Utah Historical Quarterly: Utah War Issue

“One hundred and fifty years ago a federal army of nearly two thousand soldiers under the command of Col. Albert Sidney Johnston huddled in their makeshift quarters at Camp Scott near the ruins of Fort Bridger in southwestern Wyoming to wait out the bitter winter and prepare to march into the Salt Lake Valley later in the spring of 1858.”

So begins editor Kent Powell’s introductory essay to the just-delivered Winter 2008 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly, a special issue devoted to the Utah War of 1857-1858.

This war (you may be more familiar with it under its outdated parochial name of “Johnston’s Army”) should be of interest to any Mormon interested in our 19th century history; its importance extends far beyond Utah history. Although some of us tend to think of the war in terms of David and Goliath — plucky David (the Mormons) stands off Goliath (the federal army), forcing him to accept our terms to march peacefully through Salt Lake City and on to establish a dusty camp in the desert — the reality was far grimmer:

Despite earlier Mormon conflicts in the East and Midwest, despite our ill-treatment at the hands of militias operating under state law, we had never faced a force with the resources and determination of the federal government. We held a poorly prepared, poorly provisioned, at times poorly commanded army out of our heartland with the aid of geography and climate, true, but when spring opened in 1858, reinforcements would march against us from the east, and volunteer units were preparing to march against us from the west.

Having struggled across the American deserts to build new homes in the Rockies, we had run out of places to migrate. We had few clothes, fewer shoes, little powder or lead. A good harvest had relieved us after years of drought and crickets, but that harvest wouldn’t last long were we to be forced away from our fields and into mountain fortresses. We had confidence that the Lord would fight our battles, but little to throw into the conflict to help Him help us.

Despite the critical nature of this point in our history, few of us know much about the Utah War. In this sesquicentennial year, the Utah Historical Quarterly has published a special issue with material that will probably be new to most of us.

I recommend four key articles:

* William P. MacKinnon, “And the War Came: James Buchanan, the Utah Expedition, and the Decision to Intervene.” In contrast to articles that are blatantly pro- or anti- , Bill takes the stand that both sides contributed to the conflict. He examines the political climate of Washington, D.C., and the reaction of national leaders to the negative reports they were receiving from returned officers, and their officious shock at the demands for statehood sent by Utahns wearied by years of living under colonial rule. Bill also notes that due to ill health, neither James Buchanan nor Brigham Young was at the top of his game during the critical months leading to the launch of the military expedition against Utah. Some aspects of this article will grate on Mormon sensibilities, but its overall fairness adds to the credibility of material never before covered in Utah War discussions.

* John Eldredge, “The Utah War: A Photographic Essay of Some of Its Important Historic Sites.” Not sure what kind of territory the army crossed, or that the Nauvoo Legion defended? Want to see the shelters used by the army in winter quarters, and the fortifications built by the Mormons in Echo Canyon? Both period and contemporary photographs, together with a detailed but uncluttered map, add life to everything else you have or will read about the Utah War.

* Michael Scott Van Wagenen, “Sam Houston and the Utah War.” This is an article you’ll enjoy even if you don’t care much about politics or military maneuvers. Who knew that such a famous figure had such longstanding relations with Mormons? Who knew that such a fiery defender of Texas freedom also had a soft spot for the religious refugees of Utah?

* Richard W. Sadler, “The Spencer-Pike Affair.” The Utah War didn’t end when the army marched peacefully through Salt Lake City in June 1858. The consequences lingered for generations. This article narrates a series of violent assaults in the immediate aftermath of the war. This is the action story of the issue, filled with law-and-order and crime-and-punishment.

The issue also contains David L. Bigler’s modified keynote address to the 2006 Utah State Historical Society meetings, pretending to examine the origins of the Utah War. I cannot recommend this cartoonish article, marred as it is by the same flaw that invalidates so much of Bigler’s sometimes excellent research: Mormonism — that violent and bigoted system — is entirely at fault for the conflict; Mormons had no just cause of complaint against anyone; federal appointees were, without exception, paragons of competence, godliness, and dedicated public service.

If you do not have access to UHQ through subscription or library, you may want to contact the editor at 300 Rio Grande, Salt Lake City, UT 84101, to inquire about purchasing a copy. A “contact us” link here may be the quickest way to obtain information.

23 comments for “Utah Historical Quarterly: Utah War Issue

  1. Thanks for the preview, Ardis. Speaking of Bigler and the Utah War, have you read his recent article, “The Aiken Party Executions and the Utah War, 1857–1858,” Western Historical Quarterly 38/4 (Winter 2007)?

  2. Bigler did an excellent job of pulling together aspects of Utah history for Forgotten Kingdom (the series title is Kingdom in the West) that are usually overlooked. He handles language well, and his writing is seldom tedious. Forgotten Kingdom is like anything written by Quinn, however, in that I have learned to look for the rest of any unfamiliar story, and to look up the context of quotations. Bigler usually tells the truth, and frequently tells nothing but the truth. He often, however, forgets to tell the whole truth.

    Yes, I have, Justin.

