The president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young, faced monumental problems in the 1840s, but he was up to the task of handling it all.
Founder Joseph Smith had been assassinated; the Mormons were persecuted and driven out of Illinois and Missouri, and about 15,000 were huddled in camps in Iowa along the Missouri River waiting to make the long, grueling trek to their New Zion in Utah.
The federal government did nothing to protect them, and uncertainty about a new life in the untamed West haunted their spirits.
But not Brigham Young’s. He saw the hand of providence opening up a new opportunity for the struggling saints.
Despite the government’s indifference, Young decided to try to change the public attitude toward the church. In January 1846, he wrote a letter to Jesse C. Little, presiding elder of the New England and Middle States Mission, instructing him to talk to national leaders in Washington, D.C., to seek help for the migrating Mormons.
Little arrived in the nation’s capital in May, just eight days after the U.S. declared war against Mexico.
Two weeks later, he met with President James K. Polk, urging him to put the Mormons to work building forts and other infrastructure projects. Polk countered with a request that the Mormons form a battalion of volunteer soldiers to join the Army of the West under Col. Stephen W. Kearny.
If he accepted the offer, Polk would allow Mormon refugees to camp on Pottawattamie and Omaha Indian lands near the Missouri.
Little accepted and sent Capt. James Allen to recruit volunteers from the Mormons camped on the Missouri for the winter in preparation for heading to Salt Lake Valley in the spring.
The idea didn’t go over well with the LDS Saints — who feared the government had ulterior motives that were not in the Mormon interest. Also, the volunteers would be recruited from the most able-bodied men that were needed for the arduous trek ahead.
Brigham Young understood the battalion would provide income for the troops and their families and that it would enhance the image of the Mormons as patriotic Americans.
After he and church leaders promoted the plan, 543 (figures vary) volunteers camping from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Mt. Pisgah signed up. Enlistment was only for a year, and they would be sent to California and discharged there — which would be much closer to their families in Salt Lake.
It took three weeks to enlist five companies of men.
The unit was called the Mormon Battalion — the only religion-based military unit in American history.
In addition to the men, there were 34 women and 51 children. Twenty of the women were paid a private’s pay to do the laundry. Only four women completed the whole journey.
Each volunteer would be given ammunition and supplies, plus an 1816 model Flintlock smoothbore musket made by Harpers Ferry Arsenal in 1827 — which they could keep.
The men would be paid $42 uniform allowance, but because uniforms weren’t mandatory, most of the money was sent home to families or to a general church fund to buy wagons, teams and supplies for the trek to Utah — with many troops serving their enlistment in civvies.
It was the first time the U.S. government had helped the Mormons.
“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,” Brigham Young said.
“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.”
That prophecy would come true.
President Polk’s offer was far from altruistic however. In his diary he wrote on June 2, 1846, “Col. Kearny was also 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, & prevent them from taking part against us.”
He was worried about strife between the Battalion and Kearny’s army regiment who were mostly from Missouri — the state that had forced the Mormons out in 1838-’39 — so he gave Kearny broad authority to deal with any problems.
Problems started immediately.
On July 20, 1846, the volunteers led by Lt. Col. James Allen started a 180-mile march to Fort Leavenworth to receive their gear. Shortly after arriving, Allen died and was replaced by Capt. Jefferson Hunt, who was to lead the Battalion to Santa Fe, N.M.. Suddenly, Lt. Andrew Jackson Smith arrived from Fort Leavenworth claiming he was in charge.
The five company commanders voted to accept the change in leadership, but that caused considerable grumbling among the enlisted ranks because they weren’t consulted.
There was another complaint. They didn’t like Dr. George B. Sanderson, the battalion surgeon. Medical problems were many, as the troops suffered under desert heat, lack of good food, and forced long-distance marches. He treated virtually every ailment with outdated medicines, including mercury.
Nor did the troops — untrained in traditional military discipline — like Lt. Smith because of his dictatorial methods of leadership, but he led them to Santa Fe, where they were met with a 100-gun salute.
Then Kearny replaced him with Lt. Col Philip St. George Cooke.
Journals describe Smith and Sanderson as the battalion’s “heaviest burdens.”
Cooke’s orders were to march the battalion to California and to build a wagon road along the way. During the arduous march through some of North America’s toughest terrain, they hired Jean Baptiste “Pomp” Charbonneau as a guide.
His mother was Sacagawea.
