Friday, October 15, 2010

Book Review: The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois

The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois: A History of the Mormon Militia, 1841-1846
Richard E. Bennett, Susan Easton Black, Donald Q. Cannon
39.95 Cloth
440 Pages, 6.125 x 9.25
25 B&W Illus., 5 Tables
Religion/Western History

The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois by Richard Bennett, Susan Easton Black, and Donald Cannon represents an important entry into the field of Mormon history. The authors attempt to provide an American context for a militia, an Illinois context for this state militia, and the immediate Mormon history in Missouri that drove them to seek defense in a militia. While the authors succeed in each of their aims some arguments were vastly understated to the point where the author’s claims seemed little more than strings of primary sources with scant analysis. While the authors may have been trying to avoid a polemic piece that directly engages anti Mormon claims, they do themselves a disservice by failing to profit from their excellent research.

In chapters 1 through 3 the authors present the British, American, and state contexts for the creation of the Nauvoo Legion. This takes the reader from the Anglo Saxon levy in the middle ages, to the minute men of George Washington, to the National and State regulations for armed forces, the Mormon troubles in Missouri, finally to the rather pathetic condition of militia in 1840 Illinois. These chapters beautifully succeed in capturing the rather unique and hybrid nature of the Legion. The abuses committed by extreme and unchecked Mormons in combination with the abuses by the organized and established Missouri militia resulted in a mutually beneficial agreement upon the Mormons entering Illinois.

The authors repeatedly state the concerns of non Mormons in the area concerning the scary combination of military might and religious enthusiasm. But they understate the Mormon case for creating a militia. The militia was designed to prevent the abuses inflicted in Missouri from happening again. Yet the militia was disbanded (or neutered) at precisely the time that Smith was killed by a mob and the mobs drove the Mormons from the state. It seems decisively obvious that the militia’s stated aim of defending Mormon’s life and liberty was valid and the critics claim equally specious. Yet the authors fail to explicitly point this out. They ironically recall how the militia was ordered to stand down when Smith was arrested, and they relate in compelling detail the “Battle of Nauvoo” (chapter 11) before those not already dispersed were ordered to disband. So the authors’ failure to note the compelling evidence in the Mormon’s need for self defense is confusing at the very least.

Chapters 4 through 9 present a social history of the Nauvoo Legion. The authors commendably use a variety of previously unavailable primary sources. But some chapters devolve into little more than strings of primary quotes with little original analysis from the authors. Chapter 9 is a particular egregious example of this trend. In chapter 9, “perception and fears” the authors list a collection of local sources and then put a fear in bold and follow it with a quote from one of those sources.

Chapters 10 through 12 detail the end of the Nauvoo Legion and summarize their insights. In particular the authors did an excellent job of merging the Legion into Mormon history. While every Latter Day Saint knows the basic narrative leading to Smith’s martyrdom, this account weaves the tense political issues surrounding the Legion into the account as well. This and other issues are again summarized in chapter 12. This chapter presents both the strength and weaknesses of the book as it details its conclusions, but offers them in largely qualified terms that do not match the strength of their case. When it came time to address the supposed militancy of represented by the Mormon Legion they offer a paragraph mentioning the legal requirements to join a militia. Its position in the book offers it as almost a parenthetical thought, and they again fail to directly mention the aggression against Latter Day Saints in Illinois which substantiated the raison d’ etre of the Nauvoo Legion.

Overall, the book presented clear and succinct summaries of each chapter that did an excellent job of keeping the “so whats” apparent for the reader. These summaries are good for both the non specialist and non Mormon. While the detailed use of primary sources and extensive appendices provide resources for the specialists and those who wish to pursue further study. The book is best in providing historical context- American, Mormon, and state. Yet the authors seem weakest when they understate or equivocate on arguments that have polemic and religious overtones. They authors also seem engrossed in primary source material to such a point that many chapters are little more than strings of quotes.

Despite the book’s weaknesses it still fills a much needed hole in Mormon and United States History. The authors present a vast deal of material that puts the Legion within a variety of contexts. They include several extensive appendices to aid in further study. And they continually summarize the “so whats” for the novice and historian alike. The Nauvoo Legion in Illinois should hold a place in every Latter Day Saint and Western historian’s library.

1 comment:

Mormon Heretic said...

Interesting review. I've wanted to read this book, but haven't had time yet.