This was a good war that killed no one, wounded no one and made a fool out of everybody. The Utah war which lasted between 1857 and 1858 was a collision of territorial self-determination against a federal government already faced with insubordination in Kansas and its Southern states. President James Buchanan then decided to flex his muscle against the Utah Territory and its Mormon settlers. He began a rebellion that led to an embarrassment of the young nation’s military.
Brigham Young, a pioneer of the earlier Mormons, arrived on the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and boasted that a 10-years’ peace was all they needed and nothing more. This young religion had already endured 17 years of tribulation. Even before the latter-to-be saints fled into the Rocky Mountain wilderness, most of its members had been driven off their homes about four times. But they had not even settled in their new destination for long when word reached Young that American troops were en route to the Utah Territory.
The news was nonetheless expected. Most federal officials found it hard to work in Utah. The religion’s high level of polygamy and theocratic activities were perceived to be too un-American. On the other hand, the Mormons disliked the federal judges and other agents sourced from outside their community. They constantly petitioned the state but were turned down. President Millard Fillmore was slightly considerable and appointed Brigham Young to sever as Utah’s territorial governor.
But one particular federal appointee, Judge William W. Drummond, was openly opposed to how the Salt Lake society lived their life. He regularly lectured them on their immoral lifestyle. This placed him at parallels with the entire community. He was backed by Judges George P. Stiles and John F. Kinney.
The conflict between the three and the society climaxed when Utah lawyers broke into Stiles’ office in protest and pretended to burn court documents and law books in the privy out back. The judges, one after the other, packed their belongings and went back to Washington where they reported they narrowly escaped death. This is when President Buchanan thought he has to act. A better solution for him was to appoint a new territorial governor, new federal judges and send 2,500 troops.
The decision was implemented, but the government did it without Utah Territorial Governor Brigham Young being informed. Word got the Utah leaders of the approaching military. They learnt it via mail carriers, the most common method of communication back them.
Remembering their 27 years of persecution and the information vacuum, Mormons waited for the worst. They had buried their first prophet, Joseph Smith, barely 13 years ago. The approaching military also reminded them of Parley P. Pratt, one of their 12 apostles, who had been killed some two months ago. The people could vividly remember the mob violence and unfulfilled government promises.
They were ready to fight. 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.”
The military en route was approaching, but quite slowly considering poor means of transport back then.
The Mormons sent Colonel Robert T. Burton and a reconnaissance unit of 125 men eastward from Salt Lake City with orders to observe the approaching military. They mingled with the uninformed and boastful enlisted men and junior officers, arriving to the conclusion that the army had been sent to hang their leaders.
The initial belief was that troops were approaching both from the east and California. The Mormons also believed they could be attacked from the western routes. Other possible attack zones were from the southwestern road and possibly the south road. All these were guarded.
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.
But even as they got ready for war, Utah leaders also kept their options open. They publicly reminded each other of their past injustices but privately, Brigham Young talked of his preferences – “save lives.”
He effectively sent envoys to Washington D.C. and they were ready to strike a deal. They were also organizing on mass migration to the mountain valleys, from where they could engage in gorilla war as a final resort.
Things happened first and no war ever happened. In contrast, Buchanan’s ‘Peace Commission’ arrived in the territory bearing a pardon for the Mormon people. Young accepted it, even though it may not have been gracious.
The anxiety calmed down and peace was in Utah Territory once again.