The Church of Latter Day Saints escaped persecution in Illinois and Missouri and traveled to Utah territory. To defend themselves, the Mormons developed one of the most experienced militias in the country. Additionally, the Utah Mormons distrusted outsiders. Federal efforts to establish control in the territory met resistance. On top of this, President Buchanan failed to explain his moves or notify Utah authorities of troop movements or federal appointments. Buchanan‘s bumbling led to an armed confrontation between the Mormons and federal government from May 1857 until July 1858.
President Buchanan decided to send troops to Utah to enforce order. Rumors and inaccurate reports reached his desk making the Utah situation look explosive. Buchanan did not notify Utah of this deployment. Based on their experiences in Illinois and Missouri, the Mormons worried about the government’s motives. They prepared for a conflict.
Despite arming for a confrontation, Mormon leader Brigham Young remained concerned about a war he could not win. He prepared to evacuate Utah as a last resort. He also attempted to forge an alliance with the Indians. Young feared the worst while hoping for the best. The government’s silence increased Young’s anxiety.
The government finally made contact with the Mormons in September. The army promised their motives sincere. They wanted to escort federal appointees, including the new governor, into the territory and build forts for defense. The army had no plans to arrest Young or move on the Mormons.
Despite the assurances, the Mormons refused to help the army or sell supplies. At the same time, Young assured them that Utah did not want war. Then, he declared martial law and forbid the U.S. army from entering Utah. His declaration called for armed resistance against the invading army.
At the end of September, the militia burnt the trail ahead of the army. The following month, they burned down Fort Bridger. Next, they attacked and destroyed three army supply trains. The winter stalled their offensive and the U.S. army’s movements. In the interim, Utah’s governor declared Young and the Mormons in rebellion. Brigham Young was indicted for treason.
President Buchanan wanted to crush the Mormons. He took a hard line stance. Some have suggested Buchanan wanted to use the Mormon crisis to unite North and South on the eve of the Civil War. However, Buchanan privately fretted about the army. If Young destroyed the American force, Buchanan’s political capital would evaporate and his career would end.
Following the winter, a resolution occurred. Young agreed to step down as governor. Buchanan’s appointee took over. Additionally, Utah accepted federal supremacy. The president pardoned Young and all the citizens of Utah. The United States promised religious tolerance. Although some vestiges of bigotry remain to this day, Mormon persecution in the United States came to an end at an official level. President Buchanan managed to diffuse a crisis of his own making. Had he notified Young of the mission ahead of time, the crisis could have been avoided.
The Utah War was more of a crisis than an actual conflict. The two sides did exchange shots and an unknown number were injured and killed. However, the showdown hinged on diplomacy. Buchanan’s mistakes led to the conflict, his rhetoric accelerated it, and his peace commission ended it. In the end, the Mormons capitulated, but earned a measure of tolerance and began the process of assimilation into the United States.