“History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry.”
Colonel Philip St. George Cooke
When Captain James Allen of the U.S. Army rode into the makeshift refugee camp at Mount Pisgah (near present-day Thayer, Iowa) on 26 June 1846, he was met with something less than enthusiasm. Perhaps 15,000 men, women and children, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were filtering through this encampment, driven from their homes and farms in or around Nauvoo, Illinois by a citizenry that had turned vicious and a government—right to the top—that had turned the other way.
When Allen presented a request for 500 able men to join U.S. forces in the war with Mexico, he was regarded with something between ambivalent distraction and outright disdain. But within days, Allen had his five companies, plus laundresses, helpers, and a passel of kids. Thus the United States Army's "Mormon Battalion" was born on the desolate prairie soil of the Iowa frontier, a region yet six months away from official statehood. And Captain James Allen had very little to do with it.
A Place of Safety
Months before, in the dead of winter, Church leaders in Nauvoo had sent an epistle to U.S. president James K. Polk offering to build "block houses and stockade forts"along the trail to Oregon and California for the benefit of all future travelers. The possibility of removing to "a place of safety . . . away towards the Rocky Mountains" had been on the minds of Church leaders since 1840. With the mounting violence in Nauvoo—including the 1844 assassination of Church prophet Joseph Smith—that time had clearly come. Yet given the nature of Church membership in this era—thousands of recent European immigrants and others now bereft of most of their possessions—the Latter-day Saints were largely destitute. If the U.S. government would compensate for their efforts, the Saints would build, then politely abandon, a string of secure shelters on their way out of The United States of America.
That January of 1846, Polk gave the offer little thought.
To win over what they perceived to be a question of trust, the Saints then testified as to their patriotism: "We also further declare, for the satisfaction of some who have concluded that our grievances have alienated us from our country; that our patriotism has not been overcome by fire—by sword—by daylight, nor by midnight assassinations, which we have endured neither have they alienated us from the institutions of our country. Should hostilities arise between the Government of the United States and any other power, in relation to the right of possessing the territory, of Oregon, we are on hand to sustain the claims of the United States Government to that country."
Still Polk demurred.
Then on 12 May, the U.S. declared war on Mexico. Polk confided in his diary entry of 2 June 1846, "Col. [Stephen W.] Kearny was. . . authorized to receive into service as volunteers a few hundred of the Mormons who are now on their way to California, with a view to conciliate them, attach them to our country, and prevent them from taking part against us."
Although the prolonged absence of 500 able-bodied men would severely challenge the exodus to the West, Brigham Young recognized that the promised military pay, clothing and supplies—which Battalion volunteers would be entitled to keep—could be of great benefit to isolated pioneers wresting a new life from the untried soil of a yet-distant home. From the historical record it appears that Brigham Young's overriding intent with the offering of peacekeeping force, however, was to win the confidence of—and independence from—a capricious and to-date uncaring U.S. government. (As it worked out, the move bought them very little in this regard; Albert Sidney Johnston's army marched to quell the highly publicized but patently imagined "Utah War" barely a dozen years later.) To Captain Allen, Brigham Young replied: "You shall have your men, and if we have not enough men we will furnish you women."Brother Brigham got enough men; it took him three days.
The March Is On
According to Brigham Young University historian Larry C. Porter, 513 men mustered in on the Battalion rolls on 16 July, five of them were appointed captains of companies. When, four days later, the newest contingent of the Army of the West marched out of Kanesville (now Council Bluffs), Iowa territory under the command of Captain Allen, it was accompanied by 34 women and 51 children, some of them employed as laundresses. For many who had already forfeited nearly everything they owned, bringing their families was part of the deal.
But so was good behavior. As his "parting blessing," Brigham Young charged the recruits to ". . . live your religion, obey your officers, . . . and . . . hold sacred the property of the people, never taking anything that does not belong to you . . .; always spare life when possible; if you obey this counsel, attending to your prayers to the Lord, I promise you in the name of the Lord God of Israel that not one soul of you shall fall by the hands of the enemy."
By the time the Battalion reached Fort Leavenworth, Captain Allen found the unusual demographic makeup of his entourage the least of his worries. He reached the fort waning from sickness and died within days. From Leavenworth, Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Smith pushed the Battalion onward to Santa Fe. Presumably annoyed with the nature of his force, Smith employed frequent forced marches and other inequities with a dictatorial demeanor. One chronicler of the events stated that any other body of people not already accustomed to being herded from one place to the next "would have mutinied rather that submit to the oppressions."In fact, by the time the Battalion was within Mexican territory, three "sick" detachments were sent north to Fort Pueblo, Colorado, first from western Kansas and later from Santa Fe. Against the contentions of many that families were not to be separated, these detachments included most of the women and children. Fortunately for the remaining volunteers, there was a new commander awaiting their arrival in Santa Fe: Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke.
