Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Somali Pirates, Mormon Militiamen, and the U.S. Military

Somali Pirates, Mormon Militiamen, and the U.S. Military

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 21, 2009

Some few online comments attached to recent news reports of the rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips held by Somali pirates have complained that Navy officers sought permission from President Obama for the Seals to fire upon the pirates. “Since when does the American military have to ask the president for permission to do their duty?” they snarl.

Well, since just about always, of course. It is part of the genius of the Founding Fathers to place the military under civilian control, and part of the patriotism and gallantry of the American military that they submit to civilian control, sparing us the revolutions and “temporary” military governments that have plagued some countries. We are not at war with Somalia or its citizens, no matter how criminal the behavior of some of those citizens; the Bainbridge was not under attack with the need to defend itself; no Navy officer aboard that ship or in the Seals’ chain of command had the right to take deadly action on his own authority. That authority was held by the civilian commander-in-chief of the armed forces – the president of the United States.

I don’t suppose that’s news to any Keepa readers. I mention it as the springboard to another incident in another time where a military commander gave a similar civics lesson to a civilian politician, where that officer’s quiet insistence that civilian authority must take responsibility for ordering military action – without dodging that responsibility by passing it off to the military – possibly saved Mormon lives.

It’s 1871. Since completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, when travel became cheap and much easier for men who didn’t have the commitment to make an overland journey by animal power, Utah Territory had been overrun by outsiders to a degree never before known. Miners and speculators were flocking in, drawn by rosy promises of mineral wealth promoted by Patrick Edward Connor, former commander of the federal troops at Camp Douglas on the bench above Salt Lake City, and still resident in Utah. Territorial officers, who had been appointed by Congress since the 1850 creation of Utah Territory, were still running Utah from the offices of governor, judges, marshal, and surveyor, and through the land office and post office – but by 1871, those officers were feeling their oats as they never had before. No longer was a small handful of appointees alone in a sea of Mormon opposition: easy travel had made it possible for large numbers of sycophants and hangers-on, hoping for the spoils of political office, to join them in Utah. The post-Civil War mood was that the federal government, backed by military might – not state governments – were in charge everywhere in the country. And where the Mormons were concerned, there was a growing attitude that “we licked rebellion and slavery in the South; now we’ll lick rebellion and polygamy in Utah.”

President Ulysses S. Grant had appointed John Wilson Shaffer as governor of Utah in 1870. Shaffer was a hard-liner, a man remembered in Utah, when he is remembered at all, for his declaration that “By — ! Never after me shall it be said that Brigham Young is governor of Utah!” He attempted to rule Utah with an iron fist. He removed control of the Nauvoo Legion (the Territory’s official militia) from the Territorial Legislature, placing it under the control of the much-despised (by Mormons) former General Connor. He usurped authority from the Legislature by declaring himself the sole power to appoint militia officers, setting aside previous commissions and appointments. And he banned all assemblies of the Nauvoo Legion unless they were called by himself or Connor – not only was the Legion forbidden to muster and drill, but the men could not assemble even for dances or parades.

Shaffer was a very ill man when he accepted appointment as governor, and he died soon after reaching Utah. (I have seen no charges by even the most virulent anti-Mormon historians that Mormons were involved in his death, unlike the charges they seem to make so often regarding other officials’ deaths.) He was succeeded as acting governor briefly by Vernon H. Vaughan (in Utah as Shaffer’s secretary), whose few months in office are known only for the November 1870 “Wooden Gun Rebellion” – a seemingly comic event involving a militia drill by men “armed” with broomsticks and wooden poles, but actually a serious challenge to the governor’s authority to suppress the Legion. A number of men were arrested and charged with violating Shaffer’s ban on military assemblies, but they were all released soon afterward.

Vaughan was not given appointment as governor and had left Utah by January 1871, leaving his territorial secretary George A. Black to succeed him as acting governor.

