Mormons, the Civil War and the Utah War

By R. Scott Lloyd

Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 7 2011 2:00 a.m. MDT

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

R. Scott Lloyd, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

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.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere