Journal Opinion July 26, 2017
“Only the men who were with him on July 3 know what kind of man he is in the heat of battle—always what we call a ‘good captain’ in the navy; none of us thought him as good as we found him on that glorious 3d.” St. Johnsbury Caledonian, August 3, 1898.
Why would a small town in landlocked Vermont have a splendid statue of a naval hero overlooking its town center? Why would that hero be from a generally forgotten short conflict rather than a Union soldier or a hero from one of the world wars? Certainly, there are heroes from those other conflicts worthy of being honored in bronze and granite.
The statue is of Capt. Charles Edgar Clark, a Bradford native, one of the three widely-recognized heroes to emerge from the Spanish-American War of 1898. The statue, financed by public subscription, was dedicated on October 12, 1926 before a large crowd that filled the downtown.
This column describes Clark’s links with Bradford and Vermont and his connections with the battleship Oregon and the Battle of Santiago Bay. The details of the Spanish-American War and the role played by local men in that short conflict are covered.
Clark was born in Bradford on August 10, 1843 in a house that still stands on South Main. He was the son of James and Mary Clark. He attended the district village school and Bradford Academy until he was 16 years old.
His father was a book binder and, about this time, attempted to publish a school textbook. The venture was not successful and he lost heavily. The family moved to Montpelier where the demand for books was greater and there achieved success.
Clark’s father was a friend of Sen. Justin Morrill and when young Charles expressed an interest in attending West Point, they contacted Morrill. The senator had already made his annual appointment to the military academy, but offered an appointment to the Naval Academy. Clark passed the required examination and entered as a midshipman in 1860 just as the Civil War broke out.
As the war developed, the Naval Academy was moved to Newport, R. I. In 1863, Ensign Clark was assigned to a sloop attached to the blockade squadron under Adm. David Farragut. Clark’s ship participated in the Battle of Mobile Bay and other Gulf of Mexico encounters. He received steady promotions and by 1868 was lieutenant commander. The next year he married Maria Louise Davis.
In 1894, Clark was in command of a fleet of 12 ships in the northern Pacific on patrol against seal poachers. In San Francisco, on March 19, 1898, Captain Clark was given command of the Oregon, the greatest battleship afloat. His nearly 40 years of naval experience fitted him for this responsible position.
Two days later, they sailed south with orders to join the American fleet off Santiago, Cuba. The trip around the Horn and the dangerous waters of Tierra del Fuego was an estimated 14,900-mile voyage. It included stops at foreign ports to resupply and refuel.
Bradford’s John Fatherley describes this dangerous voyage in his book “The Vortex.” He writes that the challenge of the voyage was “not a reasonable expectation.” Additionally, there was the apprehension created by the possible Spanish threats posed by both the torpedo boat Temerario and the Cape Verde Fleet, either of which could have seriously damaged or destroyed the Oregon.
Clark and the ship met the challenge in record time. After a two-month news blackout, the ship’s arrival at Key West was met with public acclaim. The voyage highlighted the need for a canal across the Isthmus of Panama.
What Clark was sailing into was a war with Spain. This conflict had all the elements that could conceivably promote popular support among Americans. It was fought for very clear reasons including self-defense and the welfare of Cubans, suffering under Spanish colonial rule.
The sinking of the American battleship Maine in Havana harbor with the heavy loss of life on February 15, 1898 led to a declaration of war against Spain. Spain was an aging colonial power with control over Cuba and the Philippines and it was there that the war centered.
The war that followed was short, filled with dramatic American victories and heroes and few American casualties. It was, in the words of Secretary of State John Hay, “a splendid little war.” In less than a year, America gained both an enhanced reputation as an emerging world power and a far-flung empire.
The naval phase of the war outshone the army’s. Vermont provided two of the heroes, Clark and Commodore George Dewey. Dewey commanded the American squadron at Manila Bay in the Philippines. On the morning of May 1, the American fleet crushed 12 ships of the Spanish fleet without the loss of a single American ship and only slight injury to a few American sailors.
The second major naval victory was in Cuban waters. The Oregon had taken up station with the American fleet off Santiago Bay to blockade the Spanish fleet. On July 3, the Spanish tried to escape. The timing caught the Americans generally unprepared for battle.
With engines ready, the Oregon was able to move quickly in pursuit, and with guns blazing began a running fight with the escaping fleet. The battle, in which the Oregon played a decisive role, was over in a matter of hours. The entire Spanish fleet was destroyed or captured. As with the Manila battle, no American ship suffered serious damage and only one American life was lost.
The official reports and the popular press gave the Oregon and Captain Clark the highest credit for the extent of the victory. For its historic voyage and battle participation, the battleship was given the nickname “Bulldog of the Navy.”
The war was successfully completed within months and America obtained Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines as spoils of war. In a nation still haunted by the memories of the Civil War, this war helped to create a unified sense of patriotism as the nation entered a new century.
