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Lt. Colonel David K. Wardwell – The Amazing Story of a Life from the Civil War to the O.K. Corral

Collecting Civil War images offers great opportunities for research. Thanks to a host of online and archival resources, the stories of the past can often be unraveled to uncover interesting facts about the men and women who lived during the Civil War period. One of the most remarkable stories that I have discovered during more than forty years of collecting images concerns David Kilbourne Wardwell, a veteran of the Mexican War, who served in four different regiments during the Civil War.

Wardwell’s life story fulfills all the elements of a gripping novel. His biography is one of the most fascinating Civil War officer histories ever encountered – a story revealed because of a wartime carte de visite that I added to my collection in May 2022. During the Civil War, Wardwell served in three different infantry regiments, the 5th, 22nd and 38th Massachusetts Volunteers, before being discharged for disability suffered while in the field, and ending his military career with the 13th Regiment of the Veteran’s Reserve Corps. After the war, Wardwell spent the remainder of his life out West – much of it in Tombstone, Arizona. There he served as Justice of the Peace, a member of the Territorial Legislature and interacted with many of those involved in the 1881 O.K. Corral gunfight. In his final years, Wardwell gained national notoriety for his efforts to secret his wife out of a public hospital in California before she could be sent to a leper colony in Hawaii.

Wardwell’s story began in Oxford, Maine where he was born November 18, 1822. He married his first wife, Sarah Briggs, in 1844. The couple left Maine and settled in Boston. At the time, Wardwell listed his occupation as a house painter. When his wife died in May 1854, Wardwell married her sister, Susan Briggs. During the Mexican War Wardwell joined Company E of the 1st Massachusetts Infantry as a sergeant, enlisting on October 14, 1846. He was promoted to 1st Sergeant and mustered into service on January 5, 1847. He was discharged from service on July 25, 1848, at Boston. Although he was never commissioned, Wardwell claimed to have served on the staff of Brigadier General (and future U.S. president) Franklin Pierce during the battles before Mexico City.

At the start of the Civil War, Wardwell was 36 years old and living in Boston, Massachusetts. He raised a company of volunteers, nicknamed “Wardwell’s Tigers,” and received a captain's commission on April 18, 1861. His organization of the company also inspired conflict between Massachusetts Governor John Andrew and the State’s Quartermaster General in late August 1861 when the Governor bristled at the War Department’s acceptance of a regiment that had not been sanctioned by the Governor. Wardwell’s men were mustered into service as Company F, 5th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on May 1, 1861. This was a 90-day regiment that fought at First Bull Run, and Captain Wardwell was mustered out at Boston July 31, 1861. He was commended for his service at First Bull Run in leading his company in the defense of Rickett’s Battery from a Confederate attack.

Following his discharge from service with the 5th Massachusetts, Wardwell secured a second captain’s commission on September 2, 1861, and joined Company B, 22nd Massachusetts Infantry. He served during the ill-fated Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. Captain Wardwell was commended for his service at the battle of Gaines’ Mill and was discharged August 23, 1862, to accept a commission as the lieutenant colonel of the 38th Massachusetts Infantry. When that regiment was sent to Louisiana, Lieutenant Colonel Wardwell took ill. He was discharged for disability on January 24, 1863 and transferred to the Invalid Corps (later designated 13th Veteran’s Reserve Corps). His service with the Veteran’s Reserve Corps was in Concord, New Hampshire, where he was assigned the duties of enforcing the draft. Once those duties were completed, he accompanied a group of conscripts to Gallop’s Island in Boston Harbor, before being ordered to Washington, DC.

Of Wardwell’s Civil War service, an Arizona newspaper reported at the time of his death in 1908:

