Gathering to Zion during The American Civil War

Gathering to Zion during The American Civil War

This article originally appeared in Vol.62, No.2 (2015) of Pioneer Magazine.

by Fred E Woods

“Thy brethren have rejected you and your testimony, even the nation [the United States] that has driven you out; and now cometh the day of their calamity, even the days of sorrow, like a woman that is taken in travail; and their sorrow shall be great unless they speedily repent, yea very speedily. For they killed the prophets, and them that were sent unto them and they have shed innocent blood which crieth from the ground against them.” (D&C 136:34-36)

Many of Brigham’s fellow Mormons had strong convictions that the Civil War was a fulfillment of this prophecy, convictions shared by LDS converts abroad. A Millennial Star headline printed in May 1861 read, “Civil War in America—Its Importance as a Warning to the Saints.” After recounting the war’s commencement, the attached article pointed to the events at Fort Sumter as the fulfillment of Joseph Smith’s prophecy nearly three decades earlier that a war beginning in South Carolina would be “poured out upon all nations” (D&C 87:2).

The article stressed that those gathered in Zion in the American West “shall be the only people that will not be at war” and that those who journeyed Zionward would at last arrive “in the bosom of a vast continent, far removed from the scene of strife, and encompassed by lofty mountains and interminable deserts and plains, the country they inhabit will be but little affected by the battles and dissensions of the outer world.”1

Such information appears to have motivated more than 11,000 European Saints to cross the Atlantic on thirty-two voyages and then to travel across the American heartland during the Civil War. Thus, although it seems counterintuitive, Mormon immigration greatly increased during much of the Civil War rather than declining.2 Nineteenth-century Saints emigrating from their home nations faced challenges common to most travelers crossing the Atlantic—seasickness, disease, and the threat of angry storms. However, at the time of the Civil War, there was also the additional threat of Confederate warships. But not one immigrant ship carrying Latter-day Saints during the Civil War was ever lost crossing the Atlantic.

In 1864, David Coombs wrote that the captain of the General McClellan had sailed out of his course, far north among icebergs, for fear of meeting a Confederate ship at sea.3 Richard Crowther, who voyaged on the same vessel, wrote that after safely crossing the Atlantic in his company of 802 Saints, he received news that the General McClellan had been sunk on its return voyage to Liverpool.4 It was taken down by the Confederate warship Alabama, which would eventually sink a total of sixty-five Yankee ships—more than any other Confederate vessel.5 The crew of the Alabama may have taken particular notice of a ship bearing the name of a Union general—George B. McClellan.

Less than two weeks after the General McClellan left England on its 1864 voyage, the ship Hudson, with 863 Saints aboard, had a threatening encounter on the Atlantic. A Confederate warship pulled alongside the Hudson to determine what kind of freight it was transporting. The sailors aboard the warship yelled out, “‘Say your prayers, you Mormons, you are all going down!'” Fortunately, nothing came of the boastful threat.

At least two Mormon passengers aboard the Hudson reasoned that they were spared because the passengers were from foreign countries. Charles William Symons recalled: “The Confederate gunboat Georgia hailed us and brought us to a standstill, for be it remembered the War of the Rebellion was now in full sway. After inquiries from our captain we were permitted to move on for they ascertained that 1100 British subjects were on board. Consequently they had no means of handling that many persons and the would-be prize was given up, the gunboat’s band playing a farewell.”6

This was, then, a very adventurous period for Mormon immigrants, who were threatened first by Confederate warships on the seas and later by Confederate and Union soldiers on land. In fact, while crossing the plains, European converts generally feared soldiers more than Native Americans. And before these converts arrived at the outfitting posts where they would be met by Mormon immigration agents7 and the captains of Church wagon trains, they had to cross the eastern United States by steam locomotives and riverboats. Such a journey often proved an arduous task, much different from a wagon ride West with experienced wagon captains to assist them.8 This port-to-post segment appears to have been quite a dangerous ride, one with numerous stops and transfers—and one generally devoid of friendly and knowing guides to point the way and lend support.

