Updated: Mar 21, 2020
Less than four years before the American Civil War commenced at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, the United States Army received a shocking lesson in how unprepared it was for large-scale operations in hostile territory. In 1857, President James Buchanan declared the Utah Territory to be in a state of rebellion, and ordered the Army to send a few thousand troops to secure the region, defend presidential political appointments in the territory, and establish a federal presence in the area.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), commonly called “Mormons,” had commenced a movement into modern-day Utah in 1847. The leader of the LDS church, Brigham Young, hoped that by creating a physical isolation from the United States, his congregation might be safe from attacks and persecution. Although the area the LDS chose to settle was technically still a part of Mexico in 1847, its possession transferred to the United States through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the following year. Young expected to develop the region into an independent state, Deseret, that could both peacefully coexist with its more powerful neighbors and offer a haven to any LDS members or would-be converts that wished to join their society. When the California gold rush triggered the movement of thousands of migrants along the western trails, many of those emigrants moved through the area claimed by the LDS, causing a certain degree of friction and apprehension. Further, the 1850 Compromise formally established the Utah Territory, a federal designation that remained until the Utah achieved statehood in 1896.
Due to the designation of Utah as a territory, President Millard Fillmore needed to appoint a political governor for the territory. Recognizing the likely outcome if he choose anyone from outside the LDS faith, Fillmore opted instead to name Brigham Young as the territorial governor, and appointed other church leaders to key positions within the territorial administration. Fillmore’s successor, Franklin Pierce, seemed to largely ignore any aspects of governing the Utah Territory, and left Young in place as its governor. However, in 1856, the LDS practice of polygamy became a national political issue. Both the Democratic and Republic Party candidates for federal offices denounced polygamy as a barbaric practice that must be ended in the United States and its territories. The Republicans tied polygamy to the question of chattel slavery, which they also abhorred and wished to abolish, while the Democrats demonized polygamy as a means of distracting from the slavery question. Thus, regardless of who won the election to the presidency, the LDS was likely to face substantial problems in the near future.
James Buchanan emerged from the bruising presidential contest, and decided almost immediately to remove Young as governor of the territory—but did not deign to notify Young of that fact. In his place, Buchanan named Alfred Cumming as the new territorial governor, and sent him to Utah carrying the proclamation of his new office. Young had already heard of the impending change, even if he had not been formally notified, and feared that the U.S. government was on the verge of a campaign to annihilate the LDS. His perception was bolstered by news that General Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the Army, had ordered a force of 2,500 troops to Utah to build one or more fortifications to establish firmer control over the region.
Young ordered his followers to commence preparations to resist an invasion. He designated locations to stockpile supplies, reactivated the Nauvoo Legion (a militia force of all able-bodied LDS men between the ages of 15 and 60), and instituted the manufacture of firearms and other weapons. His militia leaders prepared their families for evacuations, and adopted a plan to conduct a guerrilla campaign rather than directly facing the U.S. Army in the field. To that end, they intended to pursue a scorched-earth policy, burning crops and other potential resources in the face of any advance by the enemy.
In September of 1857, members of the Nauvoo Legion incited Paiutes to launch an attack upon the Baker-Fancher wagon train, a party of approximately 140 emigrants heading toward California that was encamped at Mountain Meadow. The emigrants resisted the attack, but were tricked into laying down their arms and then led into an ambush by the LDS militia. Only 17 children under the age of 7 were spared in the ensuing slaughter—those children were adopted by local families, while the possessions of the wagon train were publicly auctioned. News of the massacre reached the Army officers in the region, who interpreted it as proof that the LDS were in open revolt.
The Army campaign left Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in July—already far too late in the campaign season to safely reach Utah and establish control. Its commander, Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston, decided that he should delay his advance in the face of potential resistance, and ordered his troops into terribly spartan winter quarters to await the arrival of spring. He sent repeated requests for resupply and reinforcements, but could do little to prosecute the campaign until the spring of 1858.
Thankfully, Johnston’s delay allowed time for diplomacy and cooler heads to prevail. Friends of the LDS had not been idle in Washington, D.C., and many worked to convince Buchanan that the Utah Territory was not in revolt. To test this concept, Buchanan penned an offer of pardons on April 6, 1858. Any members of the LDS who laid down their arms, accepted Cumming as the territorial governor, and submitted to federal control would not be held accountable for their previous actions. Brigham Young immediately accepted the pardon, although he denied the territory had ever been in a state of revolt, and he encouraged his followers to do the same, effectively defusing the situation.
The Army marched into Salt Lake City in June of 1858, without a shot being fired. There were certainly those in its leadership who had hoped to punish the LDS for their resistance, but others in the Army delegation, such as Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke (the former commander of the Mormon Battalion in 1847) held the LDS citizens in high regard. Johnston elected to construct Camp Floyd approximately 50 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, in a sparsely populated area. He correctly assumed this would reduce any friction with local inhabitants, while still being close enough to guard the overland trails and serve as a reminder of federal authority. Camp Floyd was only in operation for three years before its troops were recalled east to serve in the Civil War, although a small garrison was reestablished in 1862. During the Civil War, the LDS church and the inhabitants of the Utah Territory effectively remained neutral. Although the federal government passed a series of anti-polygamy laws in the early 1860s, President Abraham Lincoln chose not to attempt any enforcement of them in Utah, in exchange for Young’s efforts to keep the territory from joining the Confederacy.
The Utah Expedition was ultimately a blundering campaign that emerged from a series of misunderstandings and prejudice on both sides. Neither side wished to compromise, and both tended to assume the worst about their counterparts without spending much effort to determine whether their assumptions were correct. The cooling of tempers was primarily aided by the weather and timing of the expedition—had it been launched earlier in the spring, it might have actually triggered a substantial amount of bloodshed. While Brigham Young might have lost his temporal post as the governor of the territory, neither he nor Cumming ever suffered from any illusions about who possessed true power and authority in the region, or from where it was derived. If anything, the Army’s invasion of the Utah Territory demonstrated its utter unpreparedness for even minor campaigns involving more than a few hundred troops, barely a decade after the successful invasion of Mexico. It should have served as a warning for Winfield Scott, at least, that the Army was completely incapable of large-scale operations. Should an invasion of a different territory in the United States prove necessary, the Army needed to relearn many of its lessons on how to build, equip, and supply a large force operating in the face of enemy resistance.