It Didn’t Begin with Waco

Carl H. Yeager May/June 2002

It Didn't Begin with Waco

By Carl H. Yeager

The assault by federal agents on the Branch Davidians on February 28, 1993, wasn't the first time that Washington decided to rid the country of an irritating religious sect. In fact, there have been quite a few times hi our history when various levels of government—local, state, and federal—attempted to yank the not-so-orthodox religions back into the mainstream of American society by force.

No other religious group has endured more persecution and violations of its constitutional rights than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), or the Mormons. It started as early as the 1830s, when the founder/prophet of the church, Joseph Smith, claimed to have received a direct revelation from God that all existing Christian religions were wrong and that he had been chosen to restore the truth. He later wrote a piece of religious scripture, the Book of Mormon, which challenged traditional Christian theology.

That was too much for the professional clergy of the day. Smith and his small but growing band of converts were hounded out of town by mobs led by local ministers. Other Mormon settlements in New York and Pennsylvania were set upon also. The Mormon refugees fled to Kirkland, Ohio, where they built a temple.

Several peculiarities emerged about this strange new sect. They were Utopian community builders and saw their society as Zion, a reflection of God's political, economic, and social order on earth. The rugged individualists of the frontier saw this way of life as "socialistic" and un-American, so the Mormons had to flee to the new state of Missouri. There they soon became embroiled in a conflict with the proslavery population and state government. Armed mob action soon escalated to all-out war. Then another peculiarity about this new religion became apparent—the Mormons did not turn the often cheek, roll over, and play dead. They formed a militia and fought back Enraged that these upstarts would fight against the Missouri State Army, Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an infamous decree ordering the "extermination" of all Mormons within the state. This was the first and only-time hi American history that any government agency called for the total liquidation of a religious group. Joseph Smith and other leaders of the church surrendered and cut a deal; the Mormons would be spared and allowed to flee to Illinois, provided that they left behind their farms, houses, and possessions—everything that could not be stuffed in a wagon.

More than 5,000 exiles, organized and led by Brigham Young, left in the dead of whiter, 1838-1839. It amounted to a death march, as hundreds died from cold, starvation, and disease. The Mormon refugee columns intersected another group of outcast Americans heading west on their government-sponsored death march. They were the Cherokee Indians, on their Trail of Tears to the territory of Oklahoma.

By 1842 the Mormons had created a beautiful new city called Nauvoo on the Mississippi River. It soon became the largest city in Illinois and boasted a new temple, a university, and a well-disciplined militia, the Nauvoo Legion of 5,000 men, the largest armed force in the country after the regular United States Army.

Troubles followed the Mormons to Nauvoo. Their neighbors were threatened by the economic prosperity, the political clout, and the military might of the LDS Church.

In June 1833 Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were lured to Carthage, Illinois, to answer trumped-up charges. After receiving promises from Governor Thomas Ford, an armed mob of Carthage militia broke into the jail. After a brief but vicious gunfight Joseph and Hyrum were killed on the night of June 27, 1844. There has been speculation that these charges and the subsequent murders of the Smith brothers were part of a larger conspiracy, perhaps even involving national political figures.

In February 1844 Joseph Smith had become a presidential candidate for that year's election. He did not expect to win, but he did hope to draw attention to the plight of the Mormons and of the Catholics, who were often the target of mob attacks. The far-flung Mormon missionary system was reorganized into a well-oiled political machine, and to the surprise of many—especially Joseph Smith—he became a popular candidate throughout the country and was a sought-after speaker because he was so controversial.

When the crowds came to hear the "Mormon prophet," they expected to see a weirdo dressed up in long robes, having long matted hair, and babbling religious nonsense. Instead, they saw a tall, attractive man of 39, talking solutions to festering problems that the other candidates did not want to deal with; especially the problems of ending slavery, reducing the size of Congress, annexing Texas and Oregon, and treating the American Indians fairly.

Did Smith even have a glimmer of a chance of winning the presidency? All of the other candidates were relatively unknown; the winner of the 1844 presidential race was James K. Polk, the first dark-horse presidential candidate in American history. In a way, the answers to many of America's gnawing problems were silenced by the rifle balls at Carthage.

Mob action continued against the Mormons at Nauvoo, encouraged and abetted by the state government and "volunteers" from Missouri. After several sieges of the city, the Mormons, again led by Brigham Young, fled from the city in February 1846 to what they thought would be Mexico.

When the exiles arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley on July 24,1847, fate played a cruel trick on them. The United States had defeated Mexico in war, and the Mormons' planned place of refuge had become the newly conquered territory of the country they had fled.

