Telegraph and Military Tied Utah to the Civil War

  By Marianne Holman, Church News staff writer

  • 14 February 2013

A drawing of the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse.  Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Article Highlights

  • The tragedies of the American Civil War impacted early members of the Church despite their living hundreds of miles from active fighting.
  • More than 300 members served in the military during the war, both in the Union and the Confederate Armies.
  • The telegraph and railroad connected people in the Utah Territory to the events in the Midwest and East.

“Everyone knew someone that died in the Civil War, including Latter-day Saints in Utah.” —Kenneth Alford, BYU Church history professor

Despite being located thousands of miles away from the front lines of the Civil War, the people living in Utah Territory had many connections to the war in the East, Kenneth Alford said during a lecture held in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU on February 1.

“Everyone knew someone that died in the Civil War, including Latter-day Saints in Utah,” Brother Alford said. Many still had family and friends in the Midwest, South, and on the East Coast, and were being seriously affected by the war.

Brother Alford, who is an associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU and a retired colonel in the U.S. Army, titled his presentation “Utah and the Civil War.” Much of his presentation came from research he did for the book Civil War Saints.

Among the soldiers—for both the North and the South—were at least 384 Church members serving in the war. Although researchers believe that count could be incomplete, they know of at least 310 Latter-day Saint soldiers who fought for the Union, 71 who fought for the Confederacy, and three who became “Galvanized Yankees,” or soldiers who fought for one side but had allegiances to the other.

Many of that number of soldiers were scattered in units, while the Utah Territory provided two complete units of soldiers for the North.

On Christmas Day in 1832, many years before the Civil War began, the Prophet Joseph Smith received a revelation about “wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina, which will eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls; and the time will come that war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place” (D&C 87:1–2).

Although the revelation was not part of the Doctrine and Covenants until 1876, copies of it were passed among the members of the Church and eventually made their way to the newspaper editors of the time, Brother Alford said.

“During the war, Joseph Smith’s prophecy was published by both North and South in their newspapers,” he said. “One of them, the Philadelphia Sunday Mercury, on May 5, 1861, published the revelation in its entirety and then made this statement: ‘Have we not had a prophet among us?’”

“Because of that revelation, a lot of the Saints see this through millennial eyes,” Brother Alford said. “They think this is going to cause the dawning of the millennium, and they just feel that they should sit it out.”

To point out the feeling of many of the Church members of the time, Brother Alford shared a statement from John Taylor: “Shall we join the North to fight against the South? No! Shall we join the South against the North? As emphatically, no! Why? … We know no North, no South, no East, no West” (“Ceremonies at the Bowery,” Deseret News, July 10, 1861, 152).

Although Utah Territory was away from much of the conflict of the Civil War, the arrival of the telegraph connected it to the rest of the country.

“It comes from the East first, arrives in Salt Lake City, and then just like the railroad it comes across from the West and joins in Salt Lake City in October of 1861,” Brother Alford said.

Since the Saints were no longer isolated in the desert, rumors of them joining the South made their way to leaders in Washington. The telegraph made it possible for Brigham Young to send a quicker message to the East, stating the intentions of the people living in the territory. In October of 1861, President Young said, “Utah has not seceded, but is firm for the Constitution and laws of our once happy country.”

Even as the war unfolded, President Young continued to stay united with the country, entertaining no thoughts of secession. “By January 1862, you can see Brigham Young’s attitude towards the war is starting to turn to one of general sadness along with the rest of the country as war continues to drag on,” Brother Alford said. “And Brigham makes this statement, ‘We feel much for our Government, their situation is lamentable.’ As the war continues, Brigham’s statements become sadder and sadder as he sees what’s happening to the nation.”

Because many of the early Church members living in Utah Territory had family and friends they had left behind in the war-torn states, the people were seriously affected by the war. Letters that traveled back and forth between the territory and the states carried a lot of sadness, Brother Alford said.

It is also after the telegraph entered the area that government leaders were more concerned with what was happening in Utah. In an effort to oversee the mail and telegraph route along the trail west, President Lincoln enlisted the help of Col. Patrick Conner and others to establish a military presence in Utah. In 1862 Fort Douglas was created just east of Salt Lake City, bringing the military to Utah during the Civil War. Although that brought some challenges at the time, it also opened the door to growth later on in the state of Utah.

The lecture was in conjunction with the BYU library’s Civil War exhibit, located on the first level of the Harold B. Lee Library. The exhibit includes letters, photographs, and other artifacts from the Civil War and is open to the public.