Marched West with Johnston’s Army
Incidents in the Life of a Sturdy German Jaeger Who Cast His Lot With “The Flower of the American Army,” Marched West against the “Mormons”; and Remained to Dwell with Them.
This is neither a biography nor a romance; it is only a glimpse at a portion of the interesting career of a man wellknow to nearly everybody in Salt Lake City, and to thousands inhabiting other part of the intermountain region.
He was born, a blue-eyed rolly-polly German baby, Oct. 5, 1830 in the village of Eckhorst, not far from Lubeck, in Holstein, Germany. The city of Lubeck by the way, is one of the three remaining free cities of the empire — these three the last of that all mighty chain of continental cities comprising the famous and powerful Hanseatic league – a commercial union which during the Middle Ages established and maintained open trade routes and prosperous traffic relation in spit of raiding robber knights, escaping petty sovereigns and thundering spiritual potentates.
His father’s responsibilities as an “extensive” farmer were increased by care of a popular tavern of which he was the generous host, and a brewery of which he was the jolly proprietor. His manifold duties imposed by these interests impressed him with the need of getting the services of his son as soon as possible, so at a very early age little Carl Heinrich was bundled off to private school in historic old Lubeck. Here as he waxed in years and as he also acquired at least the rudiments of learning as dispensed in the through German fashion. It was also in established German custom, then as now, that each boy should learn a trade and at the age of 15 the lad went into service to learn to be a miller, his master operating one of the picturesque mills of that region with both wind and water, or either, as motive power.
The Lure of Busy Places
By the time the important year 1848 had come along, the top of young Carl Heinrich’s head projected itself six feet three inches above the surface of the ground on which his feet rested, and he was slim and straight as an arrow. He was in his eighteenth year – that period in a young man’s life when the droning of a grist mill could scarce be expected to prove as alluring as a call from the busy, active, outside world; especially when, as was the case at this time, that world was screaming in the birth of larger liberty, and when an impending wave of war excited the patriotic impulses of every trued son of the Fatherland.
The two provinces of Schleswig and Holstein had been under the protection of the Danish crown for about 400 years, the consideration on their part being the furnishing of a certain number of solders for the Danish army. Except in the northern part of Schleswig, contiguous to Denmark, the language spoken was German, and the natural leaning of the people was toward Prussia. The time could not have been more unpropitious for any attempt at the extension of royal prerogative, yet the Danish king, with singular lack of sagacity, chose this very moment to try to incorporate into his domain the northern province of Schleswig. Both provinces sprang to arms to resist the aggression, and Prussia, lent aid to the extent at least of furnishing officers to drill the provincials and get them started in the stern business ahead of them; with the further understanding that she would not stand idly by and see them overwhelmed.
Filled with the ardor and enthusiasm of youth and the love of fatherland, our youthful miller shook the flour dust out of his clothes and hair, and went off to be a soldier. He enlisted in what was called the First Jaeger Corps – mounted riflemen, in other words–a picked body of men of approved courage and marksmanship, designed for service either mounted or afoot. The heavier cavalry were the dragoon, the lighter were lancers, “ablans,” and hussars. The jaegers were armed with muzzle loading rifles, slung over the shoulder, and bayonets which could be attached to their pieces when it came to be business at close quarter. They rode strong, active horses; and though in a charge their onslaught lacked the intimidating accessory of lashing sabers or fluttering lance, they nevertheless, when plunging forward with thundering mass, erect in stirrup and with the lust of battle gleaming from their eyes, delivered an attack which few troops were able to withstand.
Wins Sergeant Chevrons
The first jaeger corps was soon in the thick of the fighting, and before very long the men had all of it they wanted–and more. At the second battle of Kolding, young Carl Heinrich, now a corporal, was one of a small party which had become detached from the main body and was threatened with annihilation by the advancing Danes. They sought the best protection their precarious position afforded, and prepared for the worst, partially shielded on a side hill skirting the highway. A dashing body of Danish horses, composed of scions of noble and aristocratic families, gallantly hastened forward to make a spectacular capture of the isolated remnants. These calmly awaited the onset, their nerves steeled and their courage steadied by many previous baptisms of fire. At length the command “fire” rang out and every Danish horse turned and galloped riderless off the field. Participation in this exploit brought to our hero the chevrons of a sergeant.
