PRIVATE WILFRED CLARK: A Medal of Honor Recipient “Lost to History”
By Friends President, Robert Luppi
There are those who have distinguished themselves highly in America’s past and have been recorded in history as such together with their receipt of the honors, accolades and commendations demonstrating their achievement.
(Artistic Portrayal, Harpers Weekly, December 28, 1895)
And there are some of these achievers who simply later disappeared from life, were never seen again and their whereabouts became unknown and remain such. They become “lost to history.”
One such person is a Medal of Honor recipient---Private Wilfred Clark, a gallant soldier of the Nez Perce Campaign of 1877.
Clark was a U.S. 2nd Cavalryman who fought at the Battle of Big Hole and later at Camas Meadows, Idaho in August 1877, earning himself the great honor that is recorded forever in history. At Big Hole, Clark was an attached member from his cavalry regiment from Ft. Ellis, MT. –one in eight in all, who along with members of the 7th U.S. Infantry and some civilian volunteers, fought in that battle on August 9-10 1877 near what is known today as Wisdom, Montana. At Big Hole, he distinguished himself for his courage and sharpshooting skills. While he and his fellow soldiers found themselves surrounded and pinned down in the woods from Nez Perce fire for two days after the initial attack, he, while operating from behind the safety of trees, used his carbine in
marksman’s fashion for hours to fire back accurately, striking and harassing his foes at various distances, thereby greatly contributing in preventing the tribesmen from moving forward to overrun the soldiers, subdue them and gain victory.
On August 20, 1877, at the military’s engagement at Camas Meadows, though wounded in the shoulder and chin and under fire, and while he and his fellow soldiers were encircled, Clark continued to carry on the fight courageously against the Nez Perce, while remaining steadfast at his post during that time.
Wilfred Clark’s Medal of Honor citation reads that through his actions in these engagements, he was honored for “Conspicuous gallantry, especial skill as a sharpshooter”.
It is reported that Wilfred Clark’s life began in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1841. The later U.S. Census records of 1860 for the Philadelphia area show that a “Wilfred Clark”, then age 20, to be the son of an Adam and Elizabeth Clark and that Wilfred had six siblings living together with him and their parents. Both Adam and Wilfred had their occupations listed as “carpenters”. The Census record states further that all family members were born in England, though other records point otherwise regarding at least Wilfred, including his army records—that his place of birth was Pennsylvania. There are no other persons listed in the 1860 census as an “Adam Clark” being that of a “Wilfred Clark’s” father, nor, for that matter, is there any other “Adam Clark” listed as living in the general Philadelphia area. Further, there is no other person listed as a “Wilfred Clark” in the 1860 Census for the Philadelphia area as well.
The next available record of possibly our Wilfred is from a Philadelphia City Directory of 1863 which shows a “Wilfred Clark”, employed as a “carpenter”, living at 1502 N. Front Street in that city. There is no other listings of a “Wilfred Clark” in that directory.
Wilfred Clark later entered military service during our Civil War at age 24 on or about March 8, 1865 with the 6th Regiment of the Pennsylvania Cavalry. He was listed as 5 foot 6 inches tall, with blue eyes, black hair and a dark complexion and with an occupation as “carpenter”. Clark signed up for a one year service and later rose to the rank of Bugler in Company “D” of his regiment. A record shows that after the conclusion of the war, on June 17, 1865, Clark was transferred to Company “D” of the 2nd Provisional Cavalry. Subsequently, he was honorably discharged from the Army as a Private on or about August 7, 1865 at Louisville, Kentucky.
