The Utah Expedition (Part I)

Its causes and consequences

This is part one of a three-part series.
Read part two here and part three here.

If General Henry Knox, of Revolutionary memory, the first Secretary of War of the Republic, had dreamed that the successor to his portfolio, after an interval of seventy years, would recommend to Congress the purchase of a thousand camels for military purposes, he would have attributed the fancy to excited nerves or a too hearty dinner. Had he dreamed, further, that the grotesque mounted corps was to be employed in regions two thousand miles beyond the frontier of the Anglo-Saxon pioneer of 1789, to guard travel to an actual El Dorado, the vision would have appeared still more extraordinary. And its absurdity would have seemed complete, if he had fancied the high road of this travel as leading through a community essentially Oriental in its social and political life, which was nevertheless ripening into a State of the American Union. Yet if General Knox could be roused from his grave at Thomaston, he would see the dream realized. On the Pacific lies El Dorado; among the fastnesses of the Rocky Mountains there is a community which blends the voluptuousness of Bagdad with the economy of Cape Cod; and within two years a regiment of camel-riders will be scouring the Great American Plains after Cheyennes, Navajoes, and Camanches.

The propagation of the religion of which Joseph Smith was the prophet has just begun to attract the notice its extraordinary success deserves. So long as the head of the Mormon Church was considered a kind of Mahometan Sam Slick, and his associates a crazy rabble, it was vain to expect that the whole sect could be treated with more attention than any of the curiosities in a popular museum. But a juster appreciation of the constitution of the Mormon community begins to prevail, and with it comes a conviction that questions are involved in its relations to the parent government which are not exceeded in importance by any that have ever been agitated at Washington. Brigham Young no longer seems to the American public a religious mountebank, only one grade removed from the man Orr, who claimed to be the veritable Angel Gabriel, and was killed in a popular commotion which he had himself excited in Dutch Guiana. On the contrary, he begins to appear as a man of great native strength and scope of mind, who understands the phases of human character and knows how to avail himself of the knowledge, and who has acquired spiritual dominion over one hundred and fifty thousand souls, combined with absolute temporal supremacy over fifty thousand of the number.

The situation of the Mormon community in Utah has been peculiarly adapted, heretofore, to the eccentricities of its inhabitants. Isolated from Christendom on the east and west by plains incapable of settlement for generations to come, and encompassed by mountain-ranges, the line of whose summits runs above the boundary of eternal snow, it was independent of the influences of Christian civilization. No missionary of any Christian sect ever attempted to propagate his doctrines in Utah, — nor, perhaps, would any such propagation have been tolerated, had it been attempted. The Mormon religion was free to run its own course and develop whatever elements it possessed of good and evil. When Brigham Young and his followers from Nauvoo descended the Wahsatch range in the summer of 1847, and took up their abode around the Great Salt Lake, the avowed creed of the Church was different from that proclaimed to-day. The secret doctrines entertained by its leaders were perhaps the same as at present, but the religion of the people was a species of mysticism which it is not impossible to conceive might commend itself even to a refined mind. The existence of polygamy was officially denied by the highest ecclesiastical authority, although we know to-day that the denial was a shameless lie, and that Joseph Smith, during his lifetime, had a plurality of wives, and at his death bequeathed them to his successor, who already possessed a harem of his own. Property was almost equally distributed among the people, the leaders being as poor as their disciples. In this respect at that time they were accustomed exultantly to compare their condition with that of the early Christians.

Ten years passed, and the change was extraordinary. The doctrines of Mormonism, if plainly stated, are no longer such as can commend themselves to a mind not perverted nor naturally prurient. Polygamy is inculcated as a religious duty, without which dignity in the Celestial Kingdom is impossible, and even salvation hardly to be obtained. Property is distributed unjustly, the bulk of real and personal estate in the Territory being vested in the Church and its directors, between whom and the mass of the population there exists a difference in social welfare as wide as between the Russian nobleman and his serf. In brief, the Mormons no longer claim to be a Christian sect, but assert, and truly, that their religion is as distinct from Christianity as that is from Mahometanism. Many of the doctrines whispered in 1847 only to those who had been admitted to the penetralia of the Nauvoo Temple are proclaimed unblushingly in 1857 from the pulpit in the Tabernacle at Salt Lake City. A system of polytheism has been ingrafted on the creed, according to which there are grades among the Gods, there being no Supreme Ruler of all, but the primeval Adam of Genesis being the deity highest in spiritual rank, and Christ, Mahomet, Joseph Smith, and, finally, Brigham Young, partaking also of divinity. The business of these deities in the Celestial Kingdom is the propagation of souls to people bodies begotten on earth, and the sexual relation is made to permeate every portion of the creed as thoroughly as it pervaded the religions of ancient Egypt and India. In the Endowment House at Salt Lake City, secret rites are practised of a character similar to the mysteries of the Nile, and presided over by Young and Kimball, two Vermont Yankees, with all the solemnity of priests of Isis and Osiris. In these rites, which are symbolical of the mystery of procreation, both sexes participate, clad in loose flowing robes of white linen, with cleansed bodies and anointed hair. Since the revelation of the processes of the Endowment, which was first fully made by a young apostate named John Hyde, other dissenters, real and pretended, have attempted to impose on the public exaggerated accounts of these ceremonies; but in justice to the Mormon Church it ought to be said, that there is no foundation for the reports that they are such as would outrage decency. To be sure, an assemblage of members of both sexes, clad in white shifts, with oiled and dishevelled hair, in a room fitted up in resemblance of a garden, to witness a performance of the allegory of Adam and Eve in Eden, which is conducted so as to be sensually symbolic, is not suggestive of refined ideas; but it is necessary to take into consideration the character both of performers and witnesses, which is not distinguished in any way by delicacy. According to their standard of morality and taste, the rites of the Endowment are devoid of immodesty.

