U.S. troops ordered to Utah from California during the Civil War were intended to protect the Overland Tail from Indian depredations--but instead made it their business to keep a sharp eye on Brigham Young and the Mormons. The founding of Fort Douglas in 1862 on the east bench of Salt Lake City by Col. Patrick E. Connor and his California volunteers was the last thing Young wanted, and the incident is riddled with ironies long forgotten in the century and more since.
For instance, when Shoshoni war parties had raided the Overland Mail route between the north fork of the Platte River? and Fort Bridger with relative impunity that spring, and it became apparent that President Abraham Lincoln would have to take action, Young wired Washington: "The militia of Utah are ready and able--to take care of all the Indians--and protect the mail line." It was Young's idea that his offer would be seen as a logical answer to the situation and no federal forces would be necessary--the Union husbanding its troops to face Southern armies. But Brigham Young was no longer governor of Utah and could not deal directly with the federal government. He had been replaced by Alfred Cumming, who, in turn, had resigned in 1861 to join the Confederacy.
John Dawson of Indiana was then appointed chief executive of the territory. He had barely settled in before becoming embroiled in a scandal that sent him packing just six weeks into his term. Next up was Stephen Harding, another Indianan, who arrived in July 1862, just as private citizen Young was wiring Lincoln his offer to provide militia. Lincoln was well aware of the church leader's power and influence. He understood that while Young had not been governor since 1857, the mantle of that office rested invisibly, but securely, on Young's shoulders. The Mormon people would listen only to him. And President Lincoln also knew that Young knew it.
Lincoln authorized him to raise, equip and arm one company of cavalry for 90 days. Young acted within an hour of receiving his answer. Commanding the militia company was to be Lot Smith--the shrewd guerrilla leader of the recent Utah War, that standoff between Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston's Utah Expedition and the Mormon Nauvoo Legion that resulted in the establishment of Camp Floyd west of Provo. (Camp Floyd was by 1862 deactivated and its name changed to Fort Crittenden because Secretary of War John B. Floyd had defected to the South.)
The irony in Lot Smith's appointment was the complete turnaround from the days when he raided and burned government supply wagons near Fort Bridger. Now he was charged with protecting U.S. property at all costs.
In the long run, Young's ploy failed, for feisty Patrick E. Connor was on the march for Great Salt Lake Valley and nothing would prevent it. There was a bit of a fuss that October as Connor's five companies of infantry and two troops of cavalry entered "Fort Crittenden." That was where the citizens of Great Salt Lake City wanted the flinty Irishman to station his command, but Connor had no intention of being 40 miles from civilization as he saw it.
There were rumors that the dread "Danites," the so-called Destroying Angels, would prevent Connor from crossing the Jordan River on the outskirts of the city, thus keeping the federal force at a distance. The challenge -- though nonexistent -- suited Connor just fine. He had been looking for an excuse to justify marching his men more than 700 miles on outpost duty. The colonel let it be known he would cross over the Jordan "If hell yawned below him." He crossed the river that afternoon without incident and the following morning struck out due north for the city. But let T.B.H. Stenhouse, who was there, describe the scene: "On the 29th of October, 1862, with loaded rifles, fixed bayonets and shotted cannon, Colonel Connor marched the Volunteers into Salt Lake City, and proceeded to the bench,' directly east of the city. There, at the base of the Wasatch Mountains, they planted the United States flag, and created Camp Douglas."
In a footnote to his book The Rocky Mountain Saints, Stenhouse remarked, "Connor could not possibly have selected a better situation for a military post, and certainly no place could have been chosen more offensive to Brigham. The artillery have a perfect and unobstructed range of Brigham's residence, and with their muzzles turned in that direction, the Prophet felt awfully annoyed." Connor named the new camp after the recently deceased Little Giant, Stephen A. Douglas.
The next January, Connor ordered his command into the field to punish Indians in the Bear River area near present Preston, Idaho. What ensued was a massacre of Shoshoni with the toll numbering from 224 to 350, depending on the source. Connor lost fourteen dead and scores wounded; he gained a promotion and a reputation as an Indian fighter.
When word later arrived at Camp Douglas that Connor had been promoted to brigadier general for his Bear River campaign, exuberant members of his regiment loaded the howitzers with powder and wadding and fired an 11-gun salute in his honor. Someone should have told Brigham Young. Before the roar of the last round boomed over the valley, Young was out of bed, dressed and surrounded by bodyguards; express riders were dispatched to rally available fighting men to protect their leader from what they perceived was an "unprovoked military bombardment." The record is silent regarding Young's comments on learning the true cause of the artillery barrage.
Fort Douglas stands much as it did 131 years ago, mute testimony to Utah's frontier heritage.