I have long been interested in the so-called “Mormon War” of 1857-1858 that took place in the inter-mountain West. It was about so many things and may be interpreted in so many different ways. It could be seen as persecution of a small religious group by the larger society; certainly that is the way that the Mormons at the time viewed it and some since then still see it that way. It could be interpreted as an effort to bring under American control an unruly land and people who were in rebellion against the Constitution. I suspect that supporters of the Army’s expedition to Utah saw it that way. It may be interpreted as mostly about extending the nation’s presence into the acquired Far West region or about curtailing Mormon plural marriage or about any number of other things. Violence ensued, although the Army did not commit it. Occupation followed the Army’s arrival in Utah, and Mormons reacted negatively to that for more than a generation.
So why did the U.S. Army “invade” Utah. In actuality, it didn’t. It took charge of the region to assert a national presence. Prior to the American Civil War in 1857 it appeared to politicos in Washington that the Mormons in Utah were in disloyal and perhaps rebellious toward the U.S. government. The Mormons under Brigham Young, a modern Moses if ever there was one, had led his followers from Illinois to the Great Basin a decade earlier and built a theocratic empire beside the Great Salt Lake. The Mormon autonomy there had always worried national leaders, but mostly an uneasy relationship existed. Young had served as Territorial Governor, a position appointed by the U.S. President, from the point that Utah had become a territory. This changed in 1857.
The recently inaugurated President James Buchanan named new officials to Utah Territory, the Mormon stronghold in the Great Basin, replacing, among others, territorial governor Brigham Young. Opposition resulted from the Mormons to accepting these new appointees, and reports from U.S. officials in Utah declared the Mormons in rebellion against the government. To counter the situation, Buchanan sent a military expedition to Utah to quell the Mormons and install the appointed territorial governor, Alfred Cumming, a Democrat and party stalwart.
Cumming insisted on military action and persuaded President Buchanan on May 25, 1857, to issue orders for 2,500 troops to march from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Utah, under the command of General William S. Harney. The first contingents began the trek on July 18, but the slavery controversy in Kansas prompted Harney’s retention in the territory and late in August 1857, Albert Sidney Johnston was named as his replacement. This is the same Albert Sidney Johnston who went on to lead Confederate troops in the Civil War and was killed at the battle of Shiloh in 1862. Since his force in 1857 was well ahead of him, Johnston did not join his command already in Wyoming until early November.
Meanwhile, word reached Utah that the U.S. was sending an army to subdue the Mormons. Believing that this was a continuation of the violence against the Mormons that had taken place in Missouri and Illinois in the 1830s and 1840s, on September 15, 1857, Brigham Young issued a proclamation forbidding the entry of armed forces into Utah, declaring martial law, and mobilizing the territorial militia. He even spoke of possible secession of the Mormon theocratic “Kingdom of God” from the United States. “We must have the kingdom of God, or nothing,” he said. “We are not to be overthrown.”
As U.S. troops drew nearer, conflict grew more likely. At the same time Young began to back away from his earlier belligerence and sought a peaceful settlement. He opened negotiations between the two groups, but also sent loyal Mormons to harass the Army. On October 5, for example, Lot Smith and a band of Mormon militia captured and burned two army supply trains, 52 wagons, and ran off cattle and other animals east of Green River. In part because of these tactics, with winter approaching, troops scattered in columns across the plains, and supplies low, Johnston decided to winter at Fort Bridger in present-day Wyoming.
The winter also allowed time to negotiate a settlement. Thomas L. Kane, a Philadelphian who knew Brigham Young and was respected by him, visited the Mormon leader in February 1858 and offered to mediate. He then went to Fort Bridger and persuaded Alfred Cumming to go to Salt Lake City with him and talk to Young. When they met, Cumming was properly recognized as the new territorial governor, and with his diplomatic skills soon won Mormon support.
With this issue settled, it was now possible to avoid military action. Although he promised a “scorched earth” policy if U.S. troops took any action against Mormons, Young agreed to allow them to enter the territory. Finally, on June 26, 1858, Johnston’s army marched through Salt Lake City and set up Camp Floyd 35 miles from the city. This ended an extraordinary affair in American military history. It did not end the tensions between the U.S. government and the Mormons in Utah. Despite the present-day Mormon persona of super-patriotism, that was far from the case in the nineteenth century.
For those interest in the Utah War of 1857-1858 there is an excellent documentary history available. Le Roy Reuben Hafen and Ann Woodbury Hafen edited, The Utah Expedition, 1857–1858: A Documentary Account of the United States Military Movement under Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, and the Resistance by Brigham Young and the Mormon Nauvoo Legion (Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clarke Co., 1958). I highly recommend it.