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A Utah War Primer

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 19, 2008

This is a modified version of one of several “introduction to the Utah War” talks I’ve given over the past couple of years. Bill MacKinnon is the one who uncovers new documents and offers professional analyses — I just try to bring everybody up to speed with the basic outline.

This “Utah War Primer” is only an overview of the Utah War. Rather than breaking new ground, it is my purpose to remind you of the basic story of the Utah War, so that you have the framework on which to hang the more original information you may have heard or read during the 2007-08 sesquicentennial observance of the Utah War. If I do it right, you won’t think you have learned a thing – merely recalled stories and facts that you have heard before but which may have become jumbled or faded in your memory.

I’ve had occasion in the past few years to mention the Utah War to quite a few people, including many who have lived their whole lives in Utah, learned Utah history in school and enjoy reading history. Others have been Mormons who have grown up elsewhere, but who consider themselves fairly well versed in church history. Yet the usual reaction to hearing the phrase “Utah War” is a kind of blank look – or sometimes a “deer in the headlights” look: “Um, am I supposed to know about that?” If instead of calling it the Utah War, I call it “Johnston’s Army,” there is very often a flicker of recognition: “Oh, Johnson’s Army! I’ve heard of that.”

Johnston – not “Johnson” as his name is often given in speech, and even in print – is Col. Albert Sydney Johnston, a career United States Army officer who was at the head of the federal troops when they reached the Salt Lake Valley 150 years ago last spring. Johnston was not the man who was originally appointed to lead those troops, and he did not march across the plains with his men – he did not join them at all until late in 1857 when the army had already reached Wyoming.

Scholars have begun calling the conflict of 1857-58 the “Utah War” instead of “Johnston’s Army” for several reasons. One important reason is that the label of “Johnston’s Army” suggests that Johnston himself was somehow responsible for the conflict. He was not, of course – he did not raise the army, he did not set its mission, and he certainly was not a villain who, with malicious intent, invaded Utah. Rather, he was a dedicated military officer who was following the instructions of his president and his military superiors. He no doubt saved the lives of countless soldiers by his prudent decision to go into winter quarters at Fort Bridger and obtain crucial supplies and draft animals before completing the march to Salt Lake City. And he was such an effective military officer who had his men under such tight discipline that when they did enter Salt Lake in the spring of 1858, every last one of his men obeyed orders to march quietly and peacefully through the city to their camp on the Jordan River, without looting, without threatening the few citizens who remained in town, and without triggering disaster by alarming the men who stood ready to burn the city rather than let it be occupied by a lawless armed mob.

Besides Johnston, another name that many Mormons are familiar with, but may not quite remember why, is that of Judge William W. Drummond. He was one of the federal court officers appointed by U.S. President Franklin Pierce to come to Utah Territory to take care of official business. He is the man who arrived with a woman on his arm, whom he introduced as his wife, and even, apparently, had sit with him on the bench while he conducted court business. She was, it turned out, not his wife, whom he had abandoned in the East, but a prostitute he had picked up in Washington. Mormon outrage when this was discovered convinced Judge Drummond to return to Washington.

Drummond is often credited with sparking the Utah War because of certain letters he published in the newspapers accusing the Mormons of having driven him from the Territory, of being a danger to the American home and family, and of making Utah unsafe for non-Mormons, be they federal officers or emigrants on their way to California. He said all those things, and did succeed in provoking an anti-Mormon, anti-Utah furor among newspaper editors and eastern politicians, but to say he touched off the Utah War is giving him far too much credit.

The Utah War had been brewing almost since the Mormons arrived here in 1847, certainly since the first set of federal officers arrived in Utah in 1851, spent a few weeks there, and returned to Washington to report their displeasure with what they found – a society which did not fit the mold of other American territories, but a society that paid far more attention to its religious leaders than to political appointees from Washington. Those early reports worsened through the next few years with disputes concerning mail service, land surveys, and who should manage the water and timber resources of the Territory. There were accusations of “tampering with the Indians” and of irregularities in accounting for moneys sent to Utah to build the capitol. Accusations were not limited to charges by easterners against Utahns: Utahns also complained about the quality of the federal officers who were sent here, charging them with immoral behavior, a greater interest in making money than in administering justice, and with general incompetence.