In their political bearing, however, they are more important, and justly liable to the severest censure. It is established beyond question, that the initiated, clad in the preposterous costume before described, take an oath, in the presence of their Spiritual Head, to cherish eternal enmity towards the government of the United States until it shall have avenged the death of their prophet, Joseph Smith. And this ceremony is not a mere empty form of words. It is an oath, the spirit of which the Endowed carry into their daily life and all their relations with the Gentile world. In it lies the root of the evasion, and finally subversion, of Federal authority which occasioned the recent military expedition to Utah.

When the Territory was organized in 1850, the government at Washington, acting on an imperfect knowledge of the nature of Mormonism, conferred the office of Governor upon Brigham Young. For this act Mr. Fillmore has been unjustly censured. It appeared to him, at the time, a proper, as well as politic, appointment. But before the succession of General Pierce to the Presidency, its evil results became apparent, in the expulsion of civil officers from the Territory and the subversion of all law. A feeble, and of course unsuccessful, attempt was then made to supplant Young with Lieutenant-Colonel Steptoe, a meritorious, but too amiable officer of the regular army, — the same whose defeat by the Cayuses, Spokans, and Cœur d’Alènes, last May, occasioned the Indian war in Washington Territory. During the summer of 1855, he led a battalion overland, wintering in Salt Lake City. It was at his option, at any time during his sojourn, to have claimed the supreme executive authority, he did not do so, but even headed a recommendation to President Pierce for the reappointment of Brigham Young. This was the result of his winter’s residence, during which he and some of his fellow-officers were feasted to their stomachs’ content, and entirely careless concerning the political condition of the Territory. Late in the spring, he marched away to California, after having expressed to the President that it was “his unqualified opinion, based on personal acquaintance, that Brigham Young is [was] the most suitable person for the office of Governor.” Brigham’s views of the winter’s proceedings, on the other hand, were expressed in a sermon preached in the Tabernacle, the Sunday after the departure of the Lieutenant-Colonel, in which he repeated his declaration of three years previous: —

“I am, and will be, governor, and no power can hinder it, until the Lord Almighty says, ‘Brigham, you need not be governor any longer.’” And he added, — “I do not know what I shall say next winter, if such men make their appearance here as some last winter. I know what I think I shall say; if they play the same game again, let the women be ever so bad, so help me God, we will slay them.”

Most of the other civil officers who were commissioned about the same time with Colonel Steptoe arrived the August after he had departed. Within eighteen months their lot was the same as that of their predecessors. In April, 1857, before the snow had begun to melt on the mountains, all of them, in a party led by Surveyor-General Burr, were on their way to the States, happy in having escaped with life. During the previous February, the United States District Court had been broken up in Salt Lake City. A mob had invaded the courtroom, armed with pistols and bludgeons, a knife was drawn on the judge in his private room, and he was ordered to adjourn his court sine die, and yielded. Indian-Agent Hurt was the only Gentile official who remained in the Territory.

In the mean while, however, a change of national administration had taken place, and General Pierce had been succeeded by Mr. Buchanan. For nearly three years the country had been convulsed by an agitation of the Slavery question, originating with Senator Douglas, which culminated in the Presidential election of 1856. The Utah question, grave though it was, was forgotten in the excitement concerning Kansas, or remembered only by the Republican party, as enabling them to stigmatize more pungently the political theories of the Illinois Senator, by coupling polygamy and slavery, “twin relics of barbarism,” in the resolution of their Philadelphia Platform against Squatter Sovereignty. In the lull which succeeded the election, Mr. Buchanan had leisure, at Wheatland, to draft a programme for his incoming administration. His paramount idea was to gag the North and induce her to forget that she had been robbed of her birthright, by forcing on the attention of the country other questions of absorbing interest. One of the most obvious of these was supplied by the condition of affairs in Utah. It had been satisfactorily established, that the Mormons, acting under the influence of leaders to whom they seemed to have surrendered their judgment, refused to be controlled by any other authority; that they had been often advised to obedience, and these friendly counsels had been answered with defiance; that officers of the Federal Government had been driven from the Territory for no offence except an effort to do their sworn duty, while others had been prevented from going there by threats of assassination; that judges had been interrupted in the performance of their functions, and the records of their courts seized, and either destroyed or concealed; and, finally, that many other acts of unlawful violence had been perpetrated, and the right to repeat them openly claimed by the leading inhabitants, with at least the silent acquiescence of nearly all the rest of the population. In view of these facts, Mr. Buchanan determined to supersede Brigham Young in the office of Governor, and to send to Utah a strong military force to sustain the new appointee in the exercise of his authority.

