At that time, there were numerous LDS settlements in Missouri. The two largest settlements were at Far West and a settlement called Adam-ondi-Ahman; and the Prophet, Joseph Smith, ordered the saints to gather in those two communities for their own safety.
One of the LDS communities extant at that time was known as Haun's Mill. According to Wikipedia:
Haun's Mill was a mill established on the banks of Shoal Creek in Fairview Township, Caldwell County, Missouri in 1835–1836 by Jacob Haun (Hawn), who was not a Mormon. However, by October 1838 there were approximately 75 Mormon families living along the banks of Shoal Creek, about 30 of them in the immediate vicinity of Haun's Mill and the blacksmith shop.
(Footnotes omitted). (Note, some sources indicate that Haun was LDS). In any event, Haun did not want to leave his property, and urged the members of the community to remain. (Primary 5 Manual, p. 176). Later, Joseph Smith would say “At Hauns’ Mill the brethren went contrary to my counsel; if they had not, their lives would have been spared” (History of the Church, 5:137) (quoted in Primary 5 Manual, p. 176).
Around October 25, a band of approximately twenty men headed up by Nehemiah Comstock,one of three captains who led the attack five days later, rode into Haun’s Mill and demanded that the Mormons turn over their guns and weapons. Fearing repercussions if the ruffians’ directives were not met, most of the men reluctantly complied. As soon as the anti-Mormon band made their departure, messengers were dispatched to Mormon families living along Shoal Creek that hostile bands were active in the area and to be on guard. Anti-Mormon raiders also accosted Mormon companies traveling through the area en route to Far West. Abraham Palmer stated that while passing through Livingston County, his company was surrounded by a mob consisting of thirty-eight men who abused them and then took the only three rifles they had before allowing them to pass on.William H. Walker’s wagon company was stopped in the same area. Every wagon was searched and robbed of all its firearms and ammunitions. Then, as if the attack on the Haun’s Mill had already been planned, they were warned that if they proceeded any farther, they would all be killed.Another Mormon company led by Joseph Young, an older brother to Brigham Young, received even harsher treatment. Young’s party, composed of some ten families, had almost reached Caldwell County when they were confronted by a Livingston band headed by Thomas R. Bryan (the county clerk), his brother Jefferson Bryan, William Ewell, and James Austin. “We were taken prisoners by an armed mob that . . . demanded every bit of ammunition and every weapon we had,” wrote Amanda Smith. “We surrendered all. They knew it, for they searched our wagons.” The raiders then took them back a distance of five miles to a location known as Whitney’s Mills, where they placed them under guard and detained them for several days. After finally being released, they proceeded on to Haun’s Mill where they arrived two days before the attack.
(Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 10, no. 1 (Spring 2009), p. 26) (end notes omitted).
Under the leadership of Colonel Thomas Jennings [of the Missouri State militia], the several companies of Livingstone militia were formed into a battalion. The decision to attack the settlement was made 29 October at Woolsey’s farm about ten miles northeast of Haun’s Mill. Jennings and his force of about 200 men left after noon on 30 October and rode south to within several miles of the mill. There they dismounted, marched across the open prairie to the woods just north of the mill, and filtered through the trees.
Captain Evans had withdrawn the pickets that had been stationed in the woods the previous day, but was apparently planning to set them out again that evening. The attack came about 4:00 p.m. without warning. Some of the Saints at first thought the approaching men were reinforcements from Far West. With the opening volley of shots, the hamlet was thrown into confusion. Evans waved his hat and shouted for “quarter.” He was not heard, but it is doubtful if peace would have been given anyway. The women and children scattered, and some of the men ran for the woods and safety. Those who got to the blacksmith shop [which they had planned on using as a "fort"] found it to be a trap; they were fired upon through the large cracks between the logs and were so crowded inside that they were easily hit. When they tried to flee from the building, they were again fired upon and only a few, most of them
wounded, managed to get to the woods where they hid until night.
Seventeen Saints, all men and boys, died that day or in the following weeks. One woman was injured, and some men were hacked to death by corn knives after they had been wounded. Thomas McBride, a seventy-eight-year-old man, was wounded, then shot with his own rifle as he surrendered, and finally hacked by his murderer. Ten-year-old Sardius Smith was deliberately killed as he tried to hide, and nine-year-old Charles Merrick suffered with his wounds for five weeks before he died. The Missourians had three men wounded who were taken away in wagons stolen from the Saints. Jennings’ men stayed for less than two hours and then returned to Livingstone County.
