The Mormon War of the 1850s is an important and controversial event in Mormon History as well as the greater history of Utah and the United States. Between 1857 and 1858 the United States Army attacked Mormons in Utah Territory thereby eliminating the ability of Mormons in the United States to live with an isolationist mentally. As a result, Governor Brigham Young was ousted and US military command became involved in the Mountain Meadow massacre. The result of this massacre was trauma and disgrace within the Mormon Church. This event has gone by many names: Utah War; Utah Expedition; Utah Campaign, and the Mormon Rebellion. No matter what moniker the episode is called, the events of the Mormon War of the 1850s are inexorably linked to the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The United States army ultimately removed, however they left behind a wealth of equipment that would be happily absorbed into the Mormon community that remained. Brigham Young never regained the power he had once wielded in Utah. The hostility between Mormons and the mainstream United States from the 1850s onward was complicated by many issues, not the least of which was the issue of their relationship to Native Americans across the West. One of the catalysts of the Mormon War was the 1856 national election of James Buchanan. When Buchanan was elected over John C. Fremont, Mormons in the West and especially in Salt Lake City were angry and disgruntled. The press exacerbated the Mormon’s complaint by portraying them as in open rebellion because of the election of Buchanan. In one widely circulated New York Times article a journalist asked, “What is to be done with the Mormons?” This caused great speculation among the public about how formidable the Mormon military might be once it came up against that of the federal government, namely the U.S. Army. President Buchannan finally responded with a display of force which included sending US military troops to Utah to ensure that his new Governor of the Territory would be put in charge and that Brigham Young would not continue to rule. Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston commanded the Utah Expedition which included the Second Dragoons, the Fourth Artillery, the Fifth Infantry Regiment, , and the Tenth Infantry Regiment. This large group was hastily assembled and preceded in a disorganized fashion toward Utah with a tremendous number of supply wagons and animals in tow. Brigham Young was alerted to the approach of this massive and disorderly expedition by accident and that was the first notice that he received about his impending replacement. Brigham Young, who felt that he was acting as Governor through divine appointment rather than United States appointment claimed, "We have got a territorial government, and I am and will be the governor, and no power can hinder it until the Lord Almighty says, 'Brigham, you need not be governor any longer,' and then I am willing to yield to another" was unwilling to give over his leadership based on orders from Buchanan. Governor Young confronted the members of the Utah Expedition as if they were a gang of rabble rousers who were operated outside the law. On September 15, 1857, Governor Young declared that the Utah Territory was under martial law. In later years Young would maintain that despite what had happened and all of the innocent lives lost, it was because the Mormons were being hounded and victimized. According to Young, the US federal government was a “hostile force;” Utah was “invaded by a hostile force, who are evidently assailing us to accomplish our overthrow and destruction.” One result of Young’s feelings of persecution was the Mountain Meadow Massacre. The Massacre took place on the Spanish Trail southwest of Cedar City Utah. About one-hundred and twenty men, women, and children in a wagon train who were crossing southern Utah on their way to California were slaughtered by mistake. Confusion reigned and some Mormons tried to circulate reports that it had been a local American Indian tribe that attacked the wagons. Seventeen children lived through the attack but no adults, so in the aftermath these children were sent to live with Mormon families. The Mountain Meadow Massacre remains a debated topic in the history of the western United States. After many years some Utah Mormons admitted that they had encouraged Years Paiutes to attack the wagon train. Other accusations include a Mormon revenge plan against outsiders who travelled through Utah. Other allegations are that it was well-known that this particular wagon train had many supplies and cattle, so it was a group effort between Mormon opportunists and Paiutes to reap a huge amount of loot quickly.