The rumors of the impending expedition reached the Mormons at the very moment they were prepared to apply to Congress for admission as a State. A Constitution had been framed by a Convention assembled without the sanction of an enabling act, and was intrusted to George A. Smith and John Taylor, two of the Twelve Apostles of the Church, for presentation to Congress. These men, both of them of more than ordinary ability, helped to present the Mormon side of the question to the country through the newspapers, during the winter of 1856-7. The essence of their vindication was, that the character of some of the Federal officers who had been sent to Utah was objectionable in the extreme; but, granting the truth of all their statements on this subject, they supplied no excuse for the utter subversion of Federal authority in the Territory. Their narrative, however, formed a most spicy chapter in the annals of official scandal. The three United States judges, Kinney, Drummond, and Stiles, were presented to the public stripped of all judicial sanctity; — Kinney, the Chief Justice, as the keeper of a grocery-store, dance-room, and boarding-house, enforcing the bills for food and lodging against his brethren of the law by expulsion from the bar in case of non-payment, and so tenacious of life, that, before departing from the Territory, he solicited and received from Brigham Young a patriarchal blessing; Drummond, as an amorous horse-jockey, who had taken to Utah, as his mistress, a drab from Washington, and seated her beside him once upon the bench of the court; Stiles as himself a Mormon, so far as the possession of two wives could make him one. From the early days of Joseph Smith, his disciples have never minced their language, and they expended their whole vocabulary now on such themes as have been cited, proving, to the satisfaction of everybody, that, in respect to the judiciary, they had indeed had just cause for complaint. The mission of Smith and Taylor failed, as might have been expected, — the Chairman of the Committee on Territories, Mr. Grow, of Pennsylvania, refusing even to present their Constitution to the House, — and they prepared to return to Utah.

A month or two later, Mr. Buchanan was inaugurated, and preparations for the Utah Expedition were immediately ordered. In the first place, an opinion was solicited from General Scott as to the feasibility of the undertaking until the next year. That distinguished soldier gave a decision adverse to the immediate dispatch of the expedition. He considered that the arrangements necessary to be made were so extensive, and the distances from which the regiments must be concentrated so great, that the wiser plan was to consume the year in getting everything in readiness for the troops to march from the frontier early in the spring of 1858. It would have been well, had his advice prevailed; but it was overruled, and the preparations for the expedition were commenced. The troops detailed for the service were the Fifth Infantry, then busy fighting Billy Bowlegs among the everglades of Florida, — the Tenth Infantry, which was stationed at the forts in Upper Minnesota, — the Second Dragoons, which was among the forces assembled at Fort Leavenworth, to be used, if necessary, in Kansas, at the requisition of Governor Walker, — and Phelps’s light-artillery battery, the same which so distinguished itself at Buena Vista, under the command of Captain Washington. An ordnance-battery, also, was organized for the purposes of the expedition. Brevet Brigadier-General Harney was assigned to the command-in-chief an officer of a rude force of character, amounting often to brutality, and careless as to those details of military duty which savor more of the accountant’s inkstand than of the drum and fife, but ambitious, active, and well acquainted with the character of the service for which he was detailed. He was, at the time, in command in Kansas, subject in a measure to the will of Governor Walker.

The whole number of troops under orders for the expedition was hardly twenty-five hundred, but from this total no estimate can be predicated of the enormous quantities of commissary stores and munitions of war necessary to be dispatched to sustain it. It was thought advisable to send a supply for eighteen months, so that the trains exceeded in magnitude those which would accompany an army of twenty thousand in ordinary operations on the European continent, where dépôts could be established along the line of march. To appreciate such preparations, it is necessary to understand the character of the country to be traversed between the Missouri River and the Great Salt Lake.

The route selected for the march was along the emigrant road across the Plains, first defined fifty years ago by trappers and voyageurs following the trail by which the buffalo crossed the mountains, described by Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont, in the reports of his earlier explorations, and subsequently adopted by all the overland emigration across the continent. It is, perhaps, the most remarkable natural road in the world. The hand of man could hardly add an improvement to the highway along which, from the Missouri to the Great Basin, Nature has presented not a single obstacle to the progress of the heaviest loaded teams. From the frontier, at Fort Leavenworth, it sweeps over a broad rolling prairie to the Platte, a river shallow, but of great width, whose course is as straight as an arrow. Pursuing the river-bottom more than three hundred miles, to the Black Hills, steep mounds dotted with dark pines and cedars, it enters the broad belt of mountainous country which terminates in the rim of the Basin. Following thence the North Fork of the Platte, and its tributary, the Sweetwater, — so named by an old French trapper, who had the misfortune to upset a load of sugar into the stream, — it emerges from the Black Hills into scenery of a different character. On the northern hank of the Sweetwater are the Rattlesnake Mountains, huge excrescences of rock, blistering out of an arid plain; on the southern bank, the hills which bear the name of the river, and are only exaggerations of the bluffs along the Platte. The dividing ridge between the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific is reached in the South Pass, at the foot of a spur of the Wind River range, a group of gigantic mountains, whose peaks reach three thousand feet above the line of perpetual snow. There the emigrant strikes his tent in the morning on the banks of a rivulet which finds its way, through the Platte, Missouri, and Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico, — and pitches it, at his next camp, upon a little creek which trickles into Green River, and at last, through the Colorado, into the Gulf of California. Not far distant spring the fountains of the Columbia. A level table-land extends to the fords of Green River, a clear and rapid stream, whose entire course has never yet been mapped by an intelligent explorer. Here the road becomes entangled again among mountains, and winds its way over steep ridges, across foaming torrents, and through cañons so narrow that only noon-day sunshine penetrates their depths, until it emerges, through a rocky gate in the great barrier of the Wahsatch range, upon the bench above Salt Lake City, twelve hundred miles from Fort Leavenworth. The view at this point, from the mouth of Emigration Cañon, is enchanting. The sun, sinking through a cloudless western sky, silvers the long line of the lake, which is visible twenty miles away. Beyond the city the River Jordan winds quietly through the plain. Below the gazer are roofs and cupolas, shady streets, heat gardens, and fields of ripening grain. The mountains, which bound the horizon on every side, except where a wavering stream of heated air shows the beginning of the Great Desert, are tinged with a soft purple haze, in anticipation of the sunset, but every patch of green grass on their slopes glows through it like an emerald, while along the summits runs an undulating thread of snow.