Relations between Utah and Washington had deteriorated so badly that when the Utah Legislature met in late 1856, they drafted a petition for statehood, supported by memorials signed by Utah citizens, which went beyond the usual form of such documents. Rather than saying, in effect, “Please, Mr. President and Congress, admit us into the Union as a State, for we are loyal citizens who can effectively govern ourselves,” the Utah petition demanded statehood and said, in effect, that if statehood were denied, Utahns would feel themselves under no obligation to obey officers and laws forced upon them from outside.

When these documents reached Washington and were presented to the administration of the new president, James Buchanan, the cabinet saw them not as a request to join the United States, but as a declaration of independence, a declaration of war. These documents, together with the public furor stirred by Judge Drummond, together with the reports of other federal officers concerning conditions in Utah, together with concern over vital national interests such as preserving open transportation across the continent and preventing so-called “Indian tampering,” led President Buchanan to the decision to send a new governor to Utah, and to send him with a military escort large enough to restore order should reports prove true that Utah was in rebellion. Orders were given for an army of approximately 2,500 men to be assembled at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, together with enormous quantities of supplies and herds of beef and draft animals, to proceed to Utah that summer and establish a military post somewhere near Salt Lake City.

The next event that most Mormons are generally familiar with is the picnic held in Big Cottonwood Canyon on July 24, 1857. Most of us have heard how dusty horsemen rode into the festivities carrying word that the army was on its way. That happened, just as most of us have heard time and time again. What may be a little less clear is the exact nature of the news they carried. Many of us have heard that these horsemen brought the first news of the pending conflict. While it is true that they brought the first news that the army had in fact left Fort Leavenworth to begin its march westward, we should also remember that for weeks, the people in Utah had been aware, through newspapers and travelers’ accounts, that an army was being assembled. They did not know, though, until the Pioneer Day picnic, that the army was in fact going to march late that summer, rather than early the next spring.

What followed in the next few months may be a jumble of half-remembered, half-misunderstood events that form the heart of the Utah War narrative. Mostly, events proceeded according to the pattern you might expect in war:

First, each side gathered information about the other: Brigham Young sent scouts eastward to meet and observe the army, to count men and wagons, to chat with soldiers when they had the chance, to gauge mood and intentions. The army sent a captain from the Quartermaster’s Corps, Stewart Van Vliet, to Utah to arrange for supplies of wood and grass and grain for the army, and to gauge Utah’s mood and intentions.

Following Capt. Van Vliet’s departure, Brigham Young placed Utah Territory under martial law. His proclamation forbade the U.S. Army – any armed body – to enter Utah Territory. It required people passing into or out of the Territory to obtain passes from the governor’s office. And it called on Utahns to conserve grain and cattle, the two essential foodstuffs that would be required to feed a defensive army and to sustain the people if they were forced to flee from their homes.

The Utah militia, called the Nauvoo Legion, stepped up its drills and musters. Units of the Nauvoo Legion were sent into Echo Canyon (on the road we presumed the army would take) to build fortifications – breastworks from behind which sharpshooters could fire, dams that could flood the road and hinder an army’s progress, piles of boulders that could be rolled from cliff tops – anything, in fact, that could be devised to slow down the progress of an invading army.

Other units of the Nauvoo Legion, the cavalry, were sent into what is now Wyoming, in the neighborhood of Fort Bridger. These units were under orders to be a hindrance to the progress of the federal troops – to burn the grass before them so that their animals could not find feed, to drive off their animals at every opportunity, to encourage desertion, if possible, by calling out taunts and invitations, to disturb the sleep of the soldiers through night raids.

Other units of the Nauvoo Legion both in the north in Weber and Cache counties, and in the south at Cedar City, were ordered to patrol their regions to be certain that no U.S. troops were approaching from unexpected directions.

