I’m pleased to share this excellent review of Bill MacKinnon’s At Sword’s Point, written by David H. Miller and appearing in The Journal of Arizona History, vol. 51 no. 2 (Summer 2010), 176-77, a publication of the Arizona Historical Society. Bill is a longtime friend and colleague who has guest posted at Keepa several times. David H. Miller, until his recent retirement, was a professor of history at Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma. His areas of expertise include the military expeditions of Edward J. Steptoe (1854-55) and Joseph C. Ives (1857-58), both of which had significance in Utah and Mormon history, and I understand that his current work involves the mid-19th century explorations of southern Utah and northern Arizona. His father, David E. Miller, was a prominent Utah historian and geographer.
Republished by kind permission of the editor, The Journal of Arizona History.
AT SWORD’S POINT, PART I: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858. By William P. MacKinnon. Norman: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 2008. Illus., maps, notes, biblio, index, 546 pages. ISBN 978-0-87062-353-0, $45.00 (hard-cover).
AT SWORD’S POINT is an absolutely wonderful book written by the leading authority on the Utah War. Little known outside Utah, where it is shrouded in folklore, the Utah War has been largely ignored by American historians, who have failed to integrate it into the larger fabric of events facing the nation in the years leading up to the Civil War. This documentary history is destined to change all that.
During the past five decades, MacKinnon, with great persistence, has scoured major archives and private collections across the country, unearthing a huge cache of original sources that were either unavailable or unknown when LeRoy Hafen compiled his Documentary History of the Utah Expedition some fifty years ago. He uses Hafen’s compilation as a starting point, keeping duplication of Hafen’s published documents to a minimum. MacKinnon’s reputation for fairness and balance resulted in his unprecedented access to the LDS Church archives in Salt Lake City. Of special significance are salient documents from Brigham Young’s papers, many published here for the first time. MacKinnon provides insightful introductions to each chapter, and carefully places each document in its proper historical context. His astute editorial comments are gracefully written, providing a wealth of information and making each set of documents more meaningful.
This is the first of a projected two-volume work. In this volume, MacKinnon covers the years from 1849 through 1857. As the author points out in Chapter One, the history of the origins of the Utah War is “a complex story … of a conflict nearly ten years in the making.” MacKinnon carefully documents Brigham Young’s reaction to the presence of federal officials in Utah beginning in 1849, as well as Young’s efforts to maintain an unsustainable autocratic Mormon theocracy during the 1850s. He chronicles Young’s defiance of federal authority, his inflammatory language and death threats, the public announcement of the practice of polygamy, the doctrine of blood atonement with its associated murders, and the legal abuses associated with the territory’s Mormon-dominated probate court system. He also dispels the myth that the Utah War was a bloodless conflict.
MacKinnon also provides much insight into the workings of the Buchanan administration, and documents with great detail the catalyst that precipitated Buchanan’s fateful decision, in March 1857, to send the army to Utah. He examines such issues as the impact of the adversarial relationship between General in Chief of the U.S. Army Winfield Scott and Secretary of War John Floyd, which resulted in poorly conceived and executed military operations. Under Young’s command, Utah’s territorial militia (Nauvoo Legion) utilized guerrilla tactics to bring the invading American army to a complete standstill in the remote mountains of northwestern Wyoming during the bitterly cold winter of 1857-58.
The war’s impact spread far beyond Utah. For example, rumors of a possible Mormon exodus from Utah into the pacific Northwest was a factor in Russia’s decision to sell Alaska to the United States, and helped induce the British to organize the Colony of British Columbia in 1858. The war even had an impact on Arizona. With the army stalemated in Wyoming in late 1857, the War Department gave serious consideration to establishing a second front from the pacific, ordering Lieut. Joseph Christmas Ives, who was encamped at Fort Yuma in January 1858, to steam up the Colorado to determine the practicality of utilizing the Colorado River below Grand Canyon as an invasion route to Utah.
In At Sword’s Point, MacKinnon has successfully placed the Utah War in its proper context as one of the major events facing the nation in the decade leading up to the Civil War. It is an outstanding work.