On October 26, 1862, Colonel Patrick E. Connor, California Volunteers, established Camp Douglas on a rise in the Wasatch Range foothills a few miles east of the Mormon capital of Salt Lake City in the Utah Territory. It was named in honor of recently deceased Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. A cemetery site was chosen within the camp and the first committal occurred by the end of the year. The camp's strategic importance was twofold. First, protect important communication and transportation lines against hostile Native Americans during the Civil War. Second, act as a strong federal presence among the predominately Mormon population that had historically shown non-cooperation toward federal authority following the formal establishment of the Utah Territory in 1850.
During the camp's first winter, Colonel Connor launched an offensive against Shoshone leader Bear Hunter and other tribes known to be harassing overland mail and mining operations in northern Utah and southern Idaho. Connor's campaign culminated in the January 29, 1863, massacre at Bear River 140 miles north of Salt Lake City. In this engagement, Connor's troops launched a daybreak attack on an unsuspecting Shoshone encampment, leaving an estimated 250 dead—including women and children. Connor was promoted to brigadier general after the engagement and peace was established with area tribes by fall of that year. Twenty-one of Connor's men died in the attack.
The camp remained an important western outpost for the U.S. military. Successful prospecting for minerals, initiated by Connor, led to an influx on non-Mormon settlers to the territory. The camp was rebuilt between 1874 and 1876 with an "Officers Circle" established northwest of the post cemetery. New construction primarily used the same red sandstone featured prominently in the cemetery's early headstones and monuments. The post was designated Fort Douglas in 1878. The fort became one of the main military installations in the central Rocky Mountains toward the end of the nineteenth century. Most of its garrison was deployed for service in the Spanish-American War. The post continued to expand and became a regimental headquarters in 1902.
During World War I, Fort Douglas served as one of the Army's physical-preparedness camps for recruits. It was also the site of an internment camp for more than 300 German prisoners of war during the conflict. During the years between the two world wars it served as a district headquarters and training camp for the New Deal's Civilian Conservation Corps. The fort continued in its role as an important training and mobilization base during World War II and resumed its role as a POW camp. Following WWII, Fort Douglas served as headquarters for Army Reserve and National Guard Units. The base was officially decommissioned on October 26, 1991.
The current post cemetery is approximately 4 acres, expanded from its original size of about 125 feet by 200 feet, probably around 1890, and again in 1939. The original 1862 plot contained 22 headstones and one large grave marker associated with the Bear River dead, the first military interments here. Most of these markers, carved using sandstone from Red Butte Canyon, deteriorated to the point they were replaced with government headstones in the early 2000s. The grave of former Governor James D. Doty features a marker made of the same material. In the late-nineteenth century, the burial of civilians in a non-denominational fenced area called Mount Olivet Cemetery was endorsed by local religious leaders and Congress; today these graves, many unknown, make up Section H. Walkways, roads, and fences organized the interior of the cemetery over the years, and the poorly constructed wall was replaced with an iron fence. Numerous private grave markers are found on graves among the graves marked with government-issued headstones. Locust trees planted in the mid-1860s along the interior perimeter of the cemetery, paid for by donations, were an important part of the landscape. The metal gate installed at the original north entrance to the cemetery in the mid-1860s, supported by sandstone piers, is all that remains of the original wall.
A Fort Douglas historic district, which includes the cemetery, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970; a subsequent National Historic Landmark designation in 1975 does not include the cemetery. The post cemetery was transferred from the Army to NCA on December 20, 2019.
Monuments and Memorials
A 20-foot tall monument carved of Red Butte sandstone located in the center of the cemetery honors the 21 soldiers killed in the Bear River action. It was erected in spring 1863 after regimental drum major James Cottrell proposed the monument, to be built with donations. He shares credit with the final design with Mormon-convert and English carver Samuel Lane Jones, Jr. The base, die, and post topped by a figure of a soldier. It is inscribed with the name and rank of each soldier illustrating Jones' distinctive style of punctuation and abbreviation. He also carved the headstone for Fort Douglas chaplain and surgeon Dr. J. King Robinson. This monument was removed from the cemetery in 2019 for conservation and it was reinstalled the next year.
The World War I German POWs who died while interned at Camp Douglas are memorialized by a 15-foot-tall granite monument erected in the southeast corner of the cemetery. The 21 remains were also reinterred to this area in 1933. The Art Moderne monument was sculpted and built by Arno Alfred Steinicke (1892–1968), and dedicated on Memorial Day, May 30, 1933. A kneeling figure of a wounded soldier sits atop a shaped stele inscribed with a German coat of arms featuring a Bundesadler or "Federal Eagle"; a bronze plaque lists the names of the deceased. It was donated by German-Americans of the United States and the American Legion of Utah. As part of the dedication ceremony, the German government bestowed a medal to a physician who attended the ailing POWs, German choral music was sung, and flowers were dropped on the monument from a U.S. Army plane that flew low over the cemetery.