The Mormon Battalion, the only religiously based unit in United States military history, served from July 1846 to July 1847 during the Mexican–American War of 1846–1848. The battalion was a volunteer unit of between 534 and 559 Latter-day Saints men led by Mormon company officers, commanded by regular US army officers. During its service, the battalion made a grueling march of nearly 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego.
The battalion’s march and service supported the eventual cession of much of the American Southwest from Mexico to the United States, especially the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 of southern Arizona and New Mexico. The march also opened a southern wagon route to California. Veterans of the battalion played significant roles in America's westward expansion in California, Utah, Arizona and other parts of the West.
At the time they enlisted, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were seeking U.S. government aid for their migration west to the Rocky Mountains and Salt Lake Valley, despite having their previous petitions for redress of grievances denied. Under continued religious persecution, they had fled Nauvoo, Illinois, on 4 February 1846 across the Mississippi River. They camped among the Potawatomi Indians near present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Brigham Young, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, sent Elder Jesse C. Little to Washington, D.C., to seek assistance from the federal government for the Mormon Pioneers fleeing from the Illinois mobs. Little arrived in Washington D.C. on 21 May 1846, only eight days after Congress had declared war on Mexico. Pennsylvania Army officer and attorney Thomas L. Kane offered the Mormons his advice and assistance. Politically well connected through his jurist father, Kane provided letters of recommendation and joined Little in Washington, D.C. The two called on the secretary of state, secretary of war, and President James K. Polk. After several interviews in early June 1846, President Polk agreed to Little's offer[clarification needed] if "a few hundred" men enlisted. On 2 June 1846, President Polk wrote in his diary: "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."
On 1 July 1846 Captain James Allen, dispatched by Colonel (later Brigadier General) Stephen W. Kearny, arrived at the Mormons' Mosquito Creek camp. He carried President Polk's request for a battalion of 500 volunteers to fight in the Mexican War. Most members of the Church were suspicious of the request, as the Federal government had ignored the persecutions they suffered. They were concerned about facing discrimination by the government, as they had from both the state and federal government in the past.
Kane obtained U.S. government permission for the refugee Mormons to occupy Pottawattamie and Omaha Indian lands along the Missouri River. After carrying dispatches relating to the land agreements and battalion criteria to Fort Leavenworth, Kane sought out Little in the Mormon encampments on the Missouri. On 17 July 1846, he held a meeting with church leaders and Captain Allen.
Brigham Young had planned on moving the Mormons west that summer, but circumstances were against his plan. He saw several possible advantages to the Saints in the proposed federal service. Their enlistment would be a public relations victory for the church, demonstrating additional evidence of its loyalty to the United States. As the men were given a uniform allowance at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., of US$42 each, paid in advance, for their one-year enlistment and as they were allowed to wear their civilian clothing for the march, the bulk of those funds were immediately donated to a general Church fund. These funds were used to purchase wagons, teams, and other necessities for the American exodus (Actual wages paid over the next year to the Mormon Battalion totaled nearly $30,000). Having been forced to leave farms and homes in Nauvoo, the Latter-day Saints were going to spend the winter on the banks of the Missouri River. Raising a group of able-bodied men would be difficult. Many men had already scattered to outlying areas where they sought jobs with wages to help support the group. Young wrote a letter to the Saints living in Garden Grove, in which he justified the call-up and asked for their help:
The President wants to do us good and secure our confidence. The outfit of this five hundred men costs us nothing, and their pay will be sufficient to take their families over the mountains. There is war between Mexico and the United States, to whom California must fall a prey, and if we are the first settlers the old citizens cannot have a Hancock or Missouri pretext to mob the Saints. The thing is from above for our own good.
The public approval of Brigham Young and other members of the Twelve were critical to gain men's enlistment. While some men quickly volunteered, Young had to persuade reluctant enlistees. It took three weeks to raise the five companies of men.
Allen's instructions were to recruit five companies of men who were to receive the "pay, rations, and other allowances given to other infantry volunteers." Each company was authorized four women as laundresses, "receiving rations and other allowances given to the laundresses of our army." Approximately thirty-three women, twenty of whom served as laundresses, and fifty-one children accompanied the men. Four women would eventually complete the cross-continental trek. The Mormon Battalion was mustered into volunteer service on 16 July 1846 as part of the Army of the West under General Kearny, a seasoned veteran. His units included two regiments of Missouri volunteers, a regiment of New York volunteers who traveled by ships to California to meet him there, artillery and infantry battalions, Kearny's own 1st US Dragoons, and the battalion of Mormons. For years afterward, some Mormons viewed the Mormon Battalion as an unjust imposition and as an act of persecution by the United States.(Carrington 1857, p. 5)
The battalion arrived at Fort Leavenworth on 1 August. For the next two weeks, they drew their pay, received their equipment (Model 1816 smoothbore flintlock muskets and a few Harper's Ferry Model 1803 Rifles), and were more formally organized into a combat battalion. The volunteers took the army's uniform allowance in cash. To assure the main body of the group benefited from the men's wages, Young sent Orson Pratt to see that the men handed over their first pay. Young used this and the wages they earned later to buy supplies for the main group at wholesale prices in St. Louis, Missouri. He wrote to the enlistees that the money was a "peculiar manifestation of the kind providence of our Heavenly Father at this time." There was little time for training and instilling discipline. Newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel James Allen became ill but ordered the battalion forward along the Santa Fe Trail to overtake Kearny's Army of the West. On 23 August, Allen died and was the first officer buried in what became Fort Leavenworth National Military Cemetery.
