Mormon History

Brigham Saving the Nauvoo Legion - 1871

Extraordinary leadership kept 1871 Pioneer Day safe

Gil Iker

Salt Lake Tribune


     The Pioneer Day parade of July 24, 1871, was like no other, before or since.

    In May 1870 a U.S. Army garrison was built in Provo, symbolizing federal authority over Mormon settlers. But settlers obeyed only Brigham Young and continued to resist the federally appointed Utah territorial governor.

    Ugly confrontations between soldiers and settlers grew in frequency and intensity. Finally that September a brawl morphed into a full-scale riot pitting drunken soldiers against civilians.

    The War Department ordered an investigation of the riot by the post commander at Camp Douglas, Col. Philippe deTrobriand.

    He was a French aristocrat whose father and uncle were both French generals, and he was a distinguished graduate of a renowned French military academy. He married an American woman, moved to America, became a U.S. citizen and served as a general in the Civil War. In postwar down-sizing, deTrobriand was one of 25 officers out of 600 selected to command in a much reduced force.

    Unlike other federal officials of that era, Col. deTrobriand interviewed both Mormons and gentiles and conducted a fair, even-handed, impartial investigation.

    He concluded the soldiers were at fault and ordered them punished. He also recommended the garrison at Provo be closed as an unnecessary provocation to the people of Provo.

    Camp Douglas included a small federal prison. Its star inmate was the mayor of Salt Lake City, Daniel Wells, indicted and awaiting trial for polygamy. Col. deTrobriand offered him a "passport" permitting freedom within the post and visits from family and friends in return for the mayor's promise not to escape.

    About that time, senior Mormon church officials became concerned that if Brigham Young were also indicted, he could be murdered in prison, as Joseph Smith had been. In a quick exchange of messages, deTrobriand assured church leaders he would not allow such a thing to happen and guaranteed Brigham Young's safety.

    The colonel's actions in Provo, Mayor Wells' passport, and Brigham Young's security outraged the territorial governor. He telegraphed the War Department that the Mormons would soon hold their traditional Pioneer Day parade. He wrote that it would be led by the Nauvoo Legion whose guerrilla attacks grievously hurt federal troops in 1857. Daniel Wells, now in federal custody, had led those Mormon guerrillas.

    Moreover, the legion would march under arms - an act of insurrection, hostility and aggression to the federal government. Shortly thereafter, deTrobriand received orders to align his federal troops on each side of the parade route with muskets loaded and locked and shoot to kill the Mormon soldiers.

    Col. deTrobriand was greatly disturbed. He was certain this course of action was possibly illegal and would have grave consequences. In what would nowadays be a breach of security and a career-ending move, he met with Mayor Wells, showing him the War Department orders and imploring him to get word to Brigham Young and somehow avert the impending tragedy.

    On July 24, the parade was forming in what is now Memory Grove and would soon proceed south on present-day State Street. Federal troops were deployed on both sides at intervals of three feet. It was a perfect ambush set-up. Upon order, the federals would fire at the marchers. Surely there would be "collateral damage" to spectators and Mormon church officials as well.

    Federal notables assembled on their reviewing stand roughly where the Alta Club is today. In a voice loud enough to be overheard and reported, the colonel told the governor that he would not order his troops to fire. If the governor wanted the Mormon soldiers slaughtered, deTrobriand declared, he would have to give the order himself.

    But when the parade emerged from City Creek Canyon, the Nauvoo Legion was nowhere to be seen. Instead, about 100 pre-teen girls led the parade. As they passed the federal troops - according to legends of the era - they withdrew flowers from their bouquets and placed the stems in the barrels of the soldiers' muskets.

    A bomb had been defused; the crisis had ended. Brigham Young had outwitted the territorial governor. It was a historic non-event. There would be no blood spilled on Pioneer Day, July 24, 1871.

    As a Navy clerk in World War II, as an Air Force Russian language intelligence officer and military parachutist in the Korean War, and as an Army Special Forces officer master parachutist with a broken neck for a souvenir, on three occasions I took the same oath as deTrobriand.

    As did he, I swore to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. That's what deTrobriand did. So would I.

    I am dazzled by deTrobriand's integrity. He put his career at risk to do the right thing. If we had leaders like him today, 3,600 American soldiers would still be alive and 40,000 others would not be grievously maimed; 100,000 Iraqis would still be living and a million more would not be refugees. The civilized world would still respect us and we would not be buried under a $9 trillion debt.

    George Santayana famously advised, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." At the Fort Douglas Museum on the south side of the parade ground, now a part of the University of Utah upper campus, you will find much that needs remembering. Come up and see for yourself.

    * GIL IKER retired as a small business owner, Army Special Forces colonel and Utah National Guard brigadier general. He chairs the Fort Douglas Historical Foundation.