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Fort Douglas celebrates its sesquicentennial with a Civil War Ball and family day

By Ray Boren

Deseret News

Published: Sunday, June 10 2012 3:16 p.m. MDT

Rocking chairs add an old-fashioned feel to the residential porches along Officers Circle.

Ray Boren

FORT DOUGLAS — Shaded on a summer's day by leafy trees and embracing spacious green parade grounds and a traditional bandstand, the white-trimmed sandstone dwellings and brick buildings along, and near, Fort Douglas' Officers Circle seem a model of all-American peace and order.

As a result, it is sometimes difficult to remember that today's serene enclave high on Salt Lake City's east bench was established exactly 150 years ago — in 1862 — amid the strife of the Civil War. Early on, the fort was itself a crux of what historian Brigham D. Madsen called a "cold war" — and a key engine of the region's economy.

This was back when the Mormon settlers of Utah Territory, which only a year earlier stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the high Sierra Nevada range, were seeking to become citizens of what they hoped would become the State of Deseret. Brigham Young, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was their prophet and their political leader.

Col. Patrick Edward Connor, the founder of Camp Douglas — soon to be Fort Douglas, named for the recent presidential candidate and late senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas — was the new representative of President Abraham Lincoln's U.S. government and military.

"Both individuals could be quite provocative, in words they used and in their actions," says Ephraim Dickson, curator of the Fort Douglas Military Museum.

That Utah cold war, "almost went to a 'hot war' in 1863 and 1864," Dickson says.

Perhaps oddly, President Young and Col. Connor conspicuously avoided one another. "They were the two most influential and politically powerful people in Utah — though in real life they never met," Dickson says.

Dickson and Bob Voyles, the museum's director, are both deep into preparations for the post's upcoming, family-oriented Fort Douglas Day, to be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, June 16, and the annual Civil War Ball on the preceding evening, Friday, June 15, from 7 to 9:30 p.m.

The Saturday activities are free, and there will be a shuttle ferrying visitors from ample parking near the University of Utah's Huntsman Center. A relatively short walk to the post is also an option. Admission to the military ball is $5. Period dress is preferred (and more in the spirit) but not required.

Saturday's Fort Douglas Day will include a Civil War encampment, with re-enactors and buffs portraying people of that era and up to World War II; the firing of vintage cannon; a climbing wall; and display and demonstrations of vintage military vehicles and equipment, from a World War I ambulance to half-tracks and weapon carriers, Voyles says. The Wasatch Scottish Bagpipe Band will perform.

"Fort Douglas Day is probably our biggest event," the museum director says. "It celebrates the contributions Fort Douglas made to the development of Utah."

The fort's actual founding-date sesquicentennial is on Oct. 26, and observations of that 150th anniversary are also in the works. In addition, Voyles is the chairman and Dickson a member of the state commission, Utah Civil War 150, that is organizing local observances — lectures, readings, re-enactments — pertaining to the struggle of 1861-1865, for which periodic events will be announced through 2015.

All of this takes us back 150 years, of course, to 1862.

As the Civil War ramped up, federal troops stationed west of Utah Lake at Camp Floyd and at Fort Bridger in modern Wyoming were summoned east, leaving the territory without a military presence. (Camp Floyd had recently been renamed Fort Crittenden; Secretary of War John Floyd, for which it had been originally named, had joined the Confederacy, as had Camp Floyd's first commander, Gen. Albert Sydney Johnston.)

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