White Hat: The Military Career of Captain William Philo Clark

White Hat: The Military Career of Captain William Philo Clark

by Mark J. Nelson

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Best known for his role in the arrest and killing of Crazy Horse and for the book he wrote, The Indian Sign Language, Captain William Philo Clark (1845–1884) was one of the Old Army’s renaissance men, by turns administrator, fighter, diplomat, explorer, and ethnologist. As such, Clark found himself at center stage during some of the most momentous events of the post–Civil War West: from Brigadier General George Crook’s infamous “Starvation March” to the Battle of Slim Buttes and the Dull Knife Fight, then to the attack against the Bannocks at Index Peak and Sitting Bull’s final fight against the U.S. Army.

Captain Clark’s life story, here chronicled in full for the first time, is at once an introduction to a remarkable figure in the annals of nineteenth-century U.S. history, and a window on the exploits of the U.S. Army on the contested western frontier. White Hat follows Clark from his upbringing in New York State to his life as a West Point cadet, through his varied army posts on the northern plains, and finally to his stint in Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan’s headquarters first in Chicago and later in Washington, D.C. Along the way, Mark J. Nelson sets the record straight on Clark’s controversial relationship with Crazy Horse during the Lakota leader’s time at Camp Robinson, Nebraska. His book also draws a detailed picture of Clark’s service at Fort Keogh, Montana Territory, including what is arguably his greatest success—the securing of Northern Cheyenne leader Little Wolf’s peaceful surrender.

In telling Clark’s story, White Hat illuminates the history of the nineteenth-century American military and the Great Plains, including the Grand Duke Alexis’s buffalo hunt, the Great Sioux War, and the careers of Crook and Sheridan. Nelson's examination of Clark’s early years in the army offers a rare look at the experiences of a staff officer stationed on the frontier and expands our view of the army, as well as the United States’ westward march.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806162669
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/18/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 280
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Mark J. Nelson has served on the staff of museums and historical sites across the American West, including Fort Bridger, the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and the Nebraska State Historical Society. He is author of With the Black Devils: A Soldier’s World War II Account with the First Special Service Force and the 82nd Airborne.

Read an Excerpt



William Philo Clark's ancestral roots can be traced back to England. The Clark family first came to America in the seventeenth century and settled in the Boston area, becoming New Englanders. At some point around 1800 Clark's grandfather William left Massachusetts and settled in Deer River, New York. The Black River region of northwestern New York was unsettled country at that time. William's brother, Daniel, also ventured to the area. The two pioneering brothers were among the area's first settlers.

Clark's father, William Durant Clark, was born at the homestead in Deer River in 1808 and would spend his entire life living in the home he was born in. He became a farmer, highly esteemed and respected by those who knew him and described as "a quiet, industrious man, simple in life and habits." He married Prudency Taylor of nearby Champion, New York, at some point in the 1830s. The couple had five children, beginning with Harriet A. in 1838, followed by John W., Frances M., Sarah P., and finally William P., who was born on July 27, 1845.

The village of Deer River is nestled among a number of other small communities and hamlets. During the third quarter of the nineteenth century it was a diminutive but thriving community with a population of 175 in 1865. Deer River offered its citizens a limited number of social amenities. During Clark's lifetime the village supported two churches, a school, a store, and a hotel. The Deer River Hotel served as the social center for the community, a popular place for hosting dances.

The surrounding area provided excellent soil, plentiful water, and abundant timber to support its farms and industries. The river attracted grist mills to grind grain into flour. Sawmills, various woodworking businesses, and the production of steel plows and other farm implements also fueled the local economy. Denmark Township, encompassing Deer River, boasted of such nonagricultural businesses as a stove factory; a tin, sheet iron, and copper producer; and an ashery producing potash.

Farming and dairy farming in particular, however, played a very important role in the area. The Clark farm in the mid-1860s consisted of seventy-four improved acres and twenty-four acres of unimproved land. Forty-four acres served as pasture land, while just over three acres were plowed. The farm produced fifty tons of hay, which served as an important cash crop in addition to feeding stock. Crops raised on the farm included barley, Indian corn, potatoes, and peas. Maple trees provided maple sugar. The Clark's owned seventeen milk cows that produced large quantities of butter and cheese. Other livestock on the Clark farm included nine sheared sheep, eight lambs, two horses, and two pigs. Cash value for the farm was placed at $5,780, with an additional $1,100 value placed on their livestock. The family lived in a frame home valued at $500. Compared to other farms in the area, the Clarks did not stand out on either side of the economic spectrum.