Regardless, the Latter Day Saints decided to build their "Zion" in the wilderness, and Brigham Young stated, "Give us 10 years in this valley, and we won't ask odds of anybody."

From 1847 to 1857 the Mormon "State of Deseret" (soon changed to the territory of Utah) flourished. New converts poured in from America, Canada, Europe, and even the South Sea Islands, Australia, and New Zealand. Settlements were established as far away as San Bernardino, California, and Carson City, Nevada. Las Vegas had its beginning as a Mormon settlement. New farms and industries made the desert productive. An enlightened American Indian policy made them allies of the government of Brigham Young, who was appointed as the territorial" governor by President Millard Fillmore in 1850.

And then there was polygamy. This strange practice of having more than one wife became an established doctrine of the church in Utah. The Mormon people wanted to hunker down and become low-profile in their western isolation, but this was not to be. Now they became the focus of intense scrutiny by the Eastern press, which created a sense of outrage among "decent folks." Lurid stories of lustful men keeping harems of innocent young women in virtual sexual slavery inundated the nation. A nationwide movement cried out for the "Christianization" and "Americanization" of those deviant Mormons, in order to yank them back into Ae ^stream of American life. The anti-Mormon outrage was accompanied by the abolitionist movement to destroy slavery in the South.

In 1856 a new political party declared political war on the slaveholders in the South and the Mormons in Utah. The warcry of this new party-the current Republican party-was "Let's rid the country of the twin relics of barbarism, slavery and polygamy."

Other forces were building that would lead to the Civi War five years later. From l856 to 1860 Kansas was in a virtual civil war between proslave and antislave guerrilla bands. Every federal entity except the House of Representatives was dominated by proslave Southerners.

It was in this atmosphere that several proslave politician, started a conspiracy in order to help prepare for the war they new was coming. The secretary of war, John Floyd; the senator from Mississippi, Jefferson Davis, who would soon become the president of the Confederate States of America; Colonel Sidney Johnston; and other prominent Southern politicians, concocted a scheme to prepare the South for war and make the Mormons in Utah the scapegoats by taking advantage of the public hatred of the Mormons.

If the focus of public scrutiny could be shifted from slavery to the other of the "twin relics of barbarism," then the conspirators could covertly prepare for war. Southern pressure was put upon the bumbling and ineffectual president, James Buchanan, to send a military expedition and take care of those treasonous Mormons once and for all. As the conspirators manipulated the president and the Eastern press with horrifying stories of Mormon treason and sexual degradation, a groundswell of public opinion demanded that the government develop a "final solution" for the Mormon problem.

President Buchanan had his own agenda for the Mormon question. By sending an overwhelming military force to territory close to rebellion, he would show what would happen to any state attempting to secede.

The Government Response

The government strategy was to send a military expedition to Utah and create a military occupation and destroy the economic and political power of the Mormons.

The army that was sent to Utah was large by 1857 standards. It consisted of more than 4,000 officers and men, most of them Northerners. The feverish preparations for the "Mormon War" proved to be the ideal smokescreen for the conspirators to prepare the South.

Many arsenals in the North were emptied and sent South. The cannons, powder, shot, and other military supplies earmarked for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the assembly area for the expedition, were diverted to the Southern states. Huge amounts of money budgeted for the war wound up m Southern banks. Floyd and Davis wanted the cream of the American Army" to be committed to a long grinding war of attrition-a "Mormon Vietnam"-to weaken the Army m vicious guerrilla mountain war.

There were warning voices in Congress as to what would happen if the Army was sent to Utah. The Mormons would not meekly submit after the depredations committed against them in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois.

Senator Sam Houston of Texas, who knew a thing or two about guerrilla warfare himself, made an impassioned speech in the Senate. Excerpts from his speech cautioned: "If our troops ever reach Salt Lake City they will find it a heap of ashes. These people will fight desperately. They are fighting to prevent the execution of threats which have been made against their homes and families and they will fight until every man perishes before he surrenders, f hey will secure their women and children in the mountains. They will have provisions for two years and will carry on a guerrilla warfare which will be most terrible to the troops you send there. As for the troops to conquer the Mormons, fifty thousand would be not sufficient. I say that our army will never return, but their bones will whiten the valley of the Salt Lake" (Congressional Globe, 35th Congress, 1st Session, Vol. XXIV [1857-1858], p. 874,

The Army Marches

The U.S. Army force assembled at Fort Leavenworth was officially designated as the "Army of the Utah Expedition" and was commanded by Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston. The force was filled with troops from places as diverse as Minnesota and Florida. The final composition of the hastily organized expedition was the Fourth Artillery Regiment, the Fifth Infantry Regiment, the Tenth Infantry Company, and the Second Dragoons.

