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Mormons, the Civil War and the Utah War

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William P. MacKinnon is an independent historian from Montecito, Calif., and immediate past president of the Mormon History Association.

William P. MacKinnon is an independent historian from Montecito, Calif., and immediate past president of the Mormon History Association.

R. Scott Lloyd, Deseret News

As the nation this year observes 150 years since the eruption of the Civil War, one historian is reflecting on the reasons for the Utah Territory's minimal involvement in the conflict, probably due largely to the impact of the "Utah War" of 1856-57, what some consider the nation's first civil war.

William P. MacKinnon, an independent historian from Montecito, Calif., and immediate past president of the Mormon History Association, is scheduled to address a plenary session of the annual Utah State History Conference at Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City on Saturday.

A Presbyterian by faith and a former General Motors executive by profession, MacKinnon is the author of "At Sword's Point, Part I, a Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858."

In a paper prepared for presentation at the Fort Douglas conference, MacKinnon told of a rather bold offer made in October 1861 to President Abraham Lincoln by a Mormon, James Arlington Bennet.

A cemetery developer in Brooklyn, N.Y., who had earlier served as running mate to Joseph Smith in his campaign for the United States presidency, Bennet wrote: "Will your Excellency accept from one to ten thousand Mormons to be mustered into the service to the U. States to fight for our glorious U. & Constitution?"

Though the offer might have seemed a godsend to Lincoln, who was in urgent need of troops at the time, the U.S. president did not respond to Bennet's offer.

"The 'why' of Lincoln's unilateral decision to ignore this proposition is murky," MacKinnon reflected. "Perhaps from his highly developed political instincts, the president realized that James Arlington Bennet's vision of brigades of Latter-day Saints was a non-credible pipe dream spawned in Brooklyn from the rich fantasy life of an erratic, aging, former Mormon insider-outsider."

But Lincoln was also wary of seeking large-scale troop commitments from Utah Territory's official and informal leaders, MacKinnon said, likely because of lingering ill will from the Mormons' recent confrontation with the government.

"Though there was a significant amount of military activity in and around Utah during 1861-65, the territory, its civil-religious leaders and its military age-men played virtually no part" in the Civil War.

The only exception to this generalization, MacKinnon said, was the service of Lot Smith and his 100-man federal cavalry company raised in Utah during the spring of 1862. Their role was to protect the trail and telegraph line in present-day southwestern Wyoming between Fort Bridger and Fort Laramie until other regiments could arrive.

But their service lasted only 90 days. An effort to re-enlist them, and even to recruit more extensively in the territory, was discouraged by the territorial governor, Stephen S. Harding, a Lincoln appointee.

Consequently, MacKinnon said, the Lincoln administration recruited troops elsewhere for the balance of the war.


"The short answer," MacKinnon said, "is that Utah Territory under Brigham Young's unofficial leadership had, in effect, opted out of the Civil War. Beyond his key, early role in raising Lot Smith's single company of three months men, President Young was unwilling for Utah to contribute to the war effort. As I see it, he had two main reasons for this decision — the first religiously oriented and the other emotional."

Brigham Young felt that the American Civil War was not a Mormon conflict, MacKinnon said. He and his followers viewed the war "as God-given retribution or punishment for Mormon persecution" perhaps with the Mormons intervening near the end of the conflict to save the country and Constitution in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ

Moreover, President Young felt resentment toward the federal government due to the recent Utah War and the subsequent federal military occupation of the territory.

"In my view, what took place in Utah during 1857-58 — obscure as it now is — was the single biggest factor in shaping Utah's unique Civil War involvements a few years later," he said.

He characterized the Utah War as "a struggle for power and authority in Utah — 10 years in the making — between the territory's civil-religious leadership headed by Gov. Brigham Young and the federal administration of President James Buchanan."

It resulted in Utah's territorial militia, the Nauvoo Legion, being pitted against almost one-third of the U.S. Army, "the Utah Expedition," sent by Buchanan to replace Brigham Young as territorial governor.

The advance of the army was resisted before it could enter the territory, due largely to the actions of Mormon soldiers under Lot Smith, effectively buying time to negotiate a peace between the federal troops and the Mormons. At the time Lincoln took office in March 1861, the army's largest garrison was encamped in the desert 40 miles southwest of Salt Lake City.

For many of the actors involved, "the Utah War was a foundational experience, if not an epiphany," MacKinnon said.

"At the extremes one finds that among the Nauvoo Legions' leaders and private soldiers were men destined to be the second through the sixth presidents of the LDS Church, while among the Utah Expedition's officers a captain of artillery and an infantry lieutenant did their duty oblivious to their roles to come as, first, Civil War generals and then presidential candidates in 1880."

In an interview, MacKinnon was careful to note that, although the Brigham Young and the Mormons in the territory distanced themselves from the Civil War, there were Latter-day Saints living elsewhere — say Illinois or Missouri — who participated on both the Union and the Confederate sides. It's an extremely small number, though, that historians have not been able to pin down.

For more information on the conference, to http://history.utah.gov/historical_society/annual_meeting/index.html

Email: rscott@desnews.com