Which brings us to late June, 1871, with everyone in Utah – Mormon and Gentile, military and civilian – wondering what would happen on the upcoming July 4th holiday. Everyone, it seemed, expected another challenge by Daniel H. Wells (former commander of the Nauvoo Legion, Mayor of Salt Lake City, and Brigham Young’s counselor in the First Presidency) to the attempt to suppress the Nauvoo Legion. Would the Legion march in the July 4th parade?

On Monday, June 26, Brigham Young and a number of friends and church leaders left Salt Lake to go to Cache Valley for a planned preaching tour (he made those tours, either north or south, virtually every year) and summer vacation. He certainly must have been fully aware of the tensions, and I know he was kept informed of developments by telegram, but what advice or instructions he had given before he left, I do not know.

On Friday, June 30, the correspondent for the New York Times captured the excited mood of the gentile clique, with this story wired to the East:

Salt Lake, June 30. – The Tribune of tomorrow morning will contain a proclamation issued by Hon. George A. Black, Secretary and Acting Governor, forbidding all musters, parties or gathering of the militia of Utah, or of armed persons within the Territory, except by the Governor’s orders or by order of the United States Marshal in case a posse comitatus is required to enforce the order of the Court. This proclamation has been issued in view of certain orders of Daniel H. Wells, calling himself Lieutenant-General, an office not recognized by the Government, which orders out three companies of infantry, one of artillery and one of cavalry, ostensibly to participate in the Mormon procession on the Fourth of July. Wells usurps power in ordering out the militia, since Gov. Shaffer appointed Gen. Connor commander of the militia, and the assembling of troops is in direct violation of the order of Gov. Shaffer, which has never been countermanded. The attempt is made in order to maintain the organization of the Nauvoo Legion outside of control of the Governor of the Territory. Mr. Wells is a Lieutenant-General of this Legion, but pretends to order out the troops as Lieutenant-General of the militia. … It is generally believed the Mormons will not attempt to carry out their scheme in face of the proclamation. If they do, the laws will be enforced and trouble may ensue. … Gen. DeTrobriand has relieved Gen. Morrow as commander of Camp Douglass.

I won’t swear this morning that Mayor Wells had not issued any order – it’s a detail I can’t find in my research at the moment – but I suspect that the reporter was anticipating an order that had not yet been given. It isn’t until Saturday, July 1, when the School of the Prophets – a civil body as much as a religious one, in 1870s Salt Lake City – “voted that the military join in the procession.”

“Trouble may ensue,” indeed.

Acting Governor Black – fearing? hoping for? opinions vary – a collision that would crush Mormon control of the Nauvoo Legion once and for all, summoned General de Trobriand, in his first hours as commander of the federal forces at Camp Douglas, asking him to bring troops to the city to enforce the gubernatorial ban on the Legion. General de Trobriand, a fascinating man whose background is only hinted at here (you really ought to read Mark R. Grandstaff, “General Regis de Trobriand, the Mormons, and the U.S. Army at camp Douglas, 1870-71,” Utah Historical Quarterly, Summer 1996, if you have any interest in military history) came to Salt Lake, meeting with both Acting Governor Black and with Mayor Wells, separately, to understand the situation.

His meeting with Black included an explanation of the realities of civilian-military relations: He would not order his men to fire on a civilian population, no matter to what extent those civilians might violate the governor’s decree against assembly, unless Governor Black himself, as civilian governor over the military forces there, gave his own direct instruction. If there was to be bloodshed, the responsibility for that would lie with Black, not with General de Trobriand.