The Nauvoo Legion record is one of mixed success and failure. The records document a lot of marching, a lot of camping, a lot of hungry days and cold nights. Men patrolling the mountain passes in the north and the trails in the south spent their time following not invading U.S. army troops, but tracks left by other Nauvoo Legionnaires on patrol. In the north, one patrol came across a group of saddled horses which they stole, believing them to belong to the army, but discovering the next day when angry and footsore Legionnaires arrived back in camp that they had stolen the horses of their own troops. Legionnaires did succeed in driving off large numbers of U.S. Army cattle, some of which were driven into Salt Lake and some of which were used to feed the troops. They were very successful in making feed hard to find through burning prairie grasses; they were less successful in driving off horses and mules from the army camps. In what is probably the most well known, most iconic event of the Utah War, Lot Smith and the Legionnaires he commanded succeeded in burning two wagon trains filled with supplies destined for the federal troops. This was a success cheered at the time and even more widely celebrated in the decades since the Utah War – you may be less familiar with the reaction of Americans in the east when word of the wagons’ destruction was received. Up to this point, Mormons were viewed as rebellious and in need of the firm hand of the parent government; news of the wagon burnings was viewed as treason for which there was no excuse and could be no forgiveness.

If the Nauvoo Legion had a mixed record of success and failure in the late summer and autumn of 1857, so did the U.S. troops. An army had been successfully assembled on short notice, with the supplies, wagons, and teamsters necessary to sustain the expedition also miraculously assembled. But the army left the frontier handicapped by the lack of any overall commander – William S. Harney, its original commander, was retained in Kansas to quell civil unrest there; Albert Sydney Johnston, its ultimate commander, had not yet been assigned and would require weeks to catch up to his troops once he was appointed. The season for crossing the plains was almost over – the troops left the frontier later in the season than the Martin handcart company had left the year before. And while plans had called for sending 2,500 men, the army could not assemble quite that many – nor could they retain men in the ranks once they were assigned. The army’s normal desertion rate climbed astronomically, as men who did not relish a long wilderness campaign melted away while they were still within reach of civilization. Rather than 2,500 men, Utah Expedition specialist Curtis Allen has documented barely over 1,700 by the time the army reached Fort Bridger.

On the other hand, the army made rapid progress across the plains, and traveled in reasonable health with little sickness or accident. Although a Cheyenne raid had taken hundreds of army cattle sent ahead of the troops, the men themselves had no trouble with the Indians. The loss of 76 wagons to Lot Smith was a blow, but relative to the total amount of supplies sent with the troops, that loss should have meant little in the way of actual suffering.

However, there were two factors over which the army had no control once they were underway, which contributed to a great deal of suffering on the part of the troops. One of those was the lack of effective leadership: the army suffered delays, frustration, and the wasted efforts of the federal troops as their dithering, indecisive, temporary commander, Col. Edmund B. Alexander, wandered westward, then wandered up and down one Wyoming stream after another, unable to decide what to do.

The other factor over which the army had no control was the weather, which, as it had done the year before with the Martin company, set in with a vengeance. By the time Johnston joined his troops on November 3, it was too late to escape a series of winter storms that all but destroyed the army’s capacity to move. Johnston ordered a dash to shelter at Fort Bridger, but the army was crippled by the loss of its draft animals, who died by the hundreds due to hunger and cold. The army had lost an estimated 4,000 animals by the time Johnston succeeded in getting his men into winter quarters at Fort Bridger – a fort burned by the Mormons to deny the army the limited shelter it offered.

Once the army was in winter quarters and the Nauvoo Legion was assured that there would be no attempt that winter to force entry into the Salt Lake Valley, the active phase of the Utah War was over. There were still a few Legionnaires watching the troops, and a detachment of federal troops were dispatched in mid-winter on a heroic mission to obtain animals in New Mexico and bring them safely back to Bridger. Utah’s new governor and judges, in winter quarters near the army, did begin to function in a limited way as Utah’s government – their most notable action was to return indictments for treason against 1,000 Utah citizens. In the settlements, sermons in favor of liberty and against tyranny kept up determination on the part of Mormons not to submit to the army.

