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Utah War: U.S. Government Versus Mormon Settlers

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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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.

Units were also sent to explore and guard the passes from the north. Forty-three men under Captain Andrew Cunningham were sent to the Snake River near Fort Hall, while 12 men from Weber County were sent to explore the country east of Ogden. Indeed, all of the passes into the territory were being watched and evaluated as potential routes of invasion or as avenues of escape for the Mormon people.

Though preparing for war, Utah's leaders sought to keep their options open. Publicly, they spoke of defending their rights and reminded each other of past abuses. Privately however, Brigham Young expressed what would become his favored policy. In the communiqués that accompanied his proclamation of martial law on September 14, Young along with the Nauvoo Legion's commanding general, Daniel H. Wells, told the district commanders Philo Farnsworth and Colonel Dame: 'Let there be no excitement….Save life always when it is possible. We do not wish to shed a drop of blood if it can be avoided. This course will give us great influence abroad.'

Envoys were sent east to Washington, D.C., and influential friends hoped to work out a negotiated solution. At the same time, plans were also discussed for a mass migration to distant mountain valleys where extended guerrilla war could be fought, as a last resort.

During the months of October and November, between 1,200 and 2,000 militiamen were stationed in the narrow, high-walled Echo Canyon and the equally defensible East Canyon, on the main road into the Salt Lake Valley. Living on little more than baked flour and water and dealing with the numerous feet of snow that kept falling on the Wasatch Range, the Utah men built breastworks, dug rifle pits and dammed the streams and rivers in preparation for battle. Those who venture off today's interstate highway can still see the remnants of their efforts.

Utah's first line of defense, however, were several hundred mounted men known as'scouts,' 'rangers,' or 'bandits' and'scoundrels,' depending on your point of view. This unorthodox cavalry was sent eastward on the high mountain plains that are now southwestern Wyoming with orders to stampede the animals, burn the grass, stage nightly surprises to keep the soldiers from sleeping, block the road with fallen trees and destroy the fords; in other words, 'to annoy [the army] in every possible way.'

Uncle Sam was an unwitting accomplice. The Army troops being sent to Utah, as mandated in orders to the adjutant general and quartermaster dated May 28, 1857, consisted of the 10th Infantry, the 5th Infantry, Phelps' Battery of the 4th Artillery and the 2nd Dragoons. Unfortunately, only the infantry and artillery companies headed westward from Fort Leavenworth, Kan., beginning July 18. This was already dangerously late in the season to cross the plains and mountains before winter set in. The dragoons were delayed in Kansas. Harney resisted the appointment and was eventually reassigned. It was nearly four months before the expedition's new commander, Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, the 2nd Dragoons, and the new territorial appointees caught up with the advance units. Without cavalry or specific orders, the 1,250 cocky soldiers of the infantry and artillery units found themselves vulnerable.

The first militia operation took place in the early morning hours of September 25 at Pacific Springs, just west of the Continental Divide. Colonel Robert T. Burton and his lieutenants planned an ambitious, coordinated strike to drive off all the mules from both the federal infantry and artillery camps, located a day's march apart. At about 2 or 3 a.m., John Bagley and five companions rode past three guards, then commenced yelling and firing their pistols, trying to stampede the artillery mules just outside of camp. The animals bolted at the racket but could not run far due to their hobbles.

The raiders at the infantry camp had similar problems. The bell mule got caught up in sagebrush. By the time the bugle sounded and soldiers stumbled out of their tents, the intruders had fled.

The inaction of picket guards was a great frustration to young officers, such as Captain Jesse Gove of I Company, 10th Infantry, who were anxious to win their colors in a fight. The senior officer present, Colonel Edmund B. Alexander in command of the 10th Infantry, was nicknamed 'the Old Woman' behind his back for his desire not to precipitate hostilities. He had issued orders for the soldiers not to shoot until fired upon.

Utah's militia commanders had also given orders to their forces to avoid engagement with the opposing troops. Charles E. Griffin, one of the Pacific Springs raiders, wrote, 'Our orders were not to engage in battle with [the soldiers] nor to take life, but to hinder them in every possible way we could.' Major Lot Smith later said he'd been ordered not to hurt anyone except in self-defense. Even when the soldiers grew more aggressive, Mormons did not return fire.

