Wednesay’s Book Review: “The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois”

Nauvoo Legion in IllinoisThe Nauvoo Legion in Illinois: A History of the Mormon Militia, 1841-1846. By Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Donald Q. Cannon. Norman, OK: The Arthur H. Clark Company, An imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press, 2010. 436 pp. Illustrations, tables, acknowledgments, appendices, bibliography, index. ISBN: 978-0-87062-382-0. $39.95 Hardcover with dust jacket.

The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois by Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Donald Q. Cannon is overall a fine work of history. No question but that the story of the Nauvoo Legion is important to understanding the Mormon experience in Illinois, and it is surprising that no one has 060sought to come to grips with it in any true measure before now. This is the first full-length historical study of the subject.

The Legion was one of the two legally-constituted bulwarks designed to defend the Mormons and preserve their order. The other was the Nauvoo city charter, which established a governmental structure that fostered the creation of a virtual city-state by the Mormons in Illinois in the early 1840s. This is an exceptionally important topic and the authors have done more than anyone else to record the Legion’s origins, structure, and use. As such it is a very helpful and important study in early Mormon history.

As a measure of dearth in serious historical research and writing on this subject, when John Hallwas and I edited the collection, Kingdom on the Mississippi Revisited: Nauvoo in Mormon History (Illinois, 1996), we were forced to include Hamilton Gardner’s article on the Nauvoo Legion published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society in 1961simply because nothing else of substance existed. It was as if the “New Mormon History” had completely ignored the issue of Mormon militarism in Nauvoo. Accordingly, I am pleased to see this work help to fill that void. Of course, that begs the question, why has so little appeared on this subject? I think it might be because of the militant nature of Nauvoo Legion and its role in the history of Mormon Nauvoo. Perhaps Joseph Smith III said it best in his memoirs: “Looking back along the pathway, I feel it was a pity that such a [martial] spirit crept in among them, however, and a still greater one that the leading minds of the church partook of it” (“The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith (1832-1914),” Saints’ Herald 82 (Jan. 1, 1935): 15-16).

Established as an official arm of the Illinois state militia in 1840, the Nauvoo Legion at its peak had some 2,500 troops. It was organized into two regiments (called cohorts) of infantry and one regiment of cavalry and even had light cannon associated with it. Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet, assumed leadership of the Legion and boasted that his rank of lieutenant general made him the highest ranking officer in the U.S. (the commanding general of the U.S. Army at the time was a major general, never mind that Smith’s was a militia rank rather than regular army). Other senior officials in the Mormon Church also served in high positions in the Legion.

The Mormons took their militia unit quite seriously, and the impressive number of their troops, the acquisition of weapons from the state arsenal, and the amount and enthusiasm of their public drills thrilled the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo but terrified the non-Mormons in the vicinity.

For the Latter-day Saints the Legion promised protection after the conflict in Missouri. They argued that the Legion “will enable us to perform our military duty by ourselves, and thus afford us power, and privilege, of avoiding one of the most fruitful sources of strife, oppression, and collision with the world” (Times and Seasons, Jan. 15, 1841). Contrast that with the perspective of the non-Mormons who saw this as a powerful army, well-equipped and trained, and under the control of theocratic control rather than secular government, and they feared it. For example, the Nauvoo Legion marched in a triumphant show on April 6, 1841, in which Joseph Smith laid the cornerstones for the Nauvoo Temple. Those witnessing the festivities from afar registered fear that this well-armed, expertly-drilled, and religiously-enthused organization might be used to force Smith’s will on those not of the movement.

Thomas C. Sharp, the non-Mormon editor of the nearby Warsaw Signal who visited Nauvoo for the event, dated his opposition to the church from that display. The military power exhibited on that occasion terrified Sharp, who went back to Warsaw with the impression that the Mormons were a warmongering horde that would decimate the region.

This is a complex story, one still not fully rendered in this study. But even so, the authors of The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois have made an important step in interpreting the militarism that the Legion’s existence demonstrates. They emphasize that the Legion was created as a defensive organization, and was rarely used for attack. Of course, it was certainly a deterrent, but that also meant that it was also a constant source of tension in Western Illinois, even if not employed to kill people and break things. It sent a clear message, much as other powerful military forces have done in other times and circumstances; don’t mess with this group of people.

While this is a fine contribution to history, there is one element that the authors might have explored more thoroughly. The place of militarism in Mormonism is a theme that has not received sufficient treatment. Everywhere the Mormons went during their earliest history conflict arose, some of it brought on by their actions and some not. But this religious movement was never pacificistic and always responded to difficulties with swords and gunshots. In Jackson County, Missouri, in the early 1830s violence erupted and shots were exchanged and people died. In 1834 Joseph Smith sent a military expedition to fight the Missourians, with disastrous consequences. In 1838 Mormon vigilantes engaged in a conflict in western Missouri, and then church leaders followed that with a desperate all-out uprising against the state militia. The Nauvoo Legion was a continuation, as well as a response, to this history of violence. And there would be other altercations, with associated loss of life, later in the church’s history. The place of militarism in the Mormon tradition is a fascinating area for exploration. Perhaps further work will be forthcoming on this aspect of Mormon history from these authors. It would be a welcome development.

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