It may not be what a presidential candidate would want historians discussing, as they did Friday. But exactly 150 years ago, an ancestor of Mitt Romney deserted from U.S. Army troops sent to put down a purported Mormon rebellion in Utah.
Carl Heinrich (Charles Henry) Wilcken, Romney's great-great-grandfather, would give Mormons information about approaching troops, eventually joined the LDS Church and ultimately became a bodyguard and confidant of two church presidents.
The middle name of Romney's father, former Michigan Gov. George W. Romney (also once a presidential candidate), is Wilcken, after that soldier-ancestor.
The little-known soldier in the little-known "Utah War" was a topic Friday at the annual Utah State History Conference. Several seminars focused on the 150th anniversary of that "war," in which President James Buchanan sent troops against Mormons in 1857-58 after ex-officials convinced him that Mormons would not submit to federal law.
Mormons saw that as a renewal of persecution and sent militia to face the army in what was essentially a mini-civil war four years before the real thing between North and South. Little shooting occurred, as Buchanan eventually gave amnesty to Mormons as they accepted a non-Mormon governor and a permanent garrison of U.S. troops.
Amateur historian Steve Richardson presented a paper Friday that discussed Wilcken, who he said had previously been awarded the Iron Cross by the king of Prussia for service in its war against Denmark.
After that war, Denmark attempted to draft former Prussian soldiers living in its acquired regions of Scheswig-Holstein. So Wilcken decided to leave and join friends in Argentina but had only enough money to make it to New York.
Richardson said Wilcken was unable to find work, so he joined the U.S. Army and was sent on the "Utah expedition."
"He was unhappy with the lack of discipline of the soldiers," Richardson said. "He had a low opinion of other soldiers," as they talked about possibly hanging or jailing Mormon leaders and "appropriating" their wives and daughters.
Wilcken saw poor protection by U.S. troops, which allowed Mormon militia to burn forage in front of the approaching army. LDS soldiers also burned many of the federal supply wagons and ran off the army's livestock. Soldiers had little to eat. Their winter camp in Wyoming would be one of the hardest in the history of the U.S. Army.
Wilcken decided to desert and head for Salt Lake City. But, Richardson said, Wilcken reported a spiritual experience that delayed that action for a day and possibly saved him from being jailed or shot.
As he was about to desert, he said he "heard a voice calling his name" his real name, not the assumed name he used to enlist. Two other times as he was to leave, he heard his name called and stopped. Wilcken later learned that the cavalry had been on patrol all night watching Mormon camps and likely would have caught him.
Richardson said, "That night, he had a dream telling him to ask his captain for permission to go out hunting the next day, and he would meet some friends." He did exactly that, deserted and met Mormons who escorted him back to their lines. That was on Oct. 7, 1857, 150 years ago next month.
Richardson said Wilcken was impressed with Mormons and their lack of the cursing and fighting that he had seen with U.S. troops. Wilcken provided Mormons with information about conditions of the U.S. Army and went to Salt Lake City.
Historian William P. MacKinnon added that Wilcken's U.S. Army captain, John W. Phelps, wrote in his diary about Wilcken's disappearance and "talked about what a fine man he was and how different he was from another man who deserted."110 comments on this story
MacKinnon noted that Phelps, who would become a Union general in the Civil War, ran for president in 1880 but received only a few hundred votes. Wilcken's Romney descendants have done better than that in their campaigns for president.
Wilcken was baptized into the LDS Church only two months after he deserted the Army and later had plural wives. In later years, he became a messenger and bodyguard for LDS President John Taylor, who was, at times, in hiding during federal anti-polygamy crusades. He also was a bodyguard for President Wilford Woodruff, who succeeded John Taylor and ultimately led the church away from the practice of polygamy.Mitt Romney's campaign declined comment on the story.