Medal of Honor: William Rankin

Grave of William Rankin, St. Mark’s Community Cemetery, Lewistown

The Medal of Honor symbolizes the ideals of patriotism, courage, sacrifice, and integrity and is the highest award presented for military valor in action. Those recipients have shown bravery in combat, going above and beyond the call of duty, risking – and often sacrificing – their lives for the welfare of others.

First introduced for the Department of the Navy in 1861, the Medal of Honor would be created for the Department of the Army’s Medal of Honor in 1862. The Department of the Air Force, which originally used the same Medal as the Department of the Army, introduced their own Medal of Honor in 1965. Since its inception during the U.S. Civil War, more than 3500 recipients have been honored with the Medal of Honor.

This is the story of a Medal of Honor recipient.


It was beginning to rain when I pulled onto the grass along Green Avenue on the eastern edge of Lewistown. The road cuts through the St. Mark’s Community Cemetery and the passes the neighboring Lynd Memorial Cemetery – in the past I had thought these two large cemeteries were one, but they are two distinct cemeteries. While I had no graves to visit in Lynd Cemetery, St. Mark’s is the resting place of a Mifflin County Medal of Honor recipient.

 “You going to try finding his grave again?” mom asked as she turned up the heater.

“Yeah,” I replied.

“You know you’re going to get wet?”

“Yeah.” The rain was beginning to fall harder and I debated whether to search for the gravesite of William Rankin or stay inside where it was warm and dry. This was not the first time I stopped to search the cemetery grounds for the Medal of Honor recipient. I previously found coordinates online and on my first attempt discovered the tombstone was nowhere in sight.

Almost six months later I returned with a new set of directions. These directions placed me in a different portion of the cemetery from the spot where the coordinates had placed me on the previous trip. From the warmth of the vehicle I scanned the area looking for a military stone, but failed to see one in the area these directions were taking me to.

“Have you decided yet?” mom asked, bringing me back to the current day.

“I’ll be back,” I replied. The cold air cut through my jacket as I got out of the vehicle. I quickly crossed the busy road and stepped onto the wet grass. No sooner had I stepped onto the sacred grounds than a vehicle pulled to a halt only a couple yards from where I stood. An older gentleman got out of the vehicle and the way he was moving towards me, I thought I was in trouble.

“Who are you looking for?” he asked as he approached. I told him and he thought about it for a moment. “If you have ten minutes, I’ll go get you an answer.” The gentleman got back into the vehicle, did a U-turn, and headed into Lewistown.

“What was that about?” mom asked as I got back in the vehicle.

“He’s going to go get a cemetery book,” I replied. Roughly ten minutes later, he returned and only a minute or two after his arrival, we were standing at the grave of William Rankin. The military issued stone is slightly different than the typical white ones which often guard the graves of fallen military. While the size and design remained the same, the material was a darker stone, and the engraved letters were marked with golden paint. The falling water made the stone very reflective and the lettering hard to read.

William Rankin was born in 1836, in Lewistown. At the age of eighteen he entered military service as a member of Company F, 1st U.S. Cavalry, which was organized March 28, 1855 at Jefferson Barracks, Missouri. 

From 1855 to 1861, the 1st U.S. Cavalry was involved in conflicts with Plains Indians and fought against Confederates in Missouri, Arkansas, the Kansas Territory, and the Indian Territory. In 1856, the 1st U.S. Cavalry would attempt to keep peace in the conflict known as “Bleeding Kansas.” The conflict, which was a prelude to the U.S. Civil War, was between abolitionists and pro-slavery factions as they warred over how the Kansas Territory would enter the Union – as a free or slave state.

In August 1861, the 1st Cavalry would be redesignated as the 4th U.S. Cavalry Regiment. The Companies of the 4th U.S. Cavalry would see action in most major battles of the Civil War. According to the death notice in the February 10, 1916 edition of the Altoona Tribune (Altoona, Pa), Rankin was involved in twenty-three battles during the U.S. Civil War

At war’s end, Rankin reenlisted with the 4th U.S. Cavalry and was sent to Texas. While in Texas, they protected the frontier settlers against raiding Indians, guerillas, and bandits. In September 1872, Rankin would be involved in a conflict known as the Battle of North Fork, which is also referred to as the Battle of the North Fork of the Red River.