We don’t have an authentic record of General de Trobriand’s meeting with Mayor Wells. The highly colored and speculative report of the New York Times correspondent suggests:

[Wells was told] that he was acting in violation of the laws, and that bloodshed would ensue if his illegal orders were carried out, as the United States troops would entirely disperse any unlawful parade of armed militia-men. The Mayor carried a stiff upper lip for some time, and even had the audacity to suggest that the Governor’s proclamation should be withdrawn. … After a long conversation, in which Col. De Trobriand told the Lieutenant-General that if there was a parade the consequence should be on his head … Mr. Wells finally concluded to call a special meeting of the City Council and the leaders of the Mormon Church, who are the power behind the throne, to take into consideration the whole matter. The conference broke up with the clear understanding that if the Nauvoo Legion, or the militia, as it is called, were out today they would be arrested or dispersed by powder and ball. It seems the Mormon Council met, for early this morning Col. De Trobriand was officially informed by Mayor Wells that the orders calling out the militia were countermanded.

General de Trobriand did bring his men from camp into the city, but they were held a block away from the parade route and never offered any threat to marchers. Nauvoo Legionnaires – which is to say, representatives of most of the adult male population of Utah – took part in the parade. They did not carry arms, however, having previously deposited them in makeshift armories. Those few men who were wearing uniforms because they had come into town with nothing else to change into were scattered throughout the parade so that their appearance was not noteworthy. It was an entirely peaceful, orderly parade of citizens celebrating the independence of their country, and wound up at the Tabernacle where typical July 4th speeches were made and songs were sung. (Popular legends have grown up in recent years that the parade marched through columns of soldiers with their guns aimed and ready to fire, and that little girls stood between the soldiers and the Legionnaires, placing daisies into the barrels of the soldiers’ guns and begging them not to shoot, and that General de Trobriand, moved to tears, declared on the parade route that he could not give the order to shoot. Pure fantasy, all of it.)

This outcome seems to have been a great disappointment to the New York Times correspondent, and he made do with a breathless account of how closely the city had come to rebellion and warfare:

Salt Lake, July 4. – Up to the moment of sending this dispatch there has been no serious disturbance in the city, and the prospects are that nothing will occur. We escaped a serious conflict by a hair’s breadth. Mr. Wells, Third President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Mayor of the city and so-called Lieutenant-General of the Nauvoo Legion, ordered out his troops in contravention of the terms of Acting Governor Black’s order. In all his actions he exhibited a rebellious spirit, assumed high airs and talked about being ready to be arrested. The situation was critical. At sundown yesterday the Mormons were determined to parade in spite of the proclamation, and the United States officials were equally as determined to enforce the laws. Acting Governor Black called upon Col. De Trobriand, commanding Camp Douglas, to send to the city three companies of infantry, one of cavalry, and a company of artillery, and there was every reason to expect bloodshed if the Mormons did not back down. Martial law was to have been proclaimed if the civil authorities could not enforce the Governor’s order, and the troops were prepared for service. … It seems the Mormon Council met, for early this morning Col. De Trobriand was officially informed by Mayor Wells that the orders calling out the militia were countermanded. Notwithstanding this, De Trobriand, in obedience to the call of Acting Gov. Black, marched into the city at 8 o’clock this morning with three companies of the Thirteenth Infantry, and Major Gordon’s company of the Second Cavalry, headed by the full regimental band. … In addition to the military the United States Marshal had sworn in a large number of deputies, and there were two or three thousand miners ready to sustain the authorities. If a fight had occurred it would have been bloody, but disastrous to the Church. …

The victory today was the first ever fairly won in Utah. The supremacy of the United States laws over the decrees of the Mormon Church was for the first time fully vindicated. Nothing short of a deadly conflict induced the Church leaders to surrender their arrogant claims. Republicanism finally vanquished theocracy.

The report sent by Mayor Wells to Brigham Young is much milder, seemingly unaware that he and the Church hierarchy had been vanquished:

The Celebration has passed off without disturbance – programme fully carried out – Majors & Fitch made very good speeches – procession very long, & very good – New Tabernacle filled to overflowing; no accident occured and no one as yet hurt; although about one dozen arrests have been made, chiefly for drunkeness. Probably will be more arrests, as there is quite a number on the street drunk, but we think we have the nosiest ones in custody, and at present they are thinning out. Our streets have been very full of strangers to day. Quite a good many participated with us in the celebration. General De Trobriand came down with a company of troops stationed near Townsend House – He rode round viewing the procession, and I presume thinking all right. He returned to camp between 12 & 1 o’clock. From threats, and misrepresentations, he was very fearful of a collission.

