Just prior to the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Illinois governor Thomas Ford recalled the state weapons that had been issued to the Nauvoo Legion in 1840. Although Ford later claimed, in his History of Illinois, that “there was no evidence in the quartermaster-general’s office of the number and description of arms with which the Legion had been furnished,” he determined from Wilson Law, a Mormon apostate who had recently commanded the Legion, that the “Legion had received three pieces of cannon and about two hundred and fifty stand of small arms.”1 One of the more valuable original documents of the Nauvoo era, a tally of arms and troop strength for half of the Legion, titled “General Return of the Second Cohort or Brigade of the Nauvoo Legion of the Illinois Militia for the Year 1843,” has resurfaced a century and a half later in the holdings of Southern Utah University’s Special Collections.
No precise record of provenance for this document is available, but it was apparently acquired by SUU in the early 1960s. Glen Leonard first noted this document in his research on Nauvoo. It was brought to light publicly in 1989 during a manuscripts cataloguing project in a collection of mid–twentieth century biographies and clippings.
This document, probably compiled in the opening days of 1844 as part of a full annual report of the local militia to the state capital, provides a contemporaneous look at the actual structure and materiel strength of the popularly feared Mormon militia, the Nauvoo Legion.2 The “General Return” reveals a different picture from the artistic renditions of this unit as a splendidly attired, well-trained, and amply equipped fighting force.
To date, little has been published on the Legion and its function in Nauvoo beyond well-known accounts of particular actions.3 Scholarly publications have typically treated the Legion or its members only as background to other issues.
The Nauvoo Legion first existed as an unofficial militia force. It came into official existence in 1840 under the provisions of Section 25 of the Nauvoo charter that was enacted by the Illinois legislature on December 16 of that year.4 As a delegated agency of Illinois, the Nauvoo Legion was permitted to receive public arms from the state arsenal. Officers in militia units were popularly elected and then commissioned as agents of the state. By July 1841, the Legion’s two brigade-size “cohorts” had been organized to the extent that the First Cohort (“horse troops” or cavalry) numbered at least two regimental staffs and six companies, and the Second Cohort (“foot troops” or infantry) numbered five regimental staffs and as many as sixteen companies. One of the infantry regiments had been reorganized into an artillery unit.5 It is interesting to note that Church leaders chose to give a Roman image to their militia by calling Nauvoo’s division-size force a legion and its two brigade-size organizations cohorts.6
Almost immediately after the issuance of the charter, non-Mormons in the surrounding area voiced concern over the existence of the Legion. In April and May 1841, Legion officers, attempting to calm the situation, hastened to declare that the Legion was not a threat. Stephen A. Douglas was asked to review and comment on the charter. His supportive report to Major General John C. Bennett, second-in-command of the Nauvoo Legion, was incorporated with a general order dated May 4, 1841, and signed by Lieutenant General Joseph Smith, which stated:
The Legion is not, as has been falsely represented by its enemies, exclusively a “Mormon” military association, but a body of citizen soldiers, organized (without regard to political preferences or religious sentiments) for the public defense, the general good, and the preservation of law and order. . . . No other views are entertained or tolerated. . . .
. . . The militia companies of Hancock county, and citizens generally, are respectfully invited to unite with the Legion, and partake of its privileges.”
Later in the same order, Smith stated that “the officers and troops of the Legion are directed to treat with proper respect and decorum, all other officers and troops in the service of this state, or of the United States.” Nevertheless, they clearly intended to defend their city and themselves “against misrule, anarchy, and mob violence.”7 Thus, while the Saints were striving to be conciliatory, they were also seeking to control the county’s existing militia structure to preclude a recurrence of the violence experienced three years earlier at the hands of the Missouri militia.
As tabulated in the “General Return,” the Second Cohort of five regiments was overseen by a general staff under the direction of a brigadier, whose staff of ten consisted of a brigade major, quartermaster, aides-de-camp, commissary, surgeon, and five chaplains, who probably were further assigned to the five regiments. Within the cohort, the troop strength of each regiment varied, but the officer corps was identical for each (with one exception as noted below). Each regiment was commanded by a colonel, who was assigned a headquarters staff that included a lieutenant colonel, major, quartermaster sergeant, and sergeant major. The regimental officer complement also included six captains and six each of first, second, and third lieutenants (excepting the “2nd Reg. Rifle,” which had only five of each, and the “3rd Reg. Rifle,” which had an additional quartermaster and surgeon).