It should be noted though that even before his service in the Civil War, Wilfred Clark may have served two tours of three years each in the U.S. Navy during the period from 1859 to 1865, though it is uncertain as to whether the “Wilfred Clark” listed in the naval enlistment records is the same Wilfred Clark who is the subject of this article. Yet the identifying information in the naval records matches or closely correlates to the information of Clark’s later Civil War enlistment record by age, physical description and occupation. Interestingly, in this regard, the “Wilfred Clark” in the naval enlistment records gave his place of birth (“City, Town, County”) as Cumberland County, but in the same pre-printed form under “State”, the entry made is “Pennsylvania”, while in the second enlistment form, the latter entry is made under “Citizen of State”. And in this regard, there are other records available which show that our Wilfred could have indeed been born in Cumberland County--England and that his father named “Adam”, and the siblings of the former were born there also, and if you if interpret the 1860 Census in its listing of Wilfred as living in Philadelphia at the time, as being deemed the place of his “permanent residence” and his naval duty station(s) in his military service during the same time as being deemed his “temporary“ residence(s) , a credible position can be advanced that Wilfred Clark indeed had prior military service before the Civil War during the listed period.
Sometime relatively shortly after his discharge from the Army in 1865, Wilfred Clark may have married. A death certificate in Philadelphia shows that a “Wilfred Clark” was married as of 1866 and that he had lost a son, also named “Wilfred”, at two months of age, on July 31, 1866. The street address given for the deceased baby was 612 Filbert Street, Philadelphia. Coincidentally, a Philadelphia City Directory of 1867 has this same street address listed for a “Wilfred Clark”, an adult, and has his occupation listed as “carpenter”—the same occupation as listed for our Wilfred Clark in his enlistment papers for the Army during our Civil War and of the earlier Philadelphia public records pertaining to a “Wilfred Clark” in Philadelphia—the U.S. Census of 1860 and the Philadelphia City Directory of 1863. There is no other “Wilfred Clark” listed in the aforementioned 1867 City Directory.
To add a little perspective, the distance today between the “Wilfred Clark’s” address on Front Street in Philadelphia in 1863 to the later address of a “Wilfred Clark” on Filbert Street in 1866-67 is 2.2 miles. The later 1870 U.S. Census records for Philadelphia lists a “Wilfred and Rebecca Clark”, as husband and wife, he at the age of thirty, and she at the age of twenty-four. His age and his occupation listed as “house carpenter” and his listed place of birth as Pennsylvania correlate with the same information present in our Wilfred’s military records.
The Census shows Wilfred and Rebecca to have two young children—a baby, and a two year old toddler.
No marriage certificate pertaining to Wilfred Clark has ever been known to exist or to have been found for him, either before this latter date or for that matter, for any time thereafter in his life.
Further research online shows that an “Adam Clark”, of close to the same age of the “Adam Clark” identified in the 1860 Census as being the father of a “Wilfred Clark” of our Wilfred’s age and who shared the same occupation of “carpenter” as his son, as living just a few doors down from the “Wilfred Clark” of the 612 Filbert Street address, but on the opposite side of the street. The record is of a death certificate showing a date of death of June 11, 1873 for Adam Clark at age 56 and his birth being listed in England.
Wilfred Clark later returned to military service on November 18, 1873, enlisting as a Private, at age 33, with Company “L’ of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and for a period of five years. The enlistment date was five months after the death of his possible father, Adam, which lends to the suggestion that the death may have affected Wilfred’s desire in some degree to return to the Army and at that point in time--if indeed that “Adam Clark” was his parent.
Clark’s military records show thereafter that he deserted the Army on April 3, 1876 while his duty station was at Ft. Ellis, MT., a location east of present day Bozeman. He was still a member of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry and he and companies of his regiment, including Company “L”, would have left Ft. Ellis two days earlier, on April 1, 1876, as members of the Montana Column ordered to join the 7th U.S. Infantry in the Sioux-Cheyenne campaign of that year. It appears therefore that Clark’s desertion occurred while his unit was in transit, and it raises the question as to the reason(s) for his desertion. Was it out of fear of battle against determined and skilled foes? Was it because he was seeking a better opportunity for much higher wages during the summer months such as in railroad work or in mining, or in some other endeavor, or did he possibly desert because he did not want to undergo the rigors of a soldier in the field on campaign during that cold Spring and hot Summer for up to several months? Or maybe it was a combination of some or all of these reasons or more. Clark though was later apprehended and records show that he was confined back at Ft. Ellis on or about May 7, 1876 and later returned to duty without trial on the condition that he make up the time lost.