Several men were complicit in planning the attack on the wagon train and in deliberately enlisting the help of the Paiute. Mormon leader John D. Lee held a meeting during which it as decided that the group needed to act with speed and without consulting the greater Mormon “council of the brethren.” The blessing of the council, it was reasoned could be sought later. Lee sent Paiute interpreters to assist in getting a group of Indian men together. Paiute men were convinced to scout the wagon train and kill everyone. As a reward, they could keep what they could carry. Interestingly, the relationship between Mormons and the Paiute was such that Mormons were not considered the same race as Americans – known as “Mericates.” This points up the special relationship Mormons had with various Indian people in the West during the nineteenth century. The Southern Indian Mission did in fact have a working relationship with the Paiutes. This is one of the factors that made the Indians more inclined to cooperate. Tensions were high in the Territory due to the impending arrival of United States federal troops. Brigham Young and several other Mormon leaders had met with Indian leaders in Salt Lake to discuss the arrival of federal soldiers. Mormons supplied the Indians with horses and cattle and explained that they needed to be ready to survive a possible siege. Some scholars contend that this meeting and these instructions contributed to the Indian readiness when it was time to attack the wagon train in Mountain Meadows. Will Bagley writes that the fate of the wagon train members was “sealed in a meeting in Great Salt Lake City between the leaders of the southern Paiute bands and the man they called ‘Big Um’—Brigham Young.” After the Indian leaders met with Governor Young, they felt that the message was clear. The Paiutes needed to join with their Mormon countrymen to keep on the invading white men.
Quarrels about accountability exploded within the Mormon ranks immediately. Brigham Young had been warned in advance that the Paiute were going to attack the wagon train. Young made a limited effort to stop the attack; he was preoccupied with his own political problems at the time. In the meantime, a Missouri wagon train was being held on the trail. They paid Mormon guides to get them through. The members of this wagon train and others who bypassed the site of the Massacre took their stories to the press once they arrived in California. Reports in the press contained accusations of Mormon involvement by non-Mormons and Mormons alike. By October there weer widespread reports that Mormon leaders had instigated the Massacre, “it is impossible to divert the mind from the suspicion that others besides the Indians had a hand in this horrible butchery. It will also be seen, that the San Bernardino Mormon, whose letter detailing the circumstances is given in another column, expresses the belief that it will be attributed to the Mormons, and it is an old maxim, that he who excuses, accuses himself.” The result was a national response of outrage. Eventually, John D. Lee was arrested and tried. However, it would be twenty years before he stood in front of a firing squad to pay for his part in the Mountain Meadow Massacre. Representatives of the United States Army went to Mountain Meadows in 1859 in an attempt to retrieve the human remains while at the same time Brigham Young was insisting that he would not cooperate with the United States army in anyway. Young threated to burn everything the Mormons had built in Salt Lake to the ground and fight to the last man. George A. Smith, and other Mormons announce, "Five times we have been driven-no more!" The Mormons determined to stop the progress of the Utah Expedition’s supplies. On the Mormon side, Colonel Robert T. Burton was sent with a detachment of troops to South Pass on the Continental Divide. Colonel Lot Smith was sent with a group of soldiers to delay the government troops by the Green River crossing near Fort Bridger. Porter Rockwell and Bill Hickman assembled their men as well. On the federal side, Colonel Edmund Alexander and the Tenth U.S. Infantry Regiment breached the South Pass and arrived at Pacific Springs, Porter Rockwell and his men attacked. They made some effort to imitate American Indians as they charged the men of the Tenth U.S. Infantry Regiment who were camping in tents. Colonel Lot Smith and his troops then worsened the progress of the Utah Expedition with a surprise attack on two supply trains just a Brigham Young had promised. Some federal soldiers were trapped in a siege like situation in the Uinta Mountains. After running out of food they began eating their work animals and as many as two thousand animals during that winter. The entire time they were trapped they were harassed by Mormons who disguised themselves as drivers and made off with cattle. Ultimately this disorganized expedition made it out of the mountains. In the meantime President Buchanan was being criticized roundly in the press and by members of the House and Senate for having bungled the entire campaign. Buchanan finally sent a Peace Commission into Utah Territory. The result was that the Mormon people involved and Mormons in general received a federal pardon. Trials did begin in the pursuit of justice for the many killed in the Mountain Meadow Massacre. Brigham Young gave a deposition proclaiming he was innocent of all involvement. Between 1863 and 1870, much testimony and suspicion were part of the trials. Young first distanced himself from Lee and then later a reapproachment occurred between the two men. Because of a wide variety of reasons, not the least of which seems to be disorganization and misinformation, many innocent lives were lost, the reputation of the Mormons was tarnished, and President as well as the United States Army were humiliated.
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