6 Albert Sidney Johnston

The United States is preparing for war. The supposed enemy is a dictator ruling with absolute authority over a nation of religious fundamentalists who think that God will support them in their illegal actions. If an invasion comes, they have vowed to retreat to the desert and conduct a hit-and-run type insurgency. Already they have had some success; federal troops have been surprised and taken-back by a number of unexpected raids on their infrastructure and supply lines. In Congress, the pro-war lobby has been working overtime to gather the necessary votes for war and to build public support. The U.S. strategy is simple – use overwhelming military superiority to end the conflict quickly and bring the enemy to his knees. The economic cost should be minimal; in fact there should eventually be a financial payback once the foreign economy is restructured to reflect the American ideals of free-market capitalism. The intelligence reports, for the most part, are solidly behind the war effort. The few that take exception, or express doubt, have been quietly suppressed by top administration officials. It all seems to be coming together quite well. What could possibly go wrong?

The conditions described above are for the year 1857, the year America sent a 5000 plus military detachment against the Mormon residents of Territorial Utah. Tension had been building for quite some time as one federally appointed official after another abandoned their positions and retreated to the more friendly confines of the East. Having been ineffective in their governmental roles, they retaliated with reports of open rebellion and wanton disregard for Constitutional law in their former districts.

In December of that year, President James Buchanan addressed Congress with the following comments: “Utah Territory is under the personal despotism of Brigham Young. As Chief Executive, I am bound to restore the supremacy of the Constitution and its laws. To affect this purpose I have sent the expeditionary force to aid in the execution of those duly passed laws.”

Camp Floyd Commissary

The administration was able to produce three documents as evidence that the citizens of Utah were in rebellion: one from Utah Supreme Court Justice W.W. Drummond, one from Indian Agent Thomas S. Twiss, and one from mail contractor W.M.F. Magraw. Those three testified that while in Utah they had found little respect for the U.S., its laws, its institutions nor for the rights of the non-Mormon minority. The administration admitted that no attention had been paid to Mormon refutations to the charges. Whatever the reason for sending the troops, it turned out to be a $ 15,000,000 debacle, a lot of money back then. “The expedition accomplished nothing that could not have been accomplished by tactful negotiation.” In fact, the whole affair was eventually settled through negotiation; it was a war without combat and a conflict without casualties. Still there was plenty of human suffering and the financial costs were staggering. The troops were forced to spend that first very cold Wyoming winter in tents at burned-out Ft. Bridger and Ft. Supply. The Mormons had also burned the surrounding grass, resulting in massive die-offs of Army horses, mules, and livestock. In addition supplies were on short rations due to losses to Mormon raiding parties. The winter proved to be unpleasant for the Mormons as well. The northern towns and cities had all been abandoned in a second great migration, although this one turned out to be of short duration.

Camp Floyd Commissary

In recent years a conspiracy theory has surfaced to explain Buchanan’s decision to send the troops. It happened that the most hawkish and probably the most influential member of the cabinet was Secretary of War John B. Floyd, noteworthy for being from Virginia and an outspoken Southern sympathizer. This was just three years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. “Could it be that he was trying to put the Army out of action and deplete the federal treasury as the secession movement was gaining momentum?” If so, he succeeded admirably. Some three years later the freighting firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell was facing bankruptcy and presented the government with a half-million dollar bill to cover the loss of two wagon trains, 1200 horses and mules, and 900 oxen to the Mormons along with the loss of 800 head of cattle to Cheyenne Indians. These losses were covered in their contract with the government, so testified the company lawyers; they far exceeded any profit the firm made that first year and greatly contributed to the company’s impending insolvency. They didn’t collect a penny. By that time the U.S. Treasury was bankrupt as well. The Utah Expeditionary Force was certainly a contributing factor.

Some information for this essay comes from Great Basin Kingdom – an Economic History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830 – 1900, by Leonard J. Arrington, University of Nebraska Press, 1966 and The Expressmen, by David Nevin, Time-Life Books/Alexandria, Virginia, 1974.