This will wind up last week's topic (see here and here) by reviewing the recent remarks of BYU professor Richard Bennett (to a gathering in Southern California) on militias in pre-Civil War America and the significance of militias in understanding the LDS experience in Missouri, Illinois, and Utah in the 19th century. He did an earlier book, Mormons at the Missouri: Winter Quarters, 1846-52 (U. of Oklahoma Press, 2004). His more recent research on militias, to be published in an upcoming book, goes a long way toward making several messy episodes (Zion's Camp, the Missouri War of 1838 and the Danites, the Nauvoo Legion, and the Utah War of 1857 and Mountain Meadows) more understandable. It also helps to counter the occasional characterizations of LDS attempts at self-defense as evidence of Mormon militarism.
Missouri in the 1830s was the far edge of the frontier, a rough if not lawless place. Bennett explained the failure of the Mormons in Missouri (in Jackson County, then in Clay County, then again in Caldwell County) with reference to the place, the time, and the people.
(1) The Place — Missouri was actually part of the Southern frontier, part of "Little Dixie," with a slave culture and, worse, a threatened slave culture. Don't forget the Missouri Compromise of 1820 brought Missouri into the Union as a slave state, and the Southerners who immigrated there weren't about to forget it. They bargained hard for slavery there, and they weren't about to let a bunch of Jesus-preaching Yankees who thought African-Americans were something more than property mess up their peculiar institution. The Mormons who went to Missouri just weren't prepared for the ready willingness of Southerners in Missouri to resort to violence (often under the color of local authorities) to defend their way of life.
(2) The Time — The 1830s were a turbulent era in US history. There was a lot of ethnic friction in cities that complemented the sort of violence that was a part of slave culture in the South. Significantly, there were no standing police forces to "enforce" domestic peace. The response to civil disturbance was usually to call out the militia.
(3) The People — The Mormons in Missouri caused some of their own problems. Bennett described Zion's Camp (1834) as a paramilitary force of questionable legitimacy, but nevertheless an understandable attempt at assisting displaced Mormons in Missouri. Initial communications from Missouri indicated that the governer and the militia in Missouri would assist the Mormons in regaining their homes and property; Zion's Camp was just extra Mormon manpower to lend comfort and assistance to the displaced Mormons and support to the governor and Missouri militia enforcing rule of law there. Zion's Camp was not really intended to be an army in the field, despite the inflated rhetoric. They were, after all, just a bunch of farmers and shopkeepers.
Learning from the Zion's Camp debacle, in Caldwell County (1836-38) the Mormons set up an official militia, the 53rd Regiment in the Missouri militia (nicknamed "the Army of Israel"). This was not the same thing as the Danites, a secret group organized by Sampson Avard (and the degree to which he had official sanction for his actions is a debated question). The Battle of Crooked River (in which David Patten, an LDS apostle, was killed) was actually a clash between two militias, the LDS militia and another Missouri unit. Making the militia official didn't make much difference in LDS efforts at self-defense. It still ended badly.
The Nauvoo experience is best understood, according to Bennett, with reference to the failures in Missouri. Unofficial groups like Zion's Camp and the Danites were seen as a big problem. In Nauvoo, everything would be above board. Hence the powers written into the Nauvoo charter and the fully sanctioned formation of the Nauvoo Legion as a unit of the Illinois militia. The Legion could respond to orders from both the Governor (of Illinois) and the Mayor (of Nauvoo). Initially the Mayor was John C. Bennett; later it was Joseph Smith. The Nauvoo Legion was quite an outfit, but it was a defensive force that saw little actual use. Its presence augmented local fears. But when it was disbanded in 1845, opposition to Mormons didn't go away, it was just emboldened.
My summary really doesn't do justice to Bennett's presentation — you should really buy the book when it comes out to get the full story. I like the fact that it takes a new but relevant theme, gets the history right, then applies it to get a better understanding of the LDS experience during that period. I think this sort of in-depth topical treatment is what is now called for in LDS history: general histories and biographies have pretty much run their course at this point (see here for the latest general history).
I won't attempt any lengthy reflections on the material. I think it shows that the charges about Mormon militarism one sometimes hears are pretty much off-base. Mormons tried every available approach for living in peace, but circumstances were such that they really had no winning strategy in these conflicts. They could appeal for help from the governor or authorities, as in Jackson County — that didn't work. They could organize official militia units and try to defend themselves, as in Caldwell County — that didn't work. They could get an official charter for the city, get involved in state politics, and work with the governor to make it clear Mormons just wanted to run a peaceful city and not be hassled by the locals — that didn't work. Sorry, frontier America just wasn't willing to tolerate groups of Mormons living as Mormons. You could be a lot of things in frontier America, but Mormon wasn't one of them.
With no winning strategy, the final solution for the Mormons boiled down to hard choices between (1) dispersing so there was no identifiable community of Mormons (and there was no guaranty that would stop aggression aimed at isolated Mormon settlements or families), or (2) lighting out for the territories. Brigham Young and the main body of Mormons boldly chose the second option, heading out across the plains to Utah. It was something I believe no other religious group could have managed. But those who weren't up to the arduous trek or who didn't want to follow polygamous leaders (and there were thousands that fit this description) dispersed to places outside Nauvoo and tried to keep their vision of Mormonism alive under various leaders including Sidney Rigdon, James Strang, and eventually Joseph Smith III. But that's another story.