This rural agrarian life shaped Clark during the first nineteen years of his life. The son of a farmer, he knew what it was like to work hard and became very familiar with animal husbandry. It is uncertain just how deeply religious the family was, but Clark's brother John spent his entire life as a member of the Presbyterian Church. Clark may have followed that denomination as well. The family placed a high value on education. Clark received his schooling at the Lowville Academy in the nearby town of Lowville. At the age of eighteen he became a teacher in 1863. Clark's sisters gravitated toward careers in the field of education as well, with all three of them serving in that profession. Sadly, two of them died very young. Harriet passed away in 1862, followed by Sarah in 1867. The Lewis County Democrat eulogized the young Lowville Academy teacher on July 8, 1867, referring to her as a zealous and respected teacher.

John Clark also had an influence on his brother. The Civil War erupted when Philo was still a teenager. His older brother, however, heeded the call of his country and enlisted as a private in the Fifth New York Heavy Artillery Regiment in September 1862. Before long he was promoted to second lieutenant in Company L. Within a few months he received another promotion, to first lieutenant of the same company. On May 29, 1864, he attained the rank of captain and was transferred to Company I of the regiment. Following his years of service, John was mustered out in September 1865 and eventually became a prominent merchant.

Philo also looked toward the military, but not through enlistment. He preferred to be commissioned as an officer after graduating from the United States Military Academy. On March 2, 1864, Congressman Ambrose W. Clark, a northern New York newspaper publisher, nominated him to fill the cadet vacancy for the Twentieth Congressional District of New York. The congressman, however, did not include Clark's age on the nomination. At the bottom of the form he penned: "I have not his exact age, though he comes within the requirements. Though a namesake he is not a relative." In a letter dated the following day, Clark's father wrote to the secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton, applying to the United States Military Academy on behalf of his son, and also provided his son's current age. On March 5 Clark received the news from Stanton that President Abraham Lincoln had given him a conditional appointment as a cadet. Clark promptly notified Stanton of his acceptance.

Clark also wasted little time in getting to West Point, situated on the western bank of the Hudson River about fifty miles north of New York City. He must have viewed his new surroundings with a sense of awe, as he walked among the classic and English Tudor gray stone structures of the academy. While his official admittance to the academy dated from July 1, 1864, Clark was treated at the facility twice during the month of March and once in April, according to the records of the post hospital at the academy. He may have been taking his entrance examinations there in March. The ailments that he suffered from during that month were minor: a bruise and a headache. The problem in April, however, was more serious, as Clark had contracted gonorrhea. Deer River is located about 250 miles from West Point, so Clark may have preferred to receive treatment for his condition at the post hospital rather than from a local doctor. In any case, on June 3, 1864, about two months before turning nineteen, Clark reported to the academy and confided to himself that "I now must fight the battle alone."

Cadets had to undergo formal examinations twice each year, in January and June. After the June exams the cadets would begin their summer encampment in lieu of vacation. The only exception was cadets finishing their Third Class year, who went on to enjoy a two-month summer furlough. All other cadets had to report to West Point before June 25 for the summer encampment even though the academic program did not begin until September. Cadets were formed into companies and participated in the summer encampment for a period of three months. The commandant of cadets was in charge of the cadets during the encampment, where they learned practical lessons in field soldiering. Among other duties, the commandant, who was an army officer, was responsible for tactical training, oversaw discipline, and issued demerits. When Clark reported to the academy in early June, Major Henry B. Clitz served as commandant of cadets. A month later he was replaced by Colonel John C. Tidball, a Union artillery officer who served at West Point for less than three months and then returned to field duty in the Civil War. During the rest of Clark's tenure at the academy the commandant was Major Henry M. Black, Seventh Infantry. Black had served in the Seventh and Ninth Infantries and was a veteran of the Mexican War. He served in the Northwest from 1857 to 1861, dealing with Indian problems there. During the Civil War he was stationed on the Pacific Coast until 1864, when he arrived at West Point.

