Brigham Saving the Nauvoo Legion - 1871
Extraordinary leadership kept 1871 Pioneer Day safe
Salt Lake Tribune
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
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
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
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
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'
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
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.
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