The historian, Don Rickey, commented on desertion by soldiers on the western frontier during the era of Wilfred Clark’s time, in his book entitled Forty Miles a Day on Beans and Hay. He reported that defections were not uncommon. “Many desertions were directly traceable to measures of economy. When regular army base pay was reduced in the early seventies from sixteen to thirteen dollars per month, ‘hosts of men deserted’. In the West where labor was always scarce and wages for almost any kind of work was considerably higher than in the East, many defectors left the ranks to earn more money. Spring was the favorite season for deserting. Construction work was resumed along the railroads, in the mining regions, and in the new communities and travel was faster and easier.
Further, for some, life on the frontier was lonelier than the young soldiers could bear; for others, it was the inability to adjust to military discipline. For still others, it was the officers exploiting the soldiers as cheap manual labor on pet projects.”
A record shows that on October 31, 1876, Wilfred Clark was reported sick at Ft. Ellis, MT., but there is no mention of the ailment.
He next surfaces on August 9-10, 1877 in his service at the Battle of Big Hole and on August 20, 1877 in his fight with the Nez Perce at Camas Meadows, which combined together, earned him his Medal of Honor. In a letter of October 18, 1877, in support of the Medal, the commander of Wilfred Clark’s Company “L” at Ft. Ellis, Captain R. Norwood, wrote to the Secretary of War that Clark, among three other enlisted men of his company, is requested to receive the Medal for “conspicuous courage and gallantry in the several engagements opposite their names.” And as to Wilfred Clark, opposite his name, it is stated, “Private Wilfred Clark, in Genl Gibbons fight in the Big Hole, M.T, where he displayed excellent courage and skill as a sharpshooter. Also, with company in engagement at Camas Meadows (Idaho) though wounded in shoulder and chin continued at his post doing valuable service”.
Capt. Norwood went on to write about the four men, “I do hope that the above mentioned services may meet with the distinguished honor of wearing a medal.”
Capt. Norwood’s request was subsequently recommended for approval by Major James S. Brisbin on October 21, 1877, with the latter stating that he knew most of the men and “believe them to be brave and deserving of the honor of the medal”.
On February 16, 1878, the Adjutant General of the Army wrote to the Chief Clerk of the War Department requesting him to “have Medals of Honor engraved” for four individuals, one of whom was Wilfred Clark, and the medals were forwarded on February 28, 1878.
A letter dated June 21, 1878 in his file shows that Wilfred Clark acknowledged receipt of the Medal and that he was a member of Company “G” of the 2nd Cavalry.
Clark served with the Army until December 22, 1878 and was discharged upon expiration of service at Ft. Ellis, MT. His records show further that he made “good time lost” by his desertion and that he was an excellent soldier in the field.
Wilfred Clark’s whereabouts for many years thereafter is unknown until July 11, 1892 when he applied for a pension based on his prior military service and physical incapacity while living in Cascade, MT, a small town outside Great Falls. In his application, he did not mention any service in the U.S. Navy. He also reported that he was age 51 and that he was suffering from a fractured leg, precluding him from performing full manual labor. There is no mention of a spouse or marriage and it does not appear that the pension was approved.
There is evidence that Wilfred Clark may have sometime thereafter returned to Philadelphia after his many years of absence from the city. A Philadelphia City Directory of 1895 identifies a “Wilfred Clark” as a “machinist” in that city, with a residential address listed of 1713 N. 21st Street. No other “Wilfred Clark” is listed in that publication.
Wilfred Clark’s later whereabouts are not shown to be mentioned or listed in any known documents, and at some point it was officially recorded-- in simple fashion—as him being “Lost to History”.
