Battle of Nauvoo
Did you know 168 years ago this week members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were involved in a civil war in Illinois, 15 years prior to the Civil War that engulfed the United States? It is a frequently forgotten event in church history known as the Battle of Nauvoo, and it occurred after the majority of the Saints had left the city earlier in the year.
By the summer of 1846, the only people left in Nauvoo were a few hundred Latter-day Saints, most of whom were poor, sick or otherwise incapable of beginning the trek west. Also remaining were some local citizens who had purchased property from the Saints and some who refused to follow Brigham Young’s band west, including Emma Smith, widow of Joseph Smith, and her family, as well as Lucy Mack Smith, mother of Joseph Smith, who chose to remain behind with Emma. Opponents to the Church in the surrounding communities became increasingly impatient at those who stayed behind, and as a result increased their mob tactics to drive them out. Beginning in July, threats of mob violence became frequent, and included whippings and kidnappings. State militia was called in to assist and try to stay the attacks by the mobs, but to little effect. A treaty was even signed by both parties at one point to hopefully avoid bloodshed, but members of the mob were not satisfied with the terms, wanting the Saints to leave immediately, so they took matters into their own hands.
Thomas Brockman, a member of the mob, was put in charge of their forces, and on September 10, 1846, his army of about 1,000 strong advanced on Nauvoo. Among the residents of Nauvoo, less than 150 were gathered to help defend the city, including members of the Nauvoo Legion who called themselves the “Spartan Band.” Since the majority of the population was gone, they had little by way of weapons and ammunition to use. According to some sources, they fortunately had a few repeating rifles, thanks to the ingenuity of Jonathan Browning, and built a cannon out of a steamboat shaft. Wandle Mace, one of the Nauvoo Legion, wrote “sometimes the cannon balls from the mob would be picked up and loaded into our steamboat shaft cannon and fired back at them, ammunition was scarce with us.” They also threw up rough barricades on the main entry ways into the city to block the advancing mob. This little band was able to defend the city for one week basically through guerrilla warfare tactics–hiding in the woods and snipe-shooting at the enemy–being severely outnumbered.
In the skirmish, three Saints lost their lives, and several were wounded on both sides. Fighting ceased on September 16, 1846, after Church leaders, led by Daniel H. Wells, concluded that the city could not successfully be defended, and it was not worth the inevitable loss of life. A treaty was signed where the city of Nauvoo was surrendered to the mob and the Mormon population was required to leave the city or disperse as soon as they could cross the river. Even these terms did little for the mob’s patience, as they entered the city the next day and continued to persecute those who were preparing to leave. They searched the wagons waiting to be ferried across, ransacked contents, took firearms, and scattered goods. Some were ordered from the city at point of bayonet. The mob even entered the temple, ascended the tower and rung the bell, shouting and yelling obscenities. Homes were plundered and some involved in the battle were threatened with death. With such inhuman treatment, the members of the Church remaining in Nauvoo were forced across the Mississippi River in poverty and ill-prepared. Wandle Mace wrote, “Farewell Nauvoo, the Beautiful! The City of Joseph!” They camped on the western banks of the Mississippi for several days, waiting for rescue parties to come help them. Thus ended the era of the Mormon Church in Nauvoo.
To learn more about the Battle of Nauvoo from those who witnessed and experienced it, come to Special Collections and see what sources are available. There are several historical newspaper accounts of the events, as well as some biographies and autobiographies of individuals who witnessed or took part in these events, including Thomas Crooks and son James (MSS 2583), Wandle Mace (MSS 921 and BX 8670.1 .M15), and Mary Elizabeth Worth Peoples (BX 8672 .N226 vol.7-9).