Have not seen him since, but think he returned perfectly satisfied that we were fully competent to take care of ourselves. The disturbance party made a grand fizzle, & wanted to celebrated [sic] the next 4th of July at Corinne. Their Meeting House was less than half full.

Their firing of our cannon never sounded as lovely to me as to day. I presume their intentions was to arrest me, & some others to day, but Generals De Trobriand & Morrow advised them different. As I told them that I would go without any posse on any other day if they wanted I now think they wont have any use for me. The companies marched to places of rende[z]vous in the city, where they deposited their arms, & attended in Tabernacle without them, and after services closed they resumed their arms and retired to their homes in good order. In so large a procession, the military were not the principal feature, but what they will do about it I do not know, but have no fears. Three of our special police were attacked about 1 o.clock & shots were exchanged, but no one hit. The offenders were lodged in lockup. They are still threatening but not so much as yesterday evening. Large gangs of men follow each prisoner to lock-up, but offer no resistance, & so far the city is under complete control of the authorities. There are two displays of fireworks, two circuses, theatre, & dancing party in twelveth ward, to night, all of which I think will go off quietly, with exceptions perhaps of a few more drunks. All is well. Hope this will find all of you the same.

Despite all Gentile attempts to pretend that a collision was imminent, nothing much happened. It is unlikely that even a real showing by the Nauvoo Legion – had they worn their uniforms and carried their weapons – would have brought about bloodshed, in no small measure because the army, the only force with the power to attack the Legion, refused to take that awful responsibility. Instead, General de Trobriand placed the responsibility right back where it belonged, on civilian shoulders (and in this case, on the shoulders of a civilian who was reluctant to justify himself to his superiors for ordering such an attack).

Somali pirates, not so much.



  1. I have to disagree with your second paragraph and last sentence. I think alot of people are upset because the Navy has traditionally had a wide range of options in dealing with pirates and other missions upon the high seas without a great deal of civilian oversight. Max Boot’s “Savage Wars of Peace” and Kenneth Hagan’s “This People’s Navy” describe how many 19th century commanders operated out of gun boat diplomacy. (One funny story has a commander basically annexing an island in the Pacific for America and making himself governor) You could argue that technological limitations allowed commanders that freedom. But there is evidence that the Navy chafed under Kennedy’s micro management during the Cuban missile crisis as well. But many navy and military personal would chafe at being hamstrung in dealing with pirates, something they have done with vigor and without oversight since the founding of the country. You also seemed to mix Navy protocal with foreign criminals with federalism issues dealing with American Citizens. The two issues are very different and have different “rules”.

    Overall, I enjoyed the incredible detail in describing the civilian audit over military decisions and the exciting bit of Utah history. I simply think you slightly missapplied that lesson in dealing with Pirates. And I think the Navy did not need permission to deal with an obvious case of piracy. They simply needed to dust of their manuals and do it.

    Thank you for your time, and I appreciate your posts as always.

    Comment by Morgan Deane — April 21, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

  2. I’m sorry, I misread the post, you did not misapply the rules for pirates with the other. You used it as a sprinboard to discuss a period of Utah history. My bad. I still enjoyed the post, and enjoyed a chance to use all that boring Naval history I had to study for my degree.

    Comment by Morgan Deane — April 21, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

  3. Very interesting post, Ardis. SLC certainly had some interesting Fourth of July celebrations in the nineteenth century (flying flags at half staff, etc.). I need to do some reading on General de Trobriand.

    I’ve come across an order signed by D.H. Wells dated June 22, 1871 (“The Mormon Militia,” NY Times, Jul. 7, 1871, p. 5; Roberts, ed., Comprehensive History of the Church 5:359-60; Millennial Star 33:460-61; Tullidge, History of Salt Lake City, 502). I’m not sure about the details of its issuance.