In Santa Fe, several sick men and all but a few of the women and children were sent to recuperate and winter at Fort Pueblo in Colorado. A total of 273 headed north, including an earlier group from Kansas.
The rest of the soldiers, four officer wives and children left Santa Fe for San Diego on Oct. 19, 1846.
In Tucson, Ariz., Cooke’s unit faced Mexican forces, who immediately ran away.
Cooke wrote, “The garrison…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.”
Elsewhere in Arizona however, the Mormon Battalion faced its only real fight on Dec. 11 — not Mexicans, but wild bulls that stampeded and upset wagons, terrified the pack animals, and gored two mules to death.
The soldiers opened fire and killed 15 bulls. Three men were gored.
On Jan. 29, 1847, the Battalion’s 340 men, four officers’ wives and children completed the historic 1,900-mile trek to San Diego.
Fifteen men escorted Kearny — by then general — back to Fort Leavenworth; 81 re-enlisted, and about 245 of the rest were discharged.
Most of the troops headed for the fledgling settlement in Utah.
Six of the discharged veterans traveled north to Sacramento to work for James W. Marshall — the man who built John Sutter’s sawmill and told the world that he’d found gold.
Those Mormon Battalion vets were early-birds in the 1849 gold rush that followed.
Their successes brought $17,000 in gold to the fledgling economy of the Salt Lake Valley settlement.
The Mormon Battalion blazed the first wagon road across the southern desert to California, secured the presidio at San Diego and helped build Fort Moore in early Los Angeles.
“History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry,” General Cooke wrote, “nine-tenths…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…
“With crowbar and pick and ax in hand we have worked our way over mountains…and hewed a pass through a chasm of living rock…marching half naked and half fed…we have discovered and made a road of great value to our country.”
The Battalion played an important role in U.S. history, adding 960,000 square miles to the American West ceded from Mexico with Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) and Gadsden Purchase (1854).
Though 22 Battalion men died from various causes, not one life was lost “by the hands of the enemy.”
Just like Brigham Young predicted.
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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One woman lost…
Of the women who completed the Mormon Battalion journey, the only one to die was Lydia Hunter, wife of Company “B” Captain Jesse Hunter. She died in California only four months after completing the trek and two weeks after giving birth to a son.
Good deal for USA…
The Gadsden Purchase — or Treaty — was an agreement between the United States and Mexico finalized in 1854, in which the United States agreed to pay Mexico $10 million for 29,670 square miles of territory that is now part of Arizona and New Mexico. It also established the border between the two countries.
During its tour of duty, the Mormon Battalion passed through Temecula east of Los Angeles, arriving after a recent massacre. The Luiseño Indians had captured and executed eleven Mexican soldiers who’d stolen their horses.
Then to avenge their deaths, Mexican soldiers aided by Cahuilla Indians, ambushed and killed from 33 to 100 Luiseños.
The Mormon Battalion stood guard as the Luiseños gathered their dead and buried them in a common grave.
Guadalupe Hidalgo pact…
“The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 formally gave the United States half-a-million square miles of additional territory — California and much of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Nevada — in return for a payment of $15 million. Mexico accepted the loss of Texas, and the line of the Rio Grande and the Gila River became the international border in the south. President Polk was not satisfied and complained that he would have demanded more land if he had been given the chance.”
— History Today
Kearny and Frémont…
During the Mexican-American War, Captain John C. Frémont was in command of California — helping American immigrants wrest control from Mexico. When the war was over, Brigadier General Philip W. Kearny took over — enraging Frémont.
Frémont ended up being court-martialed for mutiny and insubordination over a conflict of who was the military Governor of California. President Polk commuted the sentence and reinstated him, but Frémont resigned from the Army.
Kearny served as California’s military governor until the summer of 1847, when he traveled to Washington, D.C., where he was hailed as the conqueror of California, promoted to brevet major general and given command of the garrison at Vera Cruz, Mexico.
The following year he caught malaria and died in St. Louis at age 54.
Frémont ran for President on the Republican ticket but lost.
“Most of all, it was the physical hardships that were so difficult to bear: searing sun, thirst, cold winds, hunger, thirst, sand, always more sand, thirst, rock, thirst.
“Six months into their trek, most of the men had traded away any spare clothing in exchange for food. Rags and pieces of hide took the place of shoes. Hair and beards were unshaven and uncombed.
“Skin was darkened to a deep, leathery brown. Bones and ribs of man and beast protruded through stretched flesh.”
— Lance B. Wickman, LDS Elder of the Seventy