Fall 1993, Volume 10.3
Camp Floyd and the Mormons: The Utah War by Donald Moorman with Gene A. Sessions. Salt Lake City, UT: University of Utah Press, 1992,332 pp., $29.95 (cloth).
Reviewed by Larry C. Skogen, Department of History, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado
A Mormon friend once told me about a conversation between the Russian revolutionary Nikolai Lenin and an American visitor. The Bolshevik leader asked his guest to tell him about America's religion. The American quickly explained to Lenin that the United States had no religion per se, because in America there was a separation between church and state. However, Lenin, my friend tells me, insisted that America did have a religion: Mormonism. This story may be apocryphal, but it certainly does raise the question of whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints can be classified as the most American of America's religions. I will not enter that debate, but I will propose, and long-time Weber State University historian Donald Moorman aptly demonstrates, that the Mormon Church is inextricably connected to the history of the American West. In fact, Mormon history, after Brigham Young's decision to move his followers West, is as western as Kit Carson, George Custer, Wovoka, or Boeing Aircraft. Moorman's story is full of all those best qualities in Western history which keep enticing the American public back to that vast part of the country west of the Mississippi River. In short, Camp Floyd and the Mormons is a good western history.
Moorman's book, published posthumously, covers the three years from the Utah War-not really a war-to the beginning of the American Civil War-war at its worst. For a decade before the Utah War, Mormons had experienced overland westering; replicated their old Eastern societies in the harsh climes surrounding the Great Salt Lake; fought with and accommodated to their Indian neighbors; and profited from gold-seeking travelers passing through their beloved Deseret-all for one purpose: to create and maintain their own theocratic Zion. Civil, political, and religious power rested in the hands of Brigham Young and a few close advisors, and before the late 1850s the federal government left the Saints alone. But growing war clouds in the East, Moorman argues, persuaded President James Buchanan to send his army into Mormon country. "Utah would serve as a testing ground," Moorman writes, "to reassert federal control over a region claiming nominal independence from the Union" (17). Young realized very quickly that his Nauvoo Legion was no match for the invading United States Army commanded by General Albert Sidney Johnston. Meeting only token resistance, Johnston's army marched through Salt Lake City and established Camp Floyd. Three years later Johnston resigned from the army and rushed to join the Confederacy while federal troops dismantled the camp.
Moorman's interest is the impact these three years had on Mormon life. A nonMormon himself, Moorman does not hide his great affection and admiration for the Saints, or his empathy for their grief at the loss of Deseret with the federal invasion into Utah. "Like an unsheathed sword piercing the very heart of Mormonism," he writes, "(Camp Floyd] was an acknowledged symbol of federal authority in the Great Basin and reflected the enigmatic attitude of the American people towards the Mormons" (81). The fort and the federal power it represented challenged the church's hegemony over the Saint's affairs. Moreover, cutting to the very soul of Mormonism, the fort attracted society's worst elements, and they in turn corrupted Mormon men and women, causing both to become very unsaintly. Moorman's descriptions of life in and around the post are colorful and informative. Certainly he demonstrates his love affair with the central issue of his research life: Camp Floyd.
If there is a weakness in the book, however, it is that a prospective reader might pass over it thinking the subject too narrow. Unfortunately, as co-author Gene Sessions points out in his preface, this work is improperly named. It is about much more than Camp Floyd. In some chapters the post is of only tangential interest. There are chapters dedicated to overland travel, federal judicial officials, and Indian-white relations, all of which had little, if anything, to do with Camp Floyd. But Moorman admits, for Washington officials Camp Floyd "had to do with Mormons and not Indians" (217). His chapters on Indian affairs prove the policy-makers right. While reading this book I found it easy to forget Camp Floyd altogether. In fact, I found myself drawing comparisons between Camp Floyd and the Mormons and John D. Unruh's seminal work, The Plains Across. The depth of research in both books, the good old-fashioned narrative-style histories, and the authors' obvious passion for their subjects kept drawing me to the comparisons. Camp Floyd and the Mormons is about much more than either the camp or the Saints. Donald Moorman, with the help of Gene Sessions, has bequeathed us good western history.