Guest reviewer Polly Aird is an independent historian, and winner of the Ella Turner-Ella Bergera Best Biography Award for her Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector. She is currently serving on the editorial board of the Journal of Mormon History. We welcome her review of this recently released volume.
David L. Bigler and Will Bagley. The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857-1858 Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011. 384 pp., illustrations, map, notes, bibliography, index. Hardcover: $34.95; ISBN: 9780806141350
Authors David L. Bigler and Will Bagley make a comment in the preface that is likely to raise LDS eyebrows:
Not until the events of 11 September 2001 did we fully realize the present need for a balanced and accurate reinterpretation of this forgotten struggle [the Utah War]. The United States finds itself engaged in a battle with theocrats, engaging fanatics who are much more dangerous and perhaps even more committed than the religious rulers who had imposed what President James Buchanan called ‘a strange system of terrorism’ on the people of Utah Territory. . . . We hope that some good will come from an honest look at the Utah rebellion of 1857-58, and at the problems the American republic faced and the mistakes it made when it first wrestled with theocracy (xi).
The misreading here, of course, would be to think the authors are comparing radical Muslims with mid-nineteenth-century Mormons. No, what they are saying is that 9/11 came out of virulent fanaticism and, in not dissimilar fashion, the Utah War came out of an uncompromising Mormon theocracy that climaxed in a frightening and dangerous way.
From this opening, Bigler and Bagley review the theocracy instituted by Joseph Smith which led to conflicts in Missouri and Illinois, and those battles in turn to the Utah War. This new millennial-minded religion found it could not live peacefully with its neighbors, and the reason was not simply the oft-repeated story of the persecution of God’s people. The authors show that it was much more complicated and related to the Mormon beliefs of how the Lord intended them to live. In every way, those beliefs clashed with those of their neighbors. Instead of the typical frontier homesteading approach to land ownership, the Mormons saw the land as belonging to the Lord as revealed to Joseph Smith in the plan for the City of Zion, “a place of refuge prior to the Lord’s imminent arrival and a place of peace and divine rule afterward. In the meantime, however, the concept was coercive and hostile toward neighboring landowners, who depended on their property to survive”(13). Although the City of Zion plan was never carried out in Missouri or even Illinois, it served as the inspiration for future city and town development in Utah.
Bigler and Bagley continue, “If the Mormons’ early beliefs about landownership made nearby residents uneasy and nervous, their doctrines regarding American Indians made their frontier neighbors’ hair stand on end” (13). Joseph Smith believed that the American Indians, the Lamanites, would join their Mormon brothers in building the Kingdom of God. Reaffirming this idea in 1857, Brigham Young instructed one of his trusted men to tell the Indians “that if they permit our enemies to kill us they will kill them also” and that the Indians and the Mormon faithful will both “be needed to carry on the work of the last days” (14). Other sources of clashes between the Mormons and their neighbors came from the Mormon view of revealed law versus “man’s law,” the organization of a large militia, bloc voting, and Smith’s announcement of his intent to run for U.S. president.
Before leading the pioneer company west, Young and the Council of the Twelve issued a proclamation “that displayed how little they had learned from the Mormon wars in Missouri and Illinois” (23) and that made the conflict in Utah predictable. The authors write, “This remarkable document sets forth the revolutionary beliefs that compelled an expansionist millennial movement to establish divine rule prior to Christ’s return and to do so within their own lifetimes” (23). Along with President James Buchanan’s 1858 report to Congress, Bigler and Bagley see this proclamation “as the most important source on the causes of the Mormon rebellion. Yet it is also the most ignored” (23).
