A blue woolen cloak, brass epaulets, a sword and scabbard, and a pistol stand among the Prophet Joseph Smith’s personal effects as evidence of his position as lieutenant general in the Nauvoo Legion. In 1840, citizens of Nauvoo petitioned the Illinois state legislature for a municipal charter to incorporate the city of Nauvoo. Their request was granted on December 16, 1840, by Governor Thomas Carlin and the Illinois legislature, which included state representative Abraham Lincoln.
Just one year prior, the majority of Latter-day Saints had retreated from the troubles and persecutions they faced in Missouri. Weary, worn, and thin, the Saints found a haven along the banks of the Mississippi River near the small settlement of Commerce, Illinois—an area they eventually renamed Nauvoo. Through their experience with adversity, the Saints learned lessons that would inspire a determination to prevent further tragedy and protect their rights and families in their new home. The Act to Incorporate Nauvoo allowed for the creation of a city militia, which would serve to achieve this purpose.
On February 4, 1841, the Nauvoo Legion was officially organized as an independent militia body attached to the Illinois state militia, as prescribed in the city’s incorporating act, and Joseph Smith was elected as its lieutenant general. At this time, the law required every able-bodied man between the ages of 18 and 44 to serve in a local militia. The Nauvoo Legion fulfilled the requirements of state and federal law and helped bolster the Illinois state militia, which was in great need of strengthening.
“As to the military station I hold, and the cause of my holding it, is as follows. When we came here, the State required us to bear arms and do military duty according to law. . . . I then told the Saints that though I was clear from Military duty by law, in consequence of lameness in one of my legs; yet I would set them the example, and would do duty myself, they then said they were willing to do duty, if they could be formed into an independent Company and I could be at their head, this is the origin of the Nauvoo Legion; and of my holding the office of Lieutenant General. All the power that I desire or have sought to obtain, has been the enjoyment of the Constitutional privilege for which my fathers shed their blood, of living in peace in the society of my wife and children and enjoying the society of my friends, and that religious liberty which is the right of every American citizen, of worshipping according to the dictates of his conscience and the revelations of God.”
From the Nauvoo Legion’s inception, enlistees joined the militia out of desire to fulfill their civic duty and comply with state law. As the population of Nauvoo expanded, the legion’s numbers quickly grew from its humble beginnings to become what was likely the largest militia in the state by 1845. It is estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 men joined the legion’s ranks.
In accordance with Illinois statute, the Nauvoo Legion engaged in regular military training exercises, which included frequent parades. Marching to the beat of the legion’s band, these events brought thousands of spectators into town. Eunice Billings Snow wrote of the spectacle: “Some of the most impressive moments of my life were when I saw the Nauvoo Legion on parade with the Prophet (then General Joseph Smith) with his wife, Emma Hale Smith, on horseback at the head of the troops. It was indeed an imposing sight.”
The Prophet himself remarked, “We felt proud to be associated with a body of men which in point of discipline, uniform, appearance and a knowledge of military tactics, are the pride of Illinois, one of its strongest defenses, and a great bulwark of the western country.”
However, feelings in the community began to change toward the Nauvoo Legion when Nauvoo continued to grow as Latter-day Saint converts flocked to the city. Non-Mormon citizens became increasingly concerned about the legion’s expanding numbers, which Governor Thomas Ford called “a military force at their own command.”
Suspicion and opposition to the Latter-day Saints continued to grow, and in June 1844, Governor Ford ordered the legion to surrender their arms, which they did in accordance with the governor’s demands. Conflict continued to intensify, culminating in the assassination of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum at Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844.
In January 1845, the act to incorporate Nauvoo was repealed, meaning that the city, the Nauvoo Legion, and the university were no longer legal entities. Despite this action by the state of Illinois, the Nauvoo Legion continued in its efforts to protect their city and its citizens, until Church leaders advised them to surrender and join the Saints in their exodus westward. Some years later, as the Saints settled in their new home, the Nauvoo Legion was appointed to serve as the official militia of Utah Territory until it was ultimately disbanded in 1887.
Although the Nauvoo Legion was short-lived and marked with controversy, the members of the legion served Church members well. Of the legion’s purpose and divine aid in preserving the Saints, Eliza R. Snow penned:
“Should they need re-enforcements, those rights to secure,
“Which our forefathers purchas’d; and Freedom ensure.
“There is still in reserve a strong Cohort above;
“‘Lo! the chariots of Israel and horsemen thereof.’”