Throughout this vast line of road, the only white inhabitants are the garrisons of the military posts, the keepers of mail-stations, and voyageurs and mountaineers, whose cabins may be found in every locality favorable to Indian trade. These last are a singular race of men, fast disappearing, like the Indian and the buffalo, their neighbors. Most of them are of French extraction, and some have died without having learned to speak a word of English. Their wealth consists in cattle and horses, and little stocks of goods which they purchase from the sutlers at the forts or the merchants at Salt Lake City. Some of the more considerable among them have the means of sending to the States for an annual supply of blankets, beads, vermilion, and other stuff for Indian traffic but the most are thriftless, and all are living in concubinage or marriage with squaws, and surrounded by troops of unwashed, screeching half-breeds. Once in from three to six years, they will make a journey to St. Louis, and gamble away so much of their savings since the last visit as has escaped being wasted over greasy card-tables during the long winter-evenings among the mountains. The Indian tribes along the way are numerous and formidable, the road passing through country occupied by Pawnees, Cheyennes, Sioux, Arapahoes, Crows, Snakes, and Utahs. With the Cheyennes war had been waged by the United States for more than two years, which interfered seriously with the expedition for, during the month of June, a war-party from that tribe intercepted and dispersed the herd of beef-cattle intended for the use of the army.

The natural characteristics of the entire route are as unpromising as those of its inhabitants. At the distance of about two hundred miles from the Missouri frontier the soil becomes so pervaded by sand, that only scientific agriculture can render it available. Along the Platte there is no fuel. Not a tree is visible, except the thin fringe of cottonwoods on the margin of the river, all of which upon the south bank, where the road runs, were hewed down and burned at every convenient camp, during the great California emigration. When the Rocky Mountains are entered, the only vegetation found is bunch-grass, so called because it grows in tufts, — and the artemisia, or wild sage, an odorous shrub, which sometimes attains the magnitude of a tree, with a fibrous trunk as thick as a man’s thigh, but is ordinarily a bush about two feet in height. The bunch-grass, grown at such an elevation, possesses extraordinary nutritive properties, even in midwinter. About the middle of January a new growth is developed underneath the snow, forcing off the old dry blade that ripened and shed its seed the previous summer. From Fort Kearney to Fort Laramie, almost the only fuel to be obtained is the dung of buffalo and oxen, called, in the vocabulary of the region, “chips,” — the argal of the Tartar deserts. Among the mountains the sage is the chief material of the traveller’s fire. It burns with a lively, ruddy flame, and gives out an intense heat. In the settlements of Utah all the wood consumed is hauled from the cañons, which are usually lined with pines, firs, and cedars, while the broadsides of the mountains are nothing but terraces of volcanic rock. The price of wood in Salt Lake City is from twelve to twenty dollars a cord.

From this brief review of the natural features of the country, some idea may be formed of the intensity of the religious enthusiasm which has induced fifty thousand Mormon converts to traverse it, — many of them on foot and trundling hand-carts, — to seek a home among the valleys of Utah, in a region hardly more propitious; and some idea, also, of the difficulties which were to attend the march of the army.

During the spring of 1857, the preparations for the expedition were hurried forward, and in June the whole force was collected at Fort Leavenworth. All Western Missouri was in a ferment. The river foamed with steamboats freighted with military stores, and the levee at Leavenworth City was covered all summer long with the frames of wagons. Between the 18th and the 24th of July, all the detachments of the little army were on the march, except a battalion of two companies of infantry, which had been unable to join their regiment at the time it moved from Minnesota, and the Second Dragoons, which Governor Walker retained in Kansas to overawe the uneasy people of the town of Lawrence. General Harney also tarried in Kansas, intending to wait until after the October election there, at which disturbances were anticipated that it might be necessary to quell by force.

At Washington, movements of equal importance were taking place. The Postmaster-General, in June, annulled the contract held by certain Mormons for the transportation of the monthly mail to Utah, ostensibly on account of non-performance of the service within the stipulated time, but really because he was satisfied that the mails were violated, either en route or after arrival at Salt Lake City. The office of Governor of the Territory was offered by the President to various persons, and finally accepted, July 11th, by Alfred Cumming, a brother of the Cumming of Georgia who fought multitudinous duels with McDuffie of South Carolina, all of which both parties survived. Mr. Cumming had been a sutler during the Mexican War, and more recently a Superintendent of Indian Affairs on the Upper Missouri. He was reputed to be a gentleman of education, ambition, and executive ability. The office of Chief Justice was conferred on Judge D. R. Eckels, of Indiana, a person well fitted for the position by the circumstances of his early life, of the utmost determination, and whose judicial integrity was above suspicion.

The news of the stoppage of the mail reached Salt Lake Valley July 24th, an eventful anniversary in the history of Mormonism. It was on the 24th of July, 1847, that Brigham Young entered the Valley from the East, and the day had always afterwards been kept as a holiday of the Church. On this occasion, the celebration was held in Cottonwood Cañon, one of the wildest and grandest gorges among the Wahsatch Mountains, opening at the foot of the Twin Peaks, about twenty miles southeast from Salt Lake City. Thither more than twenty-five hundred people had flocked from the city on the previous day, and prepared to hold their festival under bowers built of fragrant pines and cedars around a little lake far up among the mountains. During the afternoon of the 24th, while they were engaged in music, dancing, and every manner of lively sport, two dusty messengers rode up the cañon, bringing from the States the news of the stoppage of the mail and of the approaching march of the troops. This mode of announcement was probably preconcerted with Brigham Young, who was undoubtedly aware of the facts on the preceding day. A scene of the maddest confusion ensued, which was heightened by the inflammatory speeches of the Mormon leaders. Young reminded the fanatical throng, that, ten years ago that very day, he had said, Give us ten years of peace and we will ask no odds of the United States and he added, that the ten years had passed, and now they asked no odds, — that they constituted henceforth a free and independent state, to be known no longer as Utah, but by their own Mormon name of Deseret. Kimball, the second in authority in the Church, called on the people to adhere to Brigham, as their “prophet, seer, and revelator, priest, governor, and king.” The sun set on the first overt act in the rebellion. The fanatics, wending their way back to the city, across the broad plain, in the moonlight, were ready to follow wherever Brigham Young might choose to lead.