Clark was not the only man with local ties to go to war with Spain. Vermont was assigned a quota of 654 and filled it with a regiment of 1008 men and officers. The First New Hampshire Infantry included about the same number of volunteers.
American troops on the ground experienced the war quite differently. On April 29, The United Opinion reported that the Bradford Guards was seeking new members to fill their ranks. “This was a warlike order and caused some excitement in the village.” The Guards included men from Bradford, Piermont, Orford , Newbury, and other area towns. Four Dartmouth students also enlisted.
On May 6, the Bradford Guards marched down Main Street to board a train for Fort Ethan Allen. Under the command of Capt. Herbert T. Johnson of Bradford and 1st Lt. Moses Brock of West Newbury, the 84 men and officers became Company G of the First Regiment of Infantry, Vermont National Guard. The regiment left Vermont for Camp Thomas at Chickamauga Park, GA on May 24. The New Hampshire men joined them there.
This is as close to combat as these men came. What followed was a disappointment for these eager troops. The booklet on their assignment reads: “It was there that the Vermonters put in nearly three months of monotonous inactivity, weary waiting and suffering from climatic diseases and fevers, which constituted their patriotic sacrifice for their country.” Both regiments returned home never having seen battle.
Harold Haskins adds: “Life in camp had been hard. The food was bad, the heat and humidity was worse, sanitation was almost non-existent, medical supplies and services were woefully inadequate, and the daily routine of camp life, without the hope of the excitement and challenge of battle was irksome indeed. Malaria, dysentery and even yellow fever, worse in Cuba but bad enough in our South, left life-long effects on many a soldier.”
Vermont lost 33 men from disease, New Hampshire 32. Although a significant number of men from the Bradford area suffered from illness, none perished.
The United Opinion had supported the war and the paper was filled with patriotic symbols and articles. Letters from Company G were a regular feature. Despite the disappointments, veterans and area residents felt pride in their role in the war effort.
In 1899 and again in 1901, Clark was honored during a visit to Bradford. He spent a portion of that visit with students gathered at Bradford Academy and later met old friends and other area residents at an evening reception.
In a September 1901 speech before the Reunion Society of Vermont Officers, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt said: “You have a right to be proud of Captain Clark. In all of the history of the Navy, I can remember hardly anything so romantic as the trip of the Oregon, which arrived in time to give the finishing stroke to the last remnant of the Spanish fleet.”
As the leader of the Rough Riders, Roosevelt was another hero of the war and this speech was given just days before he became acceded to the office of President upon the death of President McKinley.
In 1902, Clark was promoted to the rank of rear admiral and he retired in 1905. His fame mellowed and waned with a dignity that seemed typical of the man who sought no glory for himself. The Oregon, after being the subject of much national attention was, like the admiral, gradually retired from active duty.
At the time of his death in 1922, an editorial in the United Opinion stated: “We the people of Bradford feel that ‘Capt’ Clark belongs to us and that he is one of our greatest gifts to the nation’s service.”
In 1926, funds were raised to erect the statue of Clark to be placed in Memorial Park, north of the Library. Personal contributions were supplemented by fund-raising dances and other events. In requesting funds, the Bradford Memorial Park Association wrote: “All the best traditions of valor, modesty and patriotism are symbolized by this man, a son of Bradford…In honoring him we honor all our patriots in all wars and of peace. He stands for what is best in private and public life.”
The Memorial Park had been created in 1921 and featured a granite monument with bronze tablets listing Bradford’s veterans from the Revolution, Civil War and Spanish-American War, along with a flag pole and a cannon from 1863.
The sculptor of the five-foot seven-inch bronze statue was Magnus Urdahl of Boston. It was made in the foundries of Albert Russell & Sons in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The pedestal is of Barre granite with bronze plaques commemorating Clark’s accomplishments.
On Tuesday, October 12, 1926 more than four thousand people, including Clark’s widow and many dignitaries, watched little Virginia Cole unveil the statue. It was described as being a “truthful reproduction” of the man. Buildings in the area were professionally draped with patriotic bunting and the U.S. Marine Band played. In the words of Opinion editor Harry Parker, it was “Bradford’s red-letter day.”
In 1900, the Vermont legislature commissioned portraits of both Clark and Dewey to be hung in the State House in Montpelier. When the Oregon was decommissioned, one set of its gangway headboards were donated to the Bradford Academy and are displayed inside the front doors of the Academy Building.
For many years the athletic teams at Bradford Academy were called the Admirals and the year book was known as The Admiral.
A display of Clark-Oregon memorabilia is located in the Bradford Historical Society’s museum on the third floor. This includes a large portrait of the Captain painted by Ruth Jewett Burgess about 1902. The museum is open Fridays from 10 am to noon, June through October or by special appointment.