I've got three posts lined up on the Utah War of 1857-58 and the unfortunate occurrence at Mountain Meadows. This post is a general overview that will be a set-up for the posts to follow. Here are two links that give excellent short essays on the Utah War: "The Utah War," an article by Richard D. Poll in the online Utah History Encyclopedia; and "Utah Expedition," also by Poll, from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. A related article is "The LDS Reformation of 1856-57," by Paul H. Peterson, also from the Encyclopdia.
A hardcopy source is the six or seven pages devoted to the topic by Allen and Leonard in Story of the Latter-day Saints. Without trying to give a full summary of any of these sources, here are a few points to get started with:
- It was only in 1852 that the Church publicly announced that it endorsed the practice of polygamy by Mormons. The American public was, predictably, appalled.
- In 1856, the new Republican party adopted a platform that included a denunciation of the "twin relics of barbarism, slavery and polygamy." So Utah was on the national agenda.
- Democrat James Buchanan defeated Republican John C. Fremont for the Presidency in the 1856 election, but he was then under some pressure to show that he did not support the Mormons or polygamy. Buchanan, a Democrat, obviously could not show he did not support slavery or the South (because he did), so moving against the Mormons was essentially picking on a common enemy and a way to deflect attention from the slavery issue.
- So President Buchanan named a new territorial governor for Utah and, based on exaggerated and misleading reports that Utah was essentially in a state of rebellion against the United States, sent several thousand federal troops to accompany and install the new governor. But he never formally notified Brigham Young, currently serving as governor, that he was being replaced, or that federal troops were being sent for peaceful purposes. It never occurred to Buchanan that residents of Utah would see his act of sending federal troops to Utah as anything other than a peaceful action.
- In the end there was no military action. The expedition was costly and unneeded. It discredited Buchanan's judgment and became known as "Buchanan's Blunder." He may have come away with an exaggerated sense of caution that caused him to do almost nothing three years later when, after the election of 1860, Southern states quickly seceded from the Union. President-elect Lincoln had not yet taken office (and wouldn't until March 1861) and could do very little until that time.