Book Review: William Mackinnon’s Utah War

William P. MacKinnon, At Sword’s Point, Part II: A Documentary History of the Utah War, 1858-1859 (Arthur Clark, 2016). 

16521725_10103176001684139_1837689960_nFor such a small chronological scope, William MacKinnon’s documentary history of the Utah War covers a lot of ground. Though the armed confrontation in 1857-1858 was theoretically isolated to the Rocky Mountains, its tentacles touched far and wide. Soldiers were sent as far south as New Mexico to purchase supplies. Facing the threat of another Mormon relocation, the British government set to fortify their Pacific lands. Fearing an invasion, the Russian Tsar sought to sell the territory of Alaska. California appeared as both a boundary and a revolving door for either side of the conflict. And at the center of it all was American President James Buchanan, Mormon Prophet Brigham Young, and the very stakes of federal sovereignty in a country ready to go to war. This was no small, insignificant, nor parochial skirmish. 

Scholars of Mormon history have been long anticipating the release of the second volume of MacKinnon’s At Swords Point: A Documentary History of the Utah War, 1857-1859, part of the heralded “Kingdom in the West” series. The first volume, which covered events in 1857, was published in 2008. And now the second volume, focused on 1858, finally appeared last year. It was worth the wait. Like its predecessor, the book is a collection of crucial primary sources sandwiched between substantive background and annotation. The result is a mix between sourcebook and monograph, as it is structured as much to tell a story as it is to introduce you to key documents. At Sword’s Point is a crucial contribution to the fields of Utah, Mormon, and military history. 

Volume One left off just as Albert Sidney Johnston’s army arrived at the Rocky Mountains as winter set in. What followed were months of anxiety, preparations, and cold weather. Strategies, or at least semblances of strategies, were cultivated on either side of the mountainous terrain, even as leaders pursued new possibilities of a peaceful resolution. Thomas L. Kane, among others, played a key role in making sure cooler sides prevailed. So even though Young ordered the Saints to flee south and leave Salt Lake City abandoned–several powerful accounts of which are included in this volume–when the US army finally marched in the Mormon Mecca it was under the flag of truce. But that was far from a predetermined conclusion. As At Sword’s Point demonstrates, the confrontation could have gone many ways at many different times. 

Though the general contours of this conflict may be well known, readers will find loads of new material. This is a historian’s history. MacKinnon digs deeper than nearly any other book I’ve encountered, monograph or documentary, and he knows more about the Utah War than most historians know about their personal pet topic. The book drips of the perspiration from decades of labor. But while the field of military history is known for dense and meticulous archival work, At Sword’s Point clears that barrier with room to spare. Though a documentary history, the story flows smoothly and it’s lessons are clear. It is a true skill to be able to tell a story with powerful meaning through documentary editing. This is one of the few volumes that accomplishes such a fete. 

That said, casual readers may have trouble making it all the way through. The book might serve better as a resource for further research than a narrative history. But that’s just fine, as it is work like this that lays the foundation for future projects more directed at a public audience. And in the scholarly world, At Sword’s Point will serve many purposes. Western historians will be interested in the process of colonizing western lands beyond Utah, including New Mexico and Colorado. Military historians will be intrigued with these on-the-ground accounts of everyday soldier life. Political historians will find value in the debates over sovereignty and diplomacy. And Mormon historians will of course be rewarded with new insights into one of the Church’s most significant episodes. (They will also enjoy cameo appearances from figures like John C. Bennett and William Smith.)

The one portion that I wish everyone could get their hands on is the book’s concluding essay. After spending forty years in the wilderness of Utah War material, MacKinnon’s summative thoughts are those of a seasoned expert. Though only about twenty pages, the essay which surveys all the nuances, issues, and historiography of the confrontation is worth the price of admission on its own. In it, MacKinnon is not in the business of casting good guys and bad guys–either titling the war “Buchanan’s Blunder” or casting Brigham Young as a ruthless villain–but he is clear in assigning plenty of blame. Young was absolutely at fault for creating a hostile environment for ten years that challenged federal authority, and the decision to remove him from territorial office was justified. But Buchanan went about the replacement all wrong and enflamed things when he could have cooled them down. Then Brigham, in turn, escalated the conflict into a rebellion–a term that MacKinnon uses carefully. Even philanthropic figures like Thomas L. Kane are seen as enablers whose assistance is genuinely questioned. If readers are hoping to find one victorious side in this conflict, they will be disappointed. 

But that is what makes this a useful volume. The 1850s were a turbulent time in America, as questions over federal, state, and territorial sovereignty drove national conversation. It should not be surprising that these questions–rather than mere debates between Saints and Gentiles–were at the heart of the Utah War conflict. Previous historians localized the episode and made it a Mormon/non-Mormon affair; MacKinnon is wise to zoom out and take a wider picture. Only then can we fully understand the significance of a sectional battle on the eve of the Civil War. 

Comments

  1. Thanks, Ben. Nice review. Looking forward to reading the book.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis/critique. You hit the mark perfectly. Mr MacKinnon gave ten presentations last fall across Utah about this book which made the release far more interesting. I appreciate how you called out all the possible fields and users, reader invitations and warnings, that this is a life’s work (one of number of Bill’s “life works”) and the value in MacMinnon’s rendering and blending of documentary editing with so much more. This book leads out along with other recently released books in offering a much needed national context/perspective on Utah history. I think Bill has given history readers a new clutch of perspectives and issues to wrestles with and enjoy.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for this very helpful review.

  4. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks Ben. Great Review.

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