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Charles Clark was one of the most celebrated of the Spanish American War U.S. Navy captains, but also one of the most forgotten. The exploits of the USS OREGON, it amazing race around South America, and decisve actions at the Battle of Santiago with Clark as commanding officer were some of the most noteworthy events of the war.
Clark was born in Bradford, Vermont, USA, on August 10, 1843. He tried to enter West Point, but was not successful, so, in 1860, he accepted an appointment to the Naval Academy instead. While he was at the Academy, his family moved to Montpelier, Vermont, coincidentally, the hometown of George Dewey.
Clark's first assignment was to the USS CONSTITUTION, "Old Ironsides." The vessels served as the school and barracks ship for the Academy's lower classmen. While at the Academy, one of Clark's favorite instructors was Alfred Thayer Mahan, who became world- renowned for his ability to define the requirements of the new steel navy in which Clark would make his career.
During the Civil War, Clark saw the wreckage of the ships destroyed by the MERRIMAC in Hampton Roads. Later, he went to England aboard the venerable USS MACEDONIAN. In 1863, Clark's class was graduated a year early to serve in the fleet. Clark served aboard the sloop-of-war OSSIPEE. On this vessel, he served through the battle of Mobile Bay, during which the Confederate ram TENNESSEE surrendered to the OSSIPEE.
After the War, Clark served aboard the USS VANDERBILT, a side- wheeler, and then the USS SEWANEE. While aboard the SEWANEE, Charles Clark became a lieutenant commander. Shortly afterwards, the SEWANEE, with Lt. Commander. Clark serving as officer of the deck, ran aground on an uncharted rock and was destroyed near Vancouver Island. The crew all survived, but had to fend off hostile Indians until being rescued by forces of the British Royal Navy.
Charles Clark married Louisa Davis, the sister of one of his Annapolis classmates, in 1869. In 1870, after brief duty aboard the monitor USS DICTATOR, Clark began his new duties as commandant of midshipmen at his alma mater in Annapolis, Maryland. Afterwards, he served briefly aboard the monitor USS MAHOPAC.
A big change occurred in the lives of Charles and Louisa Clark in 1874. Charles was ordered to the Asiatic Squadron. He took his family - he now had two daughters - along with him to the far east. The Clark family lived in Nagasaki, Japan, while the lieutenant commander took his place as executive officer aboard the USS YANTIC. This duty was followed by service aboard the USS MONOCACY, a river gunboat which served in various ports and rivers of the far east. Clark found himself on the Yangtze River.
About 1879, the Clarks returned to the United States, with Charles receiving a billet close to home at the Boston Navy Yard. In August of 1881, he was assigned to the USS NEW HAMPSHIRE, an old ship of the line, now serving as a training vessel. In November of the same year, he was placed in command of the vessel, and given the rank of commander.
After serving aboard the USS RANGER on survey duty off the coast of Mexico and Central America from 1883 to 1886, Clark spent the next five years on shore duty, spending much time as a lighthouse inspector on the Great Lakes.
In 1894, Commander Clark was given command of the USS MOHICAN, a steam sloop of war. From this vessel, he commanded the ten vessels comprising the Bering Sea Patrol which enforced the regulations governing sealing operations. Clark performed excellent and efficient service, and was appointed captain in 1896.
Later, Clark was placed in charge of the USS INDEPENDENCE, an old ship of the line which served as a receiving ship at Mare Island, California. However, as tensions with Spain rose, Captain Clark found himself in command of the monitor MONTERREY.
On March 15, 1898, Clark had a rendezvous with destiny. He was detached from the MONTERREY to take command of the battleship USS OREGON. The ship was to steam for Peru in two days, and its commanding officer, Captain Alexander McCormick, had fallen seriously ill.
Clark's task was daunting. The OREGON, one of the new U.S. battleships was needed on the east coast if war broke out with Spain. There was no Panama Canal yet, so the quickest route was a 14,500 mile journey down the west coast of north, central and south America, through the stormy, dangerous, wreck-strewn Strait of Magellan, and up the east coast of the same continents. For large portions of the cruise, the vessel would be out of touch with Washington, unaware if a state of war existed with Spain, and if Spanish vessels were on the prowl, looking for the OREGON.
Captain Clark launched himself into the task. In the 48 hours before sailing, he had 1,600 tons of coal loaded, and enough stores for six months at sea. He and the OREGON left San Francisco on March 19, 1898, with a crew that was short 94 men, including 27 critical men from the boiler room/coaling force.
