Friday, April 1, 2011

Book Review: The Mormon Rebellion, America's First Civil War 1857-1858

The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War, 1857-1858
David L. Bigler and Will Bagley
University of Oklahoma Press
April 2011
384 Pages

[This is cross posted at The Association of Mormon Letters, link forthcoming]

The Mormon Rebellion: America’s First Civil War 1857-1858 by David Bigler and Will Bagley seeks to resurrect the major causality of the war, “the truth” (p.X). They do this by revising the perception of the War as “Buchanan’s Blunder” and placing the blame squarely on Brigham Young’s delusional and overzealous lust for power. The authors use an impressive array of primary and secondary sources and crisp prose but their simplistic analysis, false dichotomy, and extremely tendentious arguments make the work of dubious value to historians and interested parties.

The authors start their narrative with the first negative reports from federal officials stationed in Utah in 1851. They spend several more chapters detailing Mormon defiance of federal authorities, their relations with the Indians, and their attempts to gain statehood. What they notoriously left out are the detailed reasons for the Mormon flight to the Great Salt Lake Basin and a nuanced account of the character of Federal officials and their interaction with Mormon leaders. The book spends a chapter on the Mountain Meadows Massacre that largely fails to comment on the extensive new research presented by Turley et al.

The authors spend several chapters on the conduct of the war. These chapters benefit from extensive journals of combatants on both sides and the Nauvoo Legion records. They follow that with an uneven account of the first federal officials to return to the valley and the actions of the U.S. army. The epilogue argues that the war ended with the death of Brigham Young in 1877.

But the problem with their narrative starts early on. The chance to understand the Mormon position is squandered by the authors’ dismissing the description of Mormon concerns over their repeated past mistreatment as their “obligatory litany”, “propaganda” or manufactured sympathy (see for example, p. 148, 292). One of the fundamental principles taught in history 101 is that you need to understand as much as you can the participant’s point of view and not simply judge the morality of their behavior. The authors not only dismiss the Mormon point of view but start out by comparing this event to 9/11 on page XI; then the authors dismiss relative examples of frontier violence that could have provided context for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and don’t even mention contemporary Utopian or Millennial societies that would have again provided crucial additional context. They fail to discuss other possible factors that motivated Brigham Young’s decisions. This lack of context makes the events in the book even more sensational and gives the uninitiated a rather skewed picture of 1850s Utah.

In addition to lacking context, the authors rely upon a false dichotomy. Starting in the first chapter the Mormons are “zealots” while the President has “selfless ambition”(p.3). The Mormons, and especially Brigham Young are presented as “schemers” (p.12), “bitter”(p.22), witch burners (p. 94), “Orwellian” (p.5), delusional (p.144), fanatic (p.159), weasels (p.209), ungrateful guests (p.180), menacing (p.272), dirty and sinister (p.324). While the Mormon opponents are presented by the authors as “selfless” (p.3), deserving “praise” (p.9), typically courageous (p. 152), determined peace makers (p.180), “hospitable” (p.197) and “most perfect” (p.324). Anybody who sympathized with the Mormons was presented as a buffoon or dupe such as Thomas Kane and Alfred Cummings.

In short, the lack of context, the simplistic analysis, and the false dichotomies led to an extremely partisan account. This partisanship was reflected in the sources used in the narrative. For example the superbly written account that set that standard for history of Mountain Meadows from historians Turley et al. verify Brigham Young’s letter that ordered the militia to stand down. Yet the authors side step the current research and arguments to liberally cut and paste from a hyper partisan secondary source from 60 years ago (p.178). They lace every word of Brigham Young with evil intent, including something as innocuous as a peace offering to soldiers short on salt (p.212).

In addition, the authors stated claim is to destroy the Mormon mythology surrounding these events. Thus it seemed rather hypocritical for the authors to use myth and legend to destroy myth and legend. The rumor Brigham Young “poisoned” an Indian chief is seemingly presented because it fits their bias and not on the strength of the source (p.79). In the events preceding the Mountain Meadows Massacre the authors accept a grotesque legend attributed Albert Smith with little dissenting commentary (p. 158). Legends of Lot Smith are used because it matches the author’s view of Mormons as “zealous” fanatics (p.212). Severely biased descriptions of Thomas Kane are used to discredit him and present the army in a better light.

Finally, the authors missed several opportunities to study a unique chapter of American military history. This was the largest operation between the Mexican and Civil Wars. It featured several future stars in the Civil War including General Johnston leading the operation and the potential commander of the operation Robert E. Lee. The regular army faced logistical difficulties and challenges from guerilla warfare. They also had to occupy a population that was extremely nervous of Federal power at best and often openly challenging of it. Then this society has to reconstruct itself in the face of federal power with significant local discord. Yet there was scant discussion from the authors about the U.S. armies’ attempts at solving any of the above problems and the possible lessons it taught them there were applied in the Civil War. And in at least one case, the adoption of infamous order 11 by General Grant targeting Jews, the authors could have used military history to add additional context and legitimacy to Mormon fears of oppression at the hands of the U.S. Army. One wishes the authors would have spent a few less pages portraying Brigham Young as a boogey man a few more pages that provided relevant historical analysis and context.

In conclusion, the authors’ research was superb but their analysis failed to provide the proper nuance required of the complex emotions of 1857 Utah and their outrageously biased dichotomy leading to a tendentious use of sources makes this a book that fails to present “the truth” and one I cannot recommend to any kind of historian or member of the church.

Update: I've received some push back on my opinions here and noticed several typos. You can find my follow up here.


Polly Aird said...

I'm trying to find where in "The Mormon Rebellion" the authors perpetuate the rumor that BY poisons an Indian chief. You give it as on p. 79. Can't find anything there.

Morgan Deane said...

Thanks for the question. You can find two discussioins of poisoning on pages 60-61 and 236-238. The particular chief I am referring to is "Walker" found at the bottom of 60 and top of 61. The topic is revisited in 236-38 as the authors try to prove the sinister motives of Brigham Young.

I obviously disagreed with your review on BCC but enjoyed it nevertheless. Thanks again for stopping by.

Morgan Deane said...

See page 65: "Rumor, accepted by many as fact, was that the chief had been poisoned on order of Brigham Young."