General Wardwell took command of the Twenty-second Massachusetts on June 27, and he was directed shortly after by General McClellan to report for promotion for gallant conduct in the field. He reported and was appointed lieutenant colonel. Next he organized the Thirty-eighth Mass., after which he remained for the defense of Baltimore in command of this regiment, the Fifth, and the Wisconsin battery. He was ever recognized as a fine organizer of military bodies and a model disciplinarian and hence he was sent to New Hampshire to recruit several regiments there, which duty he entered upon in July 1863. He was finally transferred from this service to General Banks, where he continued in service till the close of the war. General Franklin paid General Wardwell a very high tribute for his gallantry at Bull Run and in his report stated that if one-sixth of the men in the army had stood up like Wardwell and his command, the day would have been a glorious victory for the Union arms. General Martindale also passed a very flattering compliment on the old soldier, as did also General Fitzjohn-Porter. No less a personality than General George B. McClellan has passed the highest tribute on his record, and General Emory, General Banks and General Hinks have also said something nice about the old veteran. Judge O. Gibson of Tombstone is in possession of documents which will verify all these statements. The people of Tombstone have a high regard for the honorable old soldier and regret profoundly the circumstances which surrounded his declining days.” (Daily Arizona Silver Belt [Globe, AZ], August 19, 1908)

Like so many aspects of Wardwell’s life, his record of Civil War service was not without controversy. In 1886, the Arizona Journal-Miner published an article describing a controversy that had arisen over Wardwell’s Civil War service. The newspaper was encouraging Wardwell to sue Frank M. Finn for an article that he had published in the Boston Sunday Globe.

As a friend and admirer of General D. K. Wardwell, the democratic "war horse" of Cochise County, we demand---well perhaps that is putting it a little strong, so we will request that a grand jury be immediately impaneled for the purpose of indicting Frank M. Finn, for writing and having published in the Boston Sunday Globe, a good democratic paper, the following malicious and defamatory libel on one of Arizona's citizens. Mr. Finn claims to have served under the "general" in the war and consequently his article is all the more pointed on that account. Here is what he says: "Lieutenant Colonel David K. Wardwell of Stoneham, Mass., took charge of the regiment and looked after battalion drills and dress parades. "Colonel Wardwell's father was a rank Methodist, but it was evident to everyone who came in contact with "Dave" that he inherited some of his father's religious tendencies. Especially was this noticeable when on drill, for, did any movement go wrong or any soldier make a false movement, "Dave's" emphatic use of adjectives betrayed his lack of spiritual culture. Colonel Wardwell came to the regiment from the army of the Potomac and had a pretty good opinion of himself and the military knowledge he had gained in the army. The members of the regiment being wholly unused to the art of war, in their simplicity looked upon Colonel Wardwell as a prodigy of valor. He took advantage of this greenness of the men and filled them full of stories of his exploits and desperate encounters with the rebels while connected with the army of the Potomac. But it did not take long for the boys to take "Dave's" measure and get on to his military career, and when once it was known, their idol of greatness was shivered, and "Dave" was relegated to the ranks of the blowers. It was predicted of him, "that he would never go into battle with the regiment", and the man who made the prediction was no Venner, as he never did. He took a ticket of leave at Fortress Monrose, Virginia, on account of paying too close attention to business and obeying orders too strictly." Arizona Journal-Miner, December 30, 1886.

Questions of Wardwell’s Civil War service were not the only challenges to his integrity. During the Civil War he abandoned his wife, who sued for divorce and desertion in 1864. After the divorce was finalized, Wardwell married another woman, Anna M. Weeden, that same year. The couple also separated, and by 1880, although still legally married, Weeden was living with her brother and a nephew in Washington, DC.

After the Civil War Wardwell moved to New Mexico. The 1870 Census shows him living on a ranch with an 18-year-old Mexican-born Catherine Wardwell in Los Mimbres, Grant County, New Mexico. Also living with Wardwell was the young son of the Apache Chief Mangas Coloradas. The chief had been captured and tortured to death by California militia in January 1863. Wardwell accepted the Native American youth into his home and assigned him ranch duties. The young man lived with Wardwell for about four years before returning to the tribe. Wardwell left New Mexico in the late 1870’s and purchased a cattle ranch in the Huachuca region of southern Arizona Territory. The area became part of Cochise County in 1880 and Wardwell was elected to the Arizona Territorial Legislature – serving two terms as the representative from Cochise County. Wardwell sold his ranch in June 1884 but by September 1886, it was clear that he would not be returning to the Legislature when the Democratic convention in Tombstone failed to renominate him for the office. One historian has speculated that Wardwell’s failure to secure renomination was based on his support for Native Americans and Mexican immigrants.

While living in Tombstone, Wardwell had many interactions with Virgil and Wyatt Earp as well the outlaws Ike and Billy Clanton – later famous for the October 26, 1881 “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” It was on Wardwell’s Azcarati Ranch in July 1881 that a group of Mexican vaqueros stole cattle and were later ambushed and killed at Skull Canyon by a posse consisting of Ike and Billy Clanton and other Tombstone outlaws and settlers.