During the cruise, the vessel averaged 11.5 knots, a great feat for its day. She completed the voyage in sixty-six days. The American public got news of the dramatic event through the newspapers and followed the unfolding dash with increasing relish and excitement, making the cruise one of the most highly publicized events of the war.
While the OREGON was en route, war was declared with Spain, and the Spanish reputedly had vessels out searching for her. Clark relied on ruses, and skillful planning to avoid dangers, while, at the same time, determining how the OREGON would engage the Spanish fleet, if encountered, in a way that would allow a chance for success. The Naval War Board, of which Clark's old professor, naval theorist Alfred Mahan was a member, managed to catch up with Clark and the OREGON and began making suggestions on his course of action. He telegraphed back "Don't hamper me with instructions. I am not afraid, with this ship, of the whole of the Spanish Fleet."
Clark, with the OREGON, arrived off Key West on the morning of May 26. More amazing than even just completing the journey, Clark had his vessel in fighting trim and ready to immediately go into action, a possibility not even dreamed of after such an arduous journey.
Clark's OREGON became part of the North Atlantic Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral William Sampson, which soon took up the blockade of Santiago. The captain made suggestions to Sampson on how to improve the blockade by employing picket boats closer to the harbor entrance, an idea which Sampson accepted and instituted. Clark also took one additional, and very important, step on his own. He kept all of his vessel's boilers lit, and all of the OREGON's engines engaged. Of all of the blockading capital ships, only Clark had the foresight to do this.
On July 3, as Captain Clark was dressing to go out on deck, alarms sounded, indicating that the Spanish Fleet was attempting to make its escape from Santiago harbor. Immediately, the OREGON's crew ran to their battle stations. The Battle of Santiago had begun.
The OREGON, with boilers and engines ready, was able to move quickly to pursue the enemy. The IOWA, by contrast, could only attain five knots! Even the speedy BROOKLYN and NEW YORK could only attain half their rated speeds since their engines were not coupled for high-speed running. The OREGON passed the entrance to Santiago Bay, loosing a volley on the PLUTON and the FUROR. She passed the IOWA with a bow wave that looked like a "great white bone in her teeth." The vessel sped past the other ships of the squadron until the OREGON found herself joining the BROOKLYN in attacking virtually the entire Spanish squadron.
First to fall was the flagship MARIA TERESA, as Spanish Admiral Cervera tried to save his other ships by sacrificing her. Next was the ADMIRANTE OQUENDO. Within twelve minutes, this vessel was ablaze and headed for the beach. By the time she engaged the next Spanish vessel, the VIZCAYA, OREGON was moving at sixteen knots. With continuing fire from the BROOKLYN and some direct hits from the OREGON, the VIZCAYA was soon out of the fight and headed for shore.
Of this moment, Clark would later write: "...I could feel none of the exultation that is supposed to come with with victory. If I had seen my own decks covered with blood, and my men and officers dying around me, perhaps resentment would have supplied the necessary ingredient, but as it was, the faces of the women and children in far-away Spain, widows and orphans of this July third rose before me so vividly that I had to draw comfort from the thought that a decisive victory is ...more merciful than a prolonged struggle..."
The last of the escaping Spanish vessels was the CRISTOBAL COLON, speeding along the Cuban coast, six miles ahead of Clark's OREGON and Schley's BROOKLYN. After a prolonged chase, when the OREGON had gotten within range of the OREGON's thirteen inch guns, the COLON knew the game was over and ran herself aground.
A little over a month later, the war was over. So was Clark's stay aboard the OREGON. The stress of the race around two continents, blockade duty and the battle combined with the tropical heat had weakened Clark. He was now seriously sick with a tropical fever. Clark was ordered to the ST. LOUIS and home. As he left the vessel in a boat rowed by his officers, his crew paid him a sincere tribute for the outstanding leadership he had provided while in command of their vessel.
Clark did recover, but didn't return to sea. In March of 1899, he was placed in charge of the League Island Navy Base, and then governor of the naval home of Washington DC. In June of 1902, Clark finally became a rear admiral. He served as the head of the Examination and Retirement Board until he himself retired in August of 1905.
Clark lived until the age of 79, dying on October 1, 1922. By this time, his amazing achievements in the Spanish American War were almost entirely forgotten. Clark was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
(As a service to our readers, clicking on title in red will take you to that book on Amazon.com)
Alden, Cmdr. John D., USN (Ret.), American Steel Navy , (Annapolis: United States Naval Institute Press, 1972).
Harris, Brayton, Lt Cmdr., U.S.N, Ret., The Age of the Battleship 1890-1922. (New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1965).