From New York the Saints traveled west by rail. While the rail route from New York to Chicago was generally quiet, the railroad route through Missouri generally was not. Certainly it stretched the capacities of federal soldiers charged with preserving the safety of the route and of the property surrounding it. A member of one Mormon immigrant company braving this route in 1862 noted that Missouri “presented a mournful picture. In many places houses were burned down, fences destroyed, and crops unattended. All the bridges were well guarded by Union troops to prevent Secessionists from burning them. The fulfillment of Joseph Smith’s prophecies concerning Missouri can be visibly seen in passing through the State.”9

From St. Joseph, Missouri, the Saints boarded a steamboat up the Missouri River to the Nebraska Territory outfitting posts at Florence (1861-63) or Wyoming (1864-66).10

While Saints who immigrated in 1861 traveled only within the boundaries of the United States, later LDS immigrant companies traveled part of the way west through Canada—at least during the last years of the war. It is important to note that Saints’ usage of the Canadian route had more to do with economics than with wartime safety, given that it was significantly cheaper than the domestic route used earlier.

The Saints gathering to Zion during the years of the Civil War endured the threat of wartime violence from the time they left their homelands. They encountered warships on the seas and the agitation and commotion of troops in the cities once they landed. They withstood cramped and malodorous journeys in cattle cars, endured searches and inspections by troops, and were subjected to the unnerving sound of nearby battles. They experienced delays, crowded conditions, and short supplies. They bore the antagonism and taunts of soldiers and faced the possibility of abduction or conscription. However, despite the danger, apprehension, and inconvenience caused by the war, it did not become a major hindrance to the Saints’ immigration. In fact, the war probably enhanced their sense of urgency to gather to Utah, where they could find security and safety.11 In spite of obstacles created by the conflict, the Saints continued to gather to Utah at a steady pace and under the Lord’s watchful eye.

A longer version of this article was published as “East to West through North and South: Mormon Immigration during the Civil War,” BYU Studies 39, no. 1 (2000): 6-29.


  1. “Civil War in America—Its Importance as a Warning to the Saints,” Editorial, Millennial Star 23 (May 11, 1861): 297-300.
  2. During the years immediately preceding the war (1858-60), only 2,397 LDS immigrants gathered to Zion and only about 2,000 in 1861—after the war commenced. As stated previously, there were about 3,600 in 1862 and 3, 646 in 1863. Immigration declined to 2,633 in 1864 and then dropped dramatically to 1,301 in 1865 after the Civil War ended. (See Church Emigration Book for the years 1858-65, LDS Church History Library, Salt Lake City; hereafter cited as CHL.)
  3. David Coombs, Journal, 3, in possession of author.
  4. Richard Crowther, Autobiography, in Our Pioneer Heritage, comp. Kate B. Carter, 20 vols. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1958-77), 8:57.
  5. For battle statistics for the Alabama, see Geoffrey C. Ward, Ken Burns, and Ric Burns, The Civil War: An Illustrated History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 326.
  6. Charles William Symons, Autobiography, in Carley Budd Meredith and Dean Symons Anderson, The Family of Charles William Symons and Arzella Whitaker Symons (privately printed, 1986), 6.
  7. The immigration agent at Florence was Jacob Gates in 1861, Joseph W. Young in 1862, and Col. Feramorz Little in 1863. (William G. Hartley, “Great Florence Fitout, 1861,”BYU Studies 24, no. 3 [1984]: 343; Anders Perrson Lofgreen, Autobiography, 41, CHL; and Church Emigration Book, 1863, CHL.)
  8. Not all wagon trains were Church down-and-back trains; some were independent wagon trains that were not as well supplied with provisions for the final leg of the trip to the Salt Lake Valley
  9. Journal of Joseph Coulsen Rich, 19, CHL.
  10. Stanley B. Kimball, “Sail and Rail Pioneers before 1869,” BYU Studies 35, no. 2 (1995): 23-27. For an account of the 1864 emigration season at Wyoming, see Craig S. Smith, “Wyoming, Nebraska Territory: Joseph W. Young and the Mormon Emigration of 1864,” BYU Studies 39, no. 4 (2000): 30-51.
  11. Interestingly, even after arriving in Utah, the Saints were not to escape war altogether. On the very day that Generals Grant and Lee met at the Appomattox Courthouse to put an end to the Civil War, another challenge emerged when hostile, hungry Indians and frustrated Saints who were tired of their cattle being stolen held a lively meeting in Manti, Utah—an event that triggered the Black Hawk War (1865-72).
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