A Brief History of the Mormon Battalion

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The original 1846-47 Mormon Battalion was like no other unit to ever serve into the United States military.  An independent battalion in the Army of the West during the Mexican-American War, it remains the only religious unit ever recruited from a single religion using a religious unit designation, the nickname of the Christian church from which it was drawn, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

These intrepid, but cultured, Eastern and European civilian craftsmen and farmers endured unthinkable hardships and near starvation to master vital wilderness survival techniques, being forged by their crucible of fire into seasoned frontiersmen and pioneer engineers.  Trekking over 2,180 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa down the Santa Fe Trail and across the Southwestern deserts to the Pacific Coast, they befriended Native Americans and local Californios through numerous public service projects, digging wells and building community walls, buildings, and forts.  Upon release from their one year enlistment, some participated in the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.  Knowing that their families were literally more precious than gold, they abandoned the California gold fields, blazing much of the California Trail later used by the westbound gold rush of 1849, to rejoin other members of their church in the high desert valleys of the Great Basin.  Many trekked all the way back to gather their families from temporary settlements along the Missouri River near present Omaha-Council Bluffs and then take them westward to the Great Salt Lake City.  Once back in Utah with their families, many Battalion members had covered over 5,000 miles, over five times the distance other Mormon pioneers experienced during their exodus.

In July 1846, under the authority of the U.S. Army and with the encouragement of Mormon leader Brigham Young, Captain James Allen mustered the Mormon Battalion near Mosquito Creek in the Mormon Grand Encampment on the western edge of the Iowa Indian Territory near present Council Bluffs.  Allen was to take command of the unit as Lieutanant Colonel and appoint his staff.  Secretary of War William Learned Marcy outlined their orders in the following 3 June 1846 Letter of Instructions to Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny, Commander of the new Army of the West headquartered at Fort Leavenworth, Indian Territory (one of three new armies organized in anticipation of war with Mexico):

It has been decided by the President to be of the greatest importance, in the pending war with Mexico, to take early possession of Upper California [a vast mostly unsettled area including all of present California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado].  An expedition, with that view, is hereby ordered, and you are designated to command it....  It is known that a large body of Mormon emigrants are enroute to California, for the purpose of settling in that country.  You are desired to use all proper means to have a good understanding with them, to the end that the United States may have their cooperation in taking possession of and holding that country.  It has been suggested here, that many of these Mormons would willingly enter into the service of the United States, and aid us in our expedition against California. You are hereby authorized to muster into service such as can be induced to volunteer, not, however to a number exceeding one-third of your entire force.  Should they enter the service, they will be paid as other volunteers, and you can allow them to designate, as far as it can properly be done, the persons to act as their officers.

Church and military leadership recruited for days to gather the necessary enlisted personnel.  Each individual, like so many before and after them, had to make a conscious decision to enter service for a war they likely misunderstood.  These individuals prayed for insight and strength in their decision to serve a government, which until now, had shunned and mistreated them.  By 16 July, over 500 experienced pioneer men had enlisted.   Age requirements of 18 to 45, first specified by Lieutenant Colonel Allen, were ignored by a number of volunteers.  The oldest recruit was 67 year old Samuel Gould and the youngest was Alfred Higgins, barely 14.  Also accompanying the Battalion were approximately thirty-three women, twenty of whom served as laundresses, plus fifty-one children.  In all, about six hundred individuals started the journey to Fort Leavenworth.

The Mormon Battalion departed Council Bluffs on the first leg of its historic trek on 16 July 1846, marching to the traditional American soldier tune, "The Girl I left Behind Me."  The Battalion arrived at Fort Leavenworth on 1 August 1846, where it drew arms and equipment for the trek to California.  Because the army did not issue uniforms to volunteers at this time, the Battalion used their clothing allowance of $42.00 each as needed for the service.  In many cases, remaining monies were sent to the Church and families for their needs.  The men wore no uniforms as volunteers in service.

The march from Fort Leavenworth was delayed by the sudden illness of Lieutenant Colonel Allen; Captain Jefferson Hunt was instructed to begin the march to Santa Fe and received word en route that Allen had died.  Allen's unexpected and untimely death caused confusion regarding who should lead the battalion. First Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Smith, member of an independent detachment traveling with them, was chosen to temporarily command the Battalion until their arrival at Santa Fe.  He was there replaced by Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, who led them the rest of the way to California.

The men of the Mormon Battalion are honored for their willingness to fight for the United States as loyal American citizens.  They participated in the early development of California by building Fort Moore in Los Angeles, a courthouse in San Diego, digging wells, and making bricks used throughout southern California.  The Mormon Battalion was officially mustered out in July 1847, after completing their one year enlistment.  About 60 members re-enlisted for six months in California. 

The travels of members of the Mormon Battalion were not over once they were released from the Army.  Many travelled over 4,000 miles in less than two years, returning from California all the way back to Council Bluffs to get their families (pioneering the California Trail used by many in the Gold Rush just two years later), and then doubling back once again to Utah.  And they did not rest when they finally arrived in Utah.  Their hard earned desert survival skills - including irrigation and desert farming learned from the Pima Native Americans along the Gila River - were in great demand.  Former members of the Battalion were repeatedly "salted" in almost every settlement of eastern and European Mormon "greenhorns" throughout the mountain west, from northern Mexico to southern Canada.  Theirs was a lifetime worthy of emulation, filled with unselfish service to their country, their Native American and Spanish American friends, and to their fellow Mormons.

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Header Photo:  Sandia Mountains, East of Albuquerque, NM, (33.5031 N, 106.1074 W), taken by Kevin Henson. – Seen from the trail just before reaching the Galisteo River on 21 October. The new “Rail Runner Express” commuter rail tracks and support roads have removed some original trail segments in this area.