Public opinion in the east, which had at first supported the Utah Expedition, began to turn sour. The press asked why military leaders had not arranged to reinforce and resupply the beleaguered soldiers before real suffering occurred. They demanded to know the total cost of the expedition. Some who had urged the sending of an army in the spring were now asking why Buchanan had not first sent an investigative commission to Utah.

Buchanan remained committed to his military policy, but also sought a way to resolve the conflict quickly and cheaply. One such opportunity presented itself in the person of Thomas L. Kane of Philadelphia, a longtime friend of the Mormons and an eastern political figure. Kane offered to go to Utah and negotiate a peaceful solution. While Buchanan gave Kane no official commission and no public endorsement, he did offer lukewarm encouragement and did nothing to prevent Kane’s quixotic mission.

Kane embarked on his voyage just as 1858 began, traveling by ship to Panama and by wagon across the isthmus, then by ship to California and by horseback to Utah. He shuttled between Salt Lake and Camp Scott, consulting with leaders on both sides. Kane arranged for Utah’s new governor, Alfred Cumming, to enter Salt Lake and be peacefully recognized as governor.

Cumming arrived just in time to witness the most dramatic episode of the Utah War: Faced with the knowledge that the army would inevitably enter the settlements in the spring, the Mormons withdrew from Salt Lake City and all northern towns. Cumming was greeted by the sight of families, with their household goods piled on wagons and their livestock trailing behind, fleeing southward. Every salvageable article had been cached or sent south.

Historians differ in their assessment of this move. Were the Mormons abandoning Utah for new settlements elsewhere? Was Brigham Young merely prudent in removing women and children from the immediate reach of an invading army? Or was it a bid for sympathy from Americans in the east who would be horrified at the thought of helpless women and children driven from their homes by American soldiers?

By the time Buchanan’s official peace commissioners arrived in Utah with power to negotiate a settlement and bearing a pardon for actions committed by Utah’s defenders, the Move South was complete. The army entered Salt Lake Valley on June 26, 1858, to find an eerily deserted city. It took hours for the army to march through, strung out as they were along the road, but the troops passed through Salt Lake without incident, first to camp near the Jordan River and eventually to build Camp Floyd west of Utah Lake.

As you no doubt realize, the causes and events and aftermath of the war are far too complex to survey adequately in a blog post. My hope is that this quick refresher course has reminded you of what you already know but may have gotten muddled in your memory, and to serve as a frame of reference for stories you may read in the closing months of the Utah War’s sesquicentennial observance.



  1. This is a helpful and effective primer, Ardis. Great work.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 19, 2008 @ 7:42 am

  2. Great write-up!

    Comment by Researcher — November 19, 2008 @ 8:03 am

  3. Thanks for this, for those of us who are non-Utahn, this really helps.

    As a question, how long before the Mormons returned to SLC?

    Comment by Matt W. — November 19, 2008 @ 8:18 am

  4. Glad it’s helpful — sometimes historians (or religionists, or anybody else) take it for granted that everybody shares a common background, which can make it hard for people who feel out of the loop to ask questions.

    Matt, they began straggling back to SLC and other northern towns late in June, and were mostly home by the end of July. There weren’t enough teams and wagons to get everyone south without wagons having to make multiple back-and-forth trips — and while the approaching army provided the pressure to move south in a hurry, there wasn’t the same impetus to get everyone back home. I’m afraid the end of the Move South wasn’t our brightest cooperative moment, because so many who had been moved out of their homes were dumped in Provo and left to make their way back north as best they could. Quite a few just stayed, in part because they had little choice.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 19, 2008 @ 8:27 am

  5. Thanks for this, Ardis; I’m gonna bookmark this page in a folder for whenever I need to refer to the Utah War :)

    Comment by Ben — November 19, 2008 @ 9:24 am

  6. Thanks, Ardis. Great stuff.

    One minor nit, and a major gripe:

    Nit: You refer to Thomas Kane shuttling between SLC and Camp Scott, but that’s the only place “Camp Scott” shows up in your narrative. Was that the same place as the burned Fort Bridger, or some closer place where Col. Johnston had his headquarters?

    And, you left out the part about the soldier, his mare, the sentence of death, the pardon, etc. Surely, no Utah War summary is complete without this!

