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Predicting the Past The Utah War's Twenty-First Century Future
By William P. MacKinnon
Utah State University PressCopyright © 2009 William P. MacKinnon
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Chapter OnePredicting the Past: The Utah War's Twenty-First Century Future "We will pass by, for the present, the injustice, inhumanity, and exterminating spirit which gave birth to the Utah Expedition and animated it during the whole campaign. Let the past be buried, and nothing remembered in this article, excepting as it refers to the future, or embodies itself in the present." -Editorial, The Latter-day Saints' Millennial Star (Liverpool), August 21, 1858 "The past is never dead. It's not even past." -Gavin Stevens in William Faulkner's Requiem for a Nun, 1951
Many of the people attending this lecture have a far greater claim to intimacy with Leonard Arrington than do I. After all, he lived in Cache Valley and taught at Utah State University for decades. Perhaps more than anywhere other than his family farm in Idaho, it was from here that our honoree drew insight and inspiration into the mysteries of Utah, Mormonism, and western agriculture. For most of my life I have been deeply immersed in some of these same subjects but at substantial geographical distance from Utah and therefore from Leonard. On the other hand, I do claim a connection to Leonard Arrington that no other person has. The scene was thirty-six years ago late on an October night in 1972 on the nearly deserted twenty-fourth floor of a Manhattan office tower overlooking Central Park. There, in the midst of General Motors' corporate headquarters, I traded my well-worn but beloved first car-a 1961 VW Beetle-to a GM co-worker, for a prize that I coveted even more than that mustard-colored sedan: a first-edition copy of Great Basin Kingdom with dust jacket, in mint condition. Do you know anyone else who would do such a thing? The car, of course, is long gone, but Leonard's book is still with me-a little "tired" but nonetheless a survivor of my relocations from New York to Michigan and then to California. If that Beetle-and perhaps even General Motors itself-have not stood the test of time very well, Leonard Arrington and his reputation surely have done so. It is why we are gathered here this evening in his honor. With that thought, I proceed to my topic: "Predicting the Past: The Utah War's Twenty-First Century Future." I am going to begin with one definitional matter and then discuss briefly the state of Utah War studies today before moving on to some predictive thoughts about the future.
Terminology and Labels Matter
In terms of definitions, I want you to think about the label "Utah War." To me this phrase means the armed confrontation over power and authority during 1857-1858 between the civil-religious leadership of Utah Territory, led by Governor Brigham Young, and the administration of President James Buchanan-a conflict that pitted perhaps the nation's largest, most experienced territorial militia (the Nauvoo Legion) against an expeditionary force that ultimately grew to involve almost one-third of the U.S. Army. It was the nation's most extensive and expensive military undertaking during the period between the Mexican and Civil wars.
Some people-especially those in the East and the institutional army itself-call this conflict the Utah Expedition, the term that I first started using in 1958 while researching in Connecticut. But my 1980s collaborator, the late Professor Richard D. Poll of Provo, taught me that that term is too one-sided; it overlooks the Mormon part of the equation. So now I only use Utah Expedition to mean the U.S. Army force commanded by Col. Albert Sidney Johnston. As I see it, the flip-side of this one-sidedness is the ethnocentric label that I frequently hear in Utah: Johnston's Army. I understand why people use it, but it strikes me as trivializing the army side by personalizing it or confining it to the name of one commander-a bit like the label Seward's Folly that was used for years to ridicule the U.S. government's purchase of Alaska in 1867. This label Johnston's Army, which is not really used anywhere else in the country, was not even used in Utah until decades after the conflict ended. It appeared late in the nineteenth century for political and cultural reasons.
Finally I would mention that the institutional army today has great difficulty using the term "war" for all this. The military historians much prefer "expedition" or "campaign." Their view is that the conflict was not a war because it lacked a congressional declaration of one as well as pitched battles and massive bloodshed on the Civil War's scale. I understand all that too, but I continue to think that "war" is an appropriate term-in the common-sense fashion that we talk about the Indian wars. After all, consider that for years Camp Floyd, Utah, was the nation's largest army garrison; the confrontation virtually bankrupted the U.S. Treasury; its financing forced the resignation of Secretary of War John B. Floyd; the war's Move South put thirty thousand Mormon refugees on the road to Provo; Brigham Young and scores of others were indicted by a federal grand jury for treason; and the Mountain Meadows massacre alone, the conflict's greatest atrocity, was the nation's worst incident of organized mass murder of unarmed civilians in the nation's history until the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. So for me Utah War is a good enough working descriptor.
