The Utah War of 1857-1858 was the nation’s most extensive and expensive military involvement during the period between the Mexican and Civil wars, an armed confrontation between the civil-religious leadership of Utah and the Buchanan administration over power and authority in the territory. Ultimately it pitted nearly one-third of the U.S. Army against Utah’s Nauvoo Legion, arguably the country’s largest, most experienced militia. The historiography and folklore of this conflict is loaded with myths and misunderstandings, not the least of them being the notion that the war ended 150 years ago today – on June 26, 1858 – when Brevet Brig. Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston’s Utah Expedition marched into and through a Salt Lake City deserted and ready for the torch.
When did the Utah War end? It depends how one looks at it, much as with the Korean War of 1950-1953, which is still ongoing in the legal sense – complete with episodic exchanges of gunfire across the DMZ, attempts at border-crossings from the sea, and an armistice apparatus at Panmunjon that is a bizarre combination of international minefield and tourist attraction. Wars, like labor-management disputes, are shockingly easy to start but extraordinarily difficult to conclude.
In a sense the Utah War has been “frozen in time” through the widespread belief that the conflict and the significance of the people involved ended on a single day. But for many of the people on both sides, the Utah War was ongoing for decades as a foundational experience, perhaps even an epiphany, which launched them into even more heroic and tragic adventures. In reality, the Utah War forms an exotic but largely unrecognized connection among the rich, colorful, and fascinating personal stories involved with shaping Mormonism, Utah, and the West long after June 26, 1858. Lost in the process is an understanding of the war’s complex, downstream impact on the lives of the participants on both sides following 1858.
Years ago, when I discovered that a very bright Mormon friend from Wisconsin had no idea that Albert Sidney Johnston later became the Confederacy’s leading general and had died a hero in 1862 at Shiloh, I started digging. From such research came the extraordinary, colorful, but neglected stories of hundreds of Utah War veterans – military and civilian – on both sides. Among the federals alone appear such individuals as:
- Captain John Cleveland Robinson, Fifth U.S. Infantry, who became a Union major general, lost a leg, and was awarded the Medal of Honor. He went on to command the Grand Army of the Republic and to serve as New York’s lieutenant governor.
- Private John Sobieski, Tenth U.S. Infantry, an immigrant claiming descent from a seventeenth-century Polish king, who served throughout the Civil War and became a colonel in the Mexican army.
- Second Lieutenant William H.F. (“Rooney”) Lee, Sixth U.S. Infantry, who dropped out of Harvard in the spring of 1857 to serve in Utah against the wishes of his distinguished father, Robert E. Lee, before becoming the Confederacy’s youngest major general.
- Private John Jerome (“Johnny”) Healy, Second U.S. Dragoons, who became sheriff of Fort Benton, Montana, a co-founder of Alberta’s whiskey-soaked Fort Whoop-Up, coiner of the Canadian Mounties’ unofficial motto (“They always get their man”), an Alaskan gold-rush trading and transportation magnate for Chicago’s Cudahy family, and the model for a central figure in Jack London’s first novel.
- Benjamin Franklin Ficklin, a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, who served Albert Sidney Johnston as a civilian guide and acting U.S. marshal for Utah before becoming a Pony Express superintendent, a Confederate blockade-runner, and the Civil War owner of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
- George Sheppard and David Poole, Utah Expedition teamsters, who joined William C. Quantrill’s Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War. Sheppard later rode with the Jesse James-Cole younger gang of bank robbers. Quantrill himself was a Utah War teamster and camp cook before becoming the Civil War’s most notorious guerrilla.
- Corporal Myles Moylan, Second U.S. Dragoons, who was both commissioned and cashiered during the Civil War, reenlisted as a private under an alias, was commissioned again, transferred to the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, and retired as a major in 1893 after surviving the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 and receiving the Medal of Honor for his role in the 1877 campaign against the Nez Perce.
- Private Ben Clark, Bee’s Battalion of U.S. volunteers, who later became fluent in Cheyenne and served as chief scout and interpreter for Generals George Armstrong Custer, Philip H. Sheridan, William Tecumseh Sherman, and Nelson A. Miles during the post-war plains campaigns.
It is not surprising to me, then, that a Michigan friend, son of the late Governor George W. Romney and brother of former Governor Mitt Romney was aware that one of his great-grandfathers, Charles H. Wilcken, had deserted from the Utah Expedition’s Fourth U.S. Artillery in 1857, but did not realize that, as a Mormon convert, Wilcken had become coachman, bodyguard, nurse, and pallbearer for LDS Church Presidents John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff as well as an adopted son of Apostle George Q. Cannon. What a story!
Lost along with an appreciation of these heroes, rogues, and solid citizens has been an understanding of the multiple societal forces – political, economic, geographic, and cultural – set in motion by the conflict, some of them unresolved to this day. Among such societal forces are a boom-bust volatility in Utah’s economy, Russia’s decision to sell Alaska, the English decision to form the province of British Columbia, the Anglo rediscovery of the Grand Canyon, the near-dismemberment of Utah politically in six territorial “bites,” and a pervasive anti-federalism known in today’s West as the Sagebrush Rebellion. Although few people realize it, the Utah War had individual, economic, political, geographic, and cultural consequences long after Albert Sidney Johnston marched through Salt Lake City.
In many ways, then, this conflict is still with us. It helps to explain the western anti-federal phenomenon that I just called the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” it helps to explain some of the issues that arose during George Romney’s presidential run in 1968 and that of his son Mitt this year. It helps to explain the rage in southern Utah during the 1990s over President Clinton’s unilateral, surprise creation of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a federal intervention likened by one Utah congressman (Chris Cannon) to the Utah War of the prior century. It even explains a somewhat pointed editorial cartoon by Pat Bagley run by the Salt Lake Tribune when Pres. Clinton visited the Park City ski slopes at the height of the Monica Lewinsky flap. In the cartoon a Secret Service agent, depicted as driving Clinton along I-80, explains to the dismayed president the text of hostile roadside placards wielded by Utah citizens. In the cartoon, the agent says: “Don’t worry, Mr. President. ‘Hide the women’ is a traditional Mormon greeting.” As recently as last March the LDS Church and the descendants of the Mountain Meadows Massacre victims came to an historic agreement about the status of the atrocity site that had been a bone of contention and source of animosity for decades, and in June a highly publicized attempt commenced near Van Buren, Arkansas to exhume the remains of Apostle Parley P. Pratt, another Romney ancestor and the Mormon leader assassinated on the eve of the Utah War. The beat goes on, and the past of our ancestors as well as the Romneys’ continues to be part of our own present.
In less than three years the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War will be upon us. All the more reason to understand the fraternal conflict that immediately preceded it – one that pitted Americans wearing the same uniform against one another in the American West.
Note: For more extensive discussion of this topic, see: MacKinnon, “Epilogue to the Utah War: Impact and Legacy,” Journal of Mormon History 29 (Fall 2003): 186-248; and At Sword’s Point, Part 1: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858 (Norman, Okla: the Arthur H. Clark Company, 2008).