The Gold Rush of 1849 and the purchase of most of the American Southwest from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the isolation that Brigham Young had sought. The Mormons found themselves squatters on federal land. President Buchanan wrote, “You have settled upon territory which lies geographically in the heart of the Union. The land you live upon was purchased by the United States and paid for out of their treasury. The proprietary right and title to it is in them, and not in you” (31). Here was a frontal threat to divine land ownership. Year after year, Young directed efforts toward Washington, D.C., to create Utah as a government independent of the U.S.—a sovereign state or an independent entity. In addition Young and the territorial legislature made illegal any law based on legal precedent or on common law, for “in a society where perfect justice was divinely revealed, one did not place one’s trust in manmade law” (48).
The background of how Mormon millennialist thinking shaped the actions of the church leaders distinguishes The Mormon Rebellion from other treatments of the Utah War and gives a framework for understanding the events that took place. William P. MacKinnon’s At Sword’s Point, Part 1 (2008), a documentary history of the Utah War, divides its coverage almost equally between the federal government and the Mormons. The Mormon Rebellion, on the other hand, confines its focus primarily to the Mormon side of the story, thereby adding depth to that part of MacKinnon’s account. And it is well to point out that the history of this period involved beliefs that no longer take precedence in Mormon thought.
After setting the theological stage of Mormon belief at the time, Bigler and Bagley delve into the incidents leading up to the actual conflict, which are likewise covered in MacKinnon’s volume: the “runaway” federal appointees who reported fear for their lives and frustrations at not being able to carry out their duties; Young’s efforts to forge alliances with Indian tribes; the Mormon crusade in Congress to establish independence; policies to increase the population and thereby qualify for statehood (Perpetual Emigrating Fund, handcart scheme, polygamy, and falsifying the 1850 federal census); and the start of the Reformation. “Affronted by Washington’s hostility [to the Mormon wish to be independent], Young crossed the Rubicon and moved to fulfill this vision. On 14 September  he touched off a fiery revival . . . to sanctify the body of Israel and present to the Lord a righteous people worthy of divine favor in the impending conflict with the American republic, which he foresaw and even encouraged” (91).
Chapter 5 on the Reformation, chapter 7 on the Mountain Meadows massacre, and chapter 14 on the efforts of U.S. Judge John Cradlebaugh to bring the perpetrators of the massacre and other crimes to justice are particularly succinct and illuminating. Although much of this ground will be familiar to the readers of By Common Consent, a few items will be of particular interest: First, the authors have modified the position Bagley took in his The Blood of the Prophets (2002) about the September 1, 1857, meeting of Brigham Young with the Indian chiefs from the south. Whereas previously Bagley wrote that when Young promised emigrant cattle to the chiefs, they rushed south and were the Indians involved in the massacre, in The Mormon Rebellion, Bigler and Bagley conclude that “whether any of the Indians who met with Young in Salt Lake were on hand six days later at Mountain Meadows to fire the opening volley is uncertain” (171).
Secondly, did William H. Dame or Isaac C. Haight have orders from Salt Lake City’s religious leaders? Bigler and Bagley quote emigrant George Powers who met Col. Dame on Wednesday, September 9, and asked why he did not rescue the Fancher and Baker trains. Dame answered that he “could go out and take them away in safety, but he dared not; he dared not disobey counsel” (174). Since Dame and Haight were the senior priesthood authorities in southern Utah, the authors see this as evidence that they had orders, perhaps from George A. Smith, the most recent apostle with whom they had met. Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Glen M. Leonard, authors of Massacre at Mountain Meadows (2008), give this same quotation but interpret the counsel Dame referred to as the decision of the Parowan council on Monday night to help only if the emigrants should call for assistance (Walker, Turley, and Leonard, 176).