Thus 340 men, four officers' wives (the wives were all commissioned as privates), and a few children continued and completed the grueling 2,000-mile, 6-month desert march to California, reaching San Diego on 29 January 1847. Along the way they mapped the country (an effort which played prominently in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853), opened a wagon road, and established a U.S. presence that would, two years later, be officially recognized with the annexing Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Of their exploits Commander Cooke offered this example: "The garrison of four presidios of Sonora concentrated within the walls of Tucson, gave us no pause. We drove them out, with their artillery, but our intercourse with the citizens was unmarked by a single act of injustice,"fulfilling the challenge given months earlier by Brigham Young.
Of the women who completed the journey, only one never returned to join the Saints in Utah. Lydia Hunter, wife of Company "B" Captain Jesse Hunter, died in California only four months after completing the trek and two weeks after giving birth to a son. He was named James Diego.
The Mormon Battalion's only "battle" was the Battle of the Bulls, the result of a wild cattle stampede that resulted in the death of fifteen bulls (shot), two mules (gored), and three wounded men. When the Battalion completed its march, 15 men turned around and escorted now-General Kearny back to Fort Leavenworth, 81 reenlisted, and the rest (about 245) were discharged. Six of the latter were at Sutter's Mill when gold was discovered 24 January 1848.
The Long Road to Refuge
Though it never fought a battle, the Mormon Battalion earned a place in the history of the West. Perhaps its accomplishments were best catalogued by its commanding officer, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, in his official summation of the journey for his commanders:
“There are literally scores of Mormon Battalion trail markers* between Mt. Pisgah (Iowa) and San Diego, where the largest and most extensive Mormon Battalion monument is the Mormon Battalion Memorial and Visitor Center in Presidio Park, 2510 Juan Street, Old Town, San Diego, California.” Two additional "post-San Diego" sites in California are also significant. The first is an enormous monument near city hall in downtown Los Angeles, where the Battalion erected Fort Moore; the second is found 12 miles northwest of San Bernardino, just off state highway 138 at the foot of Cajon Pass, where 25 recently-discharged Battalion soldiers blazed a wagon trail across the Sierra Nevada in their journey back to their families and their new refuge of faith in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.”
*The best trail guide for Mormon Battalion markers is Stanley B. Kimball's Historic Sites and Other Markers Along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
"History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry. Nine-tenths of it has been through a wilderness where nothing but savages and wild beasts are found, or deserts where, for want of water, there is no living creature. There, with almost hopeless labor, we have dug deep wells, which the future traveler will enjoy. Without a guide who had traversed them, we have ventured into trackless prairies where water was not found for several marches. With crowbar and pick and ax in hand we have worked our way over mountains which seemed to defy aught save the wild goat, and hewed a pass through a chasm of living rock more narrow than our wagons. Thus, marching half naked and half fed, and living upon wild animals, we have discovered and made a road of great value to our country."
A country, ironically, from which the main body of Latter-day Saints now huddled in dugouts and crude shelters along the frozen banks of the Missouri River were currently fleeing for their own safety. The majority of Saints now gathered at Winter Quarters, Nebraska Territory, were in fact European converts (as were a number of the Battalion soldiers). Their eventual refuge, the Great Salt Lake Valley, lay 950 miles and seven difficult months to the west. On this January 29 of 1847, that distant refuge was in Mexican Territory. One year later almost to the day (2 February), and owing in large measure to the success of the Battalion, it would be American. (Another 48 years would pass before Utah would be granted statehood.)
Church President Heber J. Grant, whose own parents walked across those bitter plains, spoke of the episode more than 70 years later:
"When the Latter-day Saints were being driven from their homes, . . . driven from the confines of the United States [onto] Mexican soil . . . [t]he [U.S.] government called on Brigham Young for 500 men to help fight Mexico. . . . Show to me, if you can, in all the history of the world another case of a people being expatriated, being driven from their own country, from their own lands which they had purchased, . . . the last remnant of them crossing the Mississippi River in the dead of winter, on the ice, nine babies being born during the night of that terrible expulsion, with no shelter . . ., going forth on their journey of a thousand miles in the wilderness, after having appealed to the president of their republic, who could only say: "Your cause is just, but we can do nothing for you" [see Endnote 1]—show me another people, I say, who under like circumstances would have furnished 500 men to fight their country's battles! Show me greater patriotism and loyalty to country than this! It can't be done."
And yet it could not have possibly been loyalty to country that impelled many of the Mormon Battalion soldiers, wives, and children. They walked half a continent. They blazed a road. They etched their names in history.
This was a conquest of faith.