Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Henry D. Styer: A Sense of Fair Play

Henry D. Styer: A Sense of Fair Play

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 13, 2008

Henry Delp Styer (1862-1944), scion of one of the first Czech families to settle in colonial Pennsylvania, was a member of the West Point class of 1884. His first military posts were in the west, including Utah, where he was assigned to Indian duty part of the time, and to service as the professor of military tactics at Utah Agricultural College in Logan for part of the time. He served in the Philippines during the Spanish American War, and again several years later. He commanded Fort Niagara for a time, and served on the Mexican border during the tense years of the Mexican Revolution. Other duty posts included Trenton, New Jersey, and Camp Lewis, near Tacoma, Washington.

Perhaps his most exotic assignment came in 1918, during the Russian Revolution. The Russian Bolshevik faction had signed a separate peace with Germany; the German army withdrew from the Russian front, and the Russians turned full time to their internal battles. Because the Russians had been allies of the Western Powers contra the Germans, huge stocks of weapons and other supplies had been shipped to Russia, largely from Russia’s east coast at Vladivostok where the supplies could be ferried across Asia via the Trans-Siberian railroad. Now the Western Powers became worried that those supplies would fall into the hands of warring Russian factions that would turn them over to the Germans. The U.S. Army’s 27th Infantry Regiment, commanded by Col. Styer, was already in Siberia, and was rushed to Vladivostok to take charge of those supplies, in the midst of an international military and diplomatic stew of various Russian factions, and troops from Britain, Canada, Czechoslovakia, China, Italy, France, and Japan.

The civil war between contenders for Russian rule was complicated by the private actions of local warlords, one of whom, a General Kalmikoff, commanded a Cossack unit near Vladivostok. In the winter of 1918-19 Kalmikoff raided settlements and terrorized civilians, and so abused his own soldiers that some 1,500 of them deserted his command and turned themselves in to the American units under Styer’s command at Vladivostok. The Americans disarmed them and kept them under guard while they worked to bring Kalmikoff under control.

The Japanese staff at Vladivostok requested that Styer turn over to them all the weapons, horses, and other equipment taken from the deserters. Styer refused, saying that to do so would leave the deserters subject to slaughter by Kalmikoff if circumstances required the Americans to end their protective custody. The Japanese raised their request to a demand, and even some American newspapers began to call for Styer to comply. Styer declined to leave the deserters helpless, and replied to all critics:

“It is not the habit of American officers to pay attention to absurd gossip and newspaper criticism. However, at the request of our allies, we make the following official explanation:

“The American troops have no intention of defending or sheltering political parties or groups, whether they are called Bolshevist or other names. The Americans recently disarmed the Cossack deserters for the sole purpose of avoiding bloodshed and disorder. We are keeping them under guard while the allied Military Council at Vladivostok decides what is to be done with them. The American troops are always ready to act conjointly with the commander of the allied forces in the defense of safety.”

Styer’s superiors endorsed his handling of the problem. Kalmikoff was eventually brought under control, and the deserters were released, with their weapons remaining in Russian, not Japanese, hands.

Styer retired from the Army in 1919; he died in California in 1944.

And the reason for his appearance on this Mormon history blog?

Because Styer’s 1918 defense of the 1,500 Cossacks was not the first time his sense of fair play had caused him to side with an unpopular group. Styer had written the following letter to the editor of the Trenton Times when he had been stationed in New Jersey in 1916:

To the Editor of the Times: –

Sir – Recently I have noticed several articles in your paper giving publicity to the work of the Mormon elders stationed in Trenton, conducting their missionary work, and it is pleasing to me to note your attitude of fairness to these people. I am sending you this in the hope that it may find space in your columns and be read by some who are interested in conditions as they are.

For over 30 years I have been in military service in the U.S. Army, 12 of which was spent in Utah among the Mormons, and I have had a fairly good opportunity to observe the character of these people. If they are to be judged by results the fact that they have built up a prosperous commonwealth in a desert waste, have made education possible to the extent that the state ranks second in literacy in the Union, and that their moral and temperate habits have given them the lowest death rate in the world, should be given prominence.

Sensational lecturers in the East have charged political aspirations against the Mormons, but 10 of the western governors, over their signatures, have refuted these charges. Polygamy – the old cry – has also been raised, but to my knowledge that practice ceased before the present generation.