Bigler and Bagley raise an important question in regard to the frantic horseback ride of James Haslam to ask Brigham Young what should be done about the Arkansas emigrants: “Why did southern Utah’s leaders not wait for his orders to arrive? The emigrants trapped at Mountain Meadows were not going anywhere. What made it imperative to kill them rather than wait for Haslam’s return with the purported orders? These men acted as if they already had their orders and hesitated to delay in executing them” (174). Walker, Turley, and Leonard do not address this question directly, but suggest that Haight made the fatal decision to finish off the Arkansas companies to cover up the initial attacks, for if the remaining emigrants reached California and told what had happened, there would be retribution indeed for the Mormons (Walker, Turley, and Leonard, 179, 189). Bigler and Bagley also refer to Juanita Brooks’s Mountain Meadows Massacre (1950) in which she quoted Charles Adams, later bishop of Parowan, who remembered as a teenager when he was preparing the horses for the men leaving the council on early Thursday morning that Dame said, “I don’t care what the council decided. My orders are that the emigrants must be done away with” (Brooks, 80). Walker, Turley, and Leonard do not include this quotation in their book.
Other salient parts of the volume include the authors’ description of Young’s plan to move his people north, possibly to Vancouver Island or even Alaska. The Indian attack on Fort Limhi on the Salmon River put an abrupt end to such thoughts and made Young realize that not all the Lamanites would join forces with them. The effects of Young’s declaration of martial law on September 15, 1857, is also well portrayed. The law forbade travel through the western center of the country without a permit from Young himself. “If Young had wanted to start a war, this was a sure way to do it. By his action, a territory with a population of not over forty thousand had virtually cut in half a nation of more than thirty million” (149).
The authors give their due to Brigham Young and the Mormons:
The stalwarts who made up what they called “The Camp of Israel” were almost all as remarkable as their formidable leader. They were mostly farmers, but the band included architects, blacksmith, carpenters, mathematicians, musicians, former Indian agents, politicians, potters, printers, slaves, and wagonwrights. They came from England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, and virtually every state in the Union. Men of such caliber were responsible for the success of the Latter-day Saints in settling the Great Basin, where they founded and built more than three hundred villages, towns, and cities. As far as possible in a harsh and arid region where only 4 percent of the land was arable, they made “the desert blossom as a rose.” Brigham Young was one of the greatest leaders in American history, but such men and woman formed the bedrock of his astonishing success: without them, he could have accomplish nothing (26).
When it came to the skill of the Utah militia, the authors write, “Adding to the Mormons’ advantage of terrain was the quality of officers and men in the Nauvoo Legion. Some of them had marched two thousand miles in 1846 from Fort Leavenworth to Los Angeles as members of the Mormon Battalion to occupy Mexico’s northernmost province during the War with Mexico. What most lacked in military training, they made up for in leadership skills gained from building settlements and leading closely organized overland companies to Salt Lake Valley, some from as far away as Denmark. They knew the land they defended and were hardened to the conditions it imposed” (192).
Bigler and Bagley write that Brigham Young’s loyalty “first, last, and always, was to God’s Kingdom, the theocratic system Joseph Smith had envisioned as a prerequisite of Christ’s return in the latter days, which were then at hand.” Young believed “that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God to prepare a land of religious freedom where His kingdom would be established as an earthly entity that would supersede all other earthly realms within Young’s lifetime” (356). As the authors point out earlier in the book, “Prior to the millennium, a theocracy, ruled by God from the heavens above, cannot live within a democratic republic, governed by its people from earth below, without civil warfare. By nature, the two governing systems are incompatible and cannot exit side by side, or one within the other, without conflict” (8-9). The authors conclude that “The death of Brigham Young brought to a close a thirty-year struggle to establish the primacy of God’s Kingdom over the United States and all earthly realms as a condition of the return of Joseph Smith with Jesus Christ. . . It was always his [Young’s] war. . . . Instead he went to his death believing that he would lead his people back to Missouri and live to see Smith return with Jesus Christ” (362-63).
Altogether, this is a remarkable book, one I highly recommend. I do have a few quibbles, however: The index should have been more comprehensive and has led me to note all kinds of additional entries or subentries as I read the book. Grasshoppers mentioned on pages 85, 194, and 260 were actually the Rocky Mountain Locust (Melanoplus sprectus), a now extinct species. The map on page 2 is much too small; it should have been turned upright and spread across two pages.