Attached to the Army Force was a large group of civilian militia—wild, unruly men from Missouri who had "unfinished business" with the Mormons. And there were prostitutes and camp followers, hordes of teamsters with hundreds of wagons, beef cattle to feed the Army, and would-be carpetbaggers who hoped to be civil administrators in an occupation government.

Brigham Young first heard of the approaching force on July 24,1857,10 years to the day after the Mormon pioneers had entered the Salt Lake Valley. It was reported that 14 supply trains of 400 wagons, 6,000 mules and oxen, more than 1,000 horses, and 500 bullwhackers snaked their way westward along the Oregon Trail. Two of the messengers who reported to Brigham Young had infiltrated the Army camps and heard the soldiers boast about how the Mormons would be plundered and how their farms, property, and women would be distributed. They fantasized that thousands of beautiful women would flee their "harems" and throw themselves into the arms of the liberating Army. The watchword among the soldiers and militiamen was "beauty and booty," other words for rape and pillage.

Young, as governor of Utah Territory, issued a proclamation prohibiting the entering of a "hostile force" into Utah and mobilized the entire population for warfare. The Nauvoo Legion, now a tough, lean force of frontiersmen, was organized into harassing cavalry units to wage hit-and-run guerrilla war on the plains and in the mountains. A force was organized to prepare the narrow defiles of Echo Canyon, the 20-mile route to Salt Lake City, with boulders propositioned to create rockslides. Logs were piled at strategic sites to roll onto the Army, and mountain streams were dammed up to form sizable ponds. The rock and log dams were filled with barrels of gunpowder that, when blown, would send torrents of water onto the troops below. An observation corps of cavalry scouts and spies disguised as mule skinners would keep track of the Army and try to ferret out its plan of attack.

The proclamation of the Mormon order of warfare read: "Proceed at once to annoy the Army in every possible way. Stampede their animals and set fire to their wagon trains. Burn the whole country before them and on their flanks. Keep them from sleeping by night surprises. Blockade their roads by felling trees and by destroying river fords wherever you can. Keep scouts out at all times, but remember . . . TAKE NO LIFE."

General Daniel H. Wells, Commander, Nauvoo Legion sent Major Lot Smith, the real hero of the Utah war, with a swift cavalry guerrilla force against the Army. Day after day they destroyed bridges, set fire to the grass to starve Army animals, and flooded trails and roads, making them impassable.

Many large wagon trains were torched, and valuable supplies of weapons, gunpowder, and food for the troops were confiscated. Huge herds of mules, horses, and cattle were captured and brought to Salt Lake City. Men overpowered by Mormon guerrillas in a wagon train attack testified in later inquiries as to the effectiveness of the Mormon cavalry.

In Salt Lake City the economic system was organized to fight. A chemical factory was established to make gunpowder and lead balls. The church's women's organization manufactured Colt revolvers on Temple Square, and Jonathon Browning, a convert to the church, lent his genius in weaponmaking to the war effort. He made some of the country's earliest repeating rifles at this time and went on to establish Browning Arms.

The Army's strategy was to reach Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming for rest and resupply. Food rations for the soldiers were cut repeatedly, and they had to force their way through Echo Canyon and attack Salt Lake City before the winter trapped them in the mountains.

The strategy of the Nauvoo Legion succeeded. When the Army reached the fort, they found nothing but smoldering v ashes and no supplies. In fact, all the grass around the fort had been burned, so they couldn't feed their starving animals. The Utah expedition was forced to winter in a temporary camp called Ham's Fork.

The winter of 1857-1858 was one of the worst on record. The troops were famished; they started to eat all of their animals. The teamsters, militiamen, and camp followers began deserting. Frustrated and enraged at the Army's predicament, Johnston wanted to force a passage through Echo Canyon, but the Mormon defenses were too strong, and there was another ominous development. The various American Indian tribes who were allies of the Mormons saw the "Mericats," as they called the Army, as their enemy. Brigham Young declared that his American Indian allies were the "Hammer of the Lord" and that he could count on the support of more than 40,000 warriors.

In the East the LDS Church launched a campaign of psychological and political warfare. Missionaries in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., passed out pamphlets in public places, explaining the Mormons' plight and the government's error. The press became convinced that the Utah war was "Buchanan's Blunder" and that the people of Utah were innocent of treason or rebellion.

