On July 24th, 1857, a handful of riders, including Abraham Smoot and Porter Rockwell, rode into Big Cottonwood Canyon, where Brigham Young and the Latter-day Saints were celebrating Pioneer Day. The riders brought with them harrowing news from the east. An army of U.S. troops was on its way to Utah. Having been left in the dark by the U.S. government and fearing the worst, Brigham recorded in his journal, “The feeling of Mobocracy is rife in the ‘States[.]’ the constant cry is ‘kill the Mormons.’ Let them try it.” The Utah War was about to begin.
After the Saints’ oasis in the desert became incorporated into the United States in 1848, the U.S. government began installing federal officials that were largely outsiders who didn’t understand the Saints’ faith or way of life. The Saints got along well with some officials, but some others (most notoriously Utah chief justice William Drummond) ended up resigning and spreading hostile reports throughout the rest of the country. We’re not going to go over all of the charges here, but as an example of a charge that should have been very easy to verify, the Saints were accused of destroying federal court records.
But instead of investigating whether or not the various claims were true, in 1857, U.S. President James Buchanan decided that Utah was in a state of rebellion and sent an army of 2,500 men to facilitate (by force, if necessary) the replacement of Governor Brigham Young with a guy named Alfred Cumming. The army, later led by Colonel Albert Johnston, was eventually reinforced, bringing their number to about 5,000. Officials failed to tell Brigham Young why this was all happening. With decades of persecution fresh in their minds, “the Mormons could only conclude that it was a repetition of Missouri and Illinois— they were to be put down or driven out.”
In their mountain fortress, Brigham and the Saints refused to give up their homes without a fight, but taking life was gonna be a last resort. Instead, they adopted scorched earth tactics in an attempt to slow the army down as much as possible and buy themselves time.
One of the Saints’ military commanders was the second counselor in the First Presidency, Daniel Wells. He ordered his Minute Men or “Mormon Raiders” to find the army and to “proceed at once to annoy them in every possible way. Use every exertion to stampede their animals, and set fire to their trains. Burn the whole country before them, and on their flanks. Keep them from sleeping by night surprises; blockade the road by felling trees or destroying river fords; where you can …. Take no life, but destroy their trains, and stampede or drive away their animals, at every opportunity.”
The Utahns burned 74 government wagons, or about 3 months’ worth of the army’s food, and captured 1,400 head of cattle — about 70% of the army’s total. One of the more notable characters burning the government’s wagons was Lot Smith, who ironically would later lead a company of Saints serving the government several years later during the Civil War. But we’ll talk more about that in a couple of episodes.
While the Mormon Raiders pestered the army, the Nauvoo Legion dug into Echo Canyon — the most direct route to the Salt Lake valley. “At a narrow point in the ravine, they built stone walls and dug trenches from which they planned to act as snipers. They also loosened boulders that could easily be sent crashing down to damage and block the moving columns and constructed ditches and dams in the valley that could be opened to send water across the army’s path.” Back in the city, the Saints worked “‘from sunrise to sunset,’ making guns, bullets, cannonballs, and canister shots. … On Temple Square, a shop produced revolvers.”
Fortunately, in 1857 the army only made it as far as Fort Bridger, about 100 miles from Salt Lake, before they were forced to hunker down for the winter. Of course, the fort was owned by the Latter-day Saints and had been burned to the ground in anticipation of the army’s arrival. Needless to say, it was a rough winter for the government troops.
In 1858, a friend of the Saints named Thomas Kane came to hopefully mediate peace between the two factions. He convinced the new governor, Alfred Cumming, to visit Salt Lake without bringing the army along. In Salt Lake, Cumming was accepted by leadership as the new governor of the territory, and he found that many of the hostile reports that had been made about the Saints simply were not true. But he also found the Saints in the middle of a mass exodus. The Saints were boarding up their homes, leaving Salt Lake, and heading south toward Provo. Church leaders called this the Sebastopol Plan. The Saints were determined to burn Salt Lake to the ground before allowing it to be occupied by hostile forces.
On June 7th, 1858, representatives from President Buchanan arrived in Salt Lake with a peace deal. The document “reiterated the charges lodged by federal officials, largely by repeating Drummond’s lies,” and then “offered an unconditional pardon for treason and other offenses.” The Saints were extremely annoyed that they were being pardoned for things they largely had not been guilty of, and leaders openly invited officials to conduct a thorough investigation. Officials refused, but Brigham ultimately accepted the peace deal anyway.
On June 26th, the army finally did enter a nearly deserted Salt Lake City. Men stood by with torches, ready to burn the city down if the army attempted to occupy their homes. Thankfully, the army passed through and went on to establish Camp Floyd about 40 miles away, which we visited in this episode. The Saints returned to their homes. The new governor ended up being pretty cool. But the Utah Expedition has gone down in U.S. history as “Buchanan’s Blunder.”
There’s a ton more that could be said about this topic. If you’re wondering why we didn’t talk about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, it’s because we’ve already done these episodes on that event, so check those out. Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more info. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day!
- “Carpetbaggers, Reprobates, and Liars: Federal Judges and the Utah War (1857–58),” by Thomas Alexander: https://bit.ly/3VzEO4a
- “‘Proud as a Peacock and Ignorant as a Jackass’: William W. Drummond’s Unusual Career with the Mormons,” by Ronald Walker (Journal of Mormon History): https://bit.ly/3VzFqXw
- “The Brink of War,” via Smithsonian Magazine: https://bit.ly/3uet1g2
- “The Utah War” via Utah History Encyclopedia: https://bit.ly/3XQgPQg
- “The Governor’s Lady a Letter from Camp Scott, 1857,” via Utah Historical Quarterly (transcript of a letter or two from Alfred Cumming’s wife, Elizabeth, reporting on expedition conditions): https://bit.ly/3H40OQK
- “The Utah War” via the Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2003): https://bit.ly/3VKAyPu
- “A Different Pioneer Day,” by Matthew Grow: https://bit.ly/3H3PDaO
- Handwritten reports on the proceedings of the peace conference on June 11 & 12, 1858: https://bit.ly/3OQlRYR / https://bit.ly/3VKzM52 / https://bit.ly/3XIQzqV
- Sept. 13, 1857, remarks from Brigham Young regarding the approaching army: https://bit.ly/3Vruc7C
- “Proclamation— Rebellion in the Territory of Utah,” via President James Buchanan (April 6, 1858), in which he offers Utahns a full pardon: https://bit.ly/3ulCZfC
- “Prelude to Civil War: The Utah War’s Impact and Legacy,” by William P. MacKinnon: https://bit.ly/3VGheCO