Utah and the American Civil War: The Written Record

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Utah and the American Civil War: The Written Record
Utah and the American Civil War: The Written Record
Editor Kenneth L. Alford
Norman: Arthur H. Clark Company, an imprint of University of Oklahoma Press, 2017

Utah and the American Civil War: The Written Record

Reviewer William P. MacKinnon

There are two schools of thought about Utah’s participation in the Civil War: it was de minimis, unworthy of comparison to the blood-soaked contributions of nearly all other American states and territories; or, it was larger than the size of its troop commitment to the Union Army and has a record more complex than is often understood. With this book, Utah and the American Civil War, Kenneth L. Alford is squarely in the latter camp, arguing that “the common belief that Utah Territory ‘sat out’ the Civil War is incorrect. Although the territory was removed from the war’s devastation and provided only one active-duty military unit  .  .  .  , the war deeply affected Utah and its inhabitants—from pioneers and Union soldiers stationed in Utah to the Native Americans they clashed with throughout the war” (15). What follows to support this assertion is a mammoth, 864-page collection of military documents, ancillary material, and analysis. Because of its clarity and orderliness, Alford’s study is unquestionably valuable to professional historians needing the details of what happened in Utah Territory during 1861–65, but the book also has merit for serious nonacademic readers. A wide range of students will find in these documents a useful, objective account of Utah’s role in the Civil War. Alford’s sense of balance is a good one to have alongside other recent narrative accounts by other historians who view Brigham Young’s leadership during both the Utah War and the national fratricide that soon followed in terms of conspiracy theories and unpatriotic motives.


There are two schools of thought about Utah’s participation in the Civil War: it was de minimis, unworthy of comparison to the blood-soaked contributions of nearly all other American states and territories; or, it was larger than the size of its troop commitment to the Union Army and has a record more complex than is often understood. With this book, Utah and the American Civil War, Kenneth L. Alford is squarely in the latter camp, arguing that “the common belief that Utah Territory ‘sat out’ the Civil War is incorrect. Although the territory was removed from the war’s devastation and provided only one active-duty military unit . . . , the war deeply affected Utah and its inhabitants—from pioneers and Union soldiers stationed in Utah to the Native Americans they clashed with throughout the war” (15). What follows to support this assertion is a mammoth, 864-page collection of military documents, ancillary material, and analysis. Alford is a native of Ogden, Utah; BYU professor of Church history and doctrine; retired army colonel; former West Point teacher; expert in large-scale data organization; and published authority on Utah’s involvement in the Civil War. As such, he was extraordinarily well equipped to assemble and lead the team of undergraduate and graduate students who grappled with a tsunami of documents to produce this user-friendly reference book.

Most of the official documents presented here have previously been published by the War Department during the decades straddling the turn of the twentieth century. The documents, however, were embedded in 128 volumes of military orders, telegrams, and letters bearing a title as cumbersome as their accessibility: The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. What Alford has done for readers interested primarily in the war’s role in the West and Utah may be summarized with three words: organization, focus, and context.

In a useful introduction and three opening chapters, the editor summarizes the history of Utah and the Civil War while describing what the Official Records (OR) are and how they were produced about 120 years ago. In another five hundred pages, chapter 4 presents the heart of the study—the OR documents relating primarily to Utah. Chapter 5, one of the more unique parts of the book, devotes two hundred pages to additional records related to wartime Utah that were inexplicably excluded from the OR. Through eight short appendices, Alford then provides aids that give additional context to the subject at hand. These aids include information on military terminology, geography, and the territory’s changing political boundaries. Enhancing the accessibility of all this information is Galen Schroeder’s excellent thirty-six-page index, a seemingly mundane section but one that is crucial for a documentary history of this scope and complexity.

In reviewing a different documentary history (a recently published volume of the Joseph Smith Papers), a historian described that rather dense study as “the researcher’s paradise and a casual reader’s nightmare.”1 I do not view Utah and the American Civil War this way. Because of its clarity and orderliness, Alford’s study is unquestionably valuable to professional historians needing the details of what happened in Utah Territory during 1861–65, but the book also has merit for serious nonacademic readers. A wide range of students will find in these documents a useful, objective account of Utah’s role in the Civil War. Alford’s sense of balance is a good one to have alongside other recent narrative accounts by other historians who view Brigham Young’s leadership during both the Utah War and the national fratricide that soon followed in terms of conspiracy theories and unpatriotic motives.

—William P. MacKinnon


1. Ryan D. Davis, review of Documents, Volume 4: April 1834–September 1835, edited by Matthew C. Godfrey and others, Journal of Mormon History 43, no. 3 (July 2017): 187.