Nauvoo Legion

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Gen. Joseph Smith addressing the Nauvoo Legion (painting).

The Nauvoo Legion was a state authorized militia of the city of Nauvoo, Illinois. With growing antagonism from surrounding settlements it came to have as its main function the defense of the city of Nauvoo, Illinois, and surrounding Latter Day Saint areas of settlement. To curry political favor with the Saints, the Illinois state legislature granted Nauvoo a liberal city charter that gave the Nauvoo Legion extraordinary independence. Led by Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement and mayor of Nauvoo, the Legion quickly became a formidable concentration of military power in the American West. In 1844, after a controversy stemming from the Nauvoo city council's suppression of a Nauvoo newspaper critical of Smith and his church's policies, Smith mobilized the Legion and declared martial law. Arrested for treason, Smith was assassinated by a mob. Soon thereafter, the Nauvoo charter was revoked, and the Nauvoo Legion lost its official sanction as an arm of the Illinois militia.

After the revocation of the Nauvoo Charter, the unsanctioned Nauvoo Legion continued to operate under the command of Brigham Young, leader of the movement's largest faction, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Young led the Latter-day Saints to what later became the Territory of Utah. In Utah the Territorial militia used the name of Nauvoo Legion. It was mobilized in opposition to the United States Army during the Utah War. It was permanently disbanded in 1887 as part of the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which disincorporated the LDS Church as part of Congress's efforts to punish it for its practice of polygamy.


In 1839, Joseph Smith relocated his followers from a hostile environment in Missouri to Commerce, Illinois which he renamed Nauvoo. Voter-conscious Illinois Democrats and Whigs (including Abraham Lincoln) passed a bipartisan city-state charter for Nauvoo in 1840. On December 16 the governor signed it into law, granting Smith and the city of Nauvoo broad powers. Among these was the authority to create a "body of independent militarymen". This force was a militia similar to others in Illinois, and it became known as the "Nauvoo Legion". At its peak, the militia had, by conservative estimates, at least 2,500 troops, in comparison to the approximately 8,500 troops within the entire United States Army as of 1845.[1] The Legion was organized into two regiments (called cohorts) of infantry and one regiment of cavalry. A few light cannons were also attached.

The Legion tended to be very top-heavy, in that there was a disproportionate number of high-ranking officers to regular soldiers. Supposedly, this was to elevate the social status and official standing of some members of the city.[citation needed]

The Legion was able to draw on Federal stands of arms. The most common musket issued to these militiamen was the Model 1816 Musket. This flintlock musket was an American built copy of the French 1777 Charleville musket. Also, the Harper's Ferry Model 1803 Rifle was issued in smaller quantities. Personal arms were also used. A small artillery piece, a mountain gun, was also issued. It was nicknamed the "Old Sow" and is on display at the Church Museum of History in Salt Lake City.

The Nauvoo Legion
Joseph Smith marshalling the Nauvoo Legion

Although the charter authorizing the Nauvoo Legion created an independent militia, it could be used at the disposal of the state governor or the President of the United States as well as for the mayor of Nauvoo. Joseph Smith himself was Nauvoo's second mayor, and the Nauvoo court martial also appointed him as highest-ranking officer of the Legion, a Lieutenant General. This rank is one step above Major General which most contemporary militias employed as their commanding rank. One motive for the higher rank was to prevent Smith from being tried in a court martial by officers of lesser rank. In 1837 the Missouri militia had contemplated a court martial against Smith, an action that might have been illegal had it been carried out, as Smith was only a civilian at that time.

In the last month of his life, June 1844, Smith declared martial law in Nauvoo in response to various civil disturbances and initially deployed the Legion to defend the city, only to restrain the Legion from any action later. He urged Legion members to not take any action when the Illinois governor ordered Smith's arrest. The Mormon leader surrendered at Carthage jail, and was supposed to be under the protection of Governor Ford and the Carthage Greys, the militia of the neighboring city. However, on June 27, 1844, members of the Carthage Greys joined a mob that stormed the jail and killed Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.