    A comment by Brigham Young on the episode in a July 25, 1871, letter to Willard Young:

    Our celebration at Ogden was a spirited affair, as was also the celebration of the 4th in this city. You have doubtless heard and read a great deal about the latter, but the facts are that the brethren had one of the best, if not the very best, ever had in the mountains. As to what some term the backing down of the Lieut. Gen[eral], the only backing down was done by the self-styled “acting governor and commander-in-chief of the Nauvoo Militia,” for, according to his own statement, he had orders to suppress the procession if the militia marched in it, and on the 3rd inst. he voluntarily assured Gens. [Philip Regis] De Trobriandand [Henry A.] Morrow that he would make no arrests on the 4th. With this concession Gens. De Trobriand and Morrow, with U.S. Marshall [M.T.] Patrick and Attorney [Charles H.] Hempstead, waited upon Prest. [Daniel H.] Wells, and upon the urgent solicitation of De Trobriand, it was finally decided, after consulting with our committee, that the militia would not carry arms while in the procession.

    Dean Jessee, ed., Letters of BY to His Sons, 171.

    Comment by Justin — April 21, 2009 @ 12:46 pm

  4. Morgan, civilization thanks heaven that a civilian exercising diplomacy rather than a general with an H-bomb was in charge when it came to the Cuban Missile Crisis! You rather prove my point with that example. And yes, I would argue that technological differences between 19th and 21st century conditions are crucial factors: Jefferson didn’t need to approve every step in the war against the Barbary pirates — in a sense he had already given overall instructions and approval in commissioning the naval officers sent to fight those pirates.

    But even if I do completely misunderstand the legal niceties of the dance between military power and civilian oversight, Keepa isn’t chiefly a political blog. If we have to debate, let’s debate the history, and keep the focus there. Thanks.

    Thanks, as always, Justin; you come through with another relevant set of materials.

    I should have an article ready to submit to the Utah Historical Quarterly by the first of June which features that memorable half-staffing of the flag and the success of the gentile civilians in convincing Grover Cleveland to order the Fifth Cavalry stand by, ready to board express trains to Utah. “Good old-fashioned Fourth of July celebrations” could mean something different in Utah than other places …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2009 @ 1:51 pm

  5. Good luck with your submission. Please let us know how it goes.

    I am sorry if I overstepped my bounds. I was trying to bring some of my knowledge to the table and enrich your blog, and I was rather excited that all the tedious hours I spent reading naval history could finally pay off.

    Thanks for your time.

    Comment by Morgan Deane — April 21, 2009 @ 3:08 pm

  6. Thanks, Morgan. You’re fine — I was attempting to steer future conversation and commenters away from political current events. No fears there, though, eh? This post is going to be another of my magnificently unsuccessful comment magnets. I appreciate your thoughts and contributions.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 21, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

  7. I enjoyed reading this, Ardis. Do you know or have any ideas on who the New York Times correspondent was? I’ve wondered if it is possible to find out who wrote the articles about Utah during the 1870s and 1880s.

    I’ll look forward to your “half-staffing of the flag” article–I hope the UHQ accepts it.

    Another question: I hope it isn’t impolite to ask, but will you be at the MHA conference in Springfield this year?

    Comment by Phoebe — April 21, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

  8. Ardis-

    I haven’t run across this story before. Thanks for posting it. I look forward to reading the UHQ article as well.

    I’ve always found the revolving governorship at this time (Shaffer-Vaughan-Black) very intriguing. Maybe I need to take a closer look.

    Comment by Brandon — April 22, 2009 @ 10:06 am

  9. Ardis,
    My great-great-grandfather was a constable at the time of the July 4th 1885 Half Mast Incident. He was at the ZCMI flagpole and was charged with preventing the crowd from raising the flag. His involvement as recorded in the Tribune was very different from the events as described to his grandchildren.

