1857–1858 Utah War

The Utah War (1857-1858)

The Mormons began to settle Utah in 1847, after mobs murdered the Prophet Joseph Smith and expelled the Mormon Church membership from Illinois. With Mormon settlement, this desert state began to blossom. For nearly a decade, the Mormons in Utah enjoyed relative peace and were free to practice their religion as they saw fit. In 1856, the Mormon Reformation, which was in reality just a renewed call for Mormons to live their faith, began. The purpose of the Reformation was, again, to call the Mormons out of spiritual laxity after a trying decade of being mobbed, driven, and, finally, the decade of physical trials after starting over in Utah. In 1857, their isolation ended.

A picture of the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. James Buchanan was the last antebellum President of the United States. A Democrat, his party was under intense pressure from the newly formed Republican Party, which had campaigned strongly in 1856 on a platform opposed to “those twin relics of barbarism–polygamy and slavery.” Slavery was not only legal, but a significant economic asset to fifteen states at the time; Mormon polygamy, practiced largely by the Mormon Church in far-off Utah territory, made a much softer target. Thus, it posed an inviting safety valve for the political pressure.

In the meantime, some federal appointees to territorial offices in Utah had turned out to be either incompetent or corrupt, or both. When the worst offenders were expelled from the territory and told that they were not wanted, a group of them formed a committee and accused the Mormons of rebelling against the authority of the United States. This gave Buchanan the pretext he needed. He removed Brigham Young as governor, appointed Alfred Cumming in his stead, and ordered five thousand troops to accompany the new governor to the territory, under the command of Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston.

In making this move, Buchanan, either by mistake or by design, neglected to notify the incumbent governor, Brigham Young, that he had been replaced. (The fact that the mail routes to Utah were ordered closed strongly suggests that Buchanan intended to keep Young in the dark.) The first Young heard of this event was when two Mormons, O. Porter Rockwell and Abraham O. Smoot, reported to him what they had learned during a mail run to the east. This was on July 23, 1857, almost ten years to the day since the Mormons had arrived in Utah. The army was already on the move.

Young had experienced the expulsion of the Saints from Ohio, Missouri, and Nauvoo, and was determined that they should not be driven from their homes again. Adopting the view that a military force of undeclared intentions is by default hostile, he made preparations to defend the territory against invasion. The territorial militia, which still bore the name of “The Nauvoo Legion,” under the command of Daniel H. Wells and Lot Smith, began a campaign that avoided direct military confrontation, but operated on the army’s supply trains and communications. This had the effect of crippling the army’s ability to carry out offensive operations, but avoided bloodshed, which the Mormon authorities were at all times anxious to do. In this they were mostly successful, but for the single tragic exception of the Mountain Meadows massacre, where panicked Mormon settlers and Piute Indians attacked a wagon train carrying Missouri and Arkansas settlers heading for California, out of the mistaken belief that these were either connected to the invading army, or were threatening the Mormon settlers. Attempts by Brigham Young to stop the massacre came too late.

In April of 1858, after meeting with Cumming and obtaining assurances that the troops would not be permitted to harass Mormon settlers, Young resigned as governor. Within a few weeks, the army was allowed to enter the Salt Lake Valley and settle at Camp Floyd. Most of Salt Lake City had been abandoned for fear of the army and most Mormons had fled to Provo, just south of Salt Lake, for refuge. Johnston’s Army entered a deserted city. War was avoided as the army realized there was no rebellion. For the next several years, the Federal Government, distracted by the Civil War, largely left the Mormons alone and the Mormon Church was able to continue its growth and missionary work. During the Civil War, the soldiers from Camp Floyd were withdrawn to help fight.  At this point, Mormon missionaries began preaching in the South Pacific, and New Zealand.

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