There were practical reasons for the Mormons to want to avoid a shooting war. They hoped to garner sympathy from the public and Eastern newspapers, which could be a factor in any negotiations. But it was also a question of resources. Only about two-thirds of the Nauvoo Legion troops were even armed, and many of those were armed inadequately. In January 1858, Adjutant General James Ferguson reported to Brigham Young that the legion had 6,100 troops, with potentially 1,000 more older men available. Yet, their inventory of weapons included only 2,364 rifles, 1,159 muskets, 99 pistols, and 295 revolvers. Upon receiving his orders, Charles Griffin reported that he saddled his horse and 'took my gun and my blankets, that being all the arms I then had.'

With neither side eager to draw first blood, the stage was set for what many have called a bloodless war. This isn't to say there were no casualties, although ironically far more occurred among non-combatants than combatants. There were a number of accidental injuries and controversial deaths on both sides. For example, a soldier in H Company 'died of fright,' having a fatal heart attack the night of the Pacific Springs raid. In southern Utah Territory, heightened emotions led to the tragic Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 11, 1857, in which some Mormon militiamen joined with native Americans to kill the members of a wagon train from Arkansas (see Wild West Magazine, February 2005). In the north, Bannock and Shoshone raids on Mormon settlements inflicted a number of fatalities. The soldiers and their allies instigated these attacks, the Mormons alleged.

Militia harassed the troopers into and throughout October while the indecisive Colonel Alexander tried to avoid the possibl danger of going through Echo Canyon. Following Jim Bridger's advice to go to the Salt Lake Valley from the north, the colonel led the troops up Ham's Fork of the Green River. When the road became too rough, he tarried a while longer until orders came to lead his men back down again.

Meanwhile, Utah's forces burned the grass for up to a mile on either side of the road, making it inconvenient for troops to find forage for their stock and draft animals. Night'serenading' parties using tin pans, tied and dried raw hides and bake-oven lids for 'musical instruments' disturbed the soldiers' sleep and stampeded their mules and cattle. This tactic was particularly effective on snowy, windy nights when visibility was poorest.

Militiamen also sent circulars into camp encouraging soldiers to desert. All who did not wish to fight were offered $50, employment and safe passage to California. The Contributor claimed that 400 soldiers accepted the offer. While the Utah newspaper was probably exaggerating, 400 desertions out of 2,500 troops does fall within the 12 to 20 percent range of desertion statistics reported for the era.

Not all of the soldiers who took 'French leave' went on to California. Charles Henry Wilcken was a veteran of the Prussian army who had a low opinion of U.S. Army discipline. He deserted, took a job with Brigham Young and remained in Utah Territory.

Scouts watched army movements from bluffs overlooking their road and camp, in plain view of their enemies but out of range of their rifles and cannon. A few moved in closer. Porter Rockwell boasted he hid so close to the trail that he could have reached out and touched the soldiers as they marched along. Ephraim Hanks thought he was a little too close the night a company cook threw kitchen scraps over his hiding place. Intelligence also came from sympathetic mountaineers and Indians who had access to the army camps. Even Captain Gove had to compliment the Mormons on their efficient express and spy system.

Sometimes the poorly supplied and hungry militiamen picked up more than information. John Bagley 'borrowed' about 50 pounds of bacon and a shotgun from an army supply wagon. The single most damaging and controversial operation of the winter campaign was the burning of three army wagon trains with 500,000 pounds of government supplies. The 27-year-old Major Lot Smith became a Utah legend for leading these audacious raids.

Smith was a redheaded, hot-tempered eccentric who would purchase the largest pair of boots available in order to get the most for his money. At 16, he had stood on tiptoe to be tall enough so that he could go with the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican War. General Wells himself gave Smith the order to turn the freight trains strung out along the emigrant road back east, or else destroy them.

Civilians contracted from Majors & Russell, the foremost freight haulers of the day, manned these wagon trains. The first wagon master confronted by Utah's cavalry ignored Smith's warning, obtained army protection for his wagons, and continued west. Smith's band thereafter resorted to the second option. With no more than 24 men, Smith intercepted the next train on the Big Sandy fork of the Green River. The raiders approached just after dark. Teamsters appeared drunk, so Smith waited until after midnight to allow the men to grow drowsy and less combative.