Stubborn fighting characterized the taking, losing and recovering of the key to an important position in the next engagement in Jutland to which country the scene of operation was now transferred. This coveted position was a brickyard, from which the Danish defenders were driven, after heavy losses on both sides. Returning to the attack in reinforced number they retook the place in a desperate assault. Again the Schleswig-Holsteiners charged, and in hand to hand conflict made a good their attack and held the ground. A third time the Danes rushed the position, and gained and held it. By this time there was not a single jaeger officer left with the corps, all being either killed or wounded and the ranks of the men being nearly depleted. The ranking non-commissioned officer felt that further efforts would be suicidal–the slaughter already had been frightful. Of more determined mettle was this junior sergeant Carl Heinrich. He suggested, in fact commanded, one more charge, for the sake of home and fatherland. It was brilliantly made, and was entirely successful–the decimated corps remained masters of the field.
The Iron Cross
Two months later there was a simple yet an impressive ceremony the entire force at the camp is paraded, with bands playing and colors flying. At the commanding general advances and takes position in front, there falls a silence that is profound and almost painful. An adjutant, in a loud voice calls out a few names. Those responding to these names step forward forming a new thin scattered line several paces in front of the main rank. Then accompanied by his staff, the general moves along this scattered line halting a few seconds in front of each man, and passing on to the next, till the left of the line is reached. Finally the bands strike up again, the colors flutter more proudly than ever, the few men in front fall back into their places, the line of troops wheels into column, the corps and regiments march away to their quarter and the ceremony is over.
In the incident just described the First Jaeger corps held a place of honor. At the call of the adjutant, a tall straight 18 year-old sergeant steps to the front. The grizzled general as he approaches the stripling says a few kindly words, and seems to be clumsily fumbling with the button of his coat. The boy is too well-drilled to let his eyes wander or deviate from the “straight ahead;” he stand like a statue. But when the order is given to take his place in the ranks his eyes drop for a moment and proudly rest on the plain, black, grim insignia, most prized of all German decoration, the iron cross, cast from the metal of captured cannon and given by the king “For Gallantry in Action.”
After the battle at Itzoe in Schleswig, where the Danes were victorious, Austria and Prussia stepped in as mediators, and peace was declared, these two kingdoms taking the provinces under their wing. Austria exercising special protection over Schleswig while Prussia performed the same kindly office toward Holstein. Carl Heinrich went back to his meal bags, this time as proprietor of a wind-driven grist mill purchased for him by his father: and soon thereafter took unto himself a wife. He might have lived and died in the calm obscurity of the village of Dahma, where his mill was located, but for the aggressive determination of Denmark, in spite of the terms of the recent treaty, to draft recruits from the provinces for the standing army. The ex-jaeger when inside information came to him as to his probable conscription as a Danish life-guardsman in Copenhagen. Making the best disposition his business that was possible at short notice, he hastened to Hamburg, took shipping for Hull, crossed over to Liverpool, and railed from sailed from that port for the new and free world to which so many thousands of his young country-men were at this time bending their steps.
Hears of Johnston Expedition
This was in the spring of 1857. He reached New York in due time, disembarking at the famous old-time immigrant landing-place, Castle Garden. He was not less green than many another German whose entry was through these portals, and like many another he was much disappointed in his expectations. He wandered around short time seeking employment, his small stock of money growing rapidly less. At his boarding house and in German circles, which he frequented, he learned of the proposed expedition against the “Mormons.” He didn’t know anything about the “Mormons,” but he did know something about war and the soldier business: so, rather than continue in idleness, he decided to enlist in the U.S. army. A strapping fellow of his size and type was too good to be allowed to get away, and the recruiting officer signed him on the spot. He was sent over to Governor’’ island in New York harbor, where already were assembled hundreds of “rookies:” receiving their first instruction in the manual of arms and target-shooting, preparatory to transfer to the ranks of the army which was to bring the recalcitrant residents of Utah to terms. Many of his comrades thought the “Mormons” were a tribe of Indians, but from the better informed he gathered that there would be many attractive features to the campaign, especially after the adult male part of the rebellious element was disposed of.
