Corporal Harry Wadsworth Capron, B Troop, 7th Cavalry – Extraordinary Gallantry

…rushing forward and saving the life of a wounded sergeant of his troop by disabling his assailant.

B Troop 7th Cavalry Pine Ridge - 18 Jan 1891

Corporal Capron, who was uninjured at the Wounded Knee and White Clay fights, was likely in L. T. Butterfield’s photograph of B Troop taken on 18 January 1891.[1]

Harry W. Capron had turned twenty-four just a few short weeks prior to the battle at Wounded Knee Creek where he served as a corporal in Captain Varnum’s B Troop. During the melee that followed the opening volley at the council circle, Corporal Capron’s sergeant, James H. Ward, was stabbed in the shoulder, and the corporal appears to have killed, or at least incapacitated, the sergeant’s attacker.  While Sergeant Ward’s determination to continue fighting despite his wound would earn him a Medal of Honor, the corporal that saved his life earned the lesser known Certificate of Merit.  Writing a recommendation on 17 March 1891, Captain Varnum detailed Capron’s actions at Wounded Knee, requesting the trooper be awarded a certificate:

Corporal Capron at the risk of his own life saved that of Sergeant James Ward, Troop B 7th Cavalry.
The sergeant had fallen and had been dangerously stabbed by a powerful Indian who was again about to assault him when Corporal Capron ran some ten yards to the sergeant’s assistance and killed the Indian with his pistol.  Corporal Capron being on signal duty was armed with pistol only.  To be certain of his aim the corporal ran up within two or three feet of the Indian to deliver his fire.
This occurred immediately following a hand to hand conflict between the man and Indian and after they had separated to some extent and the act of Corporal Capron of again risking a hand to hand conflict in addition to the storm of bullets, to save his comrade’s life, is in my opinion well worthy of the distinction asked for.[2]

The War Department established the Certificate of Merit in 1847 to recognize the heroic actions of enlisted soldiers during the Mexican-American War.  Although field commanders continued to recommend soldiers from that date, the War Department did not approve recommendations again until 1876 following the battle of the Little Bighorn.  A soldier recognized for such distinction received a certificate signed by the President of the United States and received $2 a month extra pay while in the service.  Ironically, the Certificate of Merit was more exclusive than the better known and more prestigious Medal of Honor, for only sixty-one certificates were awarded to soldiers during the Indian Wars period compared to 383 Medals of Honor awarded to enlisted men during the same era. The Pine Ridge Campaign of 1890-1891 exemplified this disparity with twenty-three enlisted soldiers receiving the Medal of Honor and only five receiving a Certificate of Merit.  The 1889 Army Regulation specified that the certificates of merit were awarded for “extraordinary acts of gallantry performed by private soldiers in the presence of the enemy.”  It also stated that the recommendation must originate with an eyewitness account.[3]

The Adjutant Generals’ Office returned Varnum’s recommendation requesting he detail who witnessed the act of bravery and include an endorsement from the regimental commander.  Varnum provided additional detail on 3 June and Colonel Forsyth endorsed the request two days later.

Sergeant Ward was assisting in taking ammunition from an Indian belt when the hostiles drew their rifles and commenced firing.  Maj. S. M. Whitside 7th Cavalry & myself were within a few feet at this time of Sergt. Ward.  Sergt. Ward was then assaulted by an Indian with a knife.  I did not see the act described in the written communication but I have carefully investigated the facts.  Sergt. Willis R. Dupree Troop B saw the encounter between Sergt. Ward and the Indian & tried to kill the Indian but was afraid of shooting Ward.  He saw that Ward got away but did not see exactly how.
Private [sic: Wagoner] Firrio E. Zeck was close behind Corporal Capron and saw what was done he having also fired at the Indian.  Sergt. Ward says he was getting tired out and must have lost his life but for Corporal Capron’s assistance.  He called to Capron to “give it to him” and came up immediately to his assistance.[4]

Corporal Capron was issued a Certificate of Merit in June 1891.[2]

Corporal Capron was issued a Certificate of Merit in June 1891.[5]

As with all of the soldiers from the campaign that received medals or certificates, Capron also received honorable mention from the commanding general of the Army in General Order No. 100 issued a year after the battle.