After the death of Joseph Smith

The Legion survived the loss of its commanding officer, and Brigham Young became the new commander of the militia in August, 1844, though he had never previously been active in Legion activities. Rather than employ the Legion to protect his people from increased mob violence, Young directed most of his followers to leave the city, and Illinois was abandoned by the Mormons entirely by September 17, 1846 after a week of artillery shelling called the "Battle of Nauvoo".

Upon revocation of the Nauvoo Charter in the winter of 1844-1845, the Legion was no longer recognized as a state militia, and its members returned the majority of its government-issued arms. Depleted of its official status, the Legion assumed a very minor role in future Church affairs after being reorganized in Iowa by Hosea Stout on September 22, 1846. It was never actively employed in defense of the Mormon people until the Utah War in which it served mainly to erect defenses and harass the federal army led by Gen Johnston.

In Utah

Some legionnaires served in the 500-man Mormon Battalion for the U.S. government in 1846 as part of its campaign against Mexico. However, the Nauvoo Legion itself resurfaced to prominence soon after Brigham Young led the first band of Mormons to Utah, then called Deseret, in 1847. Under territorial law, the Nauvoo Legion became the territorial militia in 1852 although it retained its name.

1849 conflicts with Native Americans in Utah County, such as the attack at Battle Creek, Utah, foreshadowed the 1853-1854 Walker War between the Nauvoo Legion and Indians led by Chief Walkara ("Walker"). Twenty servicemen and many more Native Americans died in the Walker War.

The Legion was used again in the Utah War against Federal troops entering Utah in the "Utah Expedition" from 1857-1858. They employed tactics of supply destruction and avoided direct fighting. Local commanders and members of the Iron County Militia, overcome with suspicion and war hysteria, perpetrated the Mountain Meadows Massacre against a group of wagon trains travelling from Arkansas to California in September. At this point Daniel H. Wells was the chief military commander of the militia. It was also under the auspices of the militia that the groups of men were organized who were instructed to burn down Salt Lake City and other parts of northern Utah should the invading army try to take up residence.

After this conflict, the Federal government appointed Utah's territorial governor, and the Nauvoo Legion was allowed to exist at the command of the governor. It however was not as cooperative in imposing the colonial regime as federal authorities would have liked.

During the American Civil War, federal troops either were withdrawn from Utah, or in many cases left to join the rebellion, Johnston who had led the invading federal army being among the later group. The Federal government made a reconciliatory approach to Brigham Young, requesting his help. With his permission, two units of the reorganized Nauvoo Legion were gainfully employed by the United States to protect western mail and telegraph lines from Indian attacks in what is today Utah and Wyoming, but saw no action. Neither the Legion nor any other Mormon troops participated in the main theaters of the war, and the Legion's involvement ended in 1862, after Congress had passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act.[2]

The Nauvoo Legion had sub-units organized in each of Utah's counties and functioned like most other state and territorial militias of the time.[3]

The final use of the Legion was in Utah's Black Hawk War 1865-1868 when over 2,500 troops were dispatched against Indians led by Antonga Black Hawk.[citation needed] (Antonga Black Hawk was a Ute and has no connection to the Illinois Sauk chief Black Hawk of the 1830s.) In 1870 the Utah Territorial governor, J. Wilson Shaffer forced the Legion inactive unless he ordered otherwise. Federal troops dispatched in response to the 1870 Ghost Dance ensured Shaffer's order was enforced. The Nauvoo Legion never gathered again, and the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act permanently disbanded it. In 1894, in anticipation of statehood, the non-sectarian Utah National Guard was organized as Utah's official state militia.[citation needed]

See also


  1. Allaman (1990, p. 11).
  2. Turner, John G. (1 May 2012), "The Mormons Sit Out the Civil War", The New York Times (online), Disunion: following the Civil War as it unfolded<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  3. |Andrew Jenson, LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, gives a person by person listing of the various local positions held in the legion, such as Hugh S. Gowans who in 1868 was elected adjutant of cavalry in a Tooelle County based Battalion of Cavalry of the Legion (Vol. 1, p. 355)


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