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Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Keith Henrie (left) and Lynn Hilton look at an original piece of telegraph wire at the Lehi Railroad Station, on a tour with the Lehi Sons of the Utah Pioneers following the route and locations important to the arrival of Johnston's Army in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

Looking out over the empty fields next to the old Commissary Building in Fairfield, it's hard to imagine that the largest military encampment in the United States was once spread across this area, complete with tents, barracks, buildings and 17 saloons.

But if you are lucky enough to be there with Carl Mellor and listen to him tell stories of those times, you get a new sense of appreciation for what Camp Floyd was and what it meant, not only in the history of Utah but in the history of the country.

Mellor recently conducted a history tour, sponsored by the Lehi Sons of the Utah Pioneers, that focused on the arrival of the U.S. Army in Utah during the so-called Utah War of 1858.

The bus tour followed the route of the soldiers as they entered the valley from Emigration Canyon, after having camped the night before at Mountain Dell reservoir. The soldiers, led by Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, marched through downtown Salt Lake City past Brigham Young's home, "in an eight-mile long spectacle. They marched to the beat of drums. It was meant to intimidate, and it did," said Mellor, a longtime student and teacher of history.

But they found a largely empty city, as most residents had moved south temporarily. Those who remained were prepared to burn the city, if a confrontation occurred.

The soldiers went down South Temple to West Temple, then crossed over to follow North Temple to the Jordan River, where Redwood Road is now located. At about 400 South and Redwood Road, the soldiers made their first camp, where they stayed for about three days. The dust, they said, was 6 inches thick.

Next, the soldiers moved on to West Creek Camp, at about 10400 South and 6200 West, where they stayed for a few days before moving on to Old Camp Floyd in Cedar Valley, about 20 miles west of Lehi. The soldiers stayed there for about four months as accommodations were built and a post established at Fairfield.

Tour members were treated to sites and information relating to other historic people and events of the period. The route followed by the Army was similar to that used by both the Pony Express and the Overland Stagecoach, for example. And one of the key players was Porter Rockwell, a lawman for the Mormons who was among a group chosen by Brigham Young to harry and harass the soldiers and who seemed to pop up all along the Army's path.

The story of the Utah War is one of intimidation, said Mellor, but also one of political strategy, especially as it applies to communication and transportation. "Even now, it is true that if you control the communication and the transportation, you eventually control the politics."

The political world in 1858, in the years leading up to the Civil War, was tense and tumultuous, as factions from the North and South were already jockeying for position and prominence. Strange as it may seem, said Mellor, far-off Utah landed right in the middle of it all.

The stated reason for sending the Army to Utah was to "quell the rebellious Mormons," said Mellor. The soldiers were to escort Alfred Cummings and install him as territorial governor, using force if necessary. The Mormons, on the other hand, had already been driven from four states and were not about to move again. Thus the lines for potential conflict were drawn.

But there had also been a recent incident when members of the Sevier Gunnison Exploration party had been killed by Indians, and the Army was also to investigate and determine what had happened.

And even more was going on, said Mellor; underlying strategies fell into North/South camps.

The creation of Johnston's Army was supported by many in the South, who saw in it a way to move military forces away from the South as Civil War grew ever nearer. Secretary of War John Floyd (for whom Camp Floyd was named) was from the South and later became a Confederate general. And when the Civil War broke out, the largest military group in the country — Johnston's Army — was 2,000 miles away.

Some historians have suggested that U.S. President James Buchanan used the Mormon rebellion as an excuse to draw attention away from slavery to polygamy, and as a way to show that the government was committed to dealing with rebellion of any sort.

But the North also went along with the proposal because it saw a way to create better communication with the West Coast.

According to Mellor, until then messages traveled to St. Joseph, Mo.; then to Houston; through New Mexico to Yuma, Ariz.; to San Diego and up to San Francisco.

"That took about 25 days. So it was at least 50 days before you could get an answer back," he said. "Not only that, but the South controlled that route."

But there was a growing need for faster communication, and Utah played a pivotal role.

"Before the Mormons came West, some 16,000 people had moved along the California/Oregon trail," said Mellor. Thanks to the Mormon Battalion, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and parts of Colorado — nearly one-third of what became the United States — were secured for the country. Few history books give the Mormon Battalion the credit they deserve for that, he said.

After the Mormons and the discovery of gold in California, more than 100,000 people had moved West. California petitioned to become a free state. It was denied because it would upset the balance of slave states and free states, but factions in the North were very interested in keeping in touch. They wanted a safer, quicker route for delivering mail.

The Pony Express cut the time to seven days; the telegraph cut it to seven seconds.

Many people are familiar with the outcome of the "war" — how after being harassed by Rockwell, Bill Hickman, Lot Smith and other Mormons who burned their supply trains, emissaries, including Col. Thomas Kane, were able to negotiate a peaceful settlement. The government was willing to offer blanket amnesty, provided the Army was allowed to stay.

What many don't realize, said Mellor, is that a delegation of mayors from 15 Southern cities met with Young to determine where the Army would be located.

"Brigham Young said it must be 40 miles away, so that if the Army did move against the Mormons, there would be time to gather Mormon forces," he said. They eventually settled on Cedar Valley.

The Army stayed until the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1861. But the Utah influence was still felt; some 59 Civil War generals — 29 Union officers and 30 Confederates — served as junior officers in the Utah War or at Camp Floyd. Johnston, who led the Army to Utah, served the South with distinction as a general until he was killed in the Battle of Shiloh.

It was a rich period in Utah history, said Mellor, and one we don't honor as much as we should. If he had his way, there would be daily stagecoach rides between Lehi and Fairfield so that every school child could know what it was like.

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"Every kid in Utah ought to visit the train station in Lehi. It's the oldest train station in the state," he said. "Brigham Young walked through these doors."

Preservation is important, he said. "It allows us to experience in a way what our ancestors felt and experienced." But too often, he said, history gets buried by developers.

"I'm 81," he said. "If you double my age, I would have been a part of everything we have talked about. I knew people who knew these people. But when my generation goes, there won't be anyone who can say 'I knew some of them.'

"These tidbits of history are real. They still impact our lives."

e-mail: carma@desnews.com