Monday, April 25, 2016

Maxwell: "THE CIVIL WAR YEARS IN UTAH: The Kingdom of God and the Territory That Did Not Fight"

[The Civil War Years in Utah: The Kingdom of God and the Territory That Did Not Fight by John Gary Maxwell (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). Hardcover, photos, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:379/487. ISBN:978-0-8061-4911-0. $29.95]

Facing hostility to their own peculiar institution from the federal government and hounded from state to state, the first major exodus of Mormons in 1847 initially found refuge far beyond the settled western border of the United States in rugged and isolated Utah. However, while Brigham Young's autocratic theocracy grew and prospered there, sustained defiance of federal authority and law led to another round of conflict. This time, war was narrowly averted during a tense 1857-58 standoff with the army that concluded with negotiated submission to the government and installation of a federally appointed territorial governor.

Even with the wary settlement of the Utah War, the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre and many other smaller incidents marked Utah as an insular, and increasingly paranoid, place violently antagonistic to the presence of non-Mormon "gentiles." When the Civil War broke out, the Latter Day Saints leadership remained distrustful of the national government and their official stance was to discourage Union Army enlistment and sit out the conflict. While no great battles were fought in Utah Territory, the period between 1861 and 1865 was far from uneventful and is the subject of John Gary Maxwell's new book The Civil War Years in Utah: The Kingdom of God and the Territory That Did Not Fight.

Maxwell organizes his chapters by year, with a helpful notable events timeline preceding each. A common theme throughout the book surrounds Brigham Young's efforts to exercise tight control over every religious and civil aspect of life in the territory, including Indian relations, commerce, the press, the courts, and internal security (through the Nauvoo Legion, the large and well-armed Mormon Militia), even entertainment. Governors, government agents, judges, and other federal appointees were continually harassed, threatened, and obstructed when attempting to perform any duty deemed obnoxious to Mormon interests.

Young failed to bend any of the governors installed by the Lincoln administration to his will and the book details his alternative efforts to undermine and replace them. Much of 1862 was spent by LDS officials trying to achieve statehood for Utah (or, as they called it, Deseret), their attempts repeatedly vetoed by the territorial governor due to the irregular legal procedures taken, concerns over the practice of polygamy, and the church's unconvincing attempt to satisfy the constitutional requirement of a republican form of government. Relations with the army were just as rancorous, with large sections of the book devoted to the personal war between Young and Colonel (later General) Patrick Edward Connor. All of these sections comprise a welcome contribution to the scholarly examination of the Civil War period in the Mountain West, a geographic expanse that remains comparatively little studied though it was critically important to continental travel and communications.

One thing that becomes immediately apparent when reading Maxwell's study is how stridently one-sided its serial indictments of Mormon society, and LDS leader Brigham Young in particular, are. Some interpretations are presented to the reader with a confidence seemingly incongruent with the thinness of the actual evidence offered in the narrative. For example, while recounting the outrageous assault upon Governor John Dawson by Mormon assailants, the author unreservedly names the individuals he believes were ultimately behind the attack but doesn't explicitly show the reader the links that form his case. Source material is also scant regarding the author's strongly worded contention that church leaders fostered close ties with Confederate agents.

Mormon disloyalty to the United States is one the book's most prominent themes. Maxwell unhelpfully does not define exactly what he means by disloyalty and seems little moved by the large body of recent Civil War scholarship that has shown us just how diverse and complex the quality and meaning of being pro-Union was to the country's home front citizenry. Though individual Mormons in some number certainly volunteered to fight in the Union Army for a variety of reasons, Maxwell does formulate an effective argument that the Saints in Utah were clearly unenthusiastic about the war and its aims. At least on the part of Young, investment was with Mormon interests foremost, not Union victory.

Utah's only military contribution during the Civil War years was a 90-day mounted company that patrolled the overland trails and it was the only Union state or territory that donated nothing to the U.S. Sanitary Commission for the support of wounded soldiers and their families. The author's investigation reveals that the Mormon press and leadership failed to trumpet Union victories, congratulate Lincoln on his 1864 reelection, celebrate the end of the war, or deeply mourn the president's assassination. Whether some or all of this equates to treason against the United States is a matter for debate. In his discussions of loyalty, Maxwell demonstrates little patience for the idea that lukewarm Mormon attitudes, if not justified by the outrageous persecution they experienced in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois (to include the lynch mob murder of founder Joseph Smith and his brother) or lingering existential fears from the very recent army intervention of 1857-58, were at least at some level an understandable reaction to prior experience.

