Alright, so, the story of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the Civil War is … unique. In the 1840s, the Latter-day Saints had had enough of the United States. They’d been heavily persecuted for years, and the government wasn’t doing much to help. So, the Latter-day Saints peaced out. 1845 marked the beginning of a mass exodus out west into territory then owned by Mexico. The United States did end up in possession of that territory after the Mexican-American war in 1848, but what this migration meant was that when the Civil War rocked the country in 1861, the vast majority of Latter-day Saints were more than a thousand miles away from danger. So, how did the Church react to the war? Were there any Latter-day Saints directly involved? Which side was the Church on? Let’s talk about it.
About 620,000 Americans died during the Civil War. To put that in perspective, that is slightly more than American fatalities from the Korean War, Vietnam, World War I, and World War II combined. This war absolutely devastated the United States. But for many Latter-day Saints, the devastation was not altogether surprising. Joseph Smith had prophesied about a war between the northern and southern states almost 30 years earlier, and if you want to learn more about that controversial prophecy, go watch this episode.
Many Latter-day Saints also saw the war as God meting out justice on the nation for how the Saints had been treated back east. And, of course, fresh in the minds of the Saints would have been the Utah War from only a few years prior, during which time about ⅓ of the entire U.S. army marched on the Saints in Utah. And if you’re interested in learning more about that, go watch this episode. Needless to say, Latter-day Saint leaders were understandably not eager to send men to fight and die for a nation that largely despised them. At Salt Lake City’s 1861 4th of July parade (just a few months after the Civil War broke out), apostle John Taylor remarked,
“It may now be proper to inquire what part shall we take in the present difficulties? … We have frequently been mobbed, pillaged, and plundered, without redress. We have been hunted like deer on the mountains, our men have been whipped, banished, imprisoned, and put to death. We have been driven from city to city, from state to state, for no just cause of complaint … Shall we join the North to fight against the South? No! Shall we join the South against the North? As emphatically, No! Why? They have both … brought it upon themselves, and we have no hand in the matter … We know no North, no South, no East, no West.”
All of that said, Utah was not exactly neutral in the conflict. They did not want to get involved militarily, but Latter-day Saints supported the Constitution of the United States and even considered it to be a document inspired by God. Leaders in Utah Territory applied for official statehood seven times — twice before the Civil War, four times after the war, and once during the war itself. In 1862 the New York Times published, “There are two things which the Mormons seem bent upon doing — entering into the Union, and erecting their wonderful temple.” A few months earlier, in the first-ever telegram sent from Utah, Brigham Young noted, “Utah has not seceded, but is firm for the Consitution and laws of our once happy country….”
President Lincoln could have drafted the Saints into the Union army, but he chose not to. When asked in 1863 what he intended to do about the Saints out west, Lincoln replied, “… when I was a boy on the farm in Illinois, there was a great deal of timber on the farm which we had to clear away. Occasionally we would come to a log which had fallen down. It was too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move, so we plowed around it. You go back and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone, I will let him alone.” It must have been music to Brigham’s ears. When Lincoln was re-elected, the Saints celebrated. When he was later assassinated, they mourned.
Ultimately, the federal government asked Brigham Young to muster one single military unit from Utah. Captained by Lot Smith, the cavalry company of over 100 men was charged with protecting what was called the Overland Trail. This was the main artery of communication between the eastern and western United States. This was the route mail carriers and travelers took, and it was along this route that telegraph cables had been set up. The Federal Government had been struggling with Native American attacks along this route that were disrupting communication, and they feared that the Confederacy might try to join in on the fray. Fun fact: You’ll remember that only a few years prior, Lot Smith had been ironically fighting against the U.S. military during the Utah War.
The Lot Smith Company served for about 3 months. They had a couple of minor skirmishes with some Native Americans but never fought the Confederates. The company’s only fatality was Daniel McNicol, who was caught in a current and drowned as the company was crossing the Snake River.
Now, as you know, the Civil War was fought largely over the question of slavery. In 1852, the Utah territorial legislature passed “An Act in Relation to Service.” This law permitted a form of slavery in Utah but “mirrored the gradual emancipation codes of some Northern states.” That said, despite being legally permitted, the practice really never took root. “The 1860 census counted 59 African Americans living in Utah Territory—30 free, and 29 slaves.” Realistically, that’s an undercount, but not by a whole lot. The United States formally put an end to slavery in U.S. territories in June of 1862.
Now, I should also mention that there were some individual Latter-day Saints, both from Utah and back east, that did choose to fight in the war, and they fought on both sides. Researcher Robert Freeman wrote, “Given that the total membership of the Church during the 1860s was about 70,000, it is believed that no more than several hundred served in the conflict.” If you want to learn more about some of those who served, check out this essay online. For more info about this topic in general, check out the resources in the description. There’s a whole book of fantastic essays on this subject that you can read for free online. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- “Civil War Saints,” cia BYU Studies (this is an entire book full of essays about the Church during the Civil War — all available online): http://bit.ly/3gwwcMD
- “Abraham Lincoln and the Mormons,” by Mary Jane Woodger (BYU Studies): http://bit.ly/3tKajMN
- “The Lot Smith Cavalry Company: Utah Goes to War,” by Kenneth L. Alford & Joseph R. Stuart: http://bit.ly/3EGExqn
- “Slavery and Abolition,” via the Church’s website: http://bit.ly/3UbdmJ3
- “The True Policy for Utah: Servitude, Slavery, and ‘An Act in Relation to Service,” by Christopher Rich (Utah Historical Quarterly): http://bit.ly/3tKArrb
- “Life and journals of John Henry Standifird, 1831-1924,” see pgs. xxii-xxiv (John Strandifird was a member of the Utah Cavalry. These pages contain what he wrote about his experience): http://bit.ly/3GlGxFT
- A list of the men in Lot Smith’s “Utah Cavalry”: http://bit.ly/3gcra8a
- Here’s a newspaper account (Union Vedette, March 3, 1865) of Utahns celebrating Union Victories, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emancipation Proclamation: http://bit.ly/3EfgnBY