Hazing was part of a plebe's life at West Point, and Clark was abundantly hazed. Hazing activities took place primarily during the summer encampment before the Civil War but later became a year- round ordeal and also increased in intensity. Superintendents frowned on hazing, while faculty members and alumni supported it.

The cadets embarked upon their scholarly pursuits in September. The academic board maintained oversight of the academic program and examined cadets. The board consisted of permanent professors and the superintendant, who was the equivalent of a college president. Superintendents generally originated from the Corps of Engineers, and the academy stressed the field of engineering. During Clark's four-year course of study the academy had three different superintendents: Zealous Bates Tower, George Washington Cullum, and Thomas Gamble Pitcher. Clark's engineering training would serve him well at least once later in life, on the Powder River of southeastern Montana in 1876.

The curriculum was much the same as it had been for young cadets who had preceded Clark decades earlier. In many cases the classes were being taught by the same instructors. Notable among the academy's longtime professors when Clark attended the institution were men like Dennis Hart Mahan, professor of engineering since the early 1830s; math professor Albert E. Church, who began teaching at the academy in 1828; and noted artist Robert W. Weir, who had served as the drawing instructor since joining the faculty in 1833.

In addition to offering classroom instruction and tactical training, the academy was also doing what it could to produce Christian soldiers. Attention to religious development dictated mandatory attendance at Sunday chapel services and optional prayer meetings twice each week. Clark's upbringing in northern New York near a region of religious fervor, his education at Lowville Academy, and his attendance at West Point combined to influence his thinking for the rest of his life.

At the United States Military Academy class ranking was all important: the merit roll determined a cadet's service placement. Clark's Fourth Class year proved challenging for the young plebe. Clark ranked thirty-second of sixty cadets in the class. He performed respectably in mathematics, but his English and French scores brought him down. The 116 demerits that he received also detracted from his ranking. That number tied him for fourth most in the class and was the highest number of demerits that he would receive during a single year over the course of his four years at the academy. Examples of his transgressions and their associated punishments included "Laughing in ranks marching out to parade — confined to quarters when not on duty one Saturday" and "Not ceasing to swing arms when ordered to do so — two extra tours of Saturday or Sunday guard duty." Clark may have been a practical joker: he also received demerits for "Making unnecessary noise with pitcher at mess."

Summer encampment activities commenced after the June examinations. On June 19, 1865, Clark found himself assigned as a corporal in Company C of the Battalion of Cadets. Having survived his plebe year at the academy, Clark's academic performance improved during his Third Class year. He completed the year ranking twenty-ninth out of fifty-seven cadets. Mathematics proved to be his best subject, in which he finished twenty-ninth. He placed thirty-third in drawing and managed to finish forty-fourth in his French class. His conduct improved as well, tallying seventy demerits, which placed him a little below the middle of the class for number of demerits. Infractions during the year included "Giving information at black board in French academy" and "Idling, laughing, and talking in Drawing academy." As usual the delinquencies were punished with either confinement to quarters or extra tours of guard duty. With his examinations completed in June 1866, Clark and the rest of the Third Year cadets enjoyed their much- anticipated furlough. It is not known definitively where Clark spent his vacation, but he is presumed to have returned to Deer River for at least a portion of it.

During his Second Class year Clark's position among the Corps of Cadets continued to rise, as he served as the senior first sergeant. Shortly after the cadets returned to the classroom, Clark fell victim to cholera morbus, also known as acute gastroenteritis or stomach flu, being admitted to the post hospital on September 16, 1866, and released two days later. Clark would suffer the ailment again later in life, with tragic and fatal consequences.

After his release from the hospital Clark resumed his Second Class year. He continued to improve his ranking among his fifty-seven classmates, ending the year in the twenty-second position, the highest placement that he would obtain during his career as a cadet. His course of study during the year consisted of classes in artillery tactics, chemistry, drawing, infantry tactics, and philosophy. He excelled in infantry tactics, with the sixth best score in the class, but performed poorly in artillery tactics, with a class standing of thirty-second. Clark's behavior during the course of the year, however, did not continue to improve: he racked up ninety-three demerits, twelfth most in the class. Clark was cited on more than one occasion for the offense of being in or on his bed at inspection. Other violations included being "Absent from drill" and "Entering mess hall after battalion at supper."