The efforts to find the lost Wilfred Clark have been extensive, the search being undertaken off and on for a period of years. Ms. Gayle Alvarez of the Idaho Military Historical Society and Museum and many historians and other researchers have searched countless listings and cemeteries for Wilfred Clark without success. The author of this narrative himself visited the last documented whereabouts of Clark in Cascade, MT. two years ago, and spoke with its town officials, including the long-time caretaker of the town’s cemeteries, its librarian and the town Clerk. Records were produced of all the “Clarks” buried in their cemeteries and a “Wilfred Clark” was not listed. A trip to one of the town’s cemeteries was also made as a town record showed that a person listed only by the last name of “Clark” was buried there with a notation of “stone (resting) on its face”. This author examined every gravestone in this cemetery to endeavor to locate that stone and any identifiable “Clark” gravesite. All these measures, including a discussion with a prominent genealogist at the Great Falls Library who himself had been searching for Wilfred Clark, proved unsuccessful.
Wilfred Clark’s military history demonstrated him to be a man of courage and one steadfast in battle as shown in his actions at Big Hole and Camas Meadows. He possessed other skills as well—as a bugler, as a good horseman, and, of course, as a superior marksman which gained him fame at Big Hole. Throughout his five year career with the U.S. Cavalry though, Clark never rose above the rank of private--at least according to known military records--suggesting that some deficiency or lacking existed about him which precluded his elevation in rank.
Wilfred Clark’s personal life presents itself also as a curious unknown to the history buffs and military scholars who wish to know more about him beyond his military life, which in itself the records are limited. Was he ever married? The “Rebecca Clark” listed in the 1870 U.S. Census records that may have been Wilfred’s wife back then, may be the same “Rebecca Clark” of about the same age shown in the later 1880 U.S. Census records as living in Philadelphia with a father and mother, William Brook, a “ house carpenter” by trade, and Mary Brook. The “Rebecca” in these records is listed as “married” and being a “boarder” and as living with a widowed sister and her two children. There is no mention there though of her having a spouse or of a “Wilfred Clark” living with her or of any children with her by their union or any other union. Our Wilfred Clark left the Army in December 1878 and, thus, if this Rebecca Clark was his wife, then the record suggests that perhaps he did not return to live with her after his expiration of service. There is also no known divorce record disuniting them from their marriage. Questions also remain as to whether Wilfred Clark ever had children. And, also, if any known image exists of him. Where else did he ever live and what other non-military occupations did he engage in, including where did he live after Cascade, MT and how, when, and where did he leave this world, and where are his remains?
If our Wilfred Clark was indeed employed as a machinist in Philadelphia after his military pension application was filed and apparently denied while living in Cascade, a later return in his advanced years to the familiar city of his birth and/or possible upbringing and prior residency is understandable and plausible. He may have wished to be closer to family members who could have been living there as well. Or possibly Wilfred just never left the Cascade region and his life ended there.
There is no known death certificate nor any other known document pertaining to Wilfred Clark that sheds any light on his ending and of the details relating to such. He may have been alone at death without being cared for by anyone. He may have taken a trip into the Montana wilderness one day and never returned. Or with or without care in his dying moments, upon notice of his expiration, and knowledge by a person of his then whereabouts, Wilfred Clark may have simply been taken away and privately interred in an unmarked grave at the place of his passing.
Though Wilfred Clark is deemed “lost to history” by virtue of his disappearance and his later years and last whereabouts being unknown, it is certain that he will be forever remembered, recognized and saluted for an honor that even Custer aspired to --and did not gain--and for which only a few thousand Americans have earned during the 150 years of the Medal’s existence-- an honor in which the American public, including our military, universally acknowledge as being the highest recognition for gallantry and heroism in the service of our country.
Acknowledgement: Credit for much of the information in this article must be extended to Ms. Gayle Alvarez of the Idaho Military Historical Society and Museum, Boise, ID. Wilfred Clark’s military history, and his last recorded whereabouts in Cascade, MT. as well as the excerpts from the narrative by historian , Don Rickey, were drawn from Ms. Alvarez’s well written article regarding such, published in the Society’s and Museum’s newsletter of June 2011 and, further, she had provided me the documentation/information pertaining to Clark’s possible service in the U.S. Navy before his Army duty, as well as important records offering credible evidence of his and his immediate family’s heritage back to England. Ms. Alvarez is to be further thanked for the guidance she extended to me in my own research efforts, which served me well in the preparation of this narrative.