The Army had its ups and downs in the Plains Wars of the mid-1800s. There's no denying that. Say what you will about their performance, they never sought to destroy American settlements. But, due to a bizarre misunderstanding, the Mormons of the Utah Territory thought the U.S. Army was on the way to wipe out their burgeoning religion.
The United States enshrines the freedom of religion in its Constitution, but the idea of a new way of thinking about Christianity was pretty controversial in the early days of the Mormon Church. Today, we're accustomed to the grand temples of the church, the missionaries, having Mormon friends, and maybe even sitting in our homes with two young church members, out to spread their good word. Early church members, however, were not so accepted.
Many were killed for their beliefs. The violence directed against the young church forced its members to leave their homes and build a new one in what was then called the Utah Territory to escape persecution in a place they thought no one else would want.
This left the membership more than a little skittish about visits from their countrymen.
Especially Albert Sydney Johnston.
President James Buchanan rode into the White House in 1856 on a tide of anti-Mormon sentiment in the United States. Americans saw the kind of polygamy espoused by the Church of Latter-Day Saints in Utah as immoral and anathema to the Christian beliefs held by much of the nation – not to mention the threat of a theocracy state in the Union. Polygamy was put on par with slavery as an abomination that plagued the union.
Fearful that popular sovereignty, a means of compromise between states on the issue of slavery, would allow Utah to become a state with LDS teachings enshrined in its state constitution, mean that both Democrats and Republicans turned on the church and the Utah Territory.
In 1855, relations between the Army and the settlers of the Utah Territory reached a boiling point when 400 U.S. troops passing through to California ran afoul of the residents of Salt Lake City.
The New York Times reported that the soldiers were initially welcomed by Brigham Young and gave no indication that a fight was on the way. Instead, the fight was said to be instigated by a drunken Mormon who pushed a soldier during a Christmas celebration. A fight between the parties ensued until it devolved into an all-out brawl.
Fighting engulfed the scene and two Mormons were killed before officers and church leaders broke up the rioting. Word soon spread about the violence throughout the city and the soldiers had to abandon it, moving forty miles south of Salt Lake City.
So, the Mormons, who had already been chased out of Indiana, New York, Illinois, and elsewhere by almost everyone who wasn't a Mormon were unnerved when they heard the rumor that the U.S. military was approaching their new home in the desert from the Oregon Territory.
Then, in 1857, natives from the Paiute tribe slaughtered a wagon train headed West to California. With white men among the raiding party, they convinced the settlers that Mormons cut a deal with the Paiutes to allow their safe passage, so long as they gave up their weapons. Once the men turned in their rifles, they were all slaughtered: men, women, and children.
This false flag attack was the last straw — and anti-Mormon sentiment had everyone back East believing the Mormons were absolutely responsible for the attack. The Army prepared to send a column of 1,500 seasoned cavalry troops to Salt Lake City. Mormon leader Brigham Young decided to evacuate the women and children, but he needed to buy time.
Attacks from local Paiute Indians helped precipitate the conflict.
The Mormons began to refurbish their rifles and began to fashion melee weapons from farming equipment, determined to prevent the Army from entering Utah at all, let alone mounting an assault on Mormon settlements. They determined they would keep the Army out by inciting the Indians to attack the troops at a mountain pass, but it never came about.
While they were not able to keep the Army out indefinitely, they were able to harass the Army's supply routes, keeping supplies and ammunition away from the beleaguered soldiers. The Mormons were able to steal up to 500 head of oxen in a single night as the Army marched on through snow, sleet, and freezing temperatures as low as 25 degrees below zero – which killed off much of the army's other livestock, including cavalry horses.
This holding action prevented the Army from approaching Salt Lake City but was not enough to deter the well-supplied U.S. Army entirely. The Mormons feared they were going to be assaulted by the U.S. troops for their beliefs but, in reality, no one told them why the troops were coming or who sent them — the Mormons were just acting on past experience. Mormon militias responded to the Army's movements in what is now known as Wyoming. There, they fought a number of skirmishes to a draw and local settlements saw their property destroyed. Eventually, the territory's governor declared the Mormons in full rebellion.
Colonel Albert Sydney Johnston was promoted to brevet brigadier and allotted an additional 3,000 troops, bringing his strength up to more than 5,600 — a full one-third of the entire U.S. Army at the time. The stage was set for a full-scale invasion of the Utah Territory. The Colonel even wrote to the New York Times that he fully expected to have to ride to Salt Lake City and subdue the Mormons.
But cooler heads prevailed.
One-third of the active duty Army would be like 15,000 soldiers invading Utah today.
A lobbyist acting on behalf of the Mormons in Washington was able to barter an end to the conflict with President Buchanan. As the tensions between the sides mounted, a financial panic swept the country and the President was eager to put the whole thing behind him. In exchange for peace, Brigham Young would give up governorship of the Utah Territory and all citizens of Utah would receive a blanket pardon.
Johnston still marched the Army through Salt Lake City but the Army took no action, instead moving to establish a presence 40 miles south. Despite capturing national attention, the whole incident would soon be overshadowed by the violence of "Bleeding Kansas" and the coming Civil War.