On account of the near-by Indian frontier, the law in many of the border States was that every able-bodied citizen must train for military service.1 This law was new to the Latter Day Saints, and they had no desire to take part in ceremonies which many times were out of accord with their own standards of behavior, for "muster days," especially in pioneer communities, were a round of celebration from daylight until dark, and long after.
From the organization of the government of the State of Missouri until the year 1847, there existed a militia law, requiring all able-bodied male citizens, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years, to organize into companies and to muster upon certain days. They had during the year at different times, a company, a battalion and a general muster. A company muster was a drilling of the members of one company; a battalion muster consisted in the drilling of the companies of one-half a county; and a general muster was the meeting of all the companies of a county.
Muster day was for a long time after the commencement of the custom a gala day for the citizens, and was looked forward to with considerable interest, especially by the different officers who appeared in full military dress; captains and lieutenants with long red feathers stuck in the fore parts of their hats, and epaulettes upon their shoulders, and fine cloth coats, ornamented with gold fringe, rode around among the men and gave orders, making themselves the "observed of all observers." Also the vendors of whiskey, ginger cakes, apples, and cider took no small interest in the anticipated muster day, for on that day, every person being excited, bought more or less of these things. Always on muster day, after the muster was over, the rival bruisers of the neighborhood tried their strength upon one another, thus furnishing a great deal of amusement for those attending. The little folks were also happy in the anticipation if not the enjoyment of being presented with ginger2 cake and an apple on that day.3
Citizens were compelled to pay a fine of one dollar for absence from muster. These militia adopted names according to their fancy, such as the Liberty (Missouri) Blues and Carthage (Illinois) Greys. Of the militia of Clay County, many of whom later distinguished themselves in the Mexican War, one of the old-time judges in writing of the past says:
In the early days of Clay County the people had great zeal for keeping up military organizations; and the military laws of the State required that they should organize. They took quite a pride in complying with the law, and the Indians being immediately upon the border, from past experience a great many of us, knowing their treachery, were actuated from purposes of self-protection as well as due respect for the law, soon organized ourselves into companies with a full set of officers, each company having its stated time and Place for drilling, or muster, as it was termed. We generally met three times a year for company drill--spring, summer, and fall. We had in addition regimental and battalion muster once or twice a year. . . . At our big musters, our officers vied with each other in going through all the tactics known in military discipline. . . . The people enjoyed themselves on these occasions. All hands being of a genial, social disposition, they ate, drank, and were merry, and some would drink essence of corn until they were so drunk they would be feeling upward for the ground.
When first urged to organize into a company of state militia, the Saints demurred, telling Governor Dunklin it was "by no means agreeable to the feelings of the church." The governor's reply was: "Should your men organize according to law, which, they have a right to do (indeed, it is their duty to do so, unless exempted by religious scruples), and apply for public arms, the executive could not distinguish between their right to have them, and the right of every other description of people similarly situated."
After Caldwell County, supposed to be exclusively Latter Day Saint, was organized, a military organization was, of course, compulsory, but Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and others took advantage of legal exemption, as clergymen. However, in Nauvoo, some years later, forced to the wall by a series of heartbreaking events, Joseph Smith took his place with all other citizens in a military organization, that, while fulfilling the requirements of the law, was also a matter of great pride, for it was second to none in the state. While the "Nauvoo Legion" with its handsome arsenal on the hill, its uniforms, its military drills, and sham battles may seem rather foolish to us today, we must remember that these exercises were a part of the life of every frontier town of that period.
The state of affairs in a community where every man was a soldier and one in every dozen an officer had its complications. The task of determining whether or not a group of men were acting in official capacity brought about all manner of complications. Rioting was not uncommon as in the case of the killing of Major J. Logan Forsythe during a muster at Boonville. When some of the citizens of Independence forced all the Latter Day Saints to surrender their arms, Governor Dunklin, after an investigation, decided that these men were not acting as militia, but as a mob, and ordered the arms returned. Finally, in the late forties, this law was abolished.
1 The organization of companies of militia among Latter Day Saints has
been greatly misunderstood because of ignorance of this law. Jason W. Briggs and Zenos H.
Gurley, Jr., bitterly arraigned the early church for this when they withdrew from the
church and even the late Joseph Smith in his splendid "The Situation" in Saints'
Herald, Volumes 18, 19, (see Church History, Volume 3, page 676) deplored the raising of a
military organization by the church.
2 Our grandmothers called gingerbread "muster bread" because of its being so generally sold on muster days.
3 History of Cooper County, Missouri, by Levins and Drake, Perrin and Smith, Saint Louis, 1876.