In the course of a few weeks, a recruit detachment was made up and dispatched to Fort Leavenworth. Carl Heinrich being one of them. Here the routine of drill was resumed with increased earnestness, the former jaeger sergeant being enrolled as a high private in Phelps’ battery of field artillery. One day Captain Phelps was on the parade ground, watching the exercises of the awkward squad, when his eye fell upon the tall Holsteiner.
“You have been a soldier before?” said the captain.
“Ya,” was the reply.
“Well, go to your quarters and turn out for drill only with the battery; you needn’t bother any more with these beginners.”
This was the commencement of a friendship more intimate than is usually allowed to subsist between an enlisted man and a commissioned officer. But Captain Phelps had traveled in Europe, had made a study of the German army, had some knowledge of the German language, and took a great fancy to his particular German specimen. The battery clerk was also a German. As a result of these association, Carl Heinrich at a later day obtained many hunting and other unusual privileges and had free access to the maps and other documentation among the battery’s papers.
At length the grand column moved out from Leavenworth on its long march across the plains. It numbered about 1,500 men, infantry, cavalry and artillery, under command of Col. Alexander. Gen. Johnston, who was the titular commander, did not join the force until the troops had established winter quarters at Bridger. The three arms of the service were separated by about a day’s march; the artillery, being in the van, the infantry 15 or 20 miles behind, and the cavalry bringing up the rear. There were two batteries of artillery, each of eight pieces or ordinance with six houses to the piece, and about 70 men. The latter had as extra equipment short flintlock carbines. The force was altogether seen on this side of the Mississippi river, and was spoken of them and has been since as the “flower of the American army.” But to the eyes of the young soldier fresh from the battlefield of Schleswig and the severe discipline of the Prussian drillmasters there was nothing of the floral or nosegay order about it. To him it seemed an untrained horde, ragged in drill, regardless of discipline, and ridiculous in its pretense at guard duty. There never was a time from the first day out of Leavenworth until the mountaineers began to test their mettle near Green River, when an active raiding party, either red men or white, could not have made off with all the stock and left the command afoot and at the mercy of any foe. The personnel of the troops was also inferior, the newly enlisted men especially being of the roving, shiftless class for whom the small stipend them paid was less a temptation than was the opportunity for adventure.
Sees His First Indian
Naturally, the farther he journeyed, the less the German cannoneer was impressed with the fragrance or beauty of this “flower of the American army.” His own duty had this spice of novelty, that he was usually one of the hunting party, which furnished fresh meat for the mess. He took part also in infrequent and desultory target practice with which the monotony of the march was varied, and saw for the first time the American Indian on his native heath, though these sons of the forest and plain had so wholesome a respect of Uncle Sam’s uniform that they offered no molestation. On approaching Green River, however, a more vigilant and aggressive attitude was made necessary, by the appearance of little band of rough-riding mountain boys, who harassed the column, especially at night, by swooping down and stampeding the horses and mules, paying particular attention to the transport animals of the infantry. Not only was the guard strengthened to meet this new menace, but it was also found necessary to confine the animals to keep them on the picket line, in consequence of which they soon became very thin. These mysterious and daring forays implanted in the expedition a sort of impressive silent fear. Captain Van Vliet had been previously met, and had reported the failure of his efforts to secure Gov. Young’s acquiescence in the proposal for the troops to come peacefully into the valley. He assured Col. Alexander that if he persisted in the forward march he would not only have to fight all the way–the canyon passes being fortified – but even if he successfully made his way through he would find the city deserted and desolate; there would be food for neither man nor beast–everything, even the city itself would be destroyed.
