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Did the Mormons Really Fight a War Against the Federal Government?

Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign has revived interest in little-known aspects (to non-Mormons, anyway) of Mormon history. The “Utah War" of 1857-1858 certainly qualifies as one. The "war," which was relatively bloodless (aside from the tangentially related Mountain Meadows massacre) and devoid of battles between the two sides, was highly unnecessary and was ultimately an incredible display of miscommunication and misunderstanding.

The Mormons, after a trouble-ridden past of persecution in Missouri and Illinois, had moved west and begun to settle in Salt Lake Valley, Utah, in the summer of 1847. Mormon religious beliefs and practices, amongst them polygamy (which was not practiced by all Mormons), had earned the Mormons the disgust and distrust of many Americans, setting the stage for continuing conflict. At the time Utah was an American territory, and though President Millard Fillmore made a concession in granting Brigham Young (a Mormon) governorship of the territory, a number of other federal officials were appointed to the territorial administration. This situation proved problematic as the officials frowned upon Mormon practices as alien, and in turn the Mormons did not enjoy the administration of these outsiders. The circumstances lead many officials to abandon their posts and leave Utah after clashing with Young over questions of administration.

Things came to a head around 1856-57. The Mormons had had a particularly bad experience with William W. Drummond, a federal appointee to the Supreme Court of Utah who criticized polygamists while leading a questionable lifestyle of his own. He cracked down on Mormon courts, which were being used by the Mormons in place of official government courts. Feeling threatened, Drummond eventually left Salt Lake City, as did his ally, Judge George P. Stiles, who also had a tumultuous relationship with the Mormons (who, in an effort to intimidate him, threatened to burn his law library).

Reports from the officials who left the territory reached the ear of the President James Buchanan. In that period, slavery and the question of popular sovereignty were hot and dangerous topics. Republicans equated Democratic support for popular sovereignty over slavery with support for tolerating Mormon polygamy and church-dominated territorial goverment. As such, Democrats, Buchanan included, were eager to prove otherwise, and with exaggerated reports coming in about the situation in Utah, Buchanan acted. Believing the Mormons to be in a state of rebellion, Buchanan appointed a new federal governor and new federal judges for Utah, and in June of 1857 ordered a military force of 2,500 men to be dispatched to protect the appointees and establish a federal military presence in Utah. However, Buchanan and his administration neglected to provide Young with neither advance official notification of his replacement, nor of the mission given to the task force. (Captain Stewart Van Vliet was sent ahead of the army to notify Young of the situation, but his information was not complete and as the army already was on the march, Young and other Mormon leaders were not convinced of the mission’s peaceful intentions.)

The end result was that Brigham Young, without formal instructions from the Buchanan administration, believed the approaching army to be one of conquest, sent to persecute and destroy the Mormons. Consequently, Young made preparations to hold off the federal forces and protect as many Mormons as possible. Young declared martial law, ordered defensive positions to be established and called up the Nauvoo Legion to fight the federals, but he was actually more predisposed to a strategy of destroying all resources before the army and retreating, rather than one of confrontation. There would ultimately be no genuine battles, though the U.S. army group, harassed by raiding Mormons, was stalled and suffered under horrible conditions throughout the winter of 1857-58. In the end, the standoff was brought to an end through negotiations in June of 1858. Young peacefully turned over his power to his replacement, Alfred Cumming.