Captain Jefferson Hunt, commanding A Company, was the acting commander until word reached Council Grove, Kansas, that Allen had died. A few days later Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Smith, West Point Class of 1838, arrived and assumed temporary command of the battalion with the Mormons' consent. For the next several weeks, the Mormon soldiers came to hate "AJ" Smith and the assistant surgeon, Dr. George B. Sanderson, for their treatment of the men, and the long marches suffered across the dry plains of Kansas and New Mexico. The Mormon men were not accustomed to the austere military standards of the day nor to the medical treatments imposed by Dr. Sanderson, including the use of feeding mercury to the sick, which were standard for the time. Because the church leaders had counseled the battalion members to avoid military medical treatment, they challenged the doctor's authority and unrest arose among the men. Smith and Sanderson continued to hold the Mormon Battalion to ordinary standards of discipline, and tensions continued.
Cooke assumes command
Arriving in Santa Fe in October, General Kearny had dispatched Captain (now Lieutenant Colonel) Philip St. George Cooke, West Point class of 1827, to assume command of the battalion. His assignment was to march them to California and to build a wagon road along the way. In Santa Fe several sick men and all but a few of the women and children were sent to Pueblo, in present-day Colorado. Three separate detachments left the battalion and went to Pueblo to winter. For the next four months and 1,100 miles, Cooke led the battalion across some of the most arduous terrain in North America. Most of the Mormon soldiers soon learned to respect and follow him. The group acquired another guide in New Mexico – adventurer and mountain man Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who as an infant had traveled with his mother Sacagawea across the continent with the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Lieutenant Smith and Dr. Sanderson continued with the battalion, along with Lt. George Stoneman, newly graduated from West Point that Spring. During the Civil War, all three officers were promoted to high-level commands for the Union Army, and Stoneman would later be elected Governor of California.
Battle of the Bulls
Near the San Pedro River in present-day Arizona lived a sizable number of wild cattle. The battalion reached this area in November 1846, and their presence aroused curiosity among these animals. After the bulls of these herds caused destruction to some of the mules and wagons and resulted in two men being wounded, the men loaded their guns and attacked the charging bulls, killing 10–15 of the wild cattle, which was sarcastically termed the "Battle of the Bulls".
Capture of Tucson
Approaching Tucson, in present-day Arizona, the battalion nearly had a battle with a small detachment of provisional Mexican soldiers on 16 December 1846. The Mexicans retreated as the US battalion approached. The local O'odham and other Piman tribes along the march route were helpful and charitable to the American soldiers. Mormon soldiers learned many methods of irrigation from these native inhabitants and employed the methods later as pioneers in Utah and other areas.
Nearing the end of their journey, the battalion passed through Temecula, California, during the aftermath of the Temecula Massacre, a conflict between the Californios and the Luiseño tribe. The Mormons stood guard to prevent further bloodshed while the Luiseño people gathered their numerous dead into a common grave.
The Mormon Battalion arrived in San Diego on 29 January 1847 after a march of some 1,900 miles from Iowa. For the next five months until their discharge on 16 July 1847 in Los Angeles, the battalion trained and also performed occupation duties in several locations in southern California. The most significant service the battalion provided in California was as a reliable unit under Cooke that General Kearny could rely on to block Fremont's mutinous bid to control California. The construction of Fort Moore was one measure that Cooke employed to protect legitimate military and civil control under Kearny. Some 22 Mormon men died from disease or other natural causes during their service. About 80 of the men re-enlisted for another six months of service.
A few of the men escorted John C. Fremont back east for his court-martial. A few discharged veterans worked in the Sacramento area for James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill. Henry Bigler recorded the actual date, 24 January 1848, in his diary (now on display at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA) when gold was discovered. This gold find started the California Gold Rush the next year. $17,000 in gold was contributed to the economy of the Latter-day Saints' new home by members of the Mormon Battalion returning from California.
Historic sites and monuments
Historic sites associated with the battalion include:
- Mormon Battalion Historic Site, a visitor center in the Old Town neighborhood of San Diego.
