Thursday, June 02, 2011

"The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857-1858" (reviewed by Dallas Robbins)

The Mormon Rebellion: America's First Civil War, 1857-1858David L. Bigler and Will Bagley's new work "The Mormon Rebellion," subtitled "America's First Civil War, 1857-1858," recounts the tale of the "Utah war" with meticulous research and provocative aplomb. Readers familiar with current Mormon history will not be surprised that Bigler and Bagley, authors of "Forgotten Kingdom" and "Blood of the Prophets" respectively, stake the claim they are recounting a more accurate history as a corrective to the myth and legend that they learned as young boys, this myth being "how the United States in 1857 sent an army to persecute their long-suffering Mormon progenitors, based on nothing more than the malicious reports of corrupt carpetbaggers"(ix). They tell how this myth has even continued in books such as Donald Moorman's "Camp Floyd and the Mormons: The Utah War" and Harold Schindler's "Orrin Porter Rockwell: Man of God, Son of Thunder." The myth has slowly begun to break down as archival sources have been discovered and made more easily available. Particularly this includes the territorial militia records and the papers of Brigham Young, paving the way for works such as William P. MacKinnon's ground-breaking "At Sword's Point: A Documentary History of the Utah War," providing researchers the impetus to reassess the story of the Utah war. ....(continued below)


Title: The Mormon Rebellion: America's First Civil War, 1857-1858
Authors: David L. Bigler and Will Bagley
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Date of Publication: April 2011
Genre: Non-fiction
Binding: Hardcover
Number of Pages: 384
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4135-0
Price: $34.95

Reviewed by Dallas Robbins for the Association of Mormon Letters

(continued) .... "The Mormon Rebellion" begins by traversing through familiar territory, recounting Mormon beginnings with an emphasis on the theological view of the Native Americans, government and land ownership. The authors set the stage by covering the war in Missouri, the settlement and exodus of Nauvoo, Winter Quarters, the settling of the Utah territory, the precarious relationship with the Natives, and the increasing conflicts with federal appointees sent to survey and govern the territory.

In these early chapters the authors emphasize undervalued sources in bringing a broader context to the eventual conflict. One such source is Parley P. Pratt's "Proclamation of the Twelve Apostles (1845)," which they summarize:

"This remarkable document sets forth the revolutionary beliefs that compelled an expansionist millennial movement to establish divine rule prior to Christ's return and to do so within their own lifetimes. With the possible exception of Buchanan's 1858 report to Congress, it stands alone as the most important source on the causes of the Mormon rebellion. Yet it is also the most ignored" (23).

Why so important? The authors argue it solidifies the Mormon view of government, religious freedom, and the importance of an alliance with the "Lamanites," where:

"If the Gentiles did not repent, said the author of the proclamation, the Native kinsmen of the Mormons, the Lamanites, would go among them and 'tear them in pieces, like a lion among the flocks of sheep.' Their destruction would be total, 'an utter overthrow, and desolation of all our Cities, Forts, and Strong Holds – an entire annihilation of our race,' Apostle Pratt said, 'except such as embrace the Covenant, and are numbered with Israel'"(25).

Another undervalued source that the authors employ are the testimonies of traveling emigrants who spent a winter in the Utah territory, later collected and published by Nelson Slater in the first book copyrighted in California titled "The Fruits of Mormonism":

"The experiences of the wintering emigrants in 1850-51 provide a rich and often ignored source of information on the underlying causes of the 1857 confrontation with the United States. They also add to the growing body of evidence from the six years prior to the nation's first civil war in support of President Buchanan's decision to confront a defiant theocracy."(43).

Bigler and Bagley make that case that a theocratic worldview, not polygamy, as may be overemphasized at times, was the greater factor in leading up to the conflict with the Federal government. Recounting Brigham Young's failed attempt at statehood as a strategy to gain sovereignty, this led to the circling of the theological wagons in the Reformation of 1856–57, where "Brigham Young ignited the most fearful spiritual upheaval since the 1642 Salem witch hunts" (94). The usual characters make their appearance in the story, such as the "sledgehammer of Brigham," Jedediah M. Grant, along with bringing to light the fallout of unfortunate crimes, such as the Parrish-Potter murders. If one wonders whether rhetoric can inspire the dark side of human nature, look no further.

