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Author takes on ‘Utah War’

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William P. MacKinnon

William P. MacKinnon

Associated Press

He was a vice president of General Motors. He's a Presbyterian from upstate New York. But for 50 years, he's been on a long, strange trip that made him an authority on the 1857-58 "Utah War" between Mormons and the federal government.

Now at the war's 150th anniversary, William P. MacKinnon has the first of his new two-volume history of that war, "At Sword's Point," appearing in bookstores this month. He said documents discovered regarding the conflict will challenge some long-held views.

"It was not the stainless, righteous federal government putting down rebellion of nasty Mormons, as some think, and not the heroic Nauvoo Legion outwitting an Army sent by a doddering old man in the White House, as others think," he said. "It was not a one-dimensional, cartoonish, good guys vs. bad guys story."

For example, he says he found that Brigham Young ordered his troops to kill approaching U.S. Army officers and guides in some circumstances, contrary to tradition that he sought and achieved a largely bloodless war. MacKinnon said those orders, though never carried out specifically, apparently contributed to some murders.

And the Army, filled with future Civil War generals and heroes, may not have been very heroic or smart. Its one-time ranking commander on the trail even admitted in writing he had no idea what his mission was or what he was doing.

To examine MacKinnon's credibility and findings, it helps to understand his long journey into studying the Utah War. It began in 1958, when he was a sophomore majoring in history at Yale.

"I chose to write a senior essay that would approach the character of a Ph.D. dissertation," he said. In fact, it would exempt him from attending classes his last two years. "About 10 percent of the senior class graduated that way back then."

With much at stake, including graduation, he sought advice from his unofficial Yale mentor, Howard R. Lamar, whose class on Western Americana had thrilled him. Lamar was an authority on Utah's territorial period.

"He suggested the Utah War. I had never heard of it," MacKinnon said, adding that most people still know little or nothing about the "war."

The war occurred when President James Buchanan sent an Army to Utah amid reports that Mormons were in rebellion. From their perspective, Mormons believed old persecution had renewed and the Army would murder its leaders. Mormon raids helped strand the Army in Wyoming until negotiations could forestall major bloodshed.

"Yale had received a treasure trove of Western Americana documents from a donor in the 1940s, and had just finished cataloguing them in the mid-'50s. There was a vast supply of untapped material in there about the Utah War — letters, military orders and newspapers," MacKinnon said.

"I thought it would be a manageable project, dealing with only 15 months in 1857 and 1858," he said. "But I found it to be much more rich and complex than I thought."

He wrote his paper, which won a prize at Yale. A version of it was printed by the Utah Historical Quarterly. But instead of pursuing history as a profession, MacKinnon chose to attend graduate school in business at Harvard.

"But I spent weekends researching documents (Harvard) had" on the Utah War, he said. Later, when he started working for General Motors in New York, he spent free time in the New York City Public Library because he found it had papers from many officers who served in the Utah War.

"When I would find something new, I would knock out an article" for history journals, he said. He kept doing it through the years, even when he became a vice president at General Motors, and later still when he ran his own management consulting business.

"I haven't counted how many articles I have written (about the Utah War). But they have appeared in 30 to 35 journals," he said. Eventually, he was approached to write a history of the war. He said many of the documents he discusses in it are receiving their initial public unveiling as the first volume appears this month.

Among surprises, he said, are the orders he found by Brigham Young to kill U.S. Army officers first and then their guides if the Army passed beyond Fort Bridger toward Salt Lake City in the winter of 1857. "That changed earlier orders to shed no blood," he said.

The Army never advanced beyond Fort Bridger, so the orders became largely moot.

Among surprises on the federal side, MacKinnon said, is that the Army did not have a clear picture of its mission to Utah. He said Col. Edmund Alexander, who for a time commanded the Army on the trail to Utah, even put his concerns in writing. He later was replaced by Col. Albert Sydney Johnston.

"Col. Alexander confessed in writing that he had no idea why he was in Utah (Territory) and what he was supposed to be doing. He didn't even know who the commander (to replace him) was going to be," MacKinnon said. "It was an amazing admission."

MacKinnon said the Utah War is significant in part for how it shaped the Civil War. Scores of its participants would become generals and key figures for either the North or the South. "It also affected how Buchanan dealt with secession of the Southern states. After having been burnt badly in the snows of Utah, his willingness to use troops in South Carolina was minimal," MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon says he is amazed by the characters he found who participated in the war. "Many of them are almost stranger than fiction," he said.

They included Pvt. John Jerome Healy, who later coined the Canadian Royal Mounted Police unofficial motto ("The Mounty always gets his man"), founded the whiskey-soaked Fort Whoop-Up, participated in gold rushes in Alaska and Montana and became the model for a central figure in Jack London's first novel.

Another favorite of MacKinnon's is Charles H. Wilcken. "He's an ancestor of Mitt Romney," he said. "He won the Prussian Iron Cross before he came to the United States. ... He enlisted in 1857 as an immigrant because he could not find a job."

He deserted from the Army in Utah "because he thought it was full of slackers and had poor discipline," MacKinnon said. Wilcken not only went over to the Mormon side, but converted to the LDS Church.

"Wilcken became a coachman, bodyguard, nurse and pallbearer for LDS Church Presidents John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff, as well as an adopted son of apostle George Q. Cannon. It's a great story," MacKinnon said.

The historian also likes the strange interwoven fortunes of Samuel Spear, who was a sergeant major in Utah, and Rooney Lee, an officer. (Lee was the son of Confederate commander Robert E. Lee and had dropped out of Harvard to enlist for the Utah War). During the Civil War, "Spear, as a Union lieutenant colonel, captured Rooney Lee as a Confederate major general. They recognized each other from Utah," MacKinnon said.

MacKinnon said he hopes his long trip into the Utah War will help people realize that even somewhat obscure history "can be fascinating, and is more than dull memorization of facts. This is an unbelievably colorful story."

While his two-volume history will approach 1,000 pages, he said he still considers his work as "only the tip of the iceberg. There is material all over this country and Europe still waiting to be discovered. I found some wonderful letters again just two weeks ago. ... I hope it will make people start digging into their own family records."

E-mail: lee@desnews.com