Hunt was born in the frontier outpost of Detroit, Michigan, the son of Samuel Wellington Hunt, a career infantry officer. He was named after his uncle, Henry Jackson Hunt, who was the second mayor of Detroit. As a child in 1827, he accompanied his father on the expedition to the future Kansas Territory that founded Fort Leavenworth. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1839 as a brevet second lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Artillery. He served in the Mexican War under Winfield Scott, and was appointed a brevet captain for gallantry at Contreras and Churubusco and to major at Chapultepec. On October 5, 1856, Brevet Major Hunt commanded Company M, 2nd U.S. Artillery from Fort Leavenworth, that protected the polls at Eaton, Kansas, during the territorial legislature elections. Hunt served with the same unit during the Utah War in 1857 against the Mormons. His permanent (regular army) promotions to captain and major were in 1852 and 1861, respectively.
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