Smith discovered too late that he had misunderstood his scout's report. Instead of one train of 26 wagons in two lines, there were actually two trains of 26 wagons each, camped a short distance apart. Not one to retreat, Smith trusted in the elements of surprise and divine providence. His 24 men disarmed the 60-some teamsters of the first train and then the second without the bullwhackers realizing just how few raiders they actually faced.

Smith allowed the teamsters to get their personal effects from the wagons while the Mormons searched for supplies they needed, particularly overcoats. Smith asked whether there was gunpowder in the wagons, which could explode and cause injuries during a fire. The wagon master, John Dawson, protested that saltpeter and sulfur could be almost as dangerous, so Smith and one of his men, an Irish-Catholic called Big James, fired the wagons themselves.

Two unexpected visitors interrupted their work. An army express rider carried the tardy message that wagon masters should keep a night guard on their trains because 'the Mormons were in the field.' Dawson took little comfort in hearing that they were to receive a military escort in the morning. Their second visitor was an Indian who requested wagon covers, flour and soap from the plundered train.

The next day, about noon, the raiders encountered their third supply train. Without the cover of darkness, it appears that Smith employed a stratagem to disguise Mormon numbers. He sent his men around a large knoll in sight of the bullwhackers. Then they rode down a deep gully, out of sight, and came back around the back side, to appear in front of the peak again. Repeating this several times gave the impression to observers of a greater force than Smith actually had. Riding into camp, the Mormons quickly disarmed the teamsters and learned that the wagon master was down by the river, bringing up cattle. Smith met the bull wagon boss about a half a mile away, where a bend in the Big Sandy cuts an unusual hollow out of the bluff. That area is now known as Simpson's Hollow.

Captain Lewis Simpson was a son-in-law of Alexander Majors, one of the co-owners of the freight company, and was considered one of the most reliable wagon masters on the Plains. He also had the reputation of nearly always killing someone on his trips.

In spite of Smith's men getting the drop on him, he refused to surrender his pistols. Simpson galloped back to camp, only to find his men disarmed and under guard. It was only then that he would acknowledge that Smith had him at a disadvantage. Feeling challenged, or maybe a bit amused by the blustering Simpson, Smith offered to give back their weapons. The teamsters refused to shoot it out, however, protesting that they were hired to whack bulls, not to fight.

Without recourse, Simpson worried loudly about his reputation as a wagon master and wheedled Smith into leaving them a wagonload of supplies so they wouldn't starve. Smith ended up giving Simpson two wagons full of supplies, calling him the bravest man he'd met during the campaign.

Militiamen sought what food, clothing, arms and ammunition they could carry, separated out the two wagons, and burned the rest. Lyman Porter felt it a shame to destroy so much property, as did others who rode with Smith. These were men who had experienced much deprivation on the Utah frontier. Neither was it in their nature to be thieves and vandals. The 24-year-old Porter became fascinated by a resin soap that melted and ran in a big yellow stream from the burning wagons and then cooled on the snow below. He used his knife to cut out a chunk, which he carried home. After the conflict was over, he returned a pistol he had taken in a raid to its rightful owner.

Having 'cooked a feast for the coyotes,' the raiders mounted their horses and rode away, with the wagons still burning. Lot Smith had a $1,000 reward placed on his head for leading this operation. In months to come, this deliberate destruction of government property was the one act of war that Mormon leadership could not deny. Between the burned trains and loss of cattle, the army troops and their civilian contingent were forced on 'a most rigid economy in [food] distribution,' according to Elizabeth Cumming, wife of the new governor. Captain Gove feared they might have to dine on mule meat before supplies could be received in the spring.

In spite of the increasingly chilly weather, Smith's boys felt the warmth of success and itched for more encounters. A week went by and they met no more freight trains plodding into the territory. The morning of October 11, however, Smith's party bumped into some of their colleagues, O.P. Rockwell and his men.

Orrin Porter Rockwell was another of the colorful Mormon scout captains. He was an able gunman who had become well known (and for some notorious) during the earlier conflicts in Missouri and Illinois. He had worn his hair and beard long ever since his boyhood friend, the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, had promised Rockwell that if he never cut them, his enemies could not overpower him. While Rockwell's contemporaries almost never mention his militia rank, Adjutant William Stowell calls him 'Col. Rockwell,' which is a likely rank given his experience and responsibilities.