On July 28, 1872, Colonel Ranald Mackenzie led a force formed 4th U.S. Cavalry, consisting of 12 officers, 272 enlisted men, 2 surgeons, and 20 Tonkawa scouts to end raids by Indian, Comancheros or cattle thieves in the Texas panhandle. The group traveled to Fort Sumner, New Mexico then to Fort Bascom, New Mexico.

On September 28, 1872, Mackenzie’s group came across a Kotsoteka Comanche village along the North Fork of the Red River. Mow-Way, the chief of the village had gone to meet with the Wichita Agency near Fort Sill, leaving Kai-wotche, a sub-chief, in charge. Mackenzie lined the men into columns and charged – within a half hour Mackenzie and his troops had taken control of the village.

While many consider it a battle, it was more of a massacre. Exactly how many Comanche were killed is a mystery. Mackenzie reported 23 Comanches killed and Kai-wotche and his wife were among the dead. Mackenzie’s losses were two dead and two seriously wounded. A large number of horses and mules – numbers vary between 800 and 3,000 depending upon the report – were rounded up by Mackenzie’s troops. The town was burned to the ground and approximately 130 Comanches taken captive, most of whom were women and children.

In the aftermath, nine men received the Medal of Honor for their actions during the battle. These men were: Corporal William O’Neill, Blacksmith James Pratt, Farrier David Larkin, Privates Edward Branagan, Private William Rankin, Corporal Henry McMasters, Sergeant William Wilson, Sergeant William Foster, and First Sergeant William McNamara.

On November 19, 1872, Rankin, along with the others, would receive the Medal of Honor while at Fort Griffin, Texas. The citation for the medal reads: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Private William Rankin, United States Army, for gallantry in action with Indians on 29 September 1872, while serving with Company F, 4th U.S. Cavalry, in action at Red River, Texas.”

In the autumn of 1879, Mackenzie with six companies of the Fourth Cavalry subdued the hostile Utes in Southern Colorado without firing a shot, then forced the Utes in August 1880 onto a reservation in Utah. In late summer 1880, the 4th U.S. Cavalry was sent to Arizona to confront the Apaches – by the end of October the hostile Apaches had surrendered or fled to Mexico.

It is believed that Rankin retired from military service in 1890 at Fort Huachua, Arizona and made his way back to Lewistown. Rankin, who had never married, lived with Mr. and Mrs. Henry Derring until their deaths only a few weeks before Rankins. Homeless, Rankin died February 2, 1916.

I finished paying my respects as the cold rain began falling. I left him resting within the sacred grounds of St. Mark’s Community Cemetery as I headed back to the vehicle and the warmth it provided.


Note: I do not want to take away his honor nor defile his memory and service, but I have some questions that I could not answer. Very little is recorded about the life of William Rankin and contacting several historians, I’m left with more questions than answers.

1) It is not exactly clear what actions Rankin performed during the battle to receive the Medal of Honor. I’m not saying he did not deserve it, I just have no idea what he did. Usually, I can find some source that reports it, but in his case, I have not been able to discover anything about what there is nothing. The historians contacted weren’t sure either because Rankin’s actions seem to be missing from reports of the battle. Rankin’s death notice in the Altoona Tribune merely states it was a “feat of bravery,” that he was honored for, but what it was at the time remains a mystery.

Looking at the others who received the Medal of Honor for actions at Battle of the North Fork of the Red River, they all state they received the medal for either bravery or gallantry in action.

2) What was William Rankin’s rank in the army? I’m not sure. I found a couple places which mention the highest rank he obtained was Private, yet his stone records he was a Sergeant in Co. F. His death notice states he was a Sergeant, but when he rose to the rank is not clear.

One of replies I received was a photocopy from It Happened in Mifflin County: Book 1 (Fisher). His recording of Rankin’s military career is as follows: from 1864 to 1872, Rankin served as First Sergeant. Beginning in 1872 Rankin was listed as a Private working as a farrier, a person who shoes and cares for horses.

3) His death notice in the Altoona Tribune adds even more confusion. According to the report, Rankin “was the owner of five medals of honors, three from his own government at Washington, one from the governor of Texas and one from President Diaz, of Mexico, the latter for the rescue of a rancher’s daughter stolen by Indians and carried 400 miles into the interior.”

I’m not sure where the three Congressional Medal of Honors came from.

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