Colonel William John Clarke, 24th Regiment N.C. Troops (14th Regiment N.C. Volunteers)
William John Clarke (August 2, 1819-January 23, 1886) was an attorney and 1844 graduate of the University of North Carolina. On April 9, 1847, he accepted a commission as captain of Company I, 12th U.S. Infantry, one of two North Carolina companies in that Mexican War unit. Clarke received a wound at the Battle of Natural Bridge, Mexico, August 12, 1847, and was promoted to major for gallantry. Following the war he married Mary Bayard Devereux, a daughter of one of the state’s wealthiest families and the most prominent poet in antebellum North Carolina. (Clarke himself achieved some reputation as a poet.)
Clarke served from 1850 to 1855 as state comptroller but in 1857, because of his wife’s health, moved to Texas, where he became a railroad president. He received a captain’s commission in the Confederate regular army in early 1861 but returned to North Carolina and was appointed colonel of the 24th Regiment N.C. Troops.
Clarke commanded the 24th North Carolina for almost three years, until wounded in the shoulder by a shell fragment at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, Virginia, May 15, 1864. A lengthy convalescence followed, but he returned to duty as commandant of the Post of Raleigh by the beginning of 1865. In early February, as Clarke traveled to Petersburg (perhaps to rejoin his regiment), Federal cavalry overtook him near Dinwiddie Court House. Clarke was imprisoned at Fort Delaware until released on July 24, 1865, after taking the Oath of Allegiance. Clarke’s superior officers often recommended him for promotion to brigadier general, and Governor Zebulon Vance wrote of him that the 24th North Carolina had been “very highly spoken of for its discipline and efficiency. . ..”
Clarke’s haggard expression and unkempt appearance suggest that the image was made very shortly after his release from Fort Delaware. Although the coat is used and wrinkled, the trousers and shoes appear to be new. The photograph is in mirror image, indicating that the original was an ambrotype of ferrotype.
Following the war, William J. Clarke became an active Republican. When Governor William W. Holden called for troops to suppress the Ku Klux Klan insurrection in Caswell and Alamance counties in 1870 (the so-called “Kirk-Holden War”), Clarke was appointed commander of a battalion of African American state troops raised in eastern North Carolina and encamped at Raleigh—surely a unique role for a former Rebel colonel. (Clarke’s command was never used against the insurrectionists.)
Image: Copy print in author’s possession.
This image of Clarke was also made in 1865, several weeks or months later than the image above. The original is a carte de visite and was made by the Raleigh photographer John Watson. The uniform buttons may have been obscured because Federal regulations forbad the display of Confederate insignia.
Image: N.C. Office of Archives and History.
Beth G. Crabtree and James W. Patton, eds., “Journal of a Secesh Lady”: The Diary of Catharine Ann Devereux Edmonston, 1860-1866 (Raleigh: Office of Archives and History, 1979), 666; Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, s.v., “Clarke, William John”; Manarin et. al., North Carolina Troops, 7:251; Mast, State Troops and Volunteers, 1:94; Richard Weinert, The Confederate Regular Army (Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane Publishing Company, 1891), 120.