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About Bela Turner Clark

(Born 1821 in Naples, NY; Died 1873 in Momence, IL)
by Bill Morris (Great Grandson of Bela Turner Clark)

Bela Clark was the second born of Lorenzo Clark's four children who pioneered in Illinois. The others were Milan Orlando (1815-1885), Joseph (1834-1916), and Cynthia (1825-????). Bela was the first of them to settle in Momence, IL (abt 1844); in 1847, he married Charlotte Temple Thayer (b. 1828 in Ohio; d. 1904 in Momence, IL). In the family line of Lorenzo and Laura Clark, Bela, with his wife, Charlotte, raised the First Clark Pioneer Family in Kankakee County, Illinois, and they had eight children who survived to adulthood. Several of them remained in Momence, married, and raised large families there; some, sooner or later, moved away from Illinois to other states.

Bela was a farmer, a civil engineer, and the first surveyor of Kankakee County. In the Civil War, he served a year as a captain in the Union Army (1861-1862). He commanded Co. D, 42nd Infantry (Illinois Volunteers). His troops elected him to command their company.

Serving in his company were his brother Joseph (a private) and his future son-in-law Benjamin Franklin Gray, whom he promoted from corporal thru several NCO ranks to first lieutenant. In 1868, B.F. Gray would marry Bela's first-born daughter, Florence Amanda Clark, and they would raise a family of eight children. Bela resigned from active military service in 1862 after being disabled by a severe chronic intestinal infection, which ultimately led to his early death in 1873 at the age of 52.

Capt. Clark's Union Military Service in the Civil War

In volunteer units of the Union Army during the Civil War, it was common practice for soldiers to elect their commanding officers. Thus was Capt. Clark elected to command Company D, 42nd Infantry (Illinois Volunteers). In the first year of the Civil War, he led Company D in the campaign of Atlanta, Georgia, against units of the Confederate Army. With him in service were Benjamin Franklin Gray (his future son-in-law) and his brother Joseph Clark. Benjamin Gray had entered service as a corporal, but within a year Capt. Clark had promoted him—first to the rank of sergeant, then to the rank of first sergeant, and finally to the commissioned rank of 2nd lieutenant. At the end of a year in combat, Capt. Clark was discharged from active service. He lived only 12 more years, dying at the age of 52. His daughter Mildred Augusta Clark (my grandmother) was quoted as saying she believed that his disability had shortened his life.

Some of us descendants of Bela Clark wonder how he came to be called Bela "Tecumseh" Clark. Many historical records refer to him that way, even though his legal middle name was Turner, the family name of his mother. My personal, undocumented theory is that the soldiers in his company, out of high regard for him as a commander, began calling him Tecumseh in the same way other Union soldiers may have embellished the name of Union General William "Tecumseh" Sherman. (The historical Tecumseh was a Shawnee Indian chieftain widely admired by Americans for his leadership and humanity, even though he had fought and died on the side of the British against American forces in the War of 1812.) I further speculate that Capt. Clark rather liked his new middle nickname and continued to use it after he left military service.

How Bela Clark Died

In 1888, the committee on invalid pensions of the Whole U.S. House of Representatives considered the appeal for widow's relief submitted by Bela Clark's widow, Charlotte T. Clark. Below is the official record of the committee's meeting. Although the committee acted affirmatively on Charlotte's request, we do not know precisely what it recommended in the way of relief, nor do we know final action of the Whole House, which was the approving authority. We learn that during his life after military service, Bela Clark received a soldier's pension of $20 per month; we do not know if this pension continued in force between the time of his death in 1873 and the time Charlotte Clark applied for widow's relief in 1888. My guess is that it did not, on the grounds that the cause of death had not been proved to be service connected.

You will learn in the document below that Charlotte's request was based on the belief, well supported by medical testimony and the case presented by B.F. Gray (her son-in-law, who had served as a lieutenant in Bela's infantry company during the war), that during his military service, Bela had contracted a disease causing chronic intestinal infection chronic from which he never recovered. Further, this condition so weakened his constitution that he finally succumbed to pneumonia in 1873 at the age of 52.

1st Session No 883 CHARLOTTE T. CLARK March 7 1888
Committed to the Committee of the Whole House and ordered to be printed

Mr. Lane from the Committee on Invalid Pensions submitted the following REPORT To accompany bill HR 2078. The Committee on Invalid Petitions to whom was referred the bill 27 R 2078 for the relief of Charlotte T Clark submit[s] the following report: The soldier Bela T Clark enlisted August 10 1861 and was discharged July 14 1862 and died January 10 1873 and he held the rank of captain at that time. He drew a pension in his lifetime which … [the] 60th Congress HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES Report allowed him on the ground of [chronic] diarrhea. BF Gray second lieutenant of the company testifies to the origin of diarrhea that at the time the soldier was furloughed, May 1862, he was so weak and emaciated as to be perfectly helpless on account of said disease, that he had been with the soldier ever since 1864, and that he had never been free from chronic diarrhea and that just before his death he suffered very much from this disease so as to require constant medical treatment. Dr Keyser, who was examining surgeon two months before soldier's death, testified that he was the family physician of the soldier ever since the summer of 1860 and when he saw the soldier in 1862 he was suffering from chronic diarrhea, that he treated him at that time, and that the disease continued almost uninterrupted up to 1863, that it never has been cured, and that he believes it never will be and that the soldier's constitution is broken down by the disease and that the suffering of the soldier is from the effects of diarrhea.

In 1878 BF [Gray] testified that he knew of his own personal knowledge that the soldier was suffering with the disease since the war, that he was constantly wearing out under the disease, and that in 1872 he was very feeble and confined much of the time to his room. These facts are fully sustained by other witnesses. The witness [Gray] further testified that the soldier contracted a cold which in his feeble condition settled upon his lungs and throat and carried him off. This witness says that if the soldier had not been rendered so feeble by diarrhea the cold would not prove serious at all. Worcester testifies that the soldier, from the disease of camp diarrhea, became so emaciated that he was almost a walking skeleton, his constitution entirely undermined and all vital force of resistance to disease gone, and that diarrhea was at least the remote cause of his death. Dr Ellis testifies that in 1868 he knew the soldier and that he had chronic diarrhea, which rendered him unfit for any labor, that to the date of the death of the soldier there was a gradual decline in his physical powers from continual exhausting process of chronic diarrhea and from this cause his death was assured at no distant period and that the cause of the death of the soldier in the opinion of Dr Ellis was chronic diarrhea, although he had pneumonia at the time which was perhaps the immediate cause. Dr Keyser testifies that there was a total physical disability from chronic diarrhea which destroyed the forces of resistance of the vital powers and that it is his opinion that the soldier could [have recovered] from his last sickness had it not been for the inroads of chronic diarrhea, and that he had had the chronic diarrhea since he came out of the service. [He further testified that] from early in August 1872 to the date of [his] death the soldier had diarrhea continuously and that without doubt the chronic diarrhea was the remote cause of his death and that his life was wholly exhausted at the time of the attack of pneumonia. And the committee being of opinion that the death of the soldier was from chronic diarrhea (that is, that he would not have died of pneumonia if his constitution had not been paralyzed by chronic diarrhea) and that he received a pension of $20 per month in his lifetime for diarrhea; we therefore recommend that the bill be amended by striking out all after the word volunteer in the sixth line and to insert in lieu thereof subject to the limitation of the pension laws.

Photo Courtesy of Bill Morris