On the Significance of Mormon Wars

June 28, 2004 | 7 comments
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One of the interesting questions to ask in the current discussions of war and peace is whether the history Mormon wars tells us anything about how Mormons ought to think about these issues.

As I see it there have been essentially three Mormon wars. The first was the war in Missouri. We tend to think about this in terms of mobs that attacked Mormons, but the reality was quite a bit more complicated. The mobs in question were more often than not units of the state militia. Furthermore, Mormons were far from passive victims. They organized their own militias. (Not to be confused with Arvard’s Danites, which seem to have been yet a third organization.) The second Mormon war was in Illinois. Again, our language of “mobs” frequently confuses the issue. What we are talking about were frequently organized attacks by local militias, attacks that the Nauvoo Legion (or what was left of it) eventually resisted at the Battle of Nauvoo.

I freely confess that I don’t know very much about these two wars, so I will leave their deeper significance to those with more knowledge. The third war is one that I know a little bit more about: The Utah War of 1857.

The Utah War had its origins in some federally appointed officials who fled Utah and reported to the President Buchannan that the Mormons were in open rebellion against the United States. It is clear that the Mormon strategy in the 1850s vis-a-vis the federal government was simply to ignore federal officials and do what they were doing anyway. Furthermore, the Mormons were clearly harassing the federal officials, who claimed that they were the targets of death threats.

The President – advised interestingly enough by his Secretary of War Jefferson Davis – ordered the U.S. Army to invade Utah and put down the rebellion. Brigham Young got news of the plan in July, 1857, by which time the Army was on the march toward Utah (although they got a very late start and moved fairly slowly). Brigham took a couple of actions in response:

First, he declared martial law in the territory. De jure this mean that things like civilian courts and the writ of habeas corpus were suspended, and I think that there were some people (gentiles who might take intelligence to the Army advancing across the plain) were throw in the stockade so to speak.

Second, he called out the Nauvoo Legion, the local Mormon militia. The Legion did a number of things. The Mormon cavalry under the command of Lot Smith burned the praries in front of the advancing army so that there was no fodder for their animals. He also stole or burned U.S. Army supply trains. The rest of the Legion, under the command of Daniel Wells, prepared to resist the invaders in the canyons east of Salt Lake City. They set up barricades across the main roads in places like Echo Canyon and prepared to fight the Army when it arrived.

Third, Brigham seems to have made an alliance with the Indians, encouraging them to attack and steal from the advancing Army. This is where Bagley purports to find the smoking gun demonstrating that Brigham ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre. For a variety of reasons I won’t get into here, it doesn’t look like Bagley’s argument will hold up. However, Brigham clearly did encourage the Indians to attack and steal from advancing wagon trains.

Fourth, Brigham made plans for the evacuation and destruction of Mormon settlements in Salt Lake should the Army force its way into the Valley. Initially, the plan seems to have been for the Saints to flee north into the mountain valleys of north-west Wyoming and western Montana. However, when it became clear that this plan would not work for a variety of reasons, he shifted his attention South. Outlying Mormon settlements in Nevada and Cache Valley were called in, and more or less the entire Mormon population north of Utah Valley went south. Salt Lake City was prepared for the torch. One point to keep in mind about the evacuation was that it doesn’t seem to have been thought of as a method of avoiding conflict. Rather, Brigham and the leaders of the Nauvoo Legion realized that once the Army was out of the canyons, Mormon resistence would be futile in the open country of the Wasatch Front. The idea was to relocated in a more geographically defensible position. Part of the allure of the northern option was that the region could only be approached via a long series of mountain passes and canyons that could be defended more or less indefinitely it was hoped against a superior Army.

As it happened, Lot Smith’s tactics halted the U.S. Army at Fort Bridger. (It should be pointed out that Fort Bridger was a Mormon settlement of sorts at the time; the Church having purchased it from Jim Bridger.) John D. Lee and company murdered the Fancher Party at Mountain Meadows, and Thomas Kane negotiated a truce between the Army and the Mormons.

So what, if anything, does this episode tell us about Mormons and war? Should Brigham’s response be treated as religiously normative in some sense, or do we simply dismiss the Utah war as something of interest only to historians and the like, lacking any inherent insight into a Mormon theology of war?

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7 Responses to On the Significance of Mormon Wars

  1. Adam Greenwood on June 28, 2004 at 2:58 pm

    What about the Walker war earlier in the 1850s? Would you consider that useful to?

  2. Julien on June 28, 2004 at 4:00 pm

    Knowing way too little about the Mormon wars, the only thing I can say I feel about this, is that the people were attacked on their territory by an “enemy” army, and thus were justified in fighting back, as simple as it may sound….

  3. Adam Greenwood on June 29, 2004 at 12:07 am

    I think that’s pretty much it, Julien. The only interesting wrinkle is the argument made in one of the million current threads on pacifism and just war that revolt against a government isn’t justified. Maybe the Saints felt different but the US was pretty clearly the sovereign so the Saints were in revolt. Maybe revolt is justified sometime (which I assume most people already believed).

  4. Clark Goble on June 29, 2004 at 12:14 am

    I would note that Brigham’s strategy with the Indians (often strangely schizophrenic) do parallel in some fashions our actions in Afghanistan. At the same time though clearly we were the guerilla force opposing an invading army. The difference is, if anything, how restrained we were. Yes MMM was a horrible tragedy that, if anything, supports Rob’s view of the corrupting influence of war. There were a few other atrocities as well. But by and large we didn’t see the kind of guerilla campaigns that one saw in Missouri up through the end of the Civil War. (And which our own part in the Mormon Missouri war of the late 1830′s were but one small part of an overall guerilla conflict)

    What does this tell us about war? Perhaps the dangers of guerilla wars. Liddell Hart in his classic work _Strategy_ pointed out the consequences on the Spanish of their guerilla conflict against Napolean. In China one could argue that in many ways they’ve only recently, in the past two decades, begun to emerge from the consequences of their guerilla foundation. Mormons managed to find a workable relationship with their “enemy,” forced a limited guerilla war to sustain at least many of their perceived rights (at least up until 1894) and did so with minimal violence. In a way it was an impressive event that they managed to avoid the excesses that so often accompany guerilla war.

  5. lyle on June 29, 2004 at 12:27 am

    Adam: I wouldn’t be so sure that the U.S. was the ‘sovereign’. Who says they were? Because the Spanish _gave them_ the West? Because they slaughtered Indians to get the West? Maybe I’m just a radical Locke type…but they settled it; they did treaties with the local indians…I say that the Saints were the only “sovereigns” around…and one’s whose rights were being tread upon. I still wish they would have formed their own country…

    ah…our lovely deseret…

  6. Julien on June 29, 2004 at 3:27 am

    Good points, both Adam and Lyle.

    Adam: maybe this really is an example that rebellion against government is sometimes justified (Thomas Jefferson talked about a revolution every 20 years…)

    lyle: I don’t know about the political situation in the U.S. was at that time, whether the Spanish owned what is now Utah – in that case you’d be right, and they would have only protected their possessions. I’m kind of skeptical as to a Mormon country, though, don’t ask me why… ;-) (just a side note, not to be expanded upon in here…)

  7. Curtis Allen on December 13, 2004 at 1:33 pm

    The secretary of war in 1857 was John B. Floyd, not Jeff Davis. Floyd has been accused of urging the army to Utah to deplete the eastern army at a time of possible southenr secession.