The authors touch on practically every aspect of this time in Utah history. For those familiar with the story, you will encounter all the major participants, such as Thomas L. Kane, Orrin Porter Rockwell, Chief Wakara, Bill Hickman, Lot Smith, and Colonel Albert Johnson, Alfred Cumming, and that "one-eyed justice," John Cradlebaugh, to name only a few. In addition, the authors discuss the significant events of violence that should never be forgotten, such as the Gunnison massacre, the Aiken massacre, and a riveting chapter on the Mountain Meadows massacre. All of this led to the eventual standoff between the Nauvoo Legion and the US Army, which could have been a greater tragedy if not for the Natives attack on Fort Limhi, which the authors suggest as the turning point in Brigham Young's war strategy, due to the uncertainty of "Lamanite" relations,

"At a stroke, the raid on Fort Limhi wiped out any hope that the northern tribes, Bannocks, Shoshones, and Flatheads, would welcome their professed Israelite cousins to their country in the event the frontier theocracy failed to prevail in its conflict with the United States. Even less likely was that the Lamanite 'remnant of Jacob' would join with the Mormons in a continuing struggle against the federal government. And so it came to pass that Brigham Young's vision of a new home for his people in the remote and defensible northern Rocky Mountain valleys suddenly went dark." (280)

One particular fact I which I've never known was that the strategy to move the Saints south and leave Salt Lake empty and ready to burn was codenamed "Sebastopol," after the port city on the Black Sea, where Russians during the Crimean War blew up ships, abandoned and burned the city, leaving the ruins for French and British forces. The "Sebastopol" plan is recounted, leaving me with a greater understanding of the difficulty of the task, with many people forced to leave their homes, enduring cold and hunger along the trail south.

The eventual and uneasy truce between Brigham Young and Johnson's Army, the fall of the "Sebastopol" strategy, and Brigham's reluctant acceptance of Buchanan's pardon, are masterfully detailed by the authors. While commonly referred to as "Buchanan's blunder," the authors argue that the Presidential policy actually had a greater benefit for the relationship between the Mormons and the United States, and the blame for any blunder should squarely be placed on Brigham,

"Buchanan's decision to order troops to Utah, often called his blunder, proved decisive and beneficial for both Mormons and the American republic. Making the outcome inevitable were Young's own blunders, which arose from millennial convictions, a lack for formal education, and a compulsion to manage not only every aspect of his people's lives but even heaven itself." (356)

This line of commentary is a little too black and white for my taste, which only seems to reverse the myth. Human nature is more complicated that what is sometimes discernable in history, and certain conclusions about inevitable outcomes should be a little more expansive or less dichotomous in ascribing blame or praise. The conclusion that the conflict was eventually beneficial for both parties seems accurate, but is only apparent through the hindsight of history and the eventual benefit would not have been fully understood at the time of the truce. This is always worth thinking about as we ourselves move through our own moment under the sun and are quick to judge the outcome of grave situations in our own day.

One approach that readers may take exception with are provocative analogies and connections made to other moments in American history. The prime example of this is the reference to Al Qaeda's attack on September 11th, 2001, and how this event made the authors "realize the present need for a balanced and accurate reinterpretation" of the Utah war (xi).

"The United States finds itself engaged in a battle with theocrats, engaging fanatics who are much more dangerous and perhaps even more committed than the religious rulers who had imposed what President James Buchanan called 'a strange system of terrorism' on the people of Utah Territory." (xi)

Though theocracy is a factor in both events, 9/11 and the Utah war, it seems to me to not extend much beyond that. I am not saying there may not be a connection worth exploring, but it's too easy of a pat analogy to make which may not inspire people to think much beyond it. The same would go for the other authors' claims that the Utah war is equivalent to America's "first" Civil War, and the Mormon reformation of 1856-57 as equivalent to the Salem witch hunts. Metaphor and analogy should open up the possibility of meaning for a historical event and not close it off. But the uses of them here tend to simplify and reduce the events to moments in American history and are not fully developed as a framework for interpretive analysis in the end. In addition, the story is interesting enough on its own terms that is simply doesn't need to be anything other than what it is. And an unfortunate aspect of such provocative analogies is that they will easily overshadow and ill serve the rest of the text, diverting attention away from the masterful recounting of details, and possibly playing on already formed prejudices on both sides of the interpretive scale of the reader, or worse, turn them away completely.

But while this aspect of the work may bother some readers, it really doesn't bother me much. I simply would not expect less from the authors, who have a reputation for making such provocative statements. But I did have one issue with "The Mormon Rebellion". There is simply too much information covered too quickly, and the story feels too big for one book. And while the details add up significantly, such as reports made, surveys measured, meetings held, letters sent, reinforcements assembled, supplies raided, sermons delivered, wagons burned, policies ignored, murders covered-up, and federals ran out of town, I simply wanted more. It seemed that the narrative approach was more of a top down political history and didn't take more time to tell the human side of the historical moment (though in all fairness there are a few moments recounted in which the human story takes precedent, such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre). I wished the authors had the luxury of letting the story unfold with more personal background, and expand on moments only briefly dealt with. I would like a multi-volume work a la Shelby Foote. Will somebody please get on that?

In conclusion, while people will agree or disagree with the authors' claims, one simply cannot ignore this new work. "The Mormon Rebellion" is essential reading on the Utah war and will become a touchstone for further studies. It will provoke, make you think, inspire questions, answer a few, but most importantly create a world long past worth remembering.

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