Rockwell and his men had been watching troop movements, burning grass, and running off an occasional mule or steer. He was restless for something more exciting. The two captains decided to unite, swelling their force to some eighty men, which they led down the river to Ham's Fork near the rear of the army column.

They were in luck as they came across a herd of cattle numbering about 700 head. Sitting on a bluff planning strategy, however, the alliance threatened to unravel. Rockwell thought Smith was 'venturesome' and reckless. Rockwell warned him that the troops had found out what a 'damn fool' Smith was and had set a trap for him. He suspected that the willows shielded artillery, which would blow them 'higher than Gilderoy's kite' when they tried to take the stock. Smith suggested Rockwell could sit this one out if he was afraid. Rockwell told Smith he would see him somewhere else first. The older frontiersman declared that he had waited 40 years for a chance like this and he wouldn't let Smith spoil it for him. He then raised his glass and looked for the cannons.

Without a word, Smith kicked his mount and started down the steep bluff and the two miles to the cattle. Rockwell was furious, cursing at Smith to wait for the rest of them to catch up. But Smith was already committed. As soon as the Utah force came into view, the guards began driving the cattle toward the army camp. The raiders managed to head them off, at which point the guards chose not to oppose them.

Raiders cut out 20 of the poorer cattle and drove the rest away. Rockwell indulged himself, intimidating the anxious guards, boasting that they would 'kill every man of them' if Col. Alexander didn't release three Mormon prisoners. Later that night the gunman had a good laugh over their guards' reactions and the success of the operation. Smith had a good laugh too, ribbing Rockwell about the nonexistent cannons. Rockwell took a few men and drove the cattle into the Salt Lake Valley. Smith later described their brief partnership, 'I did as I pleased and [Rockwell] regularly damned me for it.'

Smith's band was now at 60 and growing bolder. James P. Terry tells of following so closely behind the army column that his friends asked straggling soldiers for a chew of tobacco. That evening they ran in the picket guard and camped within a mile of the troops.

Losses of stock from raiding parties and constant sightings of Mormons 'hovering about' finally induced the patient Alexander to take action. On October 15, he organized several companies mounted on mules. Smith's men did not take this 'jackass cavalry,' partially bareback and using blind bridles, seriously. It was nearly a fatal mistake.

That night the cold was so intense that Smith's men couldn't sleep. Some tried jumping up and down to keep warm. Around four in the morning, a mounted unit under the command of Captain Randolph B. Marcy of the 5th Infantry headed out with a force 100 strong 'to have a brush with Lot Smith.' (For more on Marcy's activities in the Utah Expedition, see 'Western Lore' in the February 2005 issue of Wild West Magazine.)

At about daybreak, Smith's men heard the tramping and braying of the mules. Supposing the soldiers were taking their mules to graze, the raiders saddled up, left their packs with a small squad and followed, hoping to drive the animals away. As it got light enough to see, Smith found that soldiers were mounted on this herd. At about the same moment, the soldiers discovered the Mormons right on their heels. There was some lively scampering as the troops whirled into line, slipped off their mounts and brought their guns to the ready. Smith ordered his men into a line about 40 yards from the soldiers. Then the two captains advanced halfway for a parley.

Marcy introduced himself and confirmed that he was speaking with 'Captain Smith.' He extended an invitation to visit Colonel Alexander, which was declined, then proceeded to talk about almost everything but their present position. Marcy claimed they were searching out a road to Utah and only smiled when Smith declared that this was nonsense, pointing out that the troops had left that road some time ago. (Smith later regretted his attitude, remembering that Marcy had remained a gentleman, calm and civil toward him.)

Smith coolly dismounted and tightened his cinch during the conversation, noting the soldiers knocking the powder down in their guns. Marcy asked Smith to take some letters of introduction into Salt Lake City for him, but Smith declined, saying he wouldn't be going into the valley anytime soon. The captains then observed that time was passing and parted company.

Smith's band hurried back to pick up their men and pack horses, fully aware of their precarious position. Marcy's command rode along a high ridge to the right, keeping Smith's force in sight. As Smith collected his men, Alexander sprang the trap, although not the one Rockwell had expected. Three companies of infantry suddenly appeared on their left, and with Marcy's jackass cavalry to the right, the militiamen were nearly surrounded. Their only escape was through the icy waters of Ham's Fork and up a steep bluff on the other side. Looking back years later, James P. Terry couldn't imagine how they ever crossed the river, as it was a terrible ford with high, steep banks on both sides. Desperation proved a tremendous motivation. Smith himself scrambled across first, his horse barely making it up the far bank. Downstream was only slightly better, but the Mormons frantically crossed while the mule-mounted cavalry thundered up behind.