    Please understand, everyone, that I’d rather the focus of this thread be on the Utah War and UHQ’s terrific issue. I will not respond further concerning Bigler.

  3. Wow this all looks quite interesting, and eerily reminiscent of the substance of a book I’ve just finished: David McCullough’s “1776: American and Britain at War”, where I was astonished at how “the reality was far grimmer” than I’d ever imagined.

    Ardis, I’ve read early Church history but not much early Utah history, which sounds stimulating and a helpful adjunct to Church history. Is there a good meaty book that you’d recommend as the best primer on the subject?

  4. Kirk, I’d start with Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1979. That was intended to be a scholarly introduction to Mormon history for non-Mormons. I love it.

  5. One off-topic comment–for any of you who liked McCullough’s 1776, I would recommend the vastly better Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fisher. I read it first, and thought the McCullough book unimpressive in comparison.

    (And that’s not a general anti-McCullough bias. I think both his The Great Bridge and The Path Between the Seas were excellent.

    On the Utah war–Ardis, have you read any of Lorenzo Brown’s diary entries about his service in the militia? He left the Salt Lake Valley on September 29, 1857, and returned December 3. No high strategy in his journal–just the life of a private soldier, told straight. Great stuff, as usual.

  6. I have, Mark! He provides colorful snips of several very important Utah War episodes without telling the whole story (which he may never have known), but when those snips are added to the more prosaic records of others, the events suddenly pop to life. In his devotional address at last year’s Mormon History Association meeting, Bill MacKinnon told one such story where Lorenzo Brown’s diary provided some color — I’ll have to ask him when and where he is publishing that address so that I can point you to it.

  7. Thanks for the write-up, Ardis. Regarding your comment about Van Wagenen’s article,

    Who knew that such a famous figure had such longstanding relations with Mormons? Who knew that such a fiery defender of Texas freedom also had a soft spot for the religious refugees of Utah?

    When Elder Holland spoke via satellite to all the stakes in Texas in a combined Stake Conference, he began his remarks by noting Sam Houston’s relationship with and attitude toward the Mormons. I believe it inflated the state pride of every Texas Mormon (or Mormon Texan) who heard it (myself included).

  8. I finally wandered into the next room and saw that I misspelled Fischer’s name. Thanks to just me for getting it right.

    And, thank Ardis. I’ll look for it.

  9. Thank you, Ardis. I always appreciate your writing. Years ago I bought a book titled something like: Dan Jones: Mormon Raider. It was a disappointment, but I have wondered if there is a better treament. Do you know of anything like that?

  10. Will, we agreed to be civil to each other in public. Charges of “irrational responses” and “character assassination” and “slander” fall somewhat short of civility.

  11. Charges of “irrational responses” and “character assassination” and “slander” fall somewhat short of civility.

    Funny; I was just thinking the same thing about charges like “outdated” and “parochial.”

  12. Now we know what witnessers to the animus between Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin must have experienced! lol (Between Ardis and Will, which becomes beloved by the French and which joins the Rat Pack?)

  13. Regarding the Ardis/Will discussion I have but one response: YAWN. Haven’t we seen this movie before?

  14. Peter,


    Ardis’s post mentioned that “Johnston’s Army” is an outdated name for the war. She’s not applying those terms to anyone’s work. She’s not saying “Smith’s research is outdated” or “Jones’ work is parochial.”

    Instead, she says,

    “This war (you may be more familiar with it under its outdated parochial name of “Johnston’s Army”) should be of interest to any Mormon interested in our 19th century history; its importance extends far beyond Utah history.”

    You follow up with a bizarre comment accusing her of making “charges” that “fall short of civility” in that sentence.

    Who exactly is she charging, Peter? And with what?

  15. Will: I haven’t read Bigler’s UHQ article, but I read and enjoyed his book _Forgotten Kingdom_, which in many ways is a wonderful study of the Utah conflict. Despite that book’s virtues, however, it has the flaws that Ardis ascribes to Bigler’s UHQ article, namely an insistance on understanding federal motives only in the rosiest possible terms and seeing Mormon actions in the blackest. Bigler’s work is a useful supplement to Mormon histories that too often present federal officials as cartoon bigots motivated by nothing but irrational hatred of God’s truth. Too often, however, Bigler’s interpretive framework feels like a 1950s Western movie, with virtuous feds protecting the God-fearing settlers from Indians and other savages (i.e. Mormons). Reading the book I kept imagining Robert Baskin played by Henry Fonda. (On this front, Bigler’s sympathetic portrayal of federal officials can be usefully compared with Sally Gordon’s treatment of some of the same actors, which in many ways is equally sympathetic but is much more nuanced and has less of the matinee white-hats-black-hats feel.)

    There are Mormons who have a knee-jerk reaction to any history of Mormonism that differs from what they learned in junior Sunday school. On the other hand, to mistake Ardis for this particular creature is just plain silly.

  16. Will Bagely’s post almost proves Ardis’s point.

    But I agree with #19. Whenever Bagely comes on the blogs to get self-righteously indignant, it’s become a yawner.

    Other than that, this post convinced me I need to read the Utah Historical Quarterly more often.

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