Utah War Studies Today
In 1977 I published an article complaining that, with a renewed national interest in President Buchanan's administration, there was no commensurate revival of interest in how Buchanan dealt with the first armed challenge to the federal government-the one in Utah. Earlier, at about the time of the war's centennial, LeRoy R. and Ann W. Hafen and Norman F. Furniss had published two important books about the conflict, but then little else appeared on the subject. By the time of my 1977 lamentation, the Utah War seemed like a forgotten incident in American history. During the subsequent twenty years, though, study of the conflict picked up speed with the appearance of foundational work by an accomplished group of professionally trained, academically based Utah historians whose backgrounds resembled that of the Hafens and Furniss. Most of these scholars held Ph.D. degrees; many had studied after World War II at the University of California, Berkeley or at other demanding graduate schools outside of Utah. I have in mind Leonard J. Arrington, Juanita L. Brooks, Everett L. Cooley, Thomas J. Alexander, Harold D. Langley, Glen M. Leonard, Brigham D. Madsen, Donald R. Moorman, Charles S. Peterson, Richard D. Poll, Gene A. Sessions, Harold Schindler, Melvin T. Smith, Clifford L. Stott, and Ronald W. Walker.
With the turn of the century and the beginning of a new millennium, the flow of scholarship accelerated by means of a phalanx of energetic, highly productive historians who also turned their attention to the Utah War. Many of these scholar-writers are connected to Utah by birth or family; nearly all have acquired a perspective that comes from working in other states or regions. With rare exception, historians of this new breed-like Juanita Brooks and Dale L. Morgan before them-work without doctoral degrees and are not resident on university faculties or among the staff of the state historical societies. Instead it is a group whose members are overwhelmingly independent in their sponsorship and point of view and as likely to be women as men. I refer primarily to Polly Aird, Curtis R. Allen, Will Bagley, David L. Bigler, Duane A. Bylund, the late Murray L. Carroll, Sally Denton, John D. Eldredge, Sherman L. Fleek, Audrey M. Godfrey, Brandon J. Metcalf, Roger B. Nielson, Ardis E. Parshall, Jesse G. Petersen, and Richard E. Turley Jr. The exceptions, as university-affiliated historians, are the still-productive Messrs. Alexander, Leonard, Sessions, and Walker as well as relative new-comers to Utah War studies Shannon A. Novak, who took her Ph.D. at the University of Utah but teaches at Syracuse University and works as a forensic anthropologist, and Michael S. Van Wagenen, who is a doctoral student at the University of Utah.
There have been multiple stimuli for this most recent productivity: the approach of the Utah War's sesquicentennial; a new openness at LDS Church Archives to the accessibility of its invaluable collections; the maturity of the efforts of individual researchers who had worked for decades to complete their work while balancing full-time commitments to quite different professions or fields; and a rediscovery of the conflict's most morbid but fascinating atrocity, the Mountain Meadows massacre. An unmistakably catalytic force at work during this period was the advent of the Arthur H. Clark Company's multi-volume, seminal series Kingdom in the West: The Mormons and the American Frontier for which Robert A. Clark and Will Bagley have been the publisher and series editor, respectively. The result has been, over the past ten years, an unprecedented, accelerating, substantial output, in multiple formats, on various aspects of the war. While not a phenomenon that one would call a tsunami of output, the flow of groundbreaking studies is noteworthy, especially when one considers the comparative paucity of effort and interest during the decades that led up to and surrounded the war's centennial.
For me, two very recent incidents emblematically brought home the fact of this sea change in Utah War studies. First, I would note that I asked Cache Valley's Audrey Godfrey, a long-time friend, to introduce this lecture because the person originally tapped for that duty, James Arrington (Leonard's son), was unexpectedly called out of town to attend one of the first performances of a new play that he has written: March of the Salt Soldiers: The Utah War. Think of it; we now have even a theatrical examination of the Utah War! The second incident was my involvement less than a week ago in the Buchanan National Symposium in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, James Buchanan's post-presidential retirement home. In the midst of all the papers delivered at this conference about the secession crisis of 1860-1861, the coming of the Civil War, the destruction of the Democratic Party, and the composition of the president's cabinet was my offering, a paper titled "James Buchanan and the Crisis in Utah: Scope and Impact." This was not an involvement that I stimulated or sought. Rather, I was approached to participate out of the blue because of a refreshing new awareness on the part of the conference's organizers-professors at three Pennsylvania colleges-that a complete view of Old Buck's administration needed to take his Utah experiences into account. My cup runneth over.