The Saints slowly gathered themselves together during the night, tended to the wounded as best they could, and wept for the dead. The following day the bodies were slid into a partially dug well and lightly covered with dirt. Later that day Comstock’s men returned to bury the dead and warn the remaining Mormons that they must leave the state immediately. After the surrender of Far West and Adam-ondi-Ahman, Comstock’s com-
pany was assigned to Haun’s Mill and remained there until the Saints migrated to Illinois.
(BYU Studies , no. (), pp. 2-3). Although it appears that Jennings did not know of he Extermination Order until the day of the attack, and some suggest that he therefore planned and initiated the attack without orders, Gov. Boggs subsequently approved the attack nunc pro tunc.
The three primary principles of a small unit attack are surprise, speed, and violence of action. Jennings, unfortunately, had all three on his side.
So, where did the Saints go wrong?
First, and foremost, the sure way to avoid becoming the victim of an attack is to avoid the attack. In this case, Haun had reliable intelligence, both from the Prophet (i.e., divine instruction) and first hand reports from other Saints, that hostile military units were operating in the area. He had been advised by Joseph Smith to evacuate the area, but refused to do so because he did not want to lose his property. In other words, not only did he ignore the word of God, but he did so because he had set his sights on worldly things.
Second, ignoring his failure to leave, Haun and Captain Evans still had first hand intelligence of mob's in the area. In fact, Evans had initially set pickets to warn of an attack, but withdrew them prior to the attack. Unfortunately, the pickets could have provided warning, or even been used to gather intelligence for the community. Not having anyone on guard duty was a big mistake.
Third, many of the saints had given up their weapons and ammunition prior to the attack, rendering them effectively defenseless. Although none of the accounts give specific numbers, from the fact that there were 75 families living at the settlement, which number had been augmented by a group that had newly arrived, the Saints probably had at least 75 men, and probably more, that could have handled weapons. However, without weapons, they were largely useless.
The extra weapons was more significant of an issue then, than it would be now because of the nature of the weapons. Most of the Saints would have been armed with either rifles or fowling pieces, probably percussion cap by that time, and perhaps a few muskets. The muskets or fowling pieces would have been slow to load--even a skilled shooter using military issued paper cartridges would have needed 10-15 seconds to reload. The rifles would have taken considerably longer. In any event, since the attackers were on horses, if the defenders fired when the attackers first entered their effective range, the attackers would have been on them before they could have reloaded. This could have been militated by having one or two people supporting a shooter, who could hand a fully loaded weapon to the shooter, while preparing a reload. But, if you don't have the weapons or ammunition, what are you to do?
Fourth, the plan, if attacked, was to withdraw into a small crowded building that not only would have been easily surrounded and overrun, but, in reality, offered no real protection. There was no effort to prepare a skirmish line, form a square, or mutually supporting positions. Even if the blacksmith shop had afforded protection against the muskets and rifles used by the militia, they would have burned it to the ground.
Fifth, the Saints do not appear to have actually practiced what to do if attacked. I recognize that they did not have significant time to do so, but they knew of the general danger at least a few days in advance and could have undertaken some practice.
What could they have done? Frankly, once they gave up their weapons and munitions, their options became very limited. However, there were methods that they could have used to reduce the surprise, speed, and violence of action of the government forces. First, as noted above, they could have posted picket riders to give warning of an attack, which would have eliminated surprise.
Second, remember that the attackers were on horses, which they had to lead through woods north of the settlement. An attack from or in the woods would have eliminated Jenning's advantage as to speed. Similarly, the Saints could have withdraw across the creek which may have been enough of an impediment to slow down the attack (note the dam, which suggests that there was deep water for a significant portion. Also, the old favorite of traps and mines, even if simply placing sharp sticks into the ground or digging covered pits, could have slowed or broken the cohesion of the attack.
Third, violence of action depends on a concentration of force and firepower. The militia forces did not have machine guns or artillery, so their "violence of action" was based on overwhelming numbers of armed men versus the number of armed defenders. This advantage can be mitigated by canalizing an attacking force, forcing them to present a narrow front, splitting an attacking force, or attacking early and often before the attackers can actually engage. Again, barriers and booby traps could have been used to canalize or split the attacking forces. Booby traps would have allowed the defenders to engage the attackers prior to the attackers moving into range to engage the defenders.
All in all, the options of the Saints were very limited if for no other reason than they were undergunned and outnumbered. A successful defense would have saved lives, but only delayed the inevitable loss of the settlement. The best option would have been to follow orders and abandon the settlement prior to the attack. And don't voluntarily allow yourself to be disarmed.