Marcy's men called for them to halt, but Smith's raiders leisurely rode up the hill, stopping only to exchange some unbecoming language across Ham's Fork. The soldiers seemed to be heading back to camp, so at the top of the ridge, Smith's men felt safe enough to rest and tighten their saddles. It was a rocky area and would have made good cover in a fight; nevertheless, Smith continued down into the valley, not realizing that Marcy's cavalry was crossing the river below out of their view.

Smith was feeling euphoric, with even a little sympathy for Marcy for letting his men slip through his fingers, when the soldiers reached the top of the ridge. They fired more than 30 shots at the Mormons, at a range of 150 yards. One militiaman took a bullet through his hatband, and a horse was grazed in the leg.

Now Smith was mad. Whether his ire rose more at Marcy for shooting at them or at himself for leaving the high ground, he didn't say, but once they rode out of range, he sent all but 12 of his men away and tried to entice the soldiers to come down out of the rocks and finish the matter. Marcy had too much sense to let his men leave their cover, and this time Smith had enough sense not to go back up the ridge. And so there the matter ended.

From this time, the army became more aggressive, sending out regular patrols. Three times in as many weeks, soldiers nearly caught Mormons in their ambushes, and the guerrillas barely ducked army bullets. Utah's cavalry would not stand and fight however, and were the better mounted. The Nauvoo Legion continued to run off horses, mules and cattle, in spite of patrols, until 1,500 captured head grazed peacefully in the Salt Lake Valley. Among them was a favorite white mule of Colonel Alexander's. As it turned out, these animals fared far better than had they wintered with the army.

After 10 weeks of irregular warfare, ironically it was some half-cooked government beef and beans that almost did what the soldiers could not. Sick to his stomach, a half-frozen and exhausted Lot Smith headed back to Echo Canyon and home.

Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston finally arrived in the army camp near Harris Fork on November 3, boosting morale considerably. Following a few days' assessment, his troops headed southwest, hoping to push to Salt Lake City, but Mother Nature took over where the Mormons left off, and winter began laying down blankets of snow upon the high mountain plains. It took the 15-mile-long army column 15 days to travel just 35 miles through the snow. Hundreds of oxen and mules died along the trail. 'It is quite Russian,' Gove remarked, referring to Napoleon's retreat from Moscow. Many soldiers were left pulling their own wagons due to the loss of their stock through weather and theft.

After besieging Fort Bridger and finding only empty, charred ruins, the Utah Expedition went into winter quarters. Once the members of the Nauvoo Legion were satisfied that Johnston's Army (as it is often called in today's Utah) 'had the fight frozen out of them'–at least for the moment–they left a handful of their warmest-clothed men to keep watch and sent the rest home.

To the end, the Mormon commanders fueled the troops' perception that Echo Canyon was a death trap. In early April 1858, Utah's newly appointed territorial governor, Alfred Cumming, accepted an invitation to come alone into Salt Lake City to discuss the situation. His Mormon escorts brought him through Echo Canyon at night. While only 100 militiamen had been called back to their stronghold, they built 350 campfires along the hillsides. Infantry and cavalry formed single-file lines of 25 on either side of the roadway. As the governor's carriage passed by, they would sneak ahead behind the lines under the cover of darkness and sagebrush, presenting themselves repeatedly to their new governor. Later chagrined when he learned of the trick played at his expense, Cumming nonetheless became a proponent for a peaceful solution.

Alexander's earlier avoidance of Echo Canyon and the militia's harassment certainly delayed the troops' advance, allowing winter to set in, and providing time 'for something to turn up,' as Utah's Mormon leadership had hoped. That'something' turned out to be the U.S. Congress.

Critics in the Eastern press, as well as in the House and Senate felt that Buchanan had not handled the Utah problem very well. Reports from the regiment's assistant quartermaster, Captain Stewart Van Vliet, as well as from Mormon sympathizer Thomas L. Kane–both of whom had journeyed to Salt Lake City during the fall and winter–had a mollifying effect in Washington. The president's requests for appropriations to cover reinforcements and unanticipated expenses were delayed, reduced or ignored. As more pressing issues, such as the debate over slavery, overshadowed Utah's defiance, Buchanan reconsidered.