In October 1886, Wardwell was appointed to the Indian agency in Idaho, but it does not appear that he ever accepted this appointment. He was appointed postmaster at nearby Fairbank, Cochise County on August 10, 1887. It was here that, at age 69, he married his third wife, the 20-year-old widow Isabela Victoria Escobide at Tombstone on May 29, 1893. After the death of her husband, the Mexican-born Isabela had immigrated to the United States in 1891 with her young son and settled at Tombstone where she met Wardwell. Wardwell was appointed to serve as the postmaster at Fort Huachuca on February 6, 1896. In 1900, the Census shows he was living at the Fort with Isabela. Wardwell, who was already receiving a pension for his Mexican War service, then filed for a Civil War veterans’ pension.

Wardwell’s pension application filed August 16, 1901, reports that he was 5'6" with light complexion, gray blue eyes, and light brown hair. In the application he claims he became disabled "while assisting his soldiers in falling trees to make a breast work for the protection of his men, a limb became tangled in some way and sprang loose and struck [him] right across the nose and right eye and cheek. [He] has suffered from the injury to his eye ever since. The older he became the worse it grew until now he can scarcely see to read and right. During the Peninsular Campaign in 1862, [he] contracted chronic diarrhea, intestinal piles, malarial fever and rheumatism from which he has suffered ever since." His application was supported by statements submitted by Major Generals George B. McClellan and Nathaniel P. Banks, as well as former comrades from the 22nd Massachusetts Infantry.

By 1903 Wardwell was 80 years old and suffering ill health. He was admitted to the Soldier’s Home at Sawtelle, California on April 11, 1906. Around this same time, while visiting her husband at the Home, a doctor noticed sores on Isabela’s hands, and she was diagnosed with leprosy. She was placed in the care of Los Angeles County Hospital. When Wardwell learned that hospital authorities were preparing to transfer her to the leper colony on Molokai, Hawaii, he slipped away from the home on August 10, 1908, retrieved his wife, and returned with her by train to Tombstone. The escape made national news and was subject to several New York Times articles; the San Francisco Examiner even published a cartoon on September 6, 1908 depicting a dignified Wardwell sneaking his young and fashionable wife out of the facility. The couple moved into a quarantine cabin behind the Tombstone Hospital. Wardwell died there just five days after his return.

The Oxford Maine Democrat in August 1908, reporting Wardwell’s death, stated that the "immediate cause of his death was over exertion and excitement caused by the taking of his young wife from a leper's hospital in Los Angeles and flight to Arizona. He leaves a Widow, two sons and one daughter."

Immediately following his death, Arizona health authorities sent Isabela back to Los Angeles County Hospital where she was readmitted on August 18, 1908. Later, she was found wandering the streets and was returned to the hospital where she was reportedly chained to a bedpost. She died at the county hospital 106 days later, in December 1908. Learning of her death, the Women's Relief Corps, an auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, claimed her body and provided her with a dignified burial.

The fascinating story of David K. Wardwell’s life began in New England and ended in the rough and tumble pioneer town of Tombstone. His life had spanned the period of 1822 to 1908. It had been an amazing journey. He had fought in the Mexican War, the Civil War, and endured the rigors of that war both in Virginia and in Louisiana. He had traveled the breadth of a young country eager for expansion and settled on the frontier, where he encountered both Native Americans and the infamous outlaws and lawmen of Tombstone, Arizona. He had known the famous Earp brothers and been a soldier, rancher, and politician. Although he had married and divorced, and abandoned two wives, he had also displayed tender love toward his last wife who suffered from a variety of maladies before, exhausted by his efforts on her behalf, he passed.

The old soldier is buried in Tombstone’s Evergreen Cemetery. While the precise location of his grave is unknown, a white wooden headstone was placed there in his memory by the Sons of Union Veterans in 2012. Wherever he rests, Wardwell is surrounded by those he had known in his frontier life. During his time, he had not accumulated wealth or renown, but he had lived his life to the fullest – a remarkable story that spanned a remarkable chapter in the history of the United States. That story, all revealed, by the research into a carte de visite portrait that still gives testimony to his tale.


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