On the succeeding Sundays the spirit of rebellion was breathed from the pulpit in language yet more intemperate, and often profane and obscene. Military preparations were made with the greatest bustle; and the Nauvoo Legion—under which name, transplanted from Illinois, the militia were organized—was drilled daily in the streets of the city. The martial fervor ran so high that even the boys paraded with wooden spears and guns, and the little ragamuffins were inspected and patted on the head by venerable and veritable Fathers of the Church.

In total ignorance that the standard of rebellion had already been raised, General Harney, in the beginning of August, detached Captain Van Vliet, the Quarter-master on his staff, to proceed rapidly to Utah to make arrangements for the reception of the army in the Valley. He passed the troops in the vicinity of Port Laramie. About thirty miles west of Green River he was met by a party of Mormons, who escorted him, accompanied only by his servant, to the city. There he was politely treated, but informed that his mission would he fruitless, for the Mormon people were determined to resist the ingress of the troops. At a meeting in the Tabernacle, at which the Captain was present on the platform, when Brigham Young called on the audience for an expression of opinion, every hand was raised in favor of the policy of resistance, and in expression of willingness, if it should become necessary, to abandon harvest and homestead, retreat with the women to the mountains, and wage there a war of extermination. They took pains to conduct the Captain through the well-kept gardens and blooming fields, to show him their household comforts, the herds of cattle, the stacks of hay and grain, and all their public improvements, in order to present a contrast between such plenty and prosperity and such a scene of desolation as they depicted. Profoundly impressed by the devotion of the people to their leaders, he started on his return, accompanied by Mr. Bernhisel, the Mormon delegate to Congress. Two days after he left the city, a proclamation was issued by Young, in his capacity of Governor, in which the army was denounced as a mob and forbidden to enter the Territory, and the people of Utah were summoned to arms to repel its advance.

When this document reached the troops, they had already crossed the Territorial line, and were prepared for its reception by the report of Captain Van Vliet as he passed them on his return to the States. Their position was embarrassing. In the absence of General Harney, each separate detachment constituted an independent command. The senior officer present was Colonel Alexander, of the Tenth Infantry, a thorough soldier in the minutiæ of his profession, and distinguished by gallantry during the Mexican War. He resolved, very properly, in view of his seniority, to assume the command-in-chief until General Harney should arrive from the East. On the 27th of September, before the proclamation was received, the first division of the army crossed Green River, having accomplished a march of a thousand miles in little more than two months. That same night it hastened forwards thirty miles to Ham’s Fork, — a confluent of Black’s Fork, which empties into Green River, — where several supply-trains were gathered, upon which there was danger that the. Mormons would make an attack. The other divisions followed within the week, and the whole force was concentrated. On the night of October 5th, after the last division had crossed the river, two supply-trains, of twenty-five wagons each, were captured and burned just on the bank of the stream, by a party of mounted Mormons led by a man named Lot Smith, and the next morning another train was destroyed by the same party, twenty miles farther east, on the Big Sandy, in Oregon Territory. The teamsters were disarmed and dismissed, and the cattle stolen. No blood was shed; not a shot fired. Immediately upon the news of this attack reaching Hams Fork, Colonel Alexander, who had then assumed the command-in-chief; dispatched Captain Marcy, of the Fifth Infantry, with four hundred men, to afford assistance to the trains, and punish the aggressors, if possible. But when the Captain reached Green River all that was visible near the little French trading-post was two broad, black rings on the ground, bestrewn with iron chains and bolts, where the wagons had been burned in corral. He was able to do nothing except to send orders to the other trains on the road to halt, concentrate, and await the escort of Brevet Colonel Smith, of the Tenth Infantry, who had started from the frontier in August with the two companies mentioned as having been left behind in Minnesota, and by rapid marches had already reached the Sweetwater. The condition of affairs at this moment was indeed critical. By the folly of Governor Walker’s movements in Kansas the expedition was deprived of its mounted force, and consisted entirely of infantry and artillery. The Mormon marauding parties, on the contrary, which it now became evident were hovering on every side, were all well mounted and tolerably well armed. The loss of three trains more would reduce the troops to the verge of starvation before spring, in case of inability to reach Salt Lake Valley. Nothing was heard from General Harney, and in his absence no one possessed instructions adequate to the emergency.