The book only lightly touches upon Lincoln's thoughts on Utah personalities and events but the overall relationship between Mormon authorities and the federal government is well developed. Another aspect that renders the study essential reading is its excellent documentation of the antagonistic relationship between the LDS leadership and the army, a tension exacerbated by the close proximity of Connor's Camp Douglas to the heart of Mormon power in Salt Lake City. Maxwell effectively contrasts the Mormon press with the opposition organ created and run by the soldiers, The Vedette newspaper. The verbal jousting in the Vedette editorials is strongly reminiscent of the sincere outrage expressed by many Union soldiers regarding their "Copperhead" neighbors back home. It should be mentioned, though, that actual armed conflict was notably absent.

In writing The Civil War Years in Utah, author John Gary Maxwell set out to overturn what he viewed as a grossly inaccurate historical narrative of a Utah Territory solidly in the Union camp. Save some speculative wandering, the study does in many respects effectively meet this challenge, certainly more than enough to recommend it to those seeking fresh information about wartime U.S.-Mormon relations and the Civil War in the Far West.

More CWBA reviews of OUP titles:
* Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance: Other Sides of Civil War Texas
* Kill Jeff Davis: The Union Raid on Richmond, 1864
* Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 1863 - 1866 (Arthur H. Clark)
* Soldiers in the Army of Freedom: The 1st Kansas Colored, the Civil War's First African American Combat Unit
* The Early Morning of War: Bull Run, 1861
* Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier: Historical and Archaeological Perspectives
* The River Was Dyed with Blood: Nathan Bedford Forrest & Fort Pillow
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State (PB edition)
* Torn by War: The Civil War Journal of Mary Adelia Byers
* Columns of Vengeance: Soldiers, Sioux, and the Punitive Expeditions, 1863-1864
* Los Angeles in Civil War Days, 1860-1865
* Historical Atlas of Oklahoma, 4th edition
* George Crook: From the Redwoods to Appomattox
* Violent Encounters: Interviews on Western Massacres
* A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico, 1846
* Patrick Connor's War: The 1865 Powder River Indian Expedition (Arthur H. Clark)
* Texas: A Historical Atlas
* Civil War Arkansas 1863: The Battle for a State
* Jayhawkers: The Civil War Brigade of James Henry Lane
* Powder River Odyssey: Nelson Cole's Western Campaign of 1865 the Journals of Lyman G. Bennett and Other Eyewitness Accounts (Arthur H. Clark)
* Three Days in the Shenandoah: Stonewall Jackson at Front Royal and Winchester
* The Uncivil War: Irregular Warfare In The Upper South, 1861-1865
* The Civil War in Arizona: The Story of the California Volunteers, 1861-1865


  1. Drew: As always, a solid review. I intend to pick this one up. Your critique of the author's thin sourcing for certain assertions regarding Young's actions during the war is interesting. Given the documented and thorough mendacity of Young and Church leadership in connection with the entire Mountain Meadows debacle, including the official post-war "turn" on John Lee, as well as Young's equally well-documented efforts to establish a theocratic dictatorship separate from the United States during the 1850's, I suspect that the author may have indulged in some plausible "deductive reasoning". That may be exacerbated by lingering concerns about just how open the Church has become in opening its archives over the past 15 or so years. Nonetheless, the author has an obligation to disclose when he's reaching unsourced conclusions.

  2. Hi John,
    Thanks for the comment. It's a fascinating book. I just wish some authors could better restrain themselves from adopting such overtly hostile language and tone toward controversial persons and groups they find personally distasteful. It needlessly dissuades non-emotionally vested readers from giving them the benefit of the doubt when presenting their best guesses (no matter how learned they might be) on the more slippery sub-topics.

    1. I agree. Seemingly far more than most issues, this aspect of US history generates an aberrant amount of controversy even though well over a century has passed. For example, check out the Amazon "reviews" for any of the books which have dealt with Mountain Meadows, regardless of how thoroughly researched and sourced. All the more reason for an author to stay as objective as possible. This book does appear to supplant Long's rather thin work from the 1980's.

    2. There are so many MM books that I can't remember which one I read years ago.

      After reading this book, I may have to go the library and refresh my memory of Long's CW Utah book.


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