“Fight like Angels,” chapter 30 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 30: “Fight like Angels”
The afternoon of October 30, 1838, was crisp and pleasant at Hawn’s Mill, a small settlement in Caldwell County. Children played beneath a blue sky on the banks of Shoal Creek. Women washed clothes at the river and prepared meals. Some men were in the fields, gathering crops for the winter, while others worked in the mills along the river.1
Amanda Smith sat in a tent while her daughters, Alvira and Ortencia, played nearby. Her husband, Warren, was at the blacksmith shop with their three young sons, Willard, Sardius, and Alma.2
The Smiths were only passing through Hawn’s Mill. They belonged to the company of poor Saints who had left Kirtland earlier that summer. One problem after another had delayed the family’s journey, forcing them to separate from the others. Most of the company had already arrived in Far West, and Amanda and Warren were anxious to move on.3
As Amanda rested in the tent, she saw a flicker of movement outside and froze. A group of armed men, their faces blackened, were descending on the settlement.4
Like other Saints in the area, Amanda had worried about mob attacks. Before stopping at Hawn’s Mill, her small company had been accosted by men who raided their wagons, confiscated their weapons, and placed them under guard for three days before releasing them.5
When her company arrived at Hawn’s Mill, local leaders had assured them that the settlement was safe. David Evans, the leader of the Saints there, had made a truce with their neighbors, who said they wanted to live peacefully with the Saints. But as a precaution, he had posted guards around the settlement.
Now danger was upon the Saints at Hawn’s Mill. Snatching up her little girls, Amanda ran to the woods by the millpond. She heard the crack of gunfire behind her, and a volley of bullets whistled past her and the others scrambling for the trees.6
Near the blacksmith shop, David waved his hat and shouted for a cease-fire. The mob ignored him and continued to advance, firing again at the fleeing Saints.7
Clinging to her daughters, Amanda ran down into a ravine as more bullets flew past her. When she reached the bottom, she and the girls hurried across a plank bridging the pond and started up a hill on the other side.
Mary Stedwell, a woman running next to her, raised her hands to the mob and begged for peace. The mob fired again, and a bullet ripped through her hand.
Amanda shouted for Mary to take cover behind a fallen tree. She and her daughters ran deeper into the woods and ducked behind some bushes on the other side of the hill.
Out of sight from the mob, Amanda pulled her girls close and listened as shots echoed throughout the settlement.8
When the shooting began, Amanda’s six-year-old son, Alma, and his older brother Sardius followed their father into the blacksmith shop, where the Saints had stored what few guns they owned. Inside, dozens of men were trying desperately to fend off the attackers, using the shop as a fort. Those who had guns fired at the mob through gaps in the log walls.
Terrified, Alma and Sardius crawled under the blacksmith bellows with another young boy. The mob outside surrounded the shop and closed in on the Saints. Some men rushed out the door, shouting for peace, but withering fire from the mob cut them down.9
Alma stayed hidden beneath the bellows as the gunfire grew louder and more intense. The mob pressed in around the shop, thrust their guns through the gaps in the walls, and fired into the men at close range. One after another, the Saints fell to the ground with bullet holes in their chests, arms, and thighs.10 From under the bellows, Alma could hear men groaning in pain.
The mob soon stormed the entrance, firing at more men as they tried to escape. Three bullets struck the boy hiding beside Alma, and his body went limp. One man caught sight of Alma and fired at him, blasting a gaping wound in his hip.11 Another man spotted Sardius and dragged him outside. He shoved the muzzle of his gun roughly against the ten-year-old’s head and pulled the trigger, killing him instantly.12
One of the mob turned his head away. “It was a damned shame to kill those little boys,” he said.