To understand the movements which followed, it is necessary to describe briefly the topography of the country between Green River and the Great Salt Lake. The entire interval, one hundred and fifty miles in breadth, is filled with groups and chains of mountains, the direct route through which to Salt Lake City lies along water-courses, following them through cañons so narrow that little science is necessary to render the natural defences impregnable. In this respect, and in the general character of the scenery, it bears much resemblance to the Tyrol. In the narrowest of these gorges, Echo Cañon, twenty-five miles in length, whose walls of rock often approach within a stone’s throw of each other, it became known that the Mormons were erecting breastworks and digging ditches, by means of which they expected to be able to submerge the road to the depth of several feet, for miles. The only known mode of avoiding a passage through this gorge was by a circuitous route, following the eastern slope of the rim of the Great Basin northward, more than a hundred miles, to Soda Springs, at the northern bend of Bear River, the principal tributary of the Salt Lake, — then crossing the rim along the course of the river, and pursuing its valley southward, and that of the Roseaux or Malade, into Salt Lake Valley. The distance of Salt Lake City from the camp on Ham’s Fork was by this route nearly three hundred miles, — while the distance by the road past Fort Bridger, through the cañons, was less than one hundred and fifty miles. At that fort, about twenty miles west from the encampment of the army, the Mormon marauding parties had their head-quarters and principal dépôt. It was there that Colonel Alexander was ordered, about this time, by Brigham Young, to surrender his arms to the Mormon Quartermaster-General, on which condition and an agreement to depart eastward early the following spring, he and his troops should be fed during the winter; otherwise, Young added, they would perish from hunger and cold, and rot among the mountains. In his perplexity, Colonel Alexander called a council of war, and, with its approval, resolved to commence a march towards Soda Springs, leaving Fort Bridger unmolested on his left. For more than a fortnight the army toiled along Ham’s Fork, cutting a road through thickets of greasewood and wild sage, incumbered by a train of such unwieldy length that often the advance-guard reached its camp at night before the rear-guard had moved from the camp of the preceding day, and harassed by Mormon marauding parties from the Fort, which hung about the flanks out of the reach of rifle-shot, awaiting opportunities to descend on unprotected wagons and cattle. The absence of dragoons prevented a dispersion of these banditti. Some companies of infantry were, indeed, mounted on mules, and sent to pursue them, but these only excited their derision. The Mormons nicknamed them jackass cavalry. Their only exploit was the capture of a Mormon major and his adjutant, on whose person were found orders issued by D. H. Wells, the Commanding General of the Nauvoo Legion, to the various detachments of marauders, directing them to burn the whole country before the army and on its flanks, to keep it from sleep by night surprises, to stampede its animals and set fire to its trains, to blockade the road by felling trees and destroying river-fords, but to take no life. On the 13th of October, eight hundred oxen were cut off from the rear of the army and driven to Salt Lake Valley. Thus the weary column toiled along until it reached the spot where it expected to be joined by Colonel Smith’s battalion, about fifty miles up Ham’s Fork. The very next day snow fell to the depth of more than a foot. Disheartened, vacillating, and perplexed, Colonel Alexander called another council of war, and, acting on its judgment, resolved to retrace his steps. An express reached him that same day, from Colonel Smith, by which he was informed of the approach of Colonel Albert S. Johnston, of the Second Cavalry, who had been detailed to take command of the expedition in the place of General Harney, and now sent orders that the troops should return to Blacks Fork, where he proposed to concentrate the entire army. During the month of August, it having become evident that General Harney was reluctant to proceed to Utah, anticipating a brighter field for military distinction in Kansas, Colonel Johnston was summoned from Texas to Washington and there ordered to hasten to take command of the expedition. On the 17th of September, he left Fort Leavenworth, and by rapid travel overtook Colonel Smith while he was engaged in collecting the trains which he intended to escort to the main body. On the 27th of October, the column moved forwards. The escort had been reinforced by a squadron of dragoons from Fort Laramie, but its entire strength was less than three hundred men, a number obviously insufficient to defend a line of wagons six miles in length. An attack by the Mormons was expected every day, but none was made; and on the 3d of November, the whole army, with its munitions, supplies, and commander, was concentrated on Black’s Fork. Colonel Alexander had arrived at the place of rendezvous some days previously, being no nearer Salt Lake City November 3d than he had been a month before. The country was covered with snow, winter having fairly set in among the mountains, the last pound of forage was exhausted, and the cattle and mules were little more than animated skeletons.

Colonel Johnston had already determined, while in the South Pass, that it would be impracticable to cross the Wahsatch range until spring, and shaped his arrangements accordingly. He resolved to establish winter-quarters in the vicinity of Fort Bridger, and on the 6th of November the advance towards that post commenced. The day was memorable in the history of the expedition. Sleet poured down upon the column from morning till night. On the previous evening, five hundred cattle had been stampeded by the Mormons, in consequence of which some trains were unable to move at all. After struggling along till nightfall, the regiments camped wherever they could find shelter under bluffs or among willows. That night more than five hundred animals perished from hunger and cold, and the next morning the camp was encircled by their carcasses, coated with a film of ice. It was a scene which could be paralleled only in the retreat of the French from Moscow. Had there been any doubt before concerning the practicability of an immediate advance beyond Fort Bridger, none existed any longer. It was the 16th of November when the vanguard reached that post, which the Mormons had abandoned the week before. Nearly a fortnight had been consumed in accomplishing less than thirty miles.

It is time to return to the States and record what had been transpiring there, in connection with the expedition, while the army was staggering towards its permanent winter-camp. The only one of the newly-appointed civil officials who was present with the troops was Judge Eckels, who had left his home in Indiana immediately after receiving his appointment, and started across the Plains with his own conveyance. Near Fort Laramie he was overtaken by Colonel Smith, whom he accompanied in his progress to the main body. Governor Cumming, in the mean while, dilly-dallied in the East, travelling from St. Louis to Washington and back again, begging for an increase of salary, for a sum of money to be placed at his disposal for secret service, and for transportation to the Territory, — all which requests, except the last, were denied. Towards the close of September, he arrived at Fort Leavenworth. Governor Walker had, by this time, released his hold on the dragoons, and, notwithstanding the advanced period of the season, they were preparing to march to Utah. The Governor and most of the other civil officers delayed until they started, and travelled in their company. The march was attended with the severest hardships. When they reached the Rocky Mountains, the snow lay from one to three feet deep on the loftier ridges which they were obliged to cross. The struggle with the elements, during the last two hundred miles before gaining Fort Bridger, was desperate. Nearly a third of the horses died from cold, hunger, and fatigue; everything that could be spared was thrown out to lighten the wagons, and the road was strewn with military accoutrements from the Rocky Ridge to Green River. On the 20th of November, Colonel Cooke reached the camp with a command entirely incapacitated for active service.