So I can now report that the world of Utah War studies is alive and thriving. With all of this investigation, research, and published output and the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Utah War closing at the end of 2008, is there anything more to be said or discovered? Are we straining for new material and interpretations? I would not have chosen the topic for this lecture if I thought such were not the case. As I mentioned in a newspaper interview earlier this year, I believe that we have been seeing just the tip of the iceberg and that a continuation of this renaissance awaits us.
Let me draw a parallel. With all of the publications that have surrounded us for decades about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War-there has already been more published about Lincoln than any other human being except Jesus Christ-you will need to get ready for an avalanche of new material in 2009 for the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth and during 2011-2015, if not earlier, for the Civil War's sesquicentennial. We have not seen anything yet, on these subjects. By extension, I believe that, on a surely more modest scale, we will see continuing interest in the Utah War between now and its bicentennial in 2057-2058. The fog of national amnesia that has for so long enveloped the Utah War is lifting. With this new awareness will come fascinating discoveries and new knowledge.
The Future Near Term
What form will Utah War studies take in future years? In the short run, that is, beginning tomorrow, there will be a continued outpouring of more narrative and documentary studies about Utah's territorial period during and immediately surrounding the Utah War. Much of this material involves either the Mountain Meadows massacre or the 1856 handcart experience; all of it involves the leadership of Brigham Young. We have just seen the long-awaited appearance of Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ron Walker, Rick Turley, and Glen Leonard. Early reactions to the book, even among those who have not seen a copy, have ranged from adulation to vilification. It will be interesting to see how these emotional reactions play out as the present short supply is remedied by the publisher and more copies reach the public. We will also soon be hearing from the first of those book reviewers assigned to this volume who have specialized knowledge about the Utah War, the massacre itself, and frontier violence.
Against this background will soon come another highly relevant book, of which you are probably unaware, David L. Bigler's and Will Bagley's Innocent Blood: Essential Narratives of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, from the Arthur H. Clark Company. This study will appear this fall, and it will be a very different book than that by Messrs. Walker, Turley, and Leonard, and not just because one is a narrative history and the other a documentary.
In between these two offerings will arrive David Roberts's Devil's Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy. I mention this volume, which does not bear directly on Mountain Meadows, because it discusses Brigham Young's leadership of Mormon Utah on the virtual eve of the war while assessing his responsibility for the Willie and Martin handcart companies' disaster, the greatest loss of life in the entire American overland trails experience. Roberts's background differs from that of the two groups of commentators described earlier. Although armed with a Ph.D., he is neither a faculty member nor a non-academic with a long-term immersion in Utah's territorial period. Instead, Roberts is a talented free-lance writer, and-like Sally Denton, a reporter who has written about Mountain Meadows-he has jump-started his lack of background through extensive consultation with the generous, vastly experienced Will Bagley. He also drew on the research help of Ardis E. Parshall.
You may recall that last June Roberts produced an article for Smithsonian Magazine titled "The Brink of War" about the subject of this lecture. Roberts also has an article in the current issue of American Heritage titled "Patience Loader: The Awful March of the Saints." In this piece he argues that one of the purposes of 1856 handcart migration was "to shore up his [Young's] breakaway theocracy against an anticipated offensive by the U.S. army, which would, in fact, take place less than two years in the future." With respect to the Willie-Martin catastrophe, Roberts places what he calls "the lion's share of the blame" on Brigham Young, and accuses him of having "placed saving money over human lives." In the winter, the Journal of Mormon History will publish an analysis by Will Bagley of Brigham Young's responsibility for the handcart experience, including the Willie-Martin disaster. Fasten your seat belts; it will be a bumpy reputational ride for Brigham Young.
Excerpted from Predicting the Past The Utah War's Twenty-First Century Future by William P. MacKinnon Copyright © 2009 by William P. MacKinnon. Excerpted by permission.
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