Sunday, August 7, 2022

The Mostly Forgotten 1857 Utah War

General Albert Sidney Johnston, US Army, Utah Territory, 1858


A scarcely remembered and yet very significant event that occurred in the years leading up to the US Civil War was the so-called "Utah War", which took place from the latter half of 1857 into the first half of 1858.


Frequently referred to as "Buchanan's Blunder" (after then-US President James Buchanan), it was one of the most notorious examples in US history of a president ginning up a "rally 'round the flag" war to distract the populace from domestic strife.


The so-called "Mormons" (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) had been driven from Missouri to Illinois, and following the assassination of their founding prophet Joseph Smith, were compelled to leave the United States altogether to escape persecution.


The vanguard, led by Brigham Young, arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in July 1847. The area was still part of Mexico at the time. Young was passionately encouraged by many who had already been there to continue to California, but he refused, saying he wanted to settle the Saints in "a place no one else wants."


Brigham Young is recorded to have told his people, in 1847, that if the "Gentiles" would leave the Saints alone for ten years, they would become strong enough to defy any attempt to drive them out again.


Ten years was exactly how long they got.


During their decade of peace, Brigham Young sent out colonizing parties to every habitable locale within about a 300 mile radius of the Salt Lake Valley – including my town of Cedar City, on the southern rim of the Great Basin, 240 miles to the south, settled in 1851.


By 1857, the population of the territory had grown to about 35,000. Thousands had emigrated from Scandinavia and the British Isles – including my ancestors, who were impoverished English factory workers from the ghettos of Manchester, as immortalized by Friedrich Engels in his pre-communism classic The Condition of the Working Class in England.


The casus belli of the "Utah War" was erected on a foundation of tall tales spun by corrupt federal territorial officials who, amid lurid personal scandal, slithered back to Washington to breathlessly report that the "Mormons" were in a state of "rebellion" against the US government.


The federal appointees were simply upset that, given the dynamics of the organization they were up against – allegedly licentious polygamy-practicing religious fanatics led by a theocratic dictator (or so it was framed) – they simply wielded no real power in the Utah Territory.


And, of course, they were, as a class, considerably less than “morally upright”.


My sense of the matter is that few in Washington were overly persuaded by the story of a bona fide insurrection in Utah, but President Buchanan, drowning in unprecedented internal strife, seized the propitious opportunity presented by the fabricated "dossier'', and ordered elite regiments of the US Army – 2500 troops in total – to march to Utah to "put down the Mormon rebellion."


The troops set out for Utah from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on July 18, 1857. The famous territorial lawman Porter Rockwell, fulfilling a federal mail contract, just happened to be there; he learned of their plans, and raced back to Utah to inform Brigham Young.


Orrin Porter Rockwell


Orrin Porter Rockwell was, in many ways, the Forrest Gump of the Old American West. He repeatedly shows up at significant junctures in Old West history, often with an important role to play. He was also a universally feared Deputy Marshal of the Utah Territory, who is reputed to have slain upwards of 80 outlaws over the course of his multi-year tenure.


Later in life, after a night of whiskey drinking in Salt Lake City, and while walking back to his hotel with friends, he was accosted by some hostile family members of an outlaw he had shaded, and was accused of being a cold-blooded murderer.


Rockwell famously replied, “I never killed any man that didn’t need killing.”


The phrase later inspired a line in the classic John Wayne film, True Grit.


Rockwell arrived in Salt Lake City on July 24, 1857 – ten years to the day since the Mormons entered the valley. But the city was almost devoid of inhabitants, most of whom had travelled to the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon to celebrate their decennial anniversary in the valley.


Rockwell raced up the canyon and informed Brigham Young of the news. Young immediately called the large gathering to order, related the facts of the matter, assessed the sentiments of the Saints, and resolved that they would not be driven again from the towns and cities they had built.


Preparations to resist the army commenced immediately.


They quickly assembled a small mounted force, whose strategy was simple: with strict orders to avoid bloodshed, they were to operate as raiding guerrillas; to burn all the grass ahead of and behind the Army's supply trains; to confiscate their cattle, mules, and horses whenever possible, and to burn the supply wagons.


In the succinct order of Brigham Young, “Defeat the US Army, but do not shed blood.”


Within several days, scouting parties were dispatched to locate and discreetly follow the US Army, and send back regular reports to the valley.


