- Historic Sites
The Death Of The Prophet
The Mormons grow in numbers, but persecution makes them wanderers. Then a burst of violence results in
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
Hence several hearts beat faster as the tall General jumped lightly down from the wall. A black boot reached for a stirrup and a second flashed over the rump of the prancing black stallion, Charlie. As one man the white-clad dozen of the bodyguard swung into their saddles. In the dark-blue uniform, surmounted by the star-sprent black plumes, Joseph had become a black eagle floating in a white cloud of doves. The brass band struck up a march, and sharp orders punctuated the music as the officers of the Legion of Nauvoo moved their men into line. Their Lieutenant General and his staff led a great parade up the slanting Main Street toward the unfinished tower of the Temple of the Latter-day Saints, standing lone and high in the rays of the westering sun, while thousands of the Mormon faithful cheered.
After the Legion broke ranks on its parade grounds General Smith rode back to the Mansion House. Messengers had been galloping into town all the afternoon, and they awaited him. They said mobs were forming nearby in the towns of Appanoose and La Harpe, Rocky Run and Green Plains, Pilot Grove and Spilman’s Landing. In their opinion, the excited horsemen reported, invasion of Nauvoo was certain. There was even talk of mobs arriving by steamboat at Nauvoo Landing.
After Joseph had gone to bed he was awakened by a persistent knocking on the Mansion House door. When he unbarred and opened, he was just able to recognize in the darkness Shadrach Roundy, a Nauvoo policeman. The officer warned him that a man named Norton had been overheard in the streets making wild threats to shoot him. After some questions and answers faithful Shadrach resumed his duties, and Joseph went back to bed.
The Legion paraded along the riverbank every morning in the next few days, and every day the Lieutenant General in full uniform reviewed them. At his order small detachments were constantly galloping over the brown muddy roads that patterned the flat prairie. Pickets were sent out to stand guard on all the approaches to Nauvoo. Families of refugees, driven from their homes by their non-Mormon neighbors, appeared in the streets. A company of the Legion marching from Macedonia to Nauvoo came upon an anti-Mormon unit twice as large as their own, marching under two red flags. These foes at once deployed at the edge of a wood. The Legionnaires “opened file about ten feet apart” and resolutely kept to the road, though under sporadic fire that did no damage.
From widely separated mounds and hillocks the Mormon sentries could see bands of the enemy threading the levels of high grass as they tramped toward Nauvoo.
Lieutenant General Smith, always fascinated by the stratagems of war, frequently rode out on the prairie meadows to survey the situation. He spent much of the rest of his time at his desk in the Mansion House writing suggestions to his outposts that they let the invaders come through and then attack them from the rear, writing orders to distant Mormon communities to send aid, writing to the absent members of the Mormon council of twelve, informing them of the dangers he faced.
On returning from his review of the Legion on Friday, June 21, General Smith found messengers from the governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, who had come to Carthage, eighteen miles distant. He wrote that in the interests of impartial justice “well informed and discreet persons” capable of presenting the Mormon version of recent events should be sent to him. Two representatives were at once appointed, and accompanied by the messengers, they set out for Carthage at seven o’clock and arrived at eleven. John Taylor, one of the two, wrote that “The town was filled with a perfect set of rabble and rowdies” and that they “seemed to be holding a grand saturnalia, whooping, yelling and vociferating as if bedlam had broken loose.”
A meeting the next morning resulted in Governor Ford’s stating his desire that General Smith and “all parties concerned in passing or executing the city law in relation to the press” come to Carthage to “allay public excitement” and “prove their wish to be governed by law.” Delayed a half day by the Governor’s taking time to write a letter to Smith, the messengers were not in Nauvoo until dusk.
Ford’s letter was read before a meeting of a few Mormon leaders hastily summoned to an upper room of the Mansion House. Hearts sank as ears heard, …your conduct in the destruction of the press was a very gross outrage upon the laws and liberties of the people.…I require any and all of you, who are or shall be accused, to submit yourselves to be arrested.…I tell you plainly that if no such submission is made as I have indicated, I will be obliged to call out the militia; and if a few thousand will not be sufficient, many thousands will be…
As the reading ended Joseph said despairingly, “There is no mercy—no mercy here.”
He turned to his older brother: “What shall we do?”
“I don’t know,” said Hyrum.
The Prophet seemed lost in thought. Then his face brightened. “It is clear to my mind what to do,” he said. “All they want is Hyrum and myself; then tell everybody to go about their business and not to collect in groups but scatter about.…They will come here and search for us. Let them search; they will not harm you in person or property and not even a hair of your head. We will cross the river tonight and go away to the west.”
“I told Stephen Markham,” wrote Joseph that night in the last entry of his journal, “that if Hyrum and I were ever taken again, we should be massacred, or I was not a prophet of God.”