Fate seems to ignore some people, leaving them a quiet, predictable life. Others it seems to catch with a whirlwind that propels them through a lifetime of adventure. Such was the case with Charles Henry Wilcken, a courageous convert with a history filled with action.
Wilcken came to the Great Basin in 1857 as a reluctant soldier of Johnston's army. He became a convert to the Church and after many years of serving as a sort of security guard and assistant for Church leaders, quietly completed his long life of service as a guide on Temple Square. He made many contributions during his lifetime and left a large posterity.In 1848, Wilcken, then 17 years old, was a miller's apprentice in the Prussian-leaning dukedom of Schleswig, now part of Germany, adjacent to Denmark. That year the dukedom rebelled against Danish rule, and a grueling two-year battle between the well-equipped Danes and the independent army of Schleswig-Holstein erupted.
Wilcken enlisted and his battlefield bravery eventually won him promotion and decorations. When the war ended, though, he returned as an apprentice to the mill, married and expected to spend his life quietly grinding flour and rearing a family. ("A Soldier's Story," by C.H.W., Juvenile Instructor, 20:245-358.)
"But fate willed it otherwise," he observed. "My Heavenly Father had a work for me to do of more importance than the one I was engaged in."
The fate he referred to was a treaty that required all Schleswig officers to serve in the Danish army. Wilcken was given orders to report for duty in 1857.
"To this my pride could not submit, and instead of reporting at Copenhagen, I bid farewell to the land of my birth with the intention of joining my two brothers who were then in business in South America
He took passage to England, but in London ran short of funds and had enough money to only buy cheap steerage passage to New York. There, he attempted to find work but was disappointed.
"For a man of the world to be without money in a strange land is something serious," he recalled. "My experience in that great city was a terrible one. . . . One fine morning my landlord turned me out of doors, keeping my trunks for past expenses. . . . Toward evening, almost driven to desperation, I passed a recruiting office and resolved to enlist
under an assumed nameT rather than spend the night upon the streets. Soon I was transformed from a lone and friendless tramp to a U.S. soldier, enlisted for Utah, to wipe out the "Mormons."
He was surrounded by other enlistees, given a few drills and shipped to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to become part of the army under then Col. Albert Sidney Johnston, with the mission to put down the supposed "Utah insurrection."
But Wilcken was soon disillusioned with the United States conscripts. He commented: "I heard it mentioned frequently that this was the `flower of the American army,' and I felt to say, `May the Lord take care of the balance.' I had never in all my experience seen anything like it that was called a military organization.
"As a rule the American army was made up of the scum of the nation - a lot of men that were worthless to society . . . it seemed to me more like a mob than a regular army, and I soon became disgusted with my situation."
Wilcken and the army tramped across the breadth of America. The men were generally without arms as the officers were afraid the recruits would brawl or trade guns for whiskey. Wilcken was armed, however, with his own gun and "the only square meals I had were when I had been killing some game."
He said that in the West, the army met with Captain [Stewart] Van Vliet who had come from the Salt Lake Valley where he had met with Brigham Young. Captain Van Vliet told the army of the preparations the Mormons were making for battle.
When the army reached Ham's Fork in southwest Wyoming, "Here we could see now and again little squads of men on horseback, peeping over the hills. Sometimes they would descend into the bottoms and set the grass on fire and burn the timber. . . . I could plainly see our officers took things more seriously. Cold weather was approaching, teams were poor, provisions scarce, and the heaviest and most dangerous part of the journey was before us."
At this time, Wilcken's disgust for the army peaked and he resolved to abandon his commission and ride to Great Salt Lake City. One day as he began to leave, he had an experience that convinced him of a Supreme Being. He was given a watch, horse and gun to deliver to an officer. As he rode the horse away, a voice called his real name, unknown to those in the army. He pulled up short, but found no one about. Twice more, as he started to leave, his name was called until "a fear and trembling came over me to such a degree that I hurried from the spot and made my way to camp." Later he realized that had he continued in his path, he would have been captured as a deserter by army patrols in the area that night.
The next day he received permission to go hunting, and rode out into the desert where he was later conveniently "captured" by a Mormon, Jonathan Ellis Layne, one of the Mormon defenders who had been out rabbit hunting.
Layne wrote of the event: "Just then I heard a slight noise at my right hand. I did not turn my head, but drew my gun around toward the noise, there stood a large soldier.
IT dropped the muzzle of my gun and pointed it directly at his heart, he threw up his arms and said, "Don't shoot, I'm unarmed."
Taken to meet General Daniel H. Wells, Wilcken noted, "Everything was so different from the army; a different class of people, no swearing, no fighting. Every one I saw and came in contact with seemed to enjoy a different kind of spirit. Prayers morning and night were novel to me, but I cheerfully bent my knees with the brethren."
At first he feared that the well-behaved Mormons were ignorantly serving a despot, and he worried that a terrible war might ensue. But as he entered the Salt Lake Valley and saw the city spread before him, powerful feelings overcame him. "I cannot describe it, nor neither could I account for it at the time. A power forced me to seek some secluded spot and bend my knees in humble reverence before my Maker. I could not utter any words, but I felt to acknowledge for the first time in many years that there was a God that would take care of me. . . . After this a calm, heavenly feeling came over me and I rose to my feet a new man. It seemed I had found a haven of rest."
Wilcken brought with him valuable information about the condition of the army and was an instant celebrity. He declined Brigham Young's offer of free passage to California. Instead, he set his lot with the Saints. He learned English, studied the gospel and was baptized.
In a meeting with Brigham Young, Wilcken was promised, "If I would continue as I had commenced in this work that my enemies should have no power over me. . . . When the army was permitted to enter these valleys they began to look [search] after me, and many a narrow escape I have had to keep out of their grasp; but the Lord blessed and protected me."
Wilcken's life continued along the lines of adventure, though more of a spiritual nature. In 1860 his wife and two children arrived from the old country. He later returned to his homeland and obtained the names of 600 of his ancestors, and baptized many of his family. He brought his brother, three nieces and his aged mother to Utah where he cared for her until her death.
He served as Salt Lake City watermaster in 1879, but lost re-election in 1884. An incident in 1883 proved he had not lost his battlefield valor, however.
The August 25 Deseret Evening News reported, "Marshal Andrew Burt and `Special Police Officer' Wilcken had been summoned to subdue and take into custody a violent drunk man who had been causing a disturbance and threatening citizens with a gun. During the fray, Burt was shot and killed and Wilcken suffered a serious gunshot wound but nevertheless managed to subdue the gunman. He was unable, however, to prevent a mob from taking the prisoner from jail and lynching him."
Wilcken served in a law enforcement capacity for several years and became a sort of security agent and helper for Church leaders, especially during the difficulties of the 1880s. In this responsibility, he became especially close with President John Taylor, living on the underground with him for two years. After President Taylor's death, Wilcken assisted Apostle George Q. Cannon and Apostle Wilford W. Woodruff. ("Charles Henry Wilcken, an Undervalued Saint," by William C. Seifrit, Utah Historical Quarterly, Fall 1987.)
Ironically, he served as a pallbearer to Lot Smith, whose men had "peeped over the hills" at Johnston's army in 1857.
Charles Henry Wilcken eventually became a patriarch, and was a guide on Temple Square. He died in 1915 at the age of 84. To the end of his life he was grateful that what appeared to be an instrument of destruction for the Saints - Johnston's army - had through the Lord's intervention become an instrument of salvation for a homeless Prussian soldier destitute upon the streets of New York City.