Clark's First Class year at the academy proved to be an eventful one. To his credit, he had the distinction of serving as the first captain in the Corps of Cadets, the highest rank possible for a cadet to achieve. On the negative side, he found himself facing a court-martial. Special Order No. 456, Headquarters of the Army, dated September 30, 1867, appointed the general court-martial scheduled to meet on October 4 at West Point for Clark's trial. On that day the court convened with retired Brevet Lieutenant Colonel J. C. Clark serving as president. As the proceedings began the defendant listened to the order appointing the court and then was asked if he objected to any member assigned to hear his case. He objected to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel S. N. Benjamin, Second Artillery, being on the court because that officer had expressed an opinion on the case some three weeks earlier, stating that Clark should be dismissed. Benjamin replied that he had no opinion in the case and had never expressed one except perhaps in jest, not referring to Clark's case in particular. After Benjamin's explanation Clark withdrew his objection.

The judge advocate of the court, Brevet Major William Sinclair, then read aloud the charge and specifications against Clark. The charge was "Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline." The first specification stated that Clark went beyond cadet limits and visited Cozzen's Hotel, near the village of Highland Falls, New York, between tattoo on September 16 and reveille on the following morning. The second specification claimed that Clark was at Cozzen's Hotel in citizen clothing, a dress not prescribed for cadets. The charge and specifications were signed by Captain John Egan, Eleventh Infantry. Clark pled "not guilty" to the charge and both specifications. He then introduced to the court fellow cadet James B. Mackall, who would serve as his counsel for the proceedings.

The next order of business was to hear the testimony of Captain Egan, witness for the prosecution. According to him, he had seen Clark at Cozzen's Hotel near Highland Falls, about a mile from West Point, between the hours of 11:00 P.M. on September 16 and 1:00 A.M. on September 17. He spotted Clark, dressed in citizen's clothing, on the south piazza, on the north piazza near the main entrance, and on the path leading to the bar at the hotel. Egan stated that he had called out to Clark by name and ordered him to halt. Clark did not reply or stop, however, and kept walking at an ordinary gait along the path leading to the bar before and after his name was called out. Egan watched Clark until he disappeared under the piazza.

Under cross-examination, Egan was asked why he thought that it was Clark. He replied that from the moment he saw the man walking toward him and passing a few feet from him in the bright moonlight he knew that it was a cadet and looked at him closely. From the individual's figure, walk, size, and profile Egan suspected that it was Clark. He looked around the piazza for Clark and saw him again near the main door when the light fell upon him, convincing Egan that it was Clark. When asked if he could be mistaken, Egan replied that Clark had been in his company since May 3, 1865, and that he knew Clark better than any cadet in the corps and had no doubt that the person he saw was Clark. Contradicting himself, Egan went on to say that the person he saw was wearing citizen clothing and had his face concealed, so he might possibly be mistaken and thus would not swear to the person's identity. When asked to describe how the man was dressed, Egan replied that he wore a dark coat and light pair of pants and a slouched hat, carried a cane, and had a moustache. Contradicting himself yet again, Egan ended his testimony by stating that the side view of Clark's face that he saw removed all reasonable doubt as to his true identity. The prosecution then closed. Clark requested that he be given until 10 the following morning to prepare his defense. The court granted the request and adjourned.


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Copyright © 2018 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations,
1. Native Son of New York and West Point Cadet,
2. Regimental Adjutant,
3. Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition,
4. Powder River Expedition,
5. Surrender of Crazy Horse,
6. Dog Feasts and Failed Diplomacy,
7. Death of Crazy Horse,
8. Washington Delegation and Relocation,
9. For Keogh and the Miles-Hoyt Expedition,
10. Little Wolf's Surrender,
11. Fighting Sitting Bull's Band,
12. Fort Keogh and the Big Horn Mountains,
13. Fieldwork for The Indian Sign Language,
14. Yellowstone National Park Explorations,
15. Final Months in Washington, D.C.,

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