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This war (you may be more familiar with it under its outdated parochial name of “Johnston’s Army”) should be of interest to any Mormon interested in our 19th century history; its importance extends far beyond Utah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