The Book of Mormon ends with the destruction of the Nephites — what has been referred to as the Nephite Apocalypse. That part of the story starts when Mormon enters the scene when he is fighting with an army of 30,000 men. As the war goes on, he withdraws from leading his people, and then is pressed back into service when they scour the landscape and press raw levies into a force of 24 legions that is broken in the last battle.
Assuming the battle is recorded like any other battle of its time, the same as other historical records, what actually happened in this last battle?
- First, the Nephite elites lost. They are a small minority (it is significant to Mormon that he is a descendant of Nephi – a status which is apparently remarkable)(Nephite is used in two different ways throughout the entire book. One is for a small group that is descended from Nephi and Sam. The other for anyone who is allied with them).
- Second, their forces were “destroyed.” Following which the wars continued without them (as noted in the text) and the surviving Nephites were hunted down and killed as a sideshow to the ongoing wars.
What does this actually mean?
Well, my thought is that it is fair to look at how similar stories from the same time periods were told in other historical writings. I’ll start with the Greeks.
Historically, a Greek phalanx that was “destroyed” had taken 5% casualties in the hoplite era and lost unit cohesion and the battles rarely lasted more than an hour, start to finish. Cf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_warfare.
Raw levies (military units formed of relatively untrained troops) broke and scattered with less pressure than a hoplite phalanx. (for more on the levy system, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Levy )(and see http://biblehub.com/topical/l/levies.htm ). They were “destroyed” when they lost cohesion, often with far less than the 5% casualties that it took to break a hoplite army, and after a far shorter clash.
When you read of Caesar’s intervention against Usipetes and Tencteri where with a legion or so he destroys hundreds of thousands of Germanii, you are reading about trained troops going against raw levies. The same is true of Xerxes marching against the Greeks with around 200,000 men when his army was broken by 40,000 hoplites.
How many people were actually involved in the last battle
It is interesting to look at military units that are called “ten thousand” or a variant on that. It also helps to look at other historical accounts of how many were in a battle and recreations where the actual number is calculated.
Consider the 732 A.C.E. Battle of Tours where 400,000 Umayyad and 75,000 Franks were said to have participated according to records from the 700s. Chroniclers later claimed that Charles Martel’s force lost about 1,500 while the Umayyad force was said to have suffered massive casualties of up to 375,000 men. Modern historians put the number of Umayyads entering the battle at closer to 50,000 and with less than 20% being killed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Tours.
But beyond the raw number inflation that tended to occur, historically there are a lot of units that basically translate as “ten thousand.” A roman legion was a “ten thousand.” Historically legions generally had between three thousand and six thousand men in them. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_legion Similarly, a “century” (lead by a centurion) is “a hundred” led by a “leader of a hundred.”
Following up on that example, the actual number in a “century” varied a great deal https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centuria#Military. The longer the war, and the worse the conditions of the nation, the smaller the number in a century or a legion. As a result, a unit called a “ten thousand” could have three thousand men or fewer in it. There are a number of historical examples of extreme shrinkage.
Who were the targets
Besides fighting over territory, just who where the opposing sides fighting and who were they attacking.
Generally, in a battle of this type, the peasants (or equivalent) are a resource. The enemy leaders are the target. That has been true even down to today in some conflicts where the officers were killed and the enlisted personnel enrolled in the mass of the winning army.
It is probable, in my opinion, that the target of this conflict was the Nephite[family] elite not the Nephite[faction member] peasants. That is consistent with their enemies hunting down and killing those who fled while the larger war between the enemy factions continues unabated. That is also consistent with having a reason to fight that makes sense in a historical context.
Which means for the Apocalypse
The Nephite army may have numbered as many as 72,000 men (up from its original strength of 30,000 under Mormon at the beginning of the war) broken into 24 units led by the Nephite elites. Total casualties they suffered, if this was a battle typical of a clash involving raw levies, would be less than 2,000 – but would be disproportionately the leaders and elites involved, more than enough to destroy the Nephites as a power base (and note that the Book of Mormon reflects that the wars continue without the Nephites once they are slaughtered).
The main battle probably lasted less than half an hour before the one side broke and fled, leaving the elites to be slaughtered. Note that the record reflects that the elites were chased down and hunted after the battle, so that many of them appear to have successfully fled for a time. Others were slain even though they started the battle surrounded by their soldiers.
My assumption is that the battle recorded is being recorded the same as similar battles at similar times involving what appear to be similar forces. Similar times: ancient era. Similar forces: mostly raw levies with some experienced soldiers spread among them. Similar writing as other historic writers in similar situations.
The conclusion I reach
When you read the closing acts of the Book of Mormon, you are reading of the apocalypse that destroyed the Nephite elites and their power base — the end of the story of Nephi, whose story starts the Book of Mormon. While for them it was a history ending catastrophe, it is far different when looked at from an outside perspective (and why the warring parties appear to not even have slowed down after eliminating the Nephites).
Much like some of the battles against Genghis Khan. For the elites that led the forces against him and who were slaughtered, it was the end of the world. For China it was just a change in government, not even a change in bureaucracy.
Worth thinking about as the Book of Mormon study period draws to an end.