The numbers of noncommissioned officers and private soldiers varied. In the five regiments reported on the “General Return,” the number of sergeants and corporals varied from 23 to 28 and 16 to 27, respectively. The Fourth Rifle and Fifth Infantry Regiments had nine pioneers between them, and the First Artillery and Third Rifle Regiments shared the cohort’s seven musicians. The greatest disparity occurred among the corps of privates. In rank order, the five regiments of the Second Cohort included 195, 257, 388, 230, and 272 men. The Nauvoo Legion’s Second Cohort thus totaled 1,751 men, of which 159 were line officers and members of the general staff.
No mention is made in this document of organization at battalion or company levels, although it is apparent that counts of captains and lieutenants correspond to companies, which probably numbered twenty-nine as of the date of the return.8
Although the Second Cohort’s aggregate strength of 1,751 in 1843 is revealing—the entire Legion had numbered 1,490 “pretty well disciplined troops” on September 11, 18419—few solid conclusions or extrapolations can be drawn from this data. At first look these numbers appear to be surprisingly low, but in actuality they may fairly correspond with estimates of the total Nauvoo population at the time. That is, if in late 1843, Nauvoo had a population of about 10,000–12,000,10 then a militia of able-bodied men would have been limited to about 3,000—estimated numbers that would be at least roughly consistent with a military force of two brigades, each numbering in the vicinity of 1,500 men yet totalling well below the traditional number of 5,000 men the Mormons were assumed to have fielded. Population estimates are complex, and militia records are at best incomplete; but without question, all able-bodied men of Nauvoo between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, with few exceptions, were required by law to serve in the Legion.11 Therefore, if an accurate estimate of the total number of Mormon men between eighteen and forty-five can be made, that total should approximate the potential size of the Legion.
Unfortunately, the “General Return” is merely a tabulation. Other than the name of the reporting brigade major, John Bills, no other names are given on the document besides “Scriptist” Thomas Bullock, Joseph Smith’s secretary, who signed the docket. The document tabulates only the line strength of the Second Cohort and therefore does not list the officers of the lieutenant general’s divisional (legion) headquarters staff. However, the tabulations of officers correspond closely to the enumerations listed on another document (also given at the end of this article), titled Rank Roll of the Nauvoo Legion, a broadside roll printed in Nauvoo (dating probably to mid-May 1842) that listed officers in the order of seniority by commission dates.12
The general picture of the Nauvoo Legion at the close of 1843 extrapolated from the details given in the “General Return” and the Rank and Roll is one of a militia staffed from the top down, with a popular levy that filled in the ranks of corporals and private soldiers.13 To this extent, the return well corroborates other evidence. Although it indicates that the Legion could put forces of multicompany size into the field, it also indicates that much of the staffing, particularly at legion and brigade level, anticipated substantial further mobilization if a serious threat arose. Further, the high ranks and large and showy unit designations may have been intended to impress local citizens that Nauvoo was serious about defending itself. Thus, this civilian militia in early 1844 seems to have been organized but not fully mobilized, and its rank and file members had probably not moved far beyond basic drill commands.
Another value of the “General Return” lies in its explicit tabulation of arms. In early May 1841, as state quartermaster general, Bennett advised the Legion to apply immediately for an issue of public arms, stating that most available weapons had been distributed and that further applications would be filled in the order received. Consequently, the Legion received a very small issue of arms soon after it was organized.14 In September 1843, Legion commander Joseph Smith appointed W. W. Phelps, Henry Miller, and Hosea Stout to ask the governor for more equipment.15 That additional arms were delivered cannot be verified by evidence at hand.
