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At Sword’s Point, Part 1: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858

edited by William P. MacKinnon, Arthur H. Clark Co., Norman, Okla., 2008, $45.

The Utah War, according to William MacKinnon, was the “most extensive and expensive” U.S. military action in the period between the Mexican War and American Civil War. Yet the 1857–58 conflict (aka “Buchanan’s Blunder”), which pitted U.S. soldiers against Utah Territory’s Latter-day Saints, remains one of the most neglected affairs in history. MacKinnon does his best to remedy that in At Sword’s Point, Part 1: A Documentary History of the Utah War to 1858, the 10th volume in the Arthur H. Clark Company series Kingdom in the West: The Mormons and the American Frontier.

“The Utah War appeared to be a conflict with no pitched battles or even significant skirmishes, and almost nothing seemed to happen except much boastful blustering, a few colorful guerrilla raids on U.S. Army supply trains and an appalling atrocity,” notes historian and series editor Will Bagley in the foreword. Part 1 skims over that “appalling atrocity” —the Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 11, 1857—but Part 2 of the volume will address that slaughter of 120 emigrants in southern Utah.

Serving partly as editor, partly as writer, MacKinnon uses firsthand accounts from soldiers, civilians (men and women) and politicians on each side, as well as his own narrative, to provide an incredibly comprehensive, well-balanced and compelling examination of “a military campaign with far-reaching consequences: the near-depletion of the U.S. Treasury; the forced resignation of a secretary of war [John B. Floyd]; the bankruptcy of the nation’s largest freighting company [Russell, Majors and Waddell]; severe damage to the reputation of a president [James Buchanan] and his nerve for confronting Southern secession; the indictment of a church’s prophet [Joseph Smith Jr.] for treason and murder; the execution of his adopted son [John D. Lee] for mass murder; the Anglo rediscovery of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado; the organization of England’s Pacific Northwest possessions into the province of British Columbia; and Russia’s sale of Alaska.”


Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here