Sergeant Harry W. Capron, Signal Corps (then corporal, Troop B, 7th Cavalry): For gallantry in action against hostile Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, rushing forward and saving the life of a wounded sergeant of his troop by disabling his assailant.[6]

Born Harold Wadsworth Capron on 9 December 1866 at Waverly, Iowa, he was perhaps the only child of Willard and Susan Capron.  Willard was the son of the Reverend Benjamin Wing Capron and Hannah Capron, born in 1823 likely at Cayuga County, New York.  By 1860 he was working as a tailor at Rockford, Illinois. Willard married Susan Drew Wadsworth on 15 May 1865 at Lynn, Iowa.  She was the daughter of Abner and Jeanette (Towers) Wadsworth, born on 8 June 1842 at Calais, Maine.  By 1870 Willard had moved his family back to Illinois where he was working as an express messenger at Rockford.[7]

In the summer of 1888, Harry Capron enlisted at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri on 3 August. He stated that he was twenty-two, a cook by occupation, with blue eyes, sandy hair, a ruddy complexion, and stood five and a half feet tall.  He was assigned to B Troop, which was then commanded by Lieutenant John C. Gresham.  Capron was appointed a corporal at about the time the regiment arrived at Pine Ridge at the end of November 1890.  He apparently ran into trouble during the campaign as he was tried by court martial and fined one dollar in the middle of December; he did however retain his rank.[8]

A month after receiving the Certificate of Merit, Capron transferred to the Signal Corps and was shortly after promoted to the rank of Sergeant. He served for the next two decades in that field rising to the rank of Master Signal Electrician.  In 1893, he married thirty-year-old Ethel Agnus Dillingham.  She was born on 19 April 1863 at Camden, Maine, the daughter of Leander and Mary (Spear) Dillingham.  Together they had one child, Jessie, born in 1895.[9]

During the Spanish-American War Capron was serving as a First Sergeant at Fort Apache when he embarked on the China Relief Expedition of 1899 – 1900 under Major General Adna R. Chaffee. He was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Volunteers and was mentioned by the Chief Signal Officer for his work during what became known as the Boxer Rebellion.

Lieutenants Bartsch, Hastings, and Capron also contributed materially to the efficient operation and construction of the line. The United States military telegraph line was operated from the Taku forts to Pekin from August, 1900, to March 15, 1901, when the American forces withdrew from China…[10]

Upon return to the United States in 1901, Capron was mustered out of the Volunteers and returned to his non-commissioned officer rank.  He retired from the Army in October 1911 while serving at Manila in the Philippine Islands.  Returning with his family to California, he worked for a time as a fruit farmer in Sonoma, and later settled in San Francisco where he took a job as a clerk for the government.[11]

Certificate of Merit Medal was issued on 1905 to all soldiers still on active duty that had previously been awarded a presidential certificate of merit.

In 1905, the Army created a Certificate of Merit Medal that it issued to all soldiers that had received a Certificate of Merit during the Indian Wars.  Upon creation of the Distinguished Service Medal in 1918, the War Department discontinued the Certificate of Merit Medal and converted all previous awards to the Distinguished Service Medal.  In the early 1930s these medals were upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross.

The Distinguished Service Cross was issued in 1931 to all soldiers still living that had previously been awarded a Certificate of Merit Medal

The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, July 9, 1918, takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross in lieu of a previously issued Certificate of Merit and Distinguished Service Medal, to Corporal Harry W. Capron, United States Army, for extraordinary gallantry while serving as a member of Troop B, 7th Cavalry Regiment, in action at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, 29 December 1890.[12]

Harry W. Capron’s military accolades did not end there.  In 1932, Congress promoted him from the retired list to the rank of First Lieutenant.  His wife, Ethel, died in 1940, and he joined her on 20 October 1943.  They were both buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery and were survived by their daughter, Mrs. Jessie Alano, of San Francisco.[13]

First Lieutenant Harry W. Capron joined his wife in death in 1943 and was laid to rest at the San Francisco National Cemetery.[14]