- Box Canyon historical site, in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, San Diego County, on Highway S-2, approximately 8.7 miles south of Highway 78 (Scissors Crossing). (GPS location: N33.0152, W116.4429) Here the Battalion cut a road into the rocky side of a canyon which was otherwise impassable to wagons. Remnants of the road cut into the rock wall are still visible.
- Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial, the largest bas-relief military monument in the United States, on Hill Street in downtown Los Angeles, dedicated in 1958 at the site of historic Fort Moore built by the Mormon Battalion in 1847, decommissioned in 1853.
- Mormon Battalion Mountain, a low-lying mountain within San Bernardino County's Glen Helen Regional Park at the mouth of Cajon Canyon, where in April 1847 a detachment of the Mormon Battalion arrived from Los Angeles with the assignment to set up camp, build a fort or redoubt and guard the pass from Indian raids. A historic marker within the park commemorates this event.
- Mormon Rocks, northwest of San Bernardino, California, in the Cajon Pass, just west of Interstate 15 on State Route 138. Near Mormon Rocks, the first wagon road was blazed through the Cajon Pass in 1848 by 25 veteran Battalion soldiers, with the wagon of Captain Daniel C. Davis, wife Susan and son Danny in their journey to the Salt Lake Valley.
- The Mormon Battalion Monument at the Utah State Capitol, Salt Lake City, Utah.
- The Mormon Battalion Memorial in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego, erected in 1998.
- A sculpture of an infantryman of the battalion by Edward J. Fraughton erected in 1969 at Presidio Park, San Diego, which is pictured above.
- A large bronze sculpture of a meeting between the Mormon Battalion and Mexican El Presidio leadership sits in the Northwest portion of El Presidio Park, adjacent to the Pima County Courthouse in downtown Tucson, Arizona. Although their nations were at war, the military contingents from both nations were able to avert armed confrontation in part via this peaceful meeting of representatives of both armies.
- The Mormon Battalion Monument outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. It is a tower of stone with a wagon wheel on top. A bronze plaque marks the contributions of the battalion and lays out the map of their travels across the southwest.
Monuments relating to the battalion are also located in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, and trail markers have been placed on segments of the battalion route between Mount Pisgah (Iowa) and San Diego.
Notable members of the battalion
- Daniel C. Davis, namesake of Davis County, Utah
- Stephen Clark Foster, first American mayor of Los Angeles, California
- Jefferson Hunt,:43 father of San Bernardino County, Brigadier-General of California Militia
- William Prows,:44 first man to wash gold on the Comstock Lode
- James C. Sly:44
- Lot Smith a teenage Private in the battalion became the first sheriff of Davis County, Utah, Mormon hero of the Utah War, General in the Nauvoo Legion and the first LDS Stake President in Arizona.
- George Stoneman, Civil War general and Governor of California
- William S. S. Willes:44
- James Allen, Recruited the battalion and served as the first commander; died at Ft. Leavenworth shortly after leading the battalion there. West Point Class of 1825. Allen was a brevet Lt. Col. and is buried in the Fort Leavenworth National Cemetery.
- Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, Scout and son of Sacagawea and the French trader Toussaint Charbonneau who were members of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery.
- Andrew Jackson Smith, Second commander of the battalion, West Point Class of 1838, and Major General during the American Civil War.
- Philip St. George Cooke, Third commander of the battalion, West Point graduate, veteran of the Black Hawk War, Cavalry commander during the Army's expedition to Utah in 1856, and Major General during the American Civil War.
- Christopher Layton, Patriarch, coloniser and businessman, namesake of Layton, Utah.
- Fleek 2006, p. [page needed]
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- The Discovery of Gold in California, John Sutter, Hutchings' California Magazine, November 1857: The Mormons did not like to leave my mill unfinished, but they got the gold fever like everybody else. After they had made their piles they left for the Great Salt Lake. So long as these people have been employed by me they hav [sic] behaved very well, and were industrious and faithful laborers, and when settling their accounts there was not one of them who was not contented and satisfied.
- Image of the trail in Box Canyon, Religious Education Image Archive, Brigham Young University
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- Ricketts, Norma B. (1994), Melissa's Journey with the Mormon Battalion: the western odyssey of Melissa Burton Couray: 1846–1848, Salt Lake City, Utah: International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers, OCLC 31954138
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Mormon Battalion.|
- San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site, LDS.org
- Mormon Battalion Association, MormonBattalion.com
- Roster of Mormon Battalion Members, MormonBattalion.com
- Women of The Mormon Battalion, Carl V. Larson, Shirley N. Maynes, Watkins Printing (1995)
- Mormon Battalion Trek 2008 Reenactment, BattalionTrek.com
- The Mormon Battalion in the Desert Southwest by Kent Duryee, DesertUSA.com
- House Resolution No. 5--Relative to commending the Mormon Battalion, 15 January 1997 - California Legislature commendation
- Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 40--Relative to the Mormon Battalion, 13 June 1995 - California Legislature Historical Plaque