“Nits make lice,” replied another.13
Unaware of the governor’s extermination order, the Saints in Far West held out hope that Boggs would send help before mobs laid siege to their town. When they saw an approaching army of about two hundred and fifty troops in the distance on October 30, joy swept over them. Finally, they thought, the governor had sent the state militia to protect them.14
Commanding the force was General Alexander Doniphan, who had helped the Saints in the past. General Doniphan formed his troops into a line opposite the Saints’ forces positioned just outside Far West, and the Saints hoisted a white flag of truce. The general was still waiting for written orders from the governor, but he and his troops had not come to protect Far West. They were there to subdue the Saints.15
Although he knew the Saints’ forces outnumbered the Missouri troops, George Hinkle, the Latter-day Saint in charge of the Caldwell County regiment, grew uneasy and commanded his troops to retreat. As the men fell back, Joseph rode up through their ranks, confused by George’s order.
“Retreat?” he exclaimed. “Where in the name of God shall we retreat to?” He told the men to return to the field and re-form their lines.16
Messengers from the Missouri militia then approached the Saints with orders to ensure the safe removal of Adam Lightner and his family from the town. Adam was not a member of the church, but he was married to twenty-year-old Mary Rollins, the young woman who had rescued pages of the Book of Commandments from a mob years before in Independence.
Adam and Mary were summoned from Far West along with Adam’s sister Lydia and her husband, John Cleminson. When they learned what the soldiers wanted, Mary turned to Lydia and asked her what she thought they should do.
“We will do as you say,” Lydia said.
Mary asked the messengers if the women and children in Far West could leave before the attack.
“No,” they responded.
“Will you let my mother’s family go out?” Mary asked.
“The governor’s orders were that no one but your two families should go,” she was told.17
“If that is the case, I refuse to go,” said Mary. “Where they die, I will die, for I am a full-blooded Mormon, and I am not ashamed to own it.”
“Think of your husband and child,” the messengers said.
“He can go and take the child with him, if he wants to,” Mary said, “but I will suffer with the rest.”18
As the messengers were leaving, Joseph rode up to them and said, “Go tell that army to retreat in five minutes or we’ll give them hell!”19
The militiamen rode back to their line, and soon the Missouri troops retreated to their main camp.20 Later that day, eighteen hundred more troops arrived under the command of General Samuel Lucas, who had been a leader in driving the Saints from Jackson County five years earlier.21
There were no more than three hundred armed Saints in Far West, but they were determined to defend their families and homes. The prophet gathered the Saints’ forces to the town square and told them to prepare for battle.22
“Fight like angels,” Joseph said. He believed that if the Missouri militia attacked, the Lord would send the Saints two angels for every man they lacked.23
But the prophet did not want to go on the offensive. That night, the Saints piled up anything they could, making a barricade that stretched a mile and a half along the city’s eastern, southern, and western borders. While men wedged fence rails between house logs and wagons, women gathered supplies in anticipation of an attack.
Guards stood watch all night.24
At Hawn’s Mill, eleven-year-old Willard Smith—Amanda Smith’s oldest son—emerged from behind a large tree near the millpond and crept to the blacksmith shop. When the attack began, he had tried to stay with his father and brothers, but he had been unable to push his way into the shop and instead took cover behind a woodpile. As the mob spread out and discovered his location, he had moved from house to house, dodging bullets as he ran, until the mob left the settlement.
At the blacksmith shop, Willard found his father’s lifeless body slumped over in the doorway. He saw the body of his brother Sardius, whose head had been horribly mutilated from the gunshot. Other bodies—more than a dozen—lay heaped on the floor inside the shop. Willard searched among them and found his brother Alma. The boy lay limp and motionless in the dirt, but he was still breathing. His trousers were covered in blood where he had been shot.25
Willard gathered Alma in his arms and carried him outside. He saw their mother coming toward them from the woods. “They have killed my little Alma!” Amanda cried when she saw them.
“No, Mother,” Willard said, “but Father and Sardius are dead.”
He carried his brother to their camp and carefully laid him down. The mob had ransacked the tent, sliced open the mattresses, and scattered the straw. Amanda smoothed out the straw as best she could and covered it with clothing to make a bed for Alma. She then cut off his trousers to see the damage.26
The wound was raw and ghastly. The hip joint was entirely gone. Amanda had no idea how to help him.
Perhaps she could send Willard for help, but where would he go? Through the thin fabric of her tent, Amanda could hear the groans of the wounded and the weeping of Saints who had lost husbands and fathers, sons and brothers. Anyone who might be able to help her was already tending to someone else or grieving. She knew she would have to rely on God.27
When Alma regained consciousness, Amanda asked him if he thought the Lord could make him a new hip. Alma said he did if she thought so.
