Mentioning the Nauvoo Legion often conjures images of a uniformed Lieutenant General Joseph Smith, bicorne chapeau, golden epaulettes, and perhaps drawn sword. The conflated roles of religious leader, civil governor, and military commander have been a source of fear and antagonism for 170 years. This new volume, authored by three BYU professors, is billed as a revisionist history, a new look at the old Legion and an effort to see the regional army in terms of its real context.
Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Donald Q. Cannon, The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois: A History of the Mormon Militia, 1841-1846 (Norman, Okl.: Arthur H. Clark Company, 2010). Illustrations, photos, tables, footnotes, bibliography, appendices, index. Cloth: $39.95, ISBN 978-0870623820.
The authors of The Nauvoo Legion apparently divided the book into three sections. They confess at the beginning that there are various “interpretations of Smith and the Nauvoo Legion” between them, though they “do not see discord” (18). Regardless of relative harmony, there does appear to be distinct voices in the text.
The first, and I believe strongest, section of the book treated the military context of the Legion. The first two chapters describe the history of militias in the United States and Mormon experiences in military (or para-military) conflict. Generally relying on secondary sources, the authors give a helpful understanding of the topics and a robust bibliography for further study. Regarding the Missouri Mormon War, they definitely favored the analysis of Alex Baugh over Stephen LeSueur and generally overlook Gentry. On early Missouri, the authors liked to reference Warren Jennings’ dissertation (1962), with which I am not familiar. I appreciated the frank characterization of Danites in Missouri, even if the attempts to distance Joseph Smith from their actions seemed at times, over stretched. They state: “Whatever the case, if Joseph Smith knew of the Danites, he should have restrained them much earlier—and if he did not know of them, as a leader, he should have.” This sort of editorial judgment is present throughout the volume and in the later chapters becomes generally partisan.
Another, perhaps related, trend in the volume that starts early and increases as the chapters continue is the uncritical use of the History of the Church. I view this as perhaps the major weakness of the volume. Long sections of the narrative are simply pulled wholesale from it. Other sources in the later chapters are often Mormon reminiscences. Annotation is generally consistent; I only found a couple of mistaken (e.g., 107n17, 137n43) or ambiguous (237n43) notes.
The volume does a nice job of describing the formation of the Legion and determining its legal status. There should not be much question now as to whether the group was extra-legal. The difference between the Nauvoo Legion and other Illinois militias, was one of demographics and politics. The authors’ argument for this is a nice example of their respectful revisionism (94). The explication of Legion activities and their dynamics is also clearly written. The chapter on Legion demographics and enrollment is strong in data, but dry and analytically weak. The mining of Legion records not previously used by other scholars adds important depth, but also perhaps fed a temptation to simply recount facts.
A couple of the chapters seemed genuinely superfluous. Chapter 5 on Joseph Smith as military leader was a rehash of earlier information and general fluff and the bulk of chapter 9 was a list of criticisms levied against the Legion, with one paragraph apologetic responses. There is a sort of odd tone in the later chapters, perhaps exemplified in an editorial comment about John C. Bennett: “The unscrupulous Bennett will ever pose a challenge to faithful Mormon scholars” (186). My first thought was, “Really?” While the authors do discuss topics that some view as sensitive like polygamy in Nauvoo, they generally eschew any real contextualization of the degree to which the institutions or issues functioned in Mormon society. The treatment of the Law brothers and the Council of Fifty are good examples of this missed opportunity.
The Council of Fifty is also an area where a defense was made without outlining the perceived original problem and then taking the most simple or facile analysis possible. The authors argue that without further documentation (read, the minutes being made available), most all commentary is simply speculation. Moreover there is no explicit mention of any relationship in extant documents. Saying that there is no evidence that Smith used the Council in connection with the Legion doesn’t answer the question of what it meant to be an anointed Prophet, Priest and King over the whole world at the same time as being Lieutenant General over the local militia (let alone other individuals with various institutional overlapings).
The chapters are organized well with strong introductions and conclusions. The authors present new information and they incorporate many source documents and demographic data in appendices for future study. The volume is handsomely crafted and the prose is accessible to general audiences.