Book Review: White Hat: The Military Career of Captain William Philo Clark


by Mark J. Nelson

Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 262. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0806161221

A Young Officer in the Indian Fighting Army

Nelson, who has served on the staff of several historical sites in the West, notably the Little Big Horn battlefield, is also the author of in Western and military history, and has now written a life of William Philo Clark (1845-1885), one of the more interesting junior officers of the frontier army.

Clark was an 1868 graduate of West Point graduate, and was commissioned in the cavalry. The bare bones of his military service, 16 years in the 2nd Cavalry, hardly begin to indicate how interesting and important Clark’s military career was.

Like everyone in the army, Clark spent the usual long stretches of mind-numbing duty on isolated posts. But Clark also saw combat in the Battles of Slim Buttes and Dull Knife, played a role in the famous "royal buffalo hunt" for the Russian Grand Duke Alexis’, had a long period of service as a staff officer for Phil Sheridan, and negotiated the peaceful surrender of Little Wolf of the Northern Cheyenne. Clark even developed a relationship– though perhaps not a ‘friendship’ – with the famed warrior Crazy Horse.

As was also the case for a number of other officers in the West, Clark made notable contributions to the study of Native American culture. As a result, he wrote The Indian Sign Language, a comprehensive handbook of Plains Indian sign language, which proved immensely helpful to both troops and Native Americans, as well as students of American Indian culture.

Nelson tells this story well, and not only gives us a glimpse at an officer’s career in the “Indian Fighting Army”, but the politics and culture of the Plains peoples and national policy toward Native Americans.


Note: White Hat is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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