America's forgotten war: LDS raiders kept Army at bay in 1857-58

Published: Sunday, July 9 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Philo Dibble, a hard-headed Mormon raider who survived a gunshot to the head, wrote his name on this rock along the Mormon Trail in Wyoming. He took part in many raids against Johnston's Army.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

John Eldredge's smile shows he loves this. Technically, he is leading a Jeep caravan into the wilds of western Wyoming, but it is more like the expedition has traveled back in time, to when Utah changed forever as the territory became the stage for what could be called America's first civil war.

Eldredge tells stories at a bleak spot called the "Camp of Death," where a race for survival began for U.S. soldiers harassed by Mormon militia during the so-called "Utah War" of 1857-58. A flock of buzzards is perched just down the trail, almost as if, by chance, age-old events might repeat to their benefit. The wind seems to carry echoes of suffering ghost soldiers.

"It's absolutely fascinating — and almost nobody knows about it," historian Eldredge says about the Utah War and the sites where most hostilities occurred, in an area of Wyoming that was then still part of Utah Territory.

A state-appointed group of historians is working to publicize that often-forgotten military encounter as the war's sesquicentennial approaches next year, and the group used a caravan to "battle" sites this past week to help.

It is a story worth telling. The Utah War showed how the American nation would deal with perceived rebellion and how an invaded people would react, foreshadowing events of the real Civil War that would follow just four years later.

What is now western Wyoming would turn into a battlefield — and Mormons would convert canyons of northeastern Utah into armed fortresses — because of disputes in the 1850s between Brigham Young and federal officials sent to govern the territory of Utah.

Many of those officials told the press of the day and President James Buchanan that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints refused to subject themselves to federal judges' rulings and federal law, and that the Mormons would follow only Brigham Young.

Mormons in turn said the judges were immoral scoundrels who overstepped their bounds. Utah's delegate to Congress, John Bernhisel, suggested sending a commission to investigate charges. Instead, Buchanan sent a new territorial governor to replace Young — along with a huge contingent of the U.S. Army to ensure his installation and to put down any "rebellion."

Young was not notified officially of the ordered change. When Mormon messengers brought word that a large army was headed to Utah, Young worried that old persecutions were being renewed — and that the Army was coming to kill and scatter church leaders.

The written words of Buchanan and Young still echo loudly 150 years later.

Their (Mormon) hostility to the lawful government of the country has at length become so violent that no officer bearing a commission from the Chief Magistrate of the Union can enter the territory or remain there with safety. . . . I accordingly ordered a detachment of the army to march for the City of Salt Lake — as a posse for the enforcement of the laws. — President James Buchanan's proclamation, Deseret News, June 16, 1858

We are invaded by a hostile force who are evidently assailing us to accomplish our overthrow and destruction. . . . Our opponents have availed themselves of prejudice existing against us because of our religious faith, to send out a formidable host to accomplish our destruction. . . . (I order) that all the forces in said Territory hold themselves in readiness to march, at a moment's notice, to repel any and all such invasion. — Territorial Gov. Brigham Young's proclamation, 1857

The first commander named for the U.S. Army expedition was Gen. William Harney. His biographer would later write that he "had fully determined, on arriving at Salt Lake City, to capture Brigham Young and the twelve apostles and execute them in summary fash-

ion." But Harney would never go to Utah, for he was soon sent instead to quell unrest in Kansas.

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