The enemies of the administration were cultivated by pro-Mormon agents and lobbyists to protest the invasion and investigate the corruption associated with fat contracts given to companies which supplied the Army. National figures such as Sam Houston, Samuel Colt, and Horace Greeley made public statements supporting the people of Utah and condemning Buchanan.

Meanwhile, the Army was in sad shape. Almost all of the horses and mules had been killed for food. If the soldiers were not fed, then lives would be lost. The Mormons didn't want that, so Brigham Young offered to send food to the freezing, starving soldiers. This enraged Colonel Johnston and he refused, telling the Mormon emissaries that he fully intended to attack the city, defeat the Nauvoo Legion, and hang Young 2nd the leadership of the church. This, too, reached the Eastern press, and tremendous pressure was put on the president to strike a deal with Brigham Young. Buchanan was now viewed by the public as a monster, and the Mormons as innocent victims—a heroic David fighting a vicious Goliath.

Buchanan was forced to issue a "Proclamation of Pardon" to the people of Utah. Johnston was ordered to march through Salt Lake City without stopping and set up camp some 40 miles from the city. The Army, however, would not be able, to move until the spring thaw. The historian George Bancroft observed, "The Army was trapped in a distant and unacceptable region which included more than one third of the nation's war material and nearly all of its best troops."

Johnston, now furious at his defeat, thirsted for war when spring came and whipped his troops into a frenzy, lusting for Mormon blood, pardon or no pardon.

When Brigham Young learned of Johnston's intentions, he ordered a mass exodus from Salt Lake City and all of the settlements north of the city. More than 30,000 Mormons abandoned their homes, farms, and shops and took to the trails southward. This move had a tremendous impact on public opinion in the entire country. Buchanan threatened Johnston with a court-martial if he disobeyed orders and molested the Mormons.

Johnston bowed to the administration's order and told his troops that there would be no beauty or booty. In fact, die Army would have to march through Salt Lake City without stopping and camp far away.

On June 26,1858, the most thoroughly frustrated Army in American military history trudged through the empty streets of this strange and silent city. The cannon barrels plugged and their rifles empty of powder and ball, the soldiers could see flickering torches in the houses and buildings on each side, held by members of the Nauvoo Legion, who were ready to fling them into the combustibles that filled the rooms if the Army stopped.

The Utah war had come to a close. The Mormons did not take one life, but their splendid isolation had ended. "Buchanan's Blunder" had cost more than $40 million, an astronomical sum in 1858. Southern arsenals were well stocked, and the soon-to-be Confederate States of America had a bulging war chest.

The Civil War broke out in 1861, and Jefferson Davis became the president of the Confederacy. John Floyd was commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate Army and, while defending Fort Donelson, disgraced himself by surrendering his command and fleeing with his personal guard. Shunned by the Confederate government after being stripped of his commission, he died in 1863 a broken man. Johnston became a Confederate general and lost his life in the battle of Shiloh. The army camp in Utah—first named Camp Floyd and later Fort Crittenden—lost hundreds of men, who deserted to the rebel states.

But the Mormons had won only a temporary victory. In 1862 a Union Army f9rce commanded by Colonel Patrick Connor occupied Salt Lake City and built Camp Douglas east of the city, sighting his cannons on the Beehive House—Brigham Young's residence in Salt Lake City.

In the 1870s and 1880s the federal government went after the Utah Mormons with a vengeance. Laws prohibiting polygamy broke up families and drove church members and their leaders underground. Many Mormons fled to Mexico and established colonies that still exist today. The wealth of the church, including all lands except Temple Square, was confiscated. Its leaders were imprisoned, and the men and women were disenfranchised. (Utah had been the first U.S. territory to give women the right to vote.)

The crusade against the Mormon Church and people officially ended when the leadership proclaimed an end to plural marriage. Utah remained under a carpetbag administration propped up by a large military force and hundreds of federal marshals, who prowled the territory looking for polygamists.

The occupation ended when the Mormons of Utah became "Americanized," and Utah achieved statehood in 1896.

Carl Yaeger writes from St. George, Utah. He is the author of more than 70 articles on terrorism and extremist groups. He has taught courses on antiterrorism to U.S. Special Forces and the National Guard. He retired from military service after 33 years, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, and taught political science at Utah Valley State College until retiring in 1998. At present he is a contributing editor to The Journal of Counterterrorism and Security International, a publication of the International Association for Counterterrorism and Security Professionals.

Article Author: Carl H. Yeager