    I’ll look for the UHQ article. If it is written by you I expect it will be as wonderful to read as your blog.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — April 22, 2009 @ 11:41 am

  10. Oh, you’re a descendant of that Crow! Cool. I learned long ago never to trust a thing in the Tribune from that era without having confirming information elsewhere. I’m glad to see your post, Bruce.

    My paper is on the history of the Grand Army of the Republic in Utah. It’s not especially focused on the conflict between GAR and LDS, but obviously that conflict plays a huge role in the story.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 22, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

  11. Phoebe, just saw your comment, sorry. I don’t know off the top of my head who the NYT correspondent was at that particular moment, but it’s been easy enough to identify correspondents for several papers at several points where it was important to a story. It just takes time. And although I have been to every MHA for the past ten years, I’m skipping this year in favor of a trip to Pennsylvania. More about that trip forthcoming, I expect.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 22, 2009 @ 12:09 pm

  12. Popular legends have grown up in recent years that the parade marched through columns of soldiers with their guns aimed and ready to fire, and that little girls stood between the soldiers and the Legionnaires, placing daisies into the barrels of the soldiers’ guns and begging them not to shoot, and that General de Trobriand, moved to tears, declared on the parade route that he could not give the order to shoot. Pure fantasy, all of it.

    Ardis, do you know the origin(s) of these legends?

    Comment by Justin — April 22, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  13. Oh, you’re a descendant of that Crow! Cool.
    So you’ve seen the name before! Do you know something I don’t?

    Comment by Bruce Crow — April 22, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

  14. Bruce, I’m only familiar with him through the newspaper accounts of the half-staffing, but since I’ve just been working on that story it’s like an old friend to see his name. I’ll have to look through my notes to pull out the accounts from the various papers that mention him and send them to you, in case there’s one you haven’t seen.

    Justin, I first became aware of the legends one or two Julys ago when an op-ed piece appeared in the Tribune about de Trobriand. That piece included these legends, and made some other errors (moving the incident from an Independence Day parade to a Pioneer Day parade and playing up or inventing other details calculated to put Mormons in the worst possible light), incorporating the legends I mentioned. I wrote an op-ed piece for the Trib to correct the history. That was a little tricky, because overall the first article was clearly intended to be a tribute to de Trobriand by a man who is himself a veteran, and I didn’t want my factual corrections to sound as though I was attacking either de Trobriand or the author or showing disrespect to veterans. After my corrections appeared, the first writer contacted me in the friendliest, most gracious manner, inviting me to an event I could otherwise never have gotten a ticket for, and cheerfully accepting every correction I had made. He told me that most of his information had come from conversations with some of de Trobriand’s descendants.

    The short answer is, I don’t know whether this is a case of family legend grown wild (because all the fabrications tended to make a more dramatic, more heroic figure of de Trobriand), or whether the descendants had heard those stories from some other source.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 22, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

  15. Thanks, Ardis. While looking for the Tribune article to which you refer, I came across a Deseret News article from 1996. The DN writer relates: “When it was time for the July 4 procession to begin, the Mormon leader [Brigham Young] had a little surprise of his own. The Nauvoo Legion was nowhere in sight. Instead, a procession of young girls with crowns of flowers paraded, creating a marked contrast with the armed soldiers. De Trobriand noted the event in his memoirs, congratulating the church leader on his cleverness.” I searched for his memoirs and found a book by his daughter that told the same tale (424-25).

    Comment by Justin — April 23, 2009 @ 9:00 am

  16. Holy #&@&, Justin! That’s an even more fanciful account than I’ve heard before! Well, at least we know why the living descendants and the op-ed writer thought things had gone the way he told it.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 23, 2009 @ 11:08 am

  17. I just came across this post, Ardis. Fantastic work.

    Yes, for once, no one suspected Mormon complicity in Shaffer’s death. He was sick with Tuberculosis at the time of his appointment. His wife died a short while into his brief gubernatorial career, and then he became gravely ill that fall.

    Comment by John T. — March 10, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

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