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

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 7:00 p.m. MDT

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

Now a serene nook in the University of Utah?s bustling, high-tech Research Park, the Fort Douglas Cemetery has been a select burial ground for almost 150 years. (Ray Boren) Now a serene nook in the University of Utah?s bustling, high-tech Research Park, the Fort Douglas Cemetery has been a select burial ground for almost 150 years. (Ray Boren)

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.

Built between the World Wars, Fort Dougla' restored post theater still serves as a conference and movie venue.  (Ray Boren) Built between the World Wars, Fort Dougla' restored post theater still serves as a conference and movie venue. (Ray Boren)

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 Douglas Military Museum, open Tuesdays-Saturdays,  is a treasure trove of historic facts and artifacts. (Ray Boren) The Fort Douglas Military Museum, open Tuesdays-Saturdays, is a treasure trove of historic facts and artifacts. (Ray Boren)

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.)

The modern Salt Lake City skyline rises beyond red-brick Fort Douglas buildings, perched on the benchlands east of the city. 150 years ago, the post's location was a strategic point selected by its first commander, Col. Patrick Edward Connor. (Ray Boren) The modern Salt Lake City skyline rises beyond red-brick Fort Douglas buildings, perched on the benchlands east of the city. 150 years ago, the post's location was a strategic point selected by its first commander, Col. Patrick Edward Connor. (Ray Boren)

One role of the federal troops, besides keeping a wary eye upon the Mormons after 1857's rumored rebellion of the so-called "Utah War," had been to patrol the overland route along the Oregon and California trails, from South Pass to Fort Bridger, Voyles notes. After the military pulled out, mail and Pony Express stations, as well as pioneering emigrants, became targets of Indian attacks.

The Lot Smith Company, 70 to 80 men of the Mormons' Nauvoo Legion, initially handled that task for three months in 1861, Voyles says. A gap followed, and then the federal government called up Connor and the California-Nevada Volunteers.

A monument to Connor in the Fort Douglas Historical Park next door to the museum, south of the post parade grounds, summarizes the life of the colonel, and later brigadier general and brevet major general, who lived from 1820-1891. He is buried in the Fort Douglas Cemetery.

The picturesque officers' quarters at Fort Douglas, more than a century old, continue to be used today, mostly as student housing, (Ray Boren) The picturesque officers' quarters at Fort Douglas, more than a century old, continue to be used today, mostly as student housing, (Ray Boren)

"Born in County Kerry, Ireland," it reads. "Emigrated as a child to the United States. Enlisted in the Army at age 19. Attained rank of Captain in the Mexican War. As Colonel, commanding the Volunteers, established Camp Douglas on October 26, 1862. A soldier-statesman of great energy and vision, he was the 'Father of Utah Mining,' published the first daily newspaper in Utah Territory, and founded Stockton, Utah."

The background to some of that was Connor's self-perceived role as the civil and military counterpart to Brigham Young. He successfully encouraged his soldiers to prospect for metals and minerals, in hopes of bringing in non-Mormon miners and entrepreneurs, historians say, for Brigham Young discouraged such enterprises. And Fort Douglas' early newspaper, the Daily Union Vedette of the 1860s, was an early rival to the Mormon newspaper, the Deseret News, which began publishing in 1850.

The residences along Fort Douglas' Officers Circle are today mostly occupied by University of Utah students. (Ray Boren) The residences along Fort Douglas' Officers Circle are today mostly occupied by University of Utah students. (Ray Boren)

The things they said and the things they did at times verged upon violent confrontation. The church leader lambasted Connor and the military in sermons. The colonel used his newspaper, and sometimes provocation, Dickson says.

"On one occasion, in 1864, Patrick Connor wanted to open a provost general office downtown," a sort of substation to handle situations involving his troops when in Salt Lake City, the museum curator says. "He chose a building across from the south gate of Temple Square, and Brigham Young was actually out of town that day.

"Connor sent a company of soldiers downtown to occupy that building. As people were coming out of church, they were raising a flag," he says. Members of the Mormon militia, the Nauvoo Legion, were called out. But the standoff didn't go much further.

The antique restored bandstand sits east of the parade grounds at Fort Douglas. (Ray Boren) The antique restored bandstand sits east of the parade grounds at Fort Douglas. (Ray Boren)

"In the end the Army decided to leave a smaller force there, and the church used adobe bricks to block up the south gate," Dickson says.

