Mormon Battalion

Mormon Battalion
"Mormon Battalion Monument" by Edward J. Fraughton, Presidio Park, San Diego, California.

The Mormon Battalion was the only religiously based unit in United States military history,[1] and it served from July 1846 to July 1847 during the Mexican-American War. The battalion was a volunteer unit of between 534[2][3] and 559[4] Latter-day Saints men led by Mormon company officers, commanded by regular US army officers. During its service, the battalion made a grueling march, at nearly 2,000 miles in length from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego.

The battalion's march and service was instrumental in helping the US secure much of the American Southwest, including new lands in several Western states, especially the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 of much of southern Arizona. 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 what became Omaha, Nebraska.

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 for their lives from the mobs of Illinois. Little arrived in Washington D.C. on 21 May 1846, only eight days after Congress had declared war on Mexico.[5] 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 Polk. After several interviews in early June 1846, President Polk agreed to Little's offer 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."[6]

On 1 July 1846 Captain James Allen, dispatched by Colonel (later Brigadier General) Stephen W. Kearny, arrived at the Mormons' Mosquito Creek camp. He had a request from President Polk to enlist a battalion of 500 volunteers to fight in the Mexican War.[7] Most members of the Church were suspicious of the request, as the Federal government had ignored the grievous 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.[8]

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 Latter-day Saint encampments on the Missouri. On 17 July 1846, he held a meeting with LDS leaders and Captain Allen.

Brigham Young had planned on moving the Mormons west that summer, but circumstances were against his plan. He saw in the federal service, several possible advantages to the Saints. Their enlistment would be a public relations victory for the church, demonstrating additional evidence of its loyalty to the United States.[8] As the men were given a uniform allowance at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., of US$42 each, paid in advance, for their one-year enlistment. 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 Battallion totaled nearly $30,000).[9] Having been forced to leave farms and homes in Nauvoo, under threat, 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.[10]

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 and cajole many 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."[11] Each company were authorized four women as laundresses, "receiving rations and other allowances given to the laundresses of our army."[11] Approximately thirty-three women, twenty of whom served as laundresses, and fifty-one children accompanied the men.[5] Four women would eventually complete the cross-continental trek.[12] The Mormon Battalion was mustered into volunteer service on 16 July 1846 as part of the Army of the West under General Kearny, a tough and 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).

Journey begins


The battalion arrived at Fort Leavenworth on 30 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 be sure the Saints benefited from the men's wages, Young sent Orson Pratt to make sure the men handed over their first pay. Young used this and the wages they earned later to buy wagon loads of 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."[11] 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, which were standard for the time. Because the elders had counseled the battalion members to avoid military medical treatment by the military, 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 all the women and children, except for a very few, and many sick men were sent to Pueblo, in present-day Colorado. A total of 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 Lieutenant 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. Afterward, Stoneman would go on to be elected Governor of California.

Battle of the Bulls

The mormon Battalion in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

The only battle the battalion faced was near the San Pedro River in Arizona, November 1846. This area was home to a number of wild cattle. The battalion's presence aroused curiosity among these animals, and the bulls of these herds caused destruction to some of the mules and wagons.

In response to this, the men loaded their guns and attacked the charging bulls, killing 10–15 of the wild cattle.[11]

Capture of Tucson

Main article: Capture of Tucson (1846)

Approaching Tucson, in future 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 Indian tribes along the march route were helpful and charitable to the American soldiers. Mormon soldiers learned many methods of irrigation from the Indian peoples and employed them later as pioneers in Utah and other areas.

Temecula Massacre

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.[13][14]

Journey complete

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 and during the war, 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 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.[15] $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.[16]

Historic sites and monuments

Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial, Los Angeles

Historic sites associated with the battalion include:

  • Mormon Battalion Historic Site, a visitor center in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park, 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 in 1847, 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.[17]
  • 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 any 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 in Memory Grove, Salt Lake City, Utah.[2]
  • The Mormon Battalion Memorial in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, Point Loma, San Diego erected in 1998.[18]
  • A sculpture of an infantryman of the battalion by Edward J. Fraughton erected in 1969 at Presidio Park, San Diego, which is pictured above. [19]

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 Mt. Pisgah (Iowa) and San Diego.[20]

  • The community of Binghampton in Tucson, Arizona, was established in 1916 but it was first settled by Erastus Bingham, Jr. in 1893. He had come through Tucson in 1846 as part of the Mormon Battalion. In 2003 it was placed on the NRHP as a Rural Historic Landmark to save what was left of the rural area. Today it includes the Brandi Fenton Memorial Park and once again has people enjoying it. It is next to the Rillito Riverpark which runs along the banks of the Rillito River and gets quite a few walkers and bicyclists.