    Comment by Mark B. — November 19, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  7. Mark, you are quite right that no account of the Utah War can be considered complete without the story of the soldier who loved his mare too much. This, however, being a family blog (certain occasional artistic illustrations from old magazines to the contrary), we will have to leave that tail — er, tale, to the imagination of readers.

    And you’re also right about my not adequately identifying Camp Scott. That’s the formal name given by Johnston to the army bivouac near Bridger. (Although they used the surviving stone walls of Fort Bridger as a storehouse, the military headquarters and virtually all of the tents and other facilities of the army camp were in a new-made “city” outside of the burned fort = Camp Scott.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 19, 2008 @ 10:00 am

  8. Ben, While I don’t suppose the Utah War is a feature of your daily discourse :) , you might also want to bookmark , which is a website that the Utah War Sesquicentennial Observance Committee put up. There are several articles by Bill and others there, along with a few other goodies.

    [Oh, the pain. This comment didn’t show up on the blog when I sent it, and I found it in the spam filter. My own blog thinks I’m spam!]

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 19, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  9. Thanks Ardis, for the clarification on Camp Scott. And for the even more TMI on the man and his mare. :-)

    And, sorry to hear that your own blog has banned you. Using Groucho Marx’s logic, I guess that means you’ve truly arrived–you’ve joined the club that refuses to admit you as a member!

    Comment by Mark B. — November 19, 2008 @ 10:57 am

  10. Ardis, Bravo! Wonderful summary.

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 19, 2008 @ 11:11 am

  11. This is great, and it met its stated purpose, at least for me. Thanks!

    Comment by Ben Pratt — November 19, 2008 @ 11:19 am

  12. This worked for me. I had heard a lot of this stuff in half-remembered ways, but it is much more coherent to read a single summary like this.

    I could swear I read in the not too distant past an article all about that picnic where the riders came to give notice that the army was on the move. I recall there being pictures of the invitations. Does that ring a bell with anyone?

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 19, 2008 @ 1:09 pm

  13. Kevin, I don’t know which article you might have seen; several appeared in local (Utah) publications as part of the sesquicentennial. My column for the Tribune — without, alas, any illustration — can be found here should you want a refresher of the details of that day.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 19, 2008 @ 1:17 pm

  14. Kevin, I’m not sure if it was it or not, but the recent MMM volume includes an image of the invitation (pg. 34).

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 19, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  15. […] Ardis’ Utah War primer. A nice summary if you aren’t up on the history. […]

    Pingback by Utah War : Mormon Metaphysics — November 19, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

  16. Remember Harold Schindler? He wrote “Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder”. At the time he passed away he was working on a book about the Utah War. I wish he would have finished the book.

    Robert C. Turpin

    Comment by Robert C. Turpin — November 20, 2008 @ 1:39 pm

  17. Four years later, April 6, 1862 while General A.S. Johnston was leading his Confederate forces against General Grant at the Battle Shilo (also know as the Battle of Pittsburg Landing) in Southwestern Tennessee, he was wounded in the leg. He felt the wound to be insignificant and continued to direct the battle from horseback. The bullet had hit an artery and he fell from his horse and bled to death. Jefferson Davis felt Johnston was the best general in the Southern Army and felt his loss deeply. Some officers in the Confederate Army wrestled mightily with their conscience as they broke their Loyalty Oath when they left the service of the United States. Sydney Johnston was a masterful tactitian but he was no fan of the Mormons.