The army by this time had become pretty well demoralized and dispirited. The chief ration was mule meat, and thin mule meat at that. There was also much less talk than formerly about the good times that the officers and soldiers were going to have after their conquest of the rebellious “Mormons.” Day by day the troubles and the anxieties increased. Clouds of smoke by day and pillar of fire by night marked the efforts of the enemy to burn the grass so there should be no forage for the stock. With painful frequency reports would come in of supply trains being burned and the cattle driven off. In this perplexity the officers held a council of war to decide as to whether to go into winter quarter, as had been suggested by Capt. Van Vliet, or to try to fight their way on beyond the mountain barriers into the valley of the great Salt Lake. Gen. Johnston had not yet joined the command; so his advice could not be had, but at length the sentiments of the older and cooler heads prevailed, and it was decided to act on the defensive, moving on slowly and with caution until a place suitable for winter cantonments could be found.
California Tempted Him
With the purpose of making his way to California, artilleryman Carl Heinrich, now thoroughly disgusted with the service, decided to take “French leave.” He asked for and obtained permission to go on a hunt, his captain dismissing him with the kindly admonition to be careful not to fall into the hands of the “Mormons.” After hastily looking over the maps of the country, he set out taking his course westward, gun on shoulder; and after tramping all night and until nearly noon of the following day he came in sight of Fort Bridger. Here he was kindly received, and joined the party in charge of that station at their midday meal. While dinner was in progress a large herd of cattle was seen approaching. As the animals were headed up near the stockade he observed that the cattle were from the supply trains at Green River, and he learned that they had been captured by a raiding party which had burned a large number of wagons. He effected a trade with a man named “Billl” Hickman for a saddle horse, a disabled beast and–still intent on pushing westward–consented to assist in driving these cattle into the valley. On entering Echo Canyon he was forced to approve the wisdom of Col. Alexander’s decision to remain outside until peace negotiations should be successful or at least until more favorable weather. The narrow pass had been so thoroughly fortified that a much smaller force than was in evidence would have been sufficient to hold it against a much larger force than was in prospect. Every height bristled with works and the utmost activity was still being manifested in collecting huge boulders on the brink of the precipices ready to be hurled down upon an advancing foe. At places where the two sides of the gorge came close together, formidable barricades had been erected, while at frequent intervals materials had been collected with which at short notice dams could be constructed to back up the waters and submerge the road. He was also impressed with the energy and determination of the defenders, and conceived a wholesome respect for their valor, little as he knew or approved of the cause for which they were contending. When he finally reached that point in Emigration canyon from which the city and valley and the Great Salt Lake itself could be seen and instantaneous change of heart seemed to come over him as to the further journey to California. Without knowing why or how his resolution was fixed. He would make his home right here.
His captain and comrades at first thought the stalwart young foreigner had been captured or killed by the “Mormons.” This suspicion was strengthened by an incident that came near bringing fatal consequences to a brother of Hickman’s, who was sent to the camp of the soldiers as a courier with dispatches. He happened to be wearing an army belt, which Carl Heinrich late associates recognized as his property. They laid violent hands on the messenger and were in the very act of stringing him up when Col. Alexander’s appearance on the scene put a stop to the summary proceeding. He was detained as a prisoner, however for several weeks being finally sent in to Salt Lake City with dispatches from Col. Alexander to Gov. Young.
The promise at the beginning of this story was that it was to be neither a romance nor a biography. As it is not intended to go into history either, no further allusion need be here made to the famous Johnston army or the “Mormon” war. To carry along further the detailed story of Carl Heinrich’s life would also be a violation of the promise referred to. In hasty conclusion, therefore it is only necessary to say that in course of time a statute of limitations freed him from his offense against Uncle Sam’s army regulation; that he made Utah his home and is still living here an honored and respected citizen, that he still proudly wears on his manly breast his iron cross and that his real name (only two-thirds of which was appeared above) is Charles H. Wilcken.
[Deseret Evening News, Saturday, Dec. 21, 1912]