The place selected by Colonel Johnston for the winter-quarters of the army was on the bank of Black’s Fork, about two miles above Fort Bridger, on a spot sheltered by high bluffs which rise abruptly from the bottom at a distance of five or six hundred yards from the channel of the stream. The banks of the Fork were fringed with willow brush and cottonwood trees, blasted in some places where the Mormons had attempted to deprive the troops of fuel. The trees were fortunately too green to burn, and the fire swept through acres, doing no more damage than to consume the dry leaves and char the bark. The water of the Fork, clear and pure, rippled noisily over a stony bed between two unbroken walls of ice. The civil officers of the Territory fixed their quarters in a little nook in the wood above the military camp. The Colonel, anticipating a change of encampment, determined not to construct quarters of logs or sod for the army. A new species of tent, which had just been introduced, was served out for its winter dwellings. An iron tripod supported a pole from the top of which depended a slender but strong hoop. Attached to this, the canvas sloped to the ground, forming a tent in the shape of a regular cone. The opening at the top caused a draught, by means of which a fire could be kept up beneath the tripod without choking the inmates with smoke. An Indian lodge had evidently been the model of the inventor. Most of the civil officers, however, dug square holes in the ground, over which they built log huts, plastering the cracks with mud. Their little town they named Eckelsville, after the Chief Justice. A dépôt for all the military stores was established at Fort Bridger, where a strong detachment was encamped. At the time of its occupation, the Fort consisted merely of two stone walls, one twenty, the other about ten feet in height, inclosing quadrangles fifty paces long and forty broad. These walls were built of cobble-stones cemented with mortar. Half-a-dozen cannon-balls would have knocked them to pieces, although they constituted a formidable defence against infantry. When the Mormons evacuated the post, they burned all the buildings inside these quadrangles. Colonel Johnston proceeded to set up additional defences for the dépôt, anti within a month two lunettes were completed with ditches and chevaux-de-frise, in each of which was mounted a piece of artillery.

The work of unloading the trains commenced, and after careful computation the Chief Commissary determined, that, by an abridgment of the ration, diminishing the daily issue of flour, and issuing bacon only once a week, his supplies would last until the first of June. All the beef cattle intended for the use of the army having been intercepted by the Cheyennes, it became necessary to kill those draught oxen for beef, which had survived the march. Shambles were erected, to which the poor half-starved animals were driven by hundreds to be butchered. The flesh was jerked and stored carefully in cabins built for the purpose.

The business of loading the trains had been carelessly performed at Fort Leavenworth. In this respect the quartermaster who superintended the work might have learned a lesson from the experience of the British in the Crimea. But, unwilling to take the trouble to assign to each train a proportionate quantity of all the articles to be transported, he had packed one after another with just such things as lay most conveniently at hand. The consequence was, that in the wagons which were burned were contained all the mechanics’ implements, stationery, and horse-medicines, although the loss of the latter was not to be regretted. The rest of their contents was mostly flour and bacon. Had the Mormons burned the next three trains upon the road, they would have destroyed all the clothing intended for the expedition. As it was, upon searching those trains, only one hundred and fifty pairs of boots and shoes and six hundred pairs of stockings were found provided for an army of two thousand men, and some of the soldiers already had nothing but moccasins to cover their feet, with the thermometer at 16° below zero, — while there were found one thousand leather neck-stocks and three thousand bed-sacks, articles totally useless. “How not to do it” had evidently been the motto of the Quartermaster’s Department. The ample supplies of some articles were rendered unavailable by deficiencies in other articles equally necessary. In some of its arrangements it seemed to have proceeded on the presumption that there would be an armed collision, while in others the probability of such an event was entirely disregarded. One wagon was loaded wholly with boiling-kettles, but there was no brine to boil, and at the close of November not a pound of salt remained in the camp.

One of the first and most important of Colonel Johnston’s duties was to provide for the keeping, during the winter, of the mules and horses which survived. On Blacks Fork there was no grass for their support. It had either been burned by the Mormons or consumed by their cavalry. He decided to send them all to Henry’s Fork, thirty-five miles south of Fort Bridger, where he had at one time designed to encamp with the whole army. The regiment of dragoons was detailed to guard them. A supply of fresh animals for transportation in the spring was his next care. The settlements in New Mexico are less than seven hundred miles distant from Fort Bridger, and to them he resolved to apply. Captain Marcy was the officer selected to lead in the arduous expedition. He had been previously distinguished in the service by a thorough exploration of the Red River of Louisiana. Accompanied by only thirty-five picked men, all volunteers, and by two guides, he started for Taos, November 27th, — an undertaking from which, at that season of the year, the most experienced mountaineers would have shrunk. A party was dispatched at the same time to the Flathead country, in Oregon and Washington Territories, to procure horses to remount the dragoons, and to induce the traders in that region to drive cattle down to Fort Bridger for sale.