The troops ultimately marshalled to “Defeat the US Army” never consisted of more than about 150 cavalrymen. They called themselves the “Nauvoo Legion”, and to a man they were expert horsemen and outdoorsmen with unrivaled knowledge of the mountainous terrain.


This handful of young Mormon cavalry was led in the field by the famously iconoclastic duo of Lot Smith and Porter Rockwell.


Captain Lot Smith


Operating often at night, they raided the supply train camps, drove off the wagon mules, captured most of the cattle (which they herded back to the Salt Lake Valley), burned most of the wagons, and never killed a single US soldier nor suffered a casualty themselves.


My favorite account from the campaign was recorded by Captain Lot Smith, who, after having captured and burned several wagon trains already, came upon another:


“On the morning following, we met another train … we disarmed the teamsters, and I rode out and met the captain about a half-mile away. I told him that I came on business. He inquired the nature of it. I demanded his pistols.


“He replied, ‘By God, sir, no man ever took them yet, and if you think you can, without killing me, try it.’


“We were all the time riding towards the train, with our noses about as close together as two Scotch terriers would have held theirs – his eyes flashing fire. I couldn’t see mine.


“I told him that I admired a brave man, but that I didn’t like blood. ‘You insist on my killing you, which will only take a minute, but I don’t want to do it.’


“We had by this time reached the train. I told them to hurry up and get their things out, and take two wagons, for we wanted to go on. Simpson (of the infantry) begged me not to burn the train while he was in sight; said that it would ruin his reputation as a wagon master.


“I told him not to be so squeamish, that the trains burn very nicely, I had seen them before, and that we hadn’t time to be ceremonious. We then supplied ourselves with provisions, set the wagons afire, and rode on.”


By the time the Army arrived on the outskirts of Fort Bridger, Wyoming, winter had arrived in force and stopped them in their tracks.


As the coup de grace, the Mormons (who purchased the fort in 1855) burned it to the ground right before the Army arrived.


The army barely survived the winter, and had to endure what they viewed as the ultimate insult of Brigham Young's offer of provisions (which the Army refused).


They resumed their advance the following spring.


Just east of the Wasatch Mountains, the Army was compelled to descend Echo Canyon, a miles-long narrow passage bordered by steep red sandstone walls. There was no other way. Interstate 84 and the Union Pacific Railroad were likewise compelled to the take the same route as the only viable passage through the Wasatch.


Echo Canyon, Utah


Apprised by spies of where the Army would camp each night, a couple squads of the Nauvoo Legion built long strings of campfires on the buttes behind and in advance of the Army’s designated campsite, and then continually rotated troops from one to the next to feed the fires, making noisy demonstrations at each stop along the way.


The US troops below became convinced they were up against probably thousands of fanatical “Mormons” who would slaughter them in an instant at the order of Brigham Young.


It was first-class military deception.


Meanwhile, Young sent representatives to the advancing force, and shrewdly negotiated an agreement whereby the army was permitted to enter the valley, but could not encamp themselves any nearer than 40 miles from Salt Lake City.


Eventually the Army passed through a temporarily evacuated Salt Lake City, and travelled 50 miles to the southwest where they built Camp Floyd, and remained until 1861.


Ironically, with the outbreak of the US Civil War, a large proportion of the officers sent to "put down the Mormon rebellion" joined the Confederacy. General Albert Sidney Johnston himself, the commander of the Utah Expedition, led the Confederate troops at the important Battle of Shiloh in 1862, in which he was killed.


More humiliating for the US Army was the realization, over the course of their entire stay in Utah, that the “Mormons” were making a handsome profit off their presence.


Indeed, in aggregate the territory gained at least ten million dollars in hard currency – much of it in gold – during the army's 1858-61 "siege" of the alleged "dictator" Brigham Young and his rebellious flock. It was a HUGE windfall about which officers often complained bitterly in their communications to colleagues and family “back east”.


When the last troops left Camp Floyd, they burned or otherwise destroyed virtually everything of value which they could not carry with them – in order that the "damned Mormons" could not profit a farthing more than they already had from "Buchanan's Blunder".


Utah remained assiduously neutral during the US Civil War and continued to profit from traffic moving in and out from all points of the compass.


After the war, in 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point, on the northern shore of the Great Salt Lake. Rail spurs rapidly connected the entire region to the main line. My great-grandfather and his father both helped construct the grade from Promontory Point to Salt Lake City, which thereafter assumed the moniker of "The Crossroads of the West".


Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, Promontory Point, Utah, 1869

Now you know a little bit more of “the rest of the story”.


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