White Hat: The Military Career of Captain William Philo Clark (Biography Book)

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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.

In addition, the book The Indian Sign Language  written by William Philo Clark himself is also available!

Review by Anita:

Captain Philo Clark (1845-1884) was a man of his time in the United States Army. At times he was an administrator, a fighter, a diplomat, an explorer, and ethnologist. Captain Clark’s life story is remarkable in that he found himself at the center of the stage during some of the biggest events in the post- Civil War West. 
Philo Clark was in his teen years during the Civil War and as his family farm was 250 miles from West Point he looked to the military for a career. On June 3, 1864 two months before his 19th birthday, Philo Clark entered West Point. On June 25, 1868 Clark graduated in the middle of his class and was commissioned second lieutenant with the Second Cavalry. His first duty station was in Wyoming Territory where he performed the duties of Regimental Adjutant. White Hat started his field assignment on August 17, 1876 when he met Terry and Crook and their commands at the mouth of the Powder River. “White Hat” was assigned to General Crook’s headquarters and served as aide-de-camp. General Crook was known as a hard campaigner who demanded loyalty from the officers serving on his staff. Clark and Crook would join together in the months ahead during the Great Sioux War. Clark’s first engagement in the field was at Slim Buttes, where it was said of Clark by Lieutenant King “I had seen some Indian fighting before this affair, and have been in 1 or 2 campaigns since, but I recall no piece of individual daring and bravery and consummate coolness under fire to eclipse Philo Clark’s exploit at Slim Buttes.” The army finally had their first victory in the Sioux War and Clark survived his first fight with Plains Indians. While on the Powder River Expedition when in command of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Northern Arapaho was probably when Clark would receive the name White Hat.

Captain William Clark had a full life although a short one (1845-1884). From the “Starvation March” with Crook to the Battle of Slim Buttes, the Dull Knife fight, then to Index Peak, and Sitting Bull’s final battle with the U.S. Army. He is best known for his role in the arrest and killing of Crazy Horse. There is much controversy about his relationship with Crazy Horse, during the time of the Lakota Leader’s stay at Fort 
Robinson. Did they share a woman? Was she used to spy on Crazy Horse? Does the book White Hat explain the truth of it?

Later in Philo Clark’s life, he published a book for the use of the Army “INDIAN SIGN LANGUAGE”. The book “INDIAN SIGN LANGUAGE” is more than a diagram of hand signals but a detailed account of the tribal histories of the scouts he worked with. Through the origins of sign language, his own observations of Native habits and customs, Clark believed that sign language could assist him in “thinking like the Indians,” which he considered essential for a conscientious officer. The book INDIAN SIGN LANGUAGE shows a desire to reliably and soberly discuss the facts of Plains Indian life as he saw them during the 1870’s and 1880’s. 


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Additional Info

Additional Info

Mark J. Nelson
Publication Details:
Univesity of Oklahoma Press, 2018
Book Details:
Hardcover, 260 pages