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History stirs in Camp Floyd letters

Rare find reveals soldier's view of Utah in 1860

By Amy Joi O'Donoghue

Deseret News

Published: Saturday, April 11 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Joseph C. Clark wiped the dust of Emigration Canyon off his brow under a hot August sun 148 years ago as the stagecoach he rode in passed a train of oxen and Mormon women wearing rags for shoes.

Not too long after, he sat in a tent on a Virginia battlefield, weary from the Civil War and the loss of 10,000 men.

What Clark saw among pioneers and soldiers is being relived through 95 letters he penned to his wife, Mary — letters rediscovered by history detectives after they had been tucked away in a box stuffed in a closet of a Pennsylvania home.

By reading those letters, it has now become Vern DeLong's turn to be carried along on Clark's same journeys, to travel by stagecoach to Camp Floyd for the so-called Mormon Rebellion, to camp by the Weber River and to gaze at the valley of the Great Salt Lake after cresting the mountains of the Wasatch Range.

DeLong's father and brother purchased the contents of a woman's home earlier this year. Calling the woman a pack rat would be an understatement, DeLong said. "We've been collectors for a long time. You call and you walk through and you don't know what is in there. But that is part of the treasure in doing this stuff."

DeLong, an admitted Civil War history buff who lives in Johnsonburg, Pa., was dumbstruck when his brother told him about the nondescript metal box of letters and documents that had been found.

"My brother called and wanted to know how I had missed the box. And I don't know how I did. I should have been able to smell those letters. I went and looked at them before I went to work that day because I just had to see them."

Since then, DeLong has embarked on the painstaking process of getting the letters scanned into a computer, organizing the computer files and dissecting the words scrawled in fancy penmanship across the pages.

As he did, the lives of Joseph and Mary. Clark and their children began to unfold again so many years later.

"This man was an avid writer," DeLong said. "He wrote letters two or three times a week back to his wife. You basically know the family after reading these letters."

Aug. 16, 1860, Great Salt Lake City:

Dear Mary,

"…We reached the highest point of the South Pass about dark and rested at the Pacific Springs, the water of which flows toward the Pacific Ocean. We passed two or three Mormon ox trains with emigrants for their 'land of promise'; most of them appeared to come from England, Wales and Switzerland. They were from the lower walks of life and not at all attractive in their appearance, but when they get the dust of travel washed off them they may look somewhat better."

Clark, an 1848 West Point graduate, was among nearly 3,500 troops dispatched to Utah by President James Buchanan, who believed the Mormons were rebelling against U.S. law.

They established Camp Floyd in western Utah County to suppress the alleged rebellion. For a time, Camp Floyd was the largest military installation in the United States.

The rebellion never happened, but it was a period of ill feelings and mistrust between the military and Mormons, said Ephriam Dickson, curator of the Fort Douglas Museum.

Aug. 16, 1860, Great Salt Lake City, continued:

"About 3 or 4 miles from the lower end of Echo Canyon, the Mormons were stationed to dispute the pass with the Army, during the difficulties with them. The side of the canyon on the north is in some places about 200 feet high and nearly perpendicular; on top, they were stationed to hurl rocks on the troops below..."

Earlier, Clark described in the same letter seeing a Mormon handcart train and described the sight to Mary, concluding, "It seems strange to see women well in the decline of life on such a pilgrimage."

Of the 95 letters, DeLong said at least 36 or 37 were penned in Utah during the 18 months Clark was stationed here. Dickson said the find is significant. While official government communications such as military orders and commissions are not uncommon, more rare are the intimate musings from men in the field.

Amid the collection discovered by the DeLongs were six documents signed by U.S. presidents: one each from James Polk, Millard Fillmore and Abraham Lincoln, and three from Andrew Johnson.

"There's always excitement about presidential signatures, but the treasure I knew was there was the letters themselves," DeLong said. "The commission papers were nice, but this was the real find."

DeLong works in the lighting industry, has a home-based business selling gourmet nuts and has rental properties. It's enough to keep anyone busy without taking on the responsibility of organizing, documenting and putting together the pieces of a stranger's life.

But DeLong is mesmerized.

"I am enjoying it so much bringing this guy back to life. I feel like I've been there with him."

DeLong has never been to Utah, but through Clark's letters said he can visualize the impressive nature of the state.

Aug. 16, 1860, Great Salt Lake City continued:

"We left Weber River yesterday and shortly entered East Canyon, when we commenced the ascent to the crest of the Big Mountains of the Wasatch range, a distance of about 20 miles. This was an interesting portion of our route on account of the scenery, and the view from the crest of the mountain was the finest I had ever seen."

Later in the letter, he describes passing through Emigration Canyon and viewing the valley, conveying to Mary that the sight "was such as would gladden the poor emigrant after his long journey over the plains."

Clark's time in Utah was short-lived, given the boiling tensions back East that led to the Civil War. He was soon on the road again and the letters to Mary began to describe the despair and ugliness he witnessed on the battlefield.

He wrote of how good friends died, near-misses with Confederate soldiers and how at one point it seemed everyone had a bullet aimed at him as he retreated into the woods.

"The letters are wonderfully vivid," DeLong said. "I can picture him dirty and grimy after a long day of fighting, sitting in a tent by candlelight writing a letter to his wife."

Sept. 4, 1862: "The cause of the Union seems darker now than any previous time. It may, however, be followed by a daylight of hope. How many men, many of them useful citizens, have suffered during the last week? It is painful to contemplate. If the Union should be restored, the cost will be enormous in men, and should teach us to be more virtuous and to remove the political element more from our institutions."

A little less than two weeks later, on Sept. 17, Clark was severely wounded at the Battle of Antietam. The letters stop for about a year and Clark ends up back at West Point, where DeLong believes he taught philosophy until an act of Congress reduced teaching positions at the institution.

Mary died in 1890.

In 1906, Clark is described as good "Jersey stock" and a devoted, loving husband and father in a military order acknowledging his death.

DeLong is compiling Clark's letters to Mary into a book he already has given a name, "Kiss the Children for Me."

It's how Clark ended most all of his letters, DeLong said.

"I want to do this man justice. It's like I owe it to Joseph, Mary, Willie, their son, and all these people to bring them back to life."

E-MAIL: amyjoi@desnews.com

Readers interested in the progress of Vern DeLong's book can keep in touch with him at delongv@windstream.net

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