Friday, December 31, 2010

Book Review: Gettysburg to Great Salt Lake

Gettysburg to Great Salt Lake: George R. Maxwell, Civil War Hero and Federal Marshall among the Mormons
By John Gary Maxwell

Gettysburg to Great Salt Lake by John Maxwell strives to provide a biographical account of George Maxwell and a “different voice” in studying of 19th century Utah history.(p. 27) John Maxwell does this through primary sources and the best of secondary scholarship. While he does provide a detailed biography of George Maxwell’s life, his “different voice” suffers from an extremely biased analysis and several analytical lapses.

The first section describes George Maxwell’s service during the American Civil War. Using Civil War historians and major biographers John Maxwell provided an excellent narrative of his service. But while he did point out the devastating human cost of war, the majority of his account provided a near hagiographic treatment of George Maxwell’s career. Throughout the account George Maxwell is bravely attacking, defending, regrouping, and withstanding multiple injuries. While bravery in facing enemy fire is a worthy trait, it would have been more useful to John Maxwell’s study if he asked whether this Civil War veteran had emotional scars that equaled his many physical wounds.

This is especially pertinent as we examine George Maxwell’s career among the Mormons in Salt Lake City. In order for his “different voice” to work, John Maxwell must cast the Mormons as implacable religious terrorists. George Maxwell in turn becomes the dedicated, outnumbered lawman who charges into the problem as bravely and nobly as his cavalry charges from the Civil War. But this narrative is as one sided as the account presented in John Maxwell’s fifth chapter. This is an important part of the book where John Maxwell describes the competing narratives in Utah history. These both take the same events but presents alternative narratives from the Mormon and anti Mormon camp. Unfortunately, John Maxwell then moves away from the two sided view and presents his one sided analysis of events.

For example, John Maxwell mentions George Maxwell’s participation in the “Gentile League”. This was a semi secret and semi militant society designed to counter the power of the Mormon Church. Yet John Maxwell often portrayed the Mormons in sinister terms due to their supposed secret and nefarious murders inspired by the Mormon hierarchy; and he negatively mentioned the Mormons supposed secret police, the Danites, and the former bodyguards of Joseph Smith. This double standard extended to his presentation of primary sources. Where those from the explicitly anti Mormon Salt Lake Tribune are presented without comment, and he often included a negative modifier when he introduced a quote from the pro Mormon Daily Herald.

This bias came to a head in chapter 12 where it took this reader almost the entire chapter to figure out that George Maxwell had been charged and convicted of embezzlement leading to his removal as marshal. This was so hard to determine because John Maxwell spent the entire chapter in a vast apologia for Maxwell from such unimpeachable (to the author) sources as the Salt Lake Tribune. And the author spent the chapter praising George Maxwell and condemning his accusers. In the final chapter John Maxwell again blames Mormon hyperbole for the friction with the marshal, yet it was the Justice Department and Attorney General of the United States that prompted his removal.

Biographical history is difficult and John Maxwell did a valiant job of presenting George Maxwell the man. While the primary and secondary sources were excellent, I believe in many cases they were improperly used and the narrative suffered due to the bias of the author. After an excellent discussion of the dangers of doing Mormon history, I was especially disappointed at the apparent bias in outlining George Maxwell’s career. It is possible to describe George Maxwell as a bitter, angry, and implacable foe of the Mormon church with his difficulties arising from the unresolved emotional trauma of the Civil War and the insular nature of the Mormon church. Instead, one side wore the white hats and the other wore the black hats, and the almost hagiographic treatment of George Maxwell continued. Despite those flaws, a cautious reader will still find a great deal of value and find this an important book for 19th century Utah history.


Padre Wells said...

I suppose it can be difficult to find that ones ancestors had feet of clay.Must be the Mormon's fault.

Jettboy said...

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