Amanda gathered her three other children around Alma. “Oh, my Heavenly Father,” she prayed, “Thou seest my poor wounded boy and knowest my inexperience. Oh, Heavenly Father, direct me what to do.”28
She finished her prayer and heard a voice direct her actions. The family’s fire still smoldered outside, and she quickly mixed its ashes with water to make lye. She soaked a clean cloth in the solution and gently washed Alma’s wound, repeating the procedure over and over until the wound was clean.
She then sent Willard to gather roots from an elm tree. When he returned, Amanda ground the roots to a pulp and folded them into a poultice. She placed the poultice on Alma’s wound and wrapped it with linen.
“Now you lie like that, and don’t move,” she told her son, “and the Lord will make you another hip.”29
Once she knew he was asleep and the other children were safe in the tent, Amanda stepped outside and wept.30
The next morning, October 31, George Hinkle and other leaders of the Saints’ militia met with General Doniphan under a white flag of truce. Doniphan had still not received the governor’s orders, but he knew they authorized the extermination of the Saints. Any talk of peace, he explained, would have to wait until he saw the orders. He also told George that General Lucas, the Saints’ old enemy, was now in command of the militia forces.31
Returning to Far West, George reported what he had learned to Joseph. Around this time, messengers from Hawn’s Mill arrived with news of the massacre. Seventeen people had been killed and more than a dozen wounded.32
Both reports sickened Joseph. The conflict with the Missourians had escalated beyond raids and minor skirmishes. If mobs and militias breached the Saints’ barricade, the people in Far West could suffer the same fate as those at Hawn’s Mill.33
“Beg like a dog for peace,” Joseph urged George. The prophet said he would rather die or go to prison for twenty years than have the Saints massacred.34
Later that day, the governor’s orders came, and George and other militia leaders arranged to meet with General Lucas on a hill near Far West. The general arrived in the afternoon and read the extermination order aloud. The Saints were shocked. Far West, they knew, was surrounded by almost three thousand Missouri militiamen, most of them hungry for a fight. All Lucas had to do was sound the order and his troops would overrun the city.
Yet the general said that he and his troops were willing to show some mercy if the Saints turned over their leaders, surrendered their arms, and agreed to sell their land and leave the state for good. He gave George one hour to agree to the terms. Otherwise, nothing would stop his troops from annihilating the Saints.35
George returned to Far West that evening, unsure if Joseph would commit to the terms. As commander of the Caldwell County militia, George had the authority to negotiate with the enemy. Yet Joseph wanted him to consult with the First Presidency before agreeing to any proposals from the state troops.
With time running out and the Missouri militia poised to strike the town, George told Joseph that General Lucas wanted to speak with him and other church leaders about ending the conflict. Eager to place the Saints out of danger, Joseph agreed to talk under a flag of truce. Although he was not a member of the militia, Joseph wanted to do whatever he could to resolve the conflict.36
He and George left Far West shortly before sundown with Sidney Rigdon, Parley Pratt, Lyman Wight, and George Robinson. Halfway to the Missouri camp, they saw General Lucas riding out to meet them with several soldiers and a cannon. Joseph assumed they were coming to escort them safely to the Missouri camp.
The general halted his horse in front of the men and ordered his troops to surround them. George Hinkle stepped up to the general and said, “These are the prisoners I agreed to deliver up.”
General Lucas drew his sword. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you are my prisoners.” The Missouri troops erupted into shrill war whoops and closed in on the captives.37
Joseph was stunned. What had George done? The prophet’s confusion turned to anger, and he demanded to speak to Lucas, but the general ignored him and rode away.
The troops marched Joseph and the other men to the Missouri camp. A crowd of soldiers greeted them with vicious threats and insults. As Joseph and his friends passed through their lines, the men howled triumphantly and spat in their faces and on their clothes.
General Lucas placed Joseph and his friends under heavy guard and forced them to sleep on the cold ground. Their days as free men were over. They were now prisoners of war.38