Author Philip M. Flammer wrote the following: The Illinois legislative act of December 1840 that incorporated the city of Nauvoo also authorized creation of a military body or militia that came to be known as the Nauvoo Legion. Perhaps influenced by genuine disgust with the way the Latter-day Saints had been treated in Missouri, the Illinois legislature acted liberally. Under the Nauvoo charter, Latter-day Saints could manage their own affairs, provided they did not violate the state or federal constitutions.
The organization of a militia unit was customary in settlements with sufficient population, a practice as old as the Republic. Nauvoo residents were particularly anxious to have their own military protection after having been victims of mob violence and having suffered expulsion from Missouri (see Haun’s Mill Massacre; Missouri Conflict). By 1840, they realized that they could not always rely on federal or state authorities for protection from such violence.
The Nauvoo Court Martial, consisting of the legion’s commissioned officers, was given extensive authority. Among other things, it could “make, ordain, establish, and execute all such laws and ordinances as may be considered necessary for the benefit, government, and regulation of said Legion; provided [that] said Court Martial shall pass no law or act, repugnant to, or inconsistent with, the Constitution of the United States, or of this State [Illinois]” (HC 4:244).
As part of the state militia, the Nauvoo Legion was at the disposal of the governor of Illinois “for the public defense, and the execution of the laws of the State or of the United States.” Significantly, it was also at the disposal of the mayor of Nauvoo for “executing the laws and ordinances of the city corporation” (HC 4:244).
The city council ordinance that created the Nauvoo Legion authorized the rank of lieutenant general for its commanding officer, an extraordinary authorization, since no other militia officer in the United States held rank above that of major general. The court martial elected Joseph Smith, commander of the legion.
The parades and other activities of the legion-which included mock battles-attracted visitors from near and far. Indeed, the legion became so popular that many non-Mormons joined the ranks. At its peak, it is said to have numbered 5,000 men, the largest such body in Illinois.
Joseph Smith was the commander and chief and before he went to Carthage, he was commanded by the government to release the Nauvoo Legion. He lined the troops up for inspection and gave what became known as the Last Address. It reads as follows:
I wish to render you my thanks as soldiers under my command and as your General. You have done faithfully your city in guarding this beautiful city, and in preserving the lives of all the people as well as mine in a special manner. I have seen you on duty without shoes or comfortable clothing and if I had the means to buy, or if I could obtain those necessary things for you I would gladly do it. However, I cannot mortgage any of my property to get even one dollar. But I will say this: You will forever be named the Nauvoo Legion and I have had the honor of being your General. You shall be called the First Elders of the Church and your mission will be to the nations of the earth. You will gather many people into the vastness of the Rocky Mountains, which will be the center for the gathering of our people, and you will be faithful because you have been true. There will be many that come in under your ministry, but because of their much learning they will seek for high positions and seek to raise themselves in eminence above you. But you soldiers of the Nauvoo Legion will walk in low places unnoticed; and you will know all that transpires in their midst. And those that are your friends will be my friends and this I will promise to you my brethren of the Legion, that I will come again to lead you forth. But now I will go to prepare a place for you so that where I am you shall be with me. I thank you for your service and duty done. You are now dismissed to take care of your wives, children and homes. (Delivered June 23, 1844 just 4 days before he was martyred at Carthage.)