I do not agree fully with all of the teachings and doctrines of the Mormons, but may say that my only interest in this matter is to see fair play given to a people among whom I made many acquaintances and some warm friends during the period of my service in Utah.

My personal experience and intimate knowledge of conditions in Utah covers a period from 1886 to 1906 – two years’ service from 1886 to 1888 in Southern Utah; 1888 to 1891 at Salt Lake City; 1892 to 1896 as military instructor at the State Agricultural College of Utah, and 1903 to 1906 on same duty.

Very truly yours,

Lt. Col. U.S. Army.

Trenton, June 17, 1916.



  1. Thanks for sharing this episode. I have such a hard time speaking out about things in which I have a vested interest that I am intrigued by individuals whose sense of justice and propriety impels them to stand for fairness and justice even when it does not affect their interest or goes against it.

    Comment by Edje — October 13, 2008 @ 11:06 am

  2. What an interesting story. The qualities of justice rather than political expediency and religious tolerance rather than bigotry in one man.

    A very nice summary from Edje, also.

    Comment by Researcher — October 13, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  3. Thanks, Edje and Researcher — you see in him the same qualities that I appreciated.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 13, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

  4. A very interesting man. It would be nice to know about him and his activities in Utah. He was in Utah for twenty years, I am wondering what other sources there could be about him.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — October 13, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

  5. Oh, that we had more of this kind of tolerance and sense of justice today. Too often decisions in the political and business arena are based on “what is expedient for me today”. Col. Styer is a hero for any time. Thanks, Ardis, and “Keepapitchinin”.

    Comment by kevinf — October 13, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

  6. The army must also have thought that Styer was doing something right. Before he retired he was a brigadier general commanding the 181st Infantry Brigade.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — October 13, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  7. I have noticed that many of the Pennsylvania natives I know take the principles of religious freedom very seriously. It was a surprise when we first moved here and continues to be a surprise from time to time. Definitely a pleasant surprise, I may add.

    Comment by Researcher — October 14, 2008 @ 6:45 am

  8. Perhaps not as dramatic, but it reminds me of Alexander Doniphan and his defense of Mormons in Missouri.

    BTW: The US intervention in Russia in 1918/1919 is a fasinating and little known bit of American history.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 14, 2008 @ 9:08 am

  9. Thanks for a great set of comments, all.

    BTW: The US intervention in Russia in 1918/1919 is a fasinating and little known bit of American history.

    And I certainly don’t pretend to be an expert — what I’ve written here is pieced together from a very superficial knowledge. I tried not to go beyond what I could find in seemingly trustworthy summaries, but it’s certainly subject to correction if someone knows better! I’ve also found the name of one Mormon boy in the American troops in Russia. When I can find more about him and understand better what he was a part of, I’ll post his story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 14, 2008 @ 9:43 am

  10. Re the U.S. intervention in Russia just after WWI, I ought to mention that in addition to the multi-nation military occupation of eastern Siberia discussed above, there was an intervention by American troops near the Arctic Circle (Archangel). Winston Churchill had talked Woodrow Wilson into this, and, as I recall what happened, a Michigan National Division and a Marine Corps regiment drew the duty. This went on for several years until the Americans started taking casualties, following which the U.S. decided to pull the plug on this very cold, frustrating expeditionary force — a quite separate venture than the Siberian affair and thousands of miles away. The veterans of the Michigan National Guard unit involved dubbed themselves the Polar Bear Division. Many are buried in the White Chapel Cemetery in Troy, MI, about 30 miles north of Detroit, where a large sculpture of a polar bear commemorates their little-known service. This incident remained a talking point in U.S.-USSR relations for decades, as with the Soviet argument during the Cuban Missle Crisis of 1962 that their presence in Cuba was no more unacceptable than that of the American forces in northern Russia after WWI.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — October 15, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

  11. Thanks, Bill. I think the other man whose name I know must have been part of the Archangel venture — several of the details you mention are part of his story. (Just after WWI, the Millennial Star attempted to publish a paragraph about every Latter-day Saint, at least on the western side, who had died in service, and that paragraph is all I have so far.) There are so many corners of history that I know virtually nothing about!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 16, 2008 @ 5:05 am

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