On the day of Captain Marcy’s departure, Governor Cumming issued a proclamation, declaring the Territory to be in a state of rebellion, and commanding the traitors to lay down their arms and return to their homes. It announced, also, that proceedings would he instituted against the offenders, in a court to be organized in the county by Judge Eckels, which would supersede the necessity of appointing a military commission for that purpose. This document was sent to Salt Lake City by a Mormon prisoner who was released for the purpose. The Governor sent also, by the same messenger, a letter to Brigham Young, in which there were expressions that indicated a disposition to temporize.

The whole camp, at this time, was a scene of confusion and bustle. Some of the stragglers around the tents were Indians belonging to a band of Pah-Utahs, among whom Dr. Hurt, already mentioned as the only Federal officer who did not abandon the Territory in the spring of 1857, had established a farm upon the banks of the Spanish Fork, which rises among the snows of Mount Nebo, and flows into Lake Utah from the East. Shortly after the issue of Brigham Young’s proclamation of September 15th, the Mormons resolved to take the Doctor prisoner. No official was ever more obnoxious to the Church than he; for by his authority over the tribes he had been able to counteract in great measure the influences by which Young had endeavored to alienate both Snakes and Utahs from the control of the United States. On the 27th of September, two bands of mounted men moved towards the farm from the neighboring towns of Springville and Payson. Warned by the faithful Indians of his danger, the Doctor fled to the mountains, and twenty Pah-Utahs and Uinta-Utahs escorted him to the South Pass, where he joined Colonel Johnston on the 23d of October. It was an act of devotion which has rarely been excelled in Indian history. The sufferings of his naked escort on the journey were severe. They crossed the Green River Mountains, breaking the crust of the snow and leading their animals, being reduced at the time to tallow and roots for their own sustenance. On the advance of the army towards Fort Bridger, they accompanied its march.

Another class of stragglers, and one most dangerous to the peace of the camp, was composed of the thousand teamsters who were discharged from employment on the supply-trains. Many of these men belonged to the scum of the great Western cities, — a class more dangerous, because more intelligent and reckless, than the same class of population in New York. Others had sought to reach California, not anticipating a state of hostilities which would bar their way. Now, thrown out of employment, with slender means, a great number became desperate. Hundreds attempted to return to the States on foot, some of whom died on the way, — and nine-tenths of them would have perished, had they encountered the storms of the preceding winter among the mountains. But the majority hung around the camp. To some of these the Quartermaster was able to furnish work, but he was obviously incapable of affording this assistance to all. Thefts and assaults became frequent, and promised to multiply as the season advanced. To remedy this trouble, Colonel Johnston assumed the responsibility of organizing a volunteer battalion. The term of service for which the men enlisted was nine months. For their pay they were to depend on the action of Congress. The four companies which the battalion comprised selected for their commander an officer from the regular army, Captain Bee, of the Tenth Infantry.

The organization of a District Court, by Judge Eckels, helped quite as essentially to enforce order. Its convicts were received by Colonel Johnston and committed to imprisonment in the guard-tents of the army. The grand jury, impanelled for the purposes of the court, were obliged to take cognizance of the rebellion, and, after thoroughly investigating the facts of the case, they returned bills of indictment against Brigham Young and sixty of his principal associates.

During “the campaign of Ham’s Fork,” as Colonel Alexander’s march up and down that stream was facetiously called by the Mormons, he had been in constant receipt of communications from Young, of a character similar to the letter in which the army was commanded to surrender its arms at Fort Bridger. This correspondence was now abruptly terminated by Colonel Johnston. Two messengers came to the camp from Salt Lake City at the beginning of December, escorted by a party of Mormon militia, and bringing four pack-mules loaded with salt, which a letter from Young offered as a present, with assurances that it was not poisoned. This letter contained, besides, certain threats concerning the treatment of prisoners, and reminded Colonel Johnston that the Mormons also had prisoners in their power, on whom anything which might befall those in camp should he retaliated. The Colonel returned no other answer to this epistle than to dismiss its hearers with their salt, informing them that he could accept no favors from traitors and rebels, and that any communication which they might in future hold with the army must be under a flag of truce, although as to the manner in which they might communicate with the Governor it was not within his province to prescribe. A week or two later, a thousand pounds of salt were forced through to the camp from Fort Laramie, thirty out of the forty-six mules on which it was packed perishing on the way.

Thus the long and dreary winter commenced in the camp of the army of Utah. It mattered not that the rations were abridged, that communication with the States was interrupted, and that every species of duty at such a season, in such a region, was uncommonly severe. Confidence and even gayety were restored to the camp, by the consciousness that it was commanded by an officer whose intelligence was adequate to the difficulties of his position. Every additional hardship was cheerfully endured. As the animals failed, all the wood used in camp was obliged to be drawn a distance of from three to six miles by hand, but there were few gayer spectacles than the long strings of soldiers hurrying the wagons over the crunching snow. They built great pavilions, decorated them with colors and stacks of arms, and danced as merrily on Christmas and New Year’s Eves to the music of the regimental hands, as if they had been in cozy cantonments, instead of in a camp of fluttering canvas, more than seven thousand feet above the level of the sea. In the pavilion of the Fifth Infantry, there drooped over the company the flags which that regiment had carried, ten years before, up the sunny slopes of Chapultepec, and which were torn in a hundred places by the storm of bullets at Molinos del Rey.

Meanwhile, how hearts were heating in the States with anxious apprehension for the safety of kindred and friends, those who felt that anxiety, and not those who were the objects of it, best know.

Perhaps the disposition of the camp would have been more in harmony with the scenery and the season, if the army had dreamed that the administration, which had launched it so recklessly into circumstances of such privation and danger, was about to turn its labors and sufferings into a farce, and to claim the approval of the country for an act of mistaken clemency, which was, in reality, a grave political error.

This is part one of a three-part series.
Read part two here and part three here.