in 1882, where he continued to serve under Howard's command in the Department of the Platte. In 1885, he was transferred to the 14th Infantry at Vancouver Barracks, Washington.    

Post-military, Sladen settled in Portland, Oregon, embarking on a successful career in insurance and banking, and serving as a clerk of the U.S. Circuit Court. He remained active in civic and professional organizations, contributing significantly to his community until his death in 1911.