    Comment by Glen Hopkinson — November 20, 2008 @ 9:58 pm

  18. Great summary of most key facts regarding the war. But what about Tervort Vegedes?

    Comment by S. Taylor — November 21, 2008 @ 8:17 am

  19. S., feel free to tell his story here! Soldiers sneaking out of camp in pickle barrels didn’t seem quite basic enough for a primer, but with this teaser I know there will be readers wanting to know more.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 21, 2008 @ 8:24 am

  20. Robert C. Turpin (#16), that makes two of us — at least — that wish that Hal Schindler’s Utah War book had been completed before his death in the late 1990s. In an article that I wrote recently about future possible discoveries of source material on the Utah War I commented that at some time perhaps researchers would have access to Hal’s files. As far as I know, they have been virtually sealed in the family basement since Hal’s passing. Even someone as close to Hal as Will Bagley (who collaborated with him on at least one book) is not clear on what’s in those files or on Hal’s computer after all these years. When I got to Salt Lake in the 1990s, I would often meet with Hal to compare notes. When we would get to an interesting point in the discussion — say, about whether the variant August 5, 1857 B.Y. proclamation of martial law was or wasn’t the real thing vis a vis the September 15, 1857 version — he would claim to have the answer, pause, dispense a Mona Lisa smile, and tell me that all would be revealed in “The Book.” Back in the 1960s Howard Lamar suggested that I collaborate with Hal on a Utah War project about which Hal had approached him, but Lamar cautioned me that Hal’s workstyle was “very secretive.” When I wrote to Hal to broach this subject, he kindly waved me off, saying that he only flew solo as a result of his years as a newspaper reporter on the police beat. Hal did some magnificent work, yet on the John Tobin assassination attempt along the Santa Clara River in Feb. 1857, it was Ardis Parshall who got and published the real scoop. Stay tuned…

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 21, 2008 @ 9:14 am

  21. Glen Hopkinson (#17), thanks for reminding us of what Albert Sidney Johnston did after the Utah War. Typical of him that that he, like his subordinate in the Second U.S. Cavalry Robert E. Lee, left the U.S. service in 1861 by resigning his commission and waiting for its acceptance before departing rather than just decamping as Capt. H.H. Sibley (and others) did. The folklore is that the horse that Johnston was riding when fatally wounded at Shiloh was the one that he rode during the Utah War.

    You’re quite right; he was no fan of the Mormons and said some pretty hard things about “traitors,” but Mormon leaders never demonized him as nearly as I can conclude. Brigham Young surely viewed him as an opponent, but seemed to respect him. After the Utah Expedition’s June 1858 orderly march through Salt Lake City, B.Y. expressed his thanks that ASJ had controlled his troops so well. Even Albert Carrington, editor of the “Deseret News,” wrote an editorial in the late summer of 1858 to express the same thought and to quasi-defend Johnston’s handling of the fall 1857 march of the Utah Expedition to Fort Bridger in response to an attack on him that appeared in the St. Louis “Democrat” written by one of Johnston’s critics, possibly General Harney.

    Glen, have you ever considered a Utah War scene (or several) for one of your magnificent paintings? How about Maj. Lot Smith’s nocturnal descent on the Utah Expedition’s wagon trains in October 1857, the Nauvoo Legion’s attack on the Tenth Infantry’s mule herd at Pacific Springs the month before, the Move South of spring 1858, or Capt. Ives and his detachment’s ascent of the Colorado River and rediscovery of the Grand Canyon in January 1858, or Tsar Alexander II’s brooding in a St. Petersburg palace over the need to sell Russian America in December 1857 for fear that Brigham Young might just seize it?

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — November 21, 2008 @ 9:38 am

  22. […] “Populating Worlds: Joseph Smith’s Legacy” John Hamer “Book of Jasher” Ardis “A Utah War Primer” Ardis “Polynesians in the Desert” Mormon Heretic’s “Was Priesthood Ban […]

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  23. I hadn’t known most of it beyond the vague, the Army came to occupy Utah. Most of that information came in discussions about the end of the institution of polygamy and the GAs being chased by said Army.

    I am curious about the pickle barrels. I was in a multi-Stake outdoor production about the Saints leaving Nauvoo and going to Utah. It was written by two people in our stake, including the music. One of the songs, What’s In Your Wagon, has a line that I was never sure how it applied.
    “A barrel full of pickles is much too strong, when your journey must be moving’ along, pit your shoulder to the wheel to push along, and get on down the road.”

    Maybe that line was included because of the pickle story?


    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2012 @ 8:36 am

  24. One more thing, I haven’t ever heard of a horse story. Is this something I somehow missed in Seminary or Institute?

    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2012 @ 8:38 am

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