Only days before spring thaw and resupply would permit Johnston's Army to move west, Buchanan's 'Peace Commission' arrived in the territory bearing a pardon for the Mormon people. Brigham Young's acceptance on June 12, 1858, on behalf of his people was positive if not gracious: 'I have no character to protect, no pride to gratify, no vanity to please. If a man comes from the moon and says he will pardon me for kicking him in the moon yesterday, I don't care about it. I'll accept of his pardon. It don't affect me one way or the other.'

Peace returned to Utah Territory, to the disappointment of the now brevetted General Johnston and his officers. As a precaution, Young moved his people to the south and posted guards to burn the city should their agreement be violated. Johnston's Army, however, marched professionally through an eerily empty Salt Lake City and built Camp Floyd 40 miles to the southwest, in present-day Cedar Valley. Utah's citizens returned to their homes, and life resumed mostly as it had before, although tension and controversy would stalk the territory for some years to come.

It is uncertain what might have happened had the conflict escalated. The Echo and East Canyon defenses probably could have been flanked, but in such rugged terrain, forcing the canyon would have come at a considerable cost in lives. What is clear, though, is that victory is not always achieved through battle. In the years to come, long after Governor Cumming, General Johnston and others from the Utah Expedition had returned to their Eastern and Southern homes to participate in a much more tragic and disastrous rebellion, Utah's militiamen would take great pride in telling the stories of how the Nauvoo Legion had defended their fellow Mormons from perceived injustice in a bloodless winter campaign.

In their view, the Almighty had 'put a hook in the mouths of their enemies,' and had allowed their ragtag, undersupplied, and poorly armed militia to confound some of the best and the brightest of the U.S. Army.


This article was written by Donna G. Ramos. Suggested for further reading: The Mormon Conflict 1850-1859, by Norman F. Furniss; and The Utah Expedition, 1857-1858: A Documentary Account, edited by LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen.

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16 Responses to “Utah War: U.S. Government Versus Mormon Settlers”


  1. 1

    [...] orchard to defend her faith, she replied in the affirmative, ?And would sit up nights to do it.? HistoryNet ? Utah War: U.S. Government Versus Mormon Settlers __________________ "A fear of weapons is a sign of retarded sexual and emotional [...]

  2. 2
    Christian says:

    i want you to come and read it.

  3. 3

    [...] rapid rate in every direction," Barney fought in the Walker War. He dammed Echo Canyon during the Utah War and served in Utah's Black Hawk War, "being exposed to hardship and danger of every [...]

  4. 4

    [...] that of the Federal government. The war could have been precipitated by the Mormons in Utah, if they had not decided to become part of the US quite so easily. Texas could have decided to stay independent, or return to independence. The Southern states had [...]

  5. 5
    Whogivesacrap says:

    I need Cpt. Jesse Gove full journal. Anyone know where I can find it?

  6. 6
  7. 7

    [...] 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 cultivat…" Drilling commenced throughout the territory and Mormons sought to gather guns and [...]

  8. 8

    [...] 10 years prior, on July 24, 1847, Bringham Young set foot in the Salt Lake Valley. Ironically, it wa… [...]

  9. 9

    [...] Mormons, do you? Allow me to educate you. http://press.umsystem.edu/%28S%281ro…ookieSupport=1 http://www.historynet.com/utah-war-u…n-settlers.htm Brigham Young's shadow government: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/we-mormons.html [...]

  10. 10
  11. 11
    David A. Nickey says:

    Mountain Meadows was part of the Mormon Wars? Why such a brief mention?

    • 11.1
      Joseph E. Piche' says:

      the mormon wars had limitations in Utah only and the Faucher wagon train was in defiance to the martial law set in place by Brigham Young, they proceeded south and met their doom in Mountain Meadows…this had no bearing on the Mormons and their uprising, and by sept. 1859 the main troops already being sent east had no reason to become local law officials, nor did they have authorization to follow up and or through on the incident.

  12. 12
  13. 13
    alyssa says:

    I need this all summed up into a paragraph

  14. 14

    [...] of this villainy than all the subsequent administrations have dared to do. He sent out an army [Utah War (1857)], and though it was halted in its work, still he accomplished more than the subsequent [...]



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