Utah War: U.S. Government Versus Mormon Settlers
The federal expedition into Utah Territory in 1857-58, which pitted President James Buchanan's U.S. Army against Brigham Young's Nauvoo Legion, was largely a bloodless affair, but misjudgments, embarrassments and expenses abounded.
By D.G. Littleford
It was a good war. "Killed, none; wounded, none; fooled, everybody,"
reported a correspondent of the New York Herald. The incident of 1857-58
known as the Utah Expedition, the Utah War or Buchanan's Blunder was a collision
of territorial self-determination against a federal government already faced with
insubordination in Kansas and its Southern states. When President James Buchanan
decided to flex federal muscle against Utah Territory and "the Mormon problem,"
he ignited a full rebellion that, before it was all over, embarrassed the military
arm of the young republic and confounded the president.
When Brigham Young, with the first Mormon pioneers, set foot on the spacious
Salt Lake Valley floor on July 24, 1847, he boasted that if they could have just
10 years of peace, they would ask no odds of the devil or Uncle Sam. The young
religion that taught continuing revelation had already experienced a turbulent
17-year history. By the time the Latter-day Saints sought refuge in the Rocky
Mountain wilderness, some members had been driven from their homes as many as
four times. It was, curiously, 10 years to the day--on July 24, 1857--that
Young received word that an American army was on its way to Utah Territory.
The news was not altogether unexpected. Utah was a difficult post for federal
territorial appointees. Mormon polygamy and theocratic tendencies were viewed
by much of the country as peculiar and un-American. On the other hand, the federally
appointed judges and other agents chosen from outside their community were an
annoyance to the Mormons, whose petition for statehood was repeatedly refused.
President Millard Fillmore had made a small concession, appointing Brigham Young
as Utah's territorial governor.
Judge William W. Drummond was particularly obnoxious to Salt Lake society.
He lectured polygamists for their immoral lifestyle while he was cohabitating
with another man's wife. Of even greater irritation, Drummond, along with
Judges George P. Stiles and John F. Kinney, all sought to recoup federal jurisdiction
from Utah's probate courts, which the Mormons had been creatively using
to circumvent federal authority.
The stormy relationships climaxed when Utah lawyers broke into Stiles'
office in protest and pretended to burn court documents and law books in the privy
out back. One by one, Drummond, Stiles and Kinney each packed his bags and headed
back to Washington, declaring in scathing letters that they had barely escaped
Utah with their lives. President Buchanan thought he should do something. Appointing
a new territorial governor and new federal judges, and sending in 2,500 troops
seemed like a good solution.
Instructions from General-in-Chief Winfield Scott to General William S. Harney
on June 29, 1857, stated that the troops under Harney's command were to
be a posse comitatus, and that "in no case will you, your officers or men,
attack any body of citizens whatever, except on such requisition or summons, or
in sheer self-defense."
The administration, however, whether unintentionally or deliberately, neglected
to inform Utah Territorial Governor Brigham Young of its decision or directives.
Utah's leaders learned of the approaching army from mail carriers, who had
picked up word of the big government supply contracts in Independence, Mo. In
this vacuum of information, and after 27 years of persecution, the Mormons assumed
the worst. It had been only 13 years since they buried their first prophet, Joseph
Smith, killed by a mob in Carthage, Ill., and only two months since Parley P.
Pratt, one of their 12 apostles, had been murdered in Arkansas. Memories of mob
violence and broken government promises were still fresh in their minds.
Typifying Mormon reaction, Sanford Porter Sr. wrote, "[We are] weak
in number, and weak in means, but with too much American blood in our veins to
put ourselves up as a target for an army to shoot at without making any effort
to protect ourselves." Popular Utah rhetoric cast the Mormons in the role
of "Uncle Sam's nephews," walking in his footsteps against tyranny.
Nor were Mormon women the oppressed victims waiting for liberation that many
Americans, including some of the approaching soldiers, assumed. Salt Lake wives
poured hot lead into molds to make bullets and sewed blankets into overcoats for
militiamen. When an army quartermaster asked Mrs. Albert Carrington if she would
cut down her carefully cultivated peach orchard to defend her faith, she replied
in the affirmative, "And would sit up nights to do it."
On August 1, 1857, Utah mustered its territorial militia, called the Nauvoo
Legion after its Illinois antecedent. Drilling commenced throughout the territory.
The government sought to gather guns and ammunition, and manufactured Colt revolvers.
Grain and other food supplies were cached. Settlers were recalled from distant
homesteads such as San Bernardino, Calif., and the Carson Valley (then part of
Utah Territory but later part of Nevada), while traveling associates were sent
for from the Eastern states and Europe. Councils were held with the native tribesmen
with the aim of keeping them friendly, or at least neutral.
On August 15, the Mormons sent Colonel Robert T. Burton and a reconnaissance
unit of 125 men eastward from Salt Lake City with orders to observe the American
regiments en route to the territory and protect the Mormon emigrants still on
the overland road that season. Two of Burton's men, Charles Decker and Jesse
Earl, went into the soldiers' camps posing as travelers from California.
What they learned while mingling with the uninformed and boastful enlisted men
and junior officers only fueled Mormon fears that the army was coming to hang
their leaders and abuse their women.
Initially, there was a belief that the invasion of Utah might be a two-pronged
attack, with troops sent from both the east and also from California. Tooele Valley
militiaman Thomas Atkin Jr. was a member of a unit assigned to watch the roads
and passes on the western routes into the territory. Another likely access from
the west coast was the southwestern road, leaving Los Angeles and reaching Utah
by way of St. George. In southern Utah, Colonel William H. Dame of the Parowan
Military District reported on August 23 that he could field 200 men, if necessary,
and that all the roads south of Beaver were being guarded.