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Sometimes called Buchanan's Blunder, the Utah War came about because Brigham Young, unhappy with the decisions coming from Washington on the territorial government, decided to form an independent militia. With Utah in near revolt from the federally controlled territorial government, Young and his followers represented a threat to the peaceful rule of the country. James Buchanan reacted quickly in getting armed forces to the state, then let the disturbance quietly die.
Republicans targeted the Mormon practice of polygamy in their first national party plank voted into effect on June 17, 1856:
...the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the territories those twin relics of barbarism-polygamy and slavery.
The cry of "twin relics" echoed in the ears of Brigham Young and his followers who felt that grouping their religious practice of polygamy with slavery was completely wrong. In fact, the Republican anti-polygamy stance had little to do with the decision by Buchanan to move against Brigham Young and his followers.
Buchanan and pro-Union factions looked west and saw a constitutional crisis brewing in a lightly populated territory while the Mormon argument of local sovereignty resonated well with the secessionists. By mixing his own unique view of federalism with a strong freedom of religion argument, Young tried to keep control of the state in Mormon hands while benefiting from the power of the United States. If Brigham Young got away with creating his own state it might give the South the impression they had the "right" to secede, which Buchanan did not want.
Most Democrats were behind Buchanan taking on the followers of Brigham Young. Stephen Douglas wanted the "ulcer" removed. When Young expelled the last federal judge, an excommunicated Mormon, Buchanan appointed Georgian Alfred Cumming the territorial governor and three new federal judges in May, 1857. Young retaliated by issuing currency to raise money and arming a militia.
In June, President Buchanan ordered William Harney to advance on the territorial capital, Salt Lake City to support the new governor and explained it to the people of the United States by saying,
Their hostility to the lawful government of the country has at length become so violent that no officer bearing a commission from the Chief Magistrate of the Union can enter the territory or remain there with safety. . . . I accordingly ordered a detachment of the army to march for the City of Salt Lake -- as a posse for the enforcement of the laws.
Harney fully intended to take Brigham Young prisoner and execute him along with other high-ranking members of the Mormon church. In August, 1857 Harney was chosen to lead a Kansas expedition and was replaced by Sidney Johnston.
As the Americans moved west the Mormons went on a rampage known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, further outraging Washington. While accounts of the murder of 120 men, women, and children in the Baker/Fancher party are disputed, it is generally believed that Mormon militia and some Paiutes killed an entire wagon train of Arkansas families heading west on the Old Spanish Trail. Interestingly, Paiute oral history has no record of their involvement in the massacre.
With 2,500 federal troops spread out across the land from Kansas to Fort Laramie (Wyoming Territory) to Utah, and 3,000 Mormons ready to defend their capital, Johnston ordered his men to construct a camp. Accompanying Johnston on the mission was E. P. Alexander, John W. Phelps, Jesse Reno, Philip St. George Cooke, E. R. S. Canby and Fitz-John Porter. Young gave command of his militia to Daniel Wells with general orders to harass the enemy but lose no men.
Wells chose a good position in Echo Canyon and fortified it while Johnston decided to concentrate his men at Fort Bridger. A scant 125 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, at Bridger he could make winter camp with ample space for his stores and cattle while keeping an eye on Brigham Young and the Mormons. The only problem was the fort had been burned by the Mormons as part of their scorched earth policy. Johnston chose a nearby clearing for his winter camp, Camp Scott, named in honor of the General in Chief Winfield Scott.
After a long winter the Buchanan Administration wanted to end the confrontation without bloodshed. Johnston, however, wanted to extract a certain amount of vengeance for his (and his men's) troubles. On March 12, 1858 Thomas Kane rode into the winter camp with an offer of salt from the Mormons, an offer Brigham Young had made in the middle of the winter when reports indicated the federals were out of salt.
On April 5 Kane and Cumming returned to Salt Lake City in hopes of ending the standoff. When Cumming returned with word of the Mormon acceptance of his authority, Johnston was understandably skeptical. The Mormons still maintained a strong, well-armed militia and the newspapers were defiant, hardly indicative of an acceptance of authority. The federal government sent two agents, Lazarus W. Powell and Ben McCulloch, to negotiate a peaceful settlement with the Mormons. They advanced into Mormon territory early in June while Sidney Johnston prepared for battle. Soon, W. W. Loring arrived with 200 troopers who had rode part of the way with a column under Randolph Marcy bringing horses, mules and supplies. Before the federal agents returned, Johnston marched on Salt Lake City.
In the face of a superior, well-trained and resupplied force, the Mormons withdrew. On June 19, Cumming elicited a written pledge from Johnston that "no person will be interfered with or otherwise molested," but Johnston insisted on continuing to advance on Brigham Young's capital. On June 21, federals entered unguarded Echo Canyon and on June 26 he entered a deserted Salt Lake City. As he began to set up camp near the Mormon stronghold of Provo, something unusual happened. Mormon families began moving back to their homes at Salt Lake.
Since the Mormons had offered no resistance, either to the new territorial officials or the Army, Johnston considered the Utah War over. Still, to ensure the continued cooperation of the Mormons, Johnston decided to stay the winter. As the main body of his army moved south from Salt Lake City they ran into thousands of settlers. Soon crude cabins were being formed into Camp Floyd, named in honor of Secretary of War John Floyd.
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Utah War was last changed on - March 17, 2007
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