Notable members of the battalion

See also


  1. ^ Sherman L. Fleek discusses this assertion at length in History May be Searched in Vain: A Military History of the Mormon Battalion
  2. ^ a b Mormon Battalion
  3. ^ Mormon Battalion – California Pioneer Heritage Foundation
  4. ^ Monument honoring Mormon Battalion to regain its luster – LDS Church News
  5. ^ a b "Utah History Encyclopedia, Mormon Battalion". Retrieved 25 September 2009. 
  6. ^ James K. Polk, Polk: the Diary of a President, 1845–1849, ed. Allan Nevins (1929), 109
  7. ^ "Heritage Gateways: Mormon Battalion". Retrieved 25 September 2009. 
  8. ^ a b McLynn, Frank. Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails. Grove Press. pp. 386–7. ISBN 0-8021-4063-7. 
  9. ^ The Pioneer Story
  10. ^ Brown, Joseph D. (1980). The Mormon trek west. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. pp. 50–52. ISBN 0-385-13030-9. 
  11. ^ a b c d Roberts, B.H. (1919). The Mormon Battalion: Its History and Achievements. Salt Lake City: Deseret News. 
  12. ^ "The Mormon Battalion (1846–1847) Roster". Archived from the original on 24 June 2008. Retrieved 26 September 2008. 
  13. ^ The Indian Cemetery at Old Temecula, by Kevin Hallaran, Allene Archibald, Lowell J. Bean, Sylvia B. Vane. Archaeological Research Unit, University of California, Riverside (1991)
  14. ^ Cooke, Philip St. George (1964). The Conquest of New Mexico and California, an Historical and Personal Narrative. Albuquerque, NM: Horn and Wallace. pp. 192–193. 
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^
  17. ^ Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial
  18. ^ Mormon Battalion Memorial Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery
  19. ^ Smithsonian Institution Research Information System #IAS 75001331
  20. ^ Information on the trail of the Mormon Battalion is available in Stanley B. Kimball's Historic Sites and Other Markers Along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails.


  • Bagley, Will and David Bigler. Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion Narratives, Kingdom of the West: Mormons on the American Frontier. Spokane, WA: Arthur H. Clark and Company, 2000.
  • Carrington, Albert, ed (12 August 1857). The United States Government and Utah. 7. 4–5.,7667 .
  • Fleek, Sherman L. History May be Searched in Vain: A Military History of the Mormon Battalion, Spokane WA: Arthur H. Clark and Company, 2006.
  • Griswold del Castillo, R. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A legacy of conflict. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990. First paperback printing 1992.
  • Kimball, Stanley B. Historic Sites and Other Markers Along the Mormon and Other Great Western Trails. University of Illinois Press, 1988.
  • Merk, F. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.
  • Riketts, N. B. Melissa's Journey with the Mormon Battalion; the western odyssey of Melissa Burton Couray: 1846 – 1848. Salt Lake City: International Society Daughters Utah Pioneers, 1994.
  • Riketts, N. B. The Mormon Battalion; U. S. Army of the West, 1846 – 1848. Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996.
  • Roberts, B.H. (1919). The Mormon Battalion: Its History and Achievements. Salt Lake City: Deseret News. .
  • Cooke, P. S. et al. The Conquest of New Mexico and California in 1846 – 1848. Glorieta, NM; Rio Grande Press, 1964.
  • Tyler, Daniel (1881). A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War, 1846–1847. Chicago: Rio Grande Press. .
  • Weinberg, A. K. Manifest Destiny: A Study of Nationalist Expansion in American History. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1963 (Reprint).

External links

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