The increasingly tense situation in Hancock County was complicated late in 1843, probably as this “General Return” was being compiled, when the legislature (possibly in response to the arms petition of Phelps, Miller, and Stout) cut the Legion loose from state aegis and declared that “it is entirely independent . . . , may make laws for its own government & seems evidently designed to sustain the Municipal authorities of Nauvoo.”16 In the eyes of non-Mormons suspicious of the kingdom on the Mississippi, this action formally made the Legion the religiously controlled threat they had always assumed it to be. Still, supposition, more than fact, ruled.
Comparing the disparate numbers between the tabulations of men and arms, it is apparent that most Legion soldiers, like most other state and territorial militias at the time, necessarily equipped themselves with personally owned weapons. In the “General Return,” arms are divided into columns for muskets, rifles, swords, pairs of pistols, and “cannons & equipage.” Bennett had early advised that the Legion be organized into companies named for the weapons they were to carry, that is, rifles for rifle companies, cannon for artillery companies, etc.17 A glance at the “General Return” confirms that the force was organized around that advice and expectation. Obviously, the three cannons were enumerated in the arms of the First Artillery, as well as the lion’s share (two-thirds) of the swords listed. With the minor exception of six rifles listed in the First Artillery, only the three rifle companies carried state-provided rifles, though they were unevenly distributed. The Second and Third Rifle Regiments held 59 and 40 each and between them had four pistol pairs, while the Fourth’s 28 rifles were supplemented by a third (21) of the muskets. The Fifth Infantry Regiment shouldered state-provided muskets solely. Since no such weapons are listed for members of the general staff, it can be assumed that these officers were expected to procure their own arms (swords and pistols)—likely a common practice throughout the United States at the time. To this day, all officers procure their own swords.
All in all, the “General Return” essentially corroborates reports of the small numbers of arms provided to the Legion by the state. It was not much. Rather it was apparently a token allotment, which left the Legion to make up the difference with privately owned weapons.18 Just how completely and well the Legion was thus able to equip itself is unknown, and is, of course, undeterminable from the return. All that is known is that weapons in the general amounts indicated in the return were returned to the state upon demand in 1844; they were all collected in a few hours on the afternoon of June 24, 1844, by an Illinois militia detachment under written orders of Governor Ford.19
Despite the low numbers of arms reported, the document is complete. Numbers of each rank and totals for each regiment are carefully given. Significantly, where no enumerations are made (that is, where the rank is not filled in a regiment or no arms of the type are held), the space is filled with a dot, not left blank. Thus, the “General Return” is an accurate assessment of public arms fieldable by the Legion. It conforms with the statement of Governor Ford that the total included “three pieces of cannon and about two hundred and fifty stand of small arms and their accouterments. Of these, the three pieces of cannon and two hundred and twenty stand of small arms were surrendered.”20 After the death of Joseph Smith three days later, the Nauvoo citizens were left to arm themselves privately. Eventually, the Legion played a major if unofficial role in the defense of the Mormons prior to the flight of 1846.21
In light of its reduced armament, however, the value of the Nauvoo Legion seems to have been less a combat-ready multiregimental force than a skeleton organization prepared for full mobilization when the need arose. Nevertheless, what was known of the Legion, true or otherwise, seriously worried Hancock County residents. Though the Legion’s armaments may have been weakened, the very availability of a mobilized force in a climate of increasing hostility and suspicion worried Hancock County residents. Fear and suspicion outside Nauvoo were compounded by rumor or outright deception, mostly on the parts of individuals violently opposed to the Mormons. “A large portion of the people, by pure misrepresentation,” wrote Ford, “had been made to believe that the Legion had received of the state as many as thirty pieces of artillery and five or six thousand stand of small arms.”22 Such falsehoods and rumors led to disaster in the summer of 1844. The editor of the Quincy Whig probably expressed the anti-Mormon sentiment best: “So long as they [the Mormons] are banded together under the direction of one head . . . so long will they be looked upon by the people of the State with mistrust and suspicion.”23
The “General Return of the Second Cohort” offers valuable contemporaneous information about the status of the Nauvoo Legion. Further historical treatment touching anti-Mormon perceptions in the area should be considered in the light of this new documentary evidence.