Connor also issued an order that his soldiers not marry Mormon girls. He was concerned about spies, and information getting out of camp, Dickson says. One man did marry, though, and faced court-martial, a case Dickson is researching.

"He claimed he never heard of the order, married a local girl and was sentenced to hard labor for three months, ball and chain and everything. I want to track it down to see if he stayed married."

There are valuable, local lessons to be learned about religious and racial intolerance via the archives and exhibits at the Fort Douglas Military Museum, Dickson says.

Built in 1884, the post chapel at Fort Douglas was for a time the longest-operating military chapel in the United States. (Ray Boren) Built in 1884, the post chapel at Fort Douglas was for a time the longest-operating military chapel in the United States. (Ray Boren)

Less well known today is the fact that in the 1890s, Fort Douglas was the regimental headquarters for the 24th Infantry, an all-black unit of "buffalo soldiers."

"When they were first ordered to Salt Lake City, there was an outcry," and a concern about an influx of blacks and a rise in crime. "Within a year it was recognized they were really good soldiers, most of them married, diligent, and on their best behavior," Dickson says. When the 24th was called into action in 1898 for the Spanish-American War, "lots of leaders requested that they be returned to Fort Douglas after the war," he says.

Though it brought him glory at the time, Connor's most notorious action today is undoubtedly the Battle of Bear River, or the Bear River Massacre, in January 1863, also coming up on its 150th anniversary.

Because of depredations by American Indians upon emigrants and Cache Valley settlers, Connor and about 200 of his Volunteers set out to punish Shoshones encamped near today's Franklin, Idaho. The death toll among the Indians, including women and children, is estimated to be 250 to 300 — or higher.

A military ambulance is among the vehicles displayed beside the Fort Douglas Military Museum. (Ray Boren) A military ambulance is among the vehicles displayed beside the Fort Douglas Military Museum. (Ray Boren)

"There are some diaries that have been discovered that put it at 400 to 500," Dickson says. Any of those numbers equals or exceeds Indian death tolls at better known, and later, battles and massacres: Sand Creek in Colorado (up to 163 Indian dead), Washita River in Oklahoma (250), Wounded Knee in the Dakotas (150-300).

While an unwanted thorn to the Mormons in the 1860s, Fort Douglas became an economic boon, bringing in much-needed gold payrolls early on, and jobs and services for well more than a century, Dickson says.

On its militant overlook above the potentially troublesome city, the post at one point covered 10,525 acres, notes the University of Utah's Fort Douglas Web site. Today the military manages only 58 acres. Over the years, sections large and small were carved from the increasingly valuable land: For Mt. Olivet Cemetery early on; for the Veterans Administration Hospital; for This Is the Place Monument; for Research Park; and for the university itself, beginning in the 1890s and repeatedly afterward.

Vehicles of the land and sky, including a light Vehicles of the land and sky, including a light "Cayuse" helicopter, are displayed at the Fort Douglas Military Museum. (Ray Boren)

The officer's residences themselves now shelter students and house university programs. The fort and officers' quarters, and new halls behind them, served as the village for athletes from around the world during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, hosted by Salt Lake City.

There are close to 200 buildings remaining, Dickson says, some dating back to the 1860s, many more from a rebuilding effort later in the 19th century and into the 20th century. The post remained an important mobilization and training garrison — and even technically an air base — through World War II and until 1991, when it formally closed, except for a few Army, Navy and Marine reserve and National Guard functions.

"Both the university and the museum have done a lot to preserve those buildings," Dickson says. And the venerable post, so evocative of times — even centuries — past, has been on the National Register of Historic Places for more than 40 years, with protections that should ensure its legacy for a long time to come.

Gen. Patrick Edward Connor () Gen. Patrick Edward Connor ()

Fort Douglas- and Civil War-related events

The Fort Douglas Military Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., except for some federal holidays. Entry is free. Upcoming events include:

Civil War Ball: Friday, June 15, 7-9:30 p.m. Fee: $5 per person.

Fort Douglas Day: Saturday, June 16, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Free.

Utah State History Conference: Sept. 21 and 22.

Battle of Bear River field trip: Sept. 23.

Civil War re-enactment: Sept. 28-29, Soldier Hollow, Heber Valley.

Fort Douglas Cemetery tour: Oct. 20.

Fort Douglas 150th anniversary: Oct. 26, 2012.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company