[1] L. T. Butterfield, photo., “749. B. Troop, 7th Cavalry, Pine Ridge, S.D., Jan. 18th, 1891, which was in the battle of Wounded Knee Dec. 29th, 1890, and lost 7 men killed and 6 men wounded,” archived with the James W. Forsyth Papers, Western Americana Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
[2] Adjutant General’s Office, Certificate of Merit file for Harry W. Capron, Principal Record Division, file 3466, Record Group: 94, Stack area: 8W3, Row: 7, Compartment 30, Shelf: 2. Research conducted by Vonnie S. Zullo of The Horse Soldier Research Service.
[3] Spencer Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of North American Indian Wars, 1607-1890: A Political, Social, and Military History, Vol. 1, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2011), 879.
[4] Cerificate of Merit file for Harry W. Capron.
[5] Rock Island Daily Argus, Rock Island, Ill., 27 Jun 1891.
[6] Adjutant General’s Office, “General Order No. 100, Headquarters of the Army, December 17, 1891,” General Orders and Circulars – 1891, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1892), 5.
[7], California, Death Index, 1940-1997 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2000, Place: San Francisco, Date: 20 Oct 1943; Frederic A. Holden, Genealogy of the Descendants of Banfield Capron, from A.D. 1660 to A.D. 1859, (Boston: Geo. C. Rand & Avery, 1859), 172;, 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009, Year: 1850, Census Place: Genoa, Cayuga, New York, Roll: M432_483, Page: 66B, Image: 137; Year: 1850, Census Place: Calais, Washington, Maine, Roll: M432_273, Page: 162A, Image: 318; Year: 1860, Census Place: Rockford, Winnebago, Illinois, Roll: M653_240, Page: 173, Image: 173, Family History Library Film: 803240; Year: 1870, Census Place: Rockford Ward 4, Winnebago, Illinois, Roll: M593_294, Page: 124A, Image: 540, Family History Library Film: 545793;
[8], U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007, Register: 1885-1890 A-K, Image: 202, Line: 417; Adjutant General’s Officer, “7th Cavalry, Troop B, Jan. 1885 – Dec. 1897,” Muster Rolls of Regular Army Organizations, 1784 –  Oct. 31, 1912, Record Group 94, (Washington: National Archives Record Administration).
[9] U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007, Register: 1885-1890 A-K, Image: 202, Line: 417;, California, Death Index, 1940-1997 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2000, Place: San Francisco; Date: 5 Aug 1940;, 1870 United States Federal Census [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009, Year: 1870, Census Place: Camden, Knox, Maine, Roll: M593_548, Page: 75A, Image: 153, Family History Library Film: 552047; Year: 1900, Census Place: Peoria, Peoria, Illinois, Roll: 333, Page: 9A, Enumeration District: 0084, FHL microfilm: 1240333.
[10] U.S. Army Signal Corps, Annual Report of the Chief Signal Officer, U.S.A., for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1901, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901), 10.
[11] U.S. Army, Register of Enlistments, 1798-1914 [database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2007, Register: 1908-1909 A-K, Image: 243, Line: 2771; 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2010, Year: 1920, Census Place: Mendocino, Sonoma, California, Roll: T625_150, Page: 6A, Enumeration District: 138, Image: 893; Year: 1930, Census Place: San Francisco, San Francisco, California, Roll: 201, Page: 7A, Enumeration District: 0197, Image: 1084.0, FHL microfilm: 2339936.
[12] Military Times, “Valor Awards for Harry W. Capron,” Hall of Valor accessed 1 Jan 2014.
[13], California, San Francisco Area Funeral Home Records, 1895-1985[database on-line], Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010, Funeral Home: Halstead and Company, Month and Year: October 1943, Image: 192.
[14] William Watt, photo., “Harry W Capron,” FindAGrave accessed 31 Dec 2013.

Citation for this article: Samuel L. Russell, “Corporal Harry Wadsworth Capron, B Troop, 7th Cavalry – Extraordinary Gallantry,” Army at Wounded Knee, updated 13 Nov 2014, accessed date __________,

About Sam Russell

I am a fifth-generation retired Army officer with twenty-nine years of commissioned service. I have been researching the frontier Army for over eighteen years and am interested in documenting the lives of the soldiers that participated in the battle of Wounded Knee using primarily official reports, diaries, letters, newspaper articles and other primary source documents. My interest in Wounded Knee stems from my kinship to one of the principal participants. I am the great-great-grandson of Samuel M. Whitside, who was a major and battalion commander at the battle. I welcome and encourage comments on posts and pages and am always interested in any new primary sources. If you have copies of letters, diaries, etc, from participants and are willing to share, please contact me. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are strictly my own, and should in no way be construed as official Army or U.S. Government positons.
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1 Response to Corporal Harry Wadsworth Capron, B Troop, 7th Cavalry – Extraordinary Gallantry

  1. Sam Russell says:

    I recently came into possession of a digital copy of the majority of award recommendations stemming from the Pine Ridge campaign to include Captain Charles Varnum’s letter recommending Corporal Harry Capron for a certificate of merit. I have updated this post on 13 Nov 2014 to include an excerpt from that letter.


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