General Return of the Second Cohort or Brigade of the Nauvoo Legion of the Illinois Militia for the Year 1843
|General Staff||1st Reg. Artillery||2nd Reg. Rifle||3rd Reg. Rifle||4th Reg. Rifle||5th Reg. Infantry||Aggregate|
|Aids-de-camp to the Brigadier General||1||1|
|Total noncommissioned Officers and Privates||235||302||449||282||324||1592|
|Pairs of Pistols||1||3||4|
|Cannons & Equipage||2||2|
Legion Officers of the Second Cohort as Given on the
Rank Roll of the Nauvoo Legion
|Brigadier General||General Staff||Charles C. Rich|
|Colonel||1st Regiment Artillery||Titus Billings|
|Colonel||2nd Regiment Rifle||Francis M. Higbee|
|Colonel||3rd Regiment Rifle||Samuel Bent|
|Colonel||4th Regiment Rifle||Jonathan H. Dunham|
|Lieutenant Colonel||1st Regiment Artillery||John Scott|
|Lieutenant Colonel||2nd Regiment Rifle||N. Higgins|
|Lieutenant Colonel||3rd Regiment Rifle||George Morey|
|Lieutenant Colonel||4th Regiment Rifle||James Brown|
|Major||1st Regiment Artillery||Hosea Stout|
|Major||2nd Regiment Rifle||A. H. Golden|
|Major||3rd Regiment Rifle||William Neiswanger|
|Major||4th Regiment Rifle||J. P. Harman|
|Brigade Major||General Staff||John Bills [not on “Rank Roll”]|
|Chaplains (Majors)||General Staff||William Marks, George A. Smith, William Smith, Willard Richards, Wilford Woodruff|
|Adjutant (Captain)||2nd Regiment Rifle||John G. Hasson|
|Adjutant (Captain)||3rd Regiment Rifle||Timothy Foote|
|Adjutant (Captain)||4th Regiment Rifle||E. L. Brown|
|Quartermaster Sergeant (Captain)||1st Regiment Artillery||William D. Pratt|
|Quartermaster Sergeant (Captain)||2nd Regiment Rifle||P. Cahoon|
|Quartermaster Sergeant (Captain)||3rd Regiment Rifle||Jonathon H. Hale|
|Quartermaster Sergeant (Captain)||4th Regiment Rifle||Joel S. Miles|
|Sergeant Major (Captain)||1st Regiment Artillery||Lewis Robison|
|Sergeant Major (Captain)||3rd Regiment Rifle||E. Potter|
|Sergeant Major (Captain)||4th Regiment Rifle||Edwin D. Woolley|
|Captains||unit not specified||Levi Bracken, B. S. Wilbur, Theodore Turley, Peter W. Canover, Alva L. Tippets, William Huntington, James Worthington, Darwin Chase, William M. Alred, John H. Tippets, O. M. Allen, C. D. Barnum, Samuel Mosic, Charles R. Dana, John Pack, Moses Clauson, Andrew M. Hamilton|
|1st Lieutenants||unit not specified||S. Winchester, Stephen Chase, Hiram Clark, Peter Lemon, A. Williams, William Aldridge, Alexander Badlam, P. Colton, P. Wells, H. Herriman, Andrew Lytle, Lewis Robins, Lucius N. Scovil, Warren Snow, Horace M. Alexander, Stephen Williams, John J. Degraw, Ira E. Lincoln|
|2nd Lieutenants||unit not specified||Stephen H. Goddard, Asahel Perry, Allen Taylor, William Wirick, O. M. Duel, Tarlton Lewis, William Munjar, Horace Evans, John S. Higbee, Lyman O. Littlefield, Edson Barney, J. G. Luce, Wesley Knight, George Woodward, John Bair, Josiah Bois, Andrew Palmer, John P. Smith, George W. Vorus, Daniel Carn|
|3rd Lieutenants||unit not specified||E. Marsh, A. Johnson, Truman O. Angel, D. Cathcart, Isaiah Whiteside, John M. Ewel, William Miller, Jacob F. Abbot, Harvey J. Moore, William C. Perry, John Ellis, William Heap, Lorenzo D. Driggs, William Garner, Alvin Horr, Martin Ewel, John Anderson, Appleton M. Harmon|