Ask Us: Top Five Reference Questions about the Mormon Battalion

    by Franco Arellano and the Consultation Services team
    10 November 2020

    Join Franco Arellano as he discusses the Mormon Battalion, its influence on the history of the United States, and some events it participated in that you may not have heard about before.

    In honor of November 11—celebrated by various countries around the world as Veterans Day, Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day—this month’s Ask Us post will look at the questions we receive about a very unique United States military unit: the Mormon Battalion.

    1. What was the Mormon Battalion?

    The Mormon Battalion was a volunteer military unit formed in 1846 during the Mexican-American War. As the Latter-day Saints were being expelled from Nauvoo, James Allen, a captain in the U.S. Army, approached Brigham Young to ask for volunteer soldiers. Brigham Young saw this as a great blessing: it was an opportunity to improve relations between the Church and the U.S. government, and the money the enlisted men would make could help fund their families’ and others’ travel across the plains.

    The battalion was officially formed on July 16, 1846, with about 500 men volunteering to be part of the unit. They were accompanied by 33 women and 51 children—in many cases, the soldiers’ wives and daughters—who would work as paid cooks and laundresses, providing another source of income for the Saints. On August 1, 1846, the group arrived at Fort Leavenworth in what is now Kansas, where they officially began their service.

    Almost immediately, the newly promoted Colonel James Allen, who had been appointed as the battalion’s commander, died of illness. Many others got sick as well, and a total of three “sick detachments,” which included nearly all the women and children, split from the main group and traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, to recover. The rest of the battalion continued their march with their new commander, Philip St. George Cooke.

    Their orders were to march to California through New Mexico and Arizona, ostensibly to bolster the U.S. military presence in what would become the southwestern United States—California in particular—during the war against Mexico. On January 29, 1847, they finally reached their destination of San Diego. The battalion was honorably discharged in July 1847 in Los Angeles. About 80 members of the battalion reenlisted, serving until March 1848.

    By the time the battalion was discharged, its members had marched from what is now the Midwest to Southern California and had established a wagon road between the Gila and Rio Grande Rivers in modern-day New Mexico and Arizona, which ultimately contributed to the U.S. making the Gadsden Purchase.1 Additionally, some members of the battalion went on to participate in the initial discovery of gold in California, which set off the gold rush, and to blaze trails over California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to provide much-needed routes for travel to the Salt Lake Valley. To this day, the battalion has been the only religion-based military unit in U.S. military history; all in the battalion (except its commanders) were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    The Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department has prepared an online time line that covers the battalion’s activities, including what some members of the battalion did after their discharge from the army.

    2. Are there monuments that honor the Mormon Battalion?

    A statue at the Mormon Battalion Center in San Diego, California.

    The Mormon Battalion is remembered and honored in several places today.

    3. Did the Mormon Battalion really complete the longest march in U.S. military history?

    It is often claimed that the Mormon Battalion completed the longest march in all of recorded U.S. military history. In total, the battalion marched 1,900–2,100 miles between Iowa and San Diego. For comparison, General Sherman’s March to the Sea during the American Civil War was approximately 300 miles long, and the Washington-Rochambeau march from Rhode Island to Yorktown during the American Revolutionary War was a little over 600 miles long.

    The route taken by the Mormon Battalion.

    Because sources on the subject are scarce, it is difficult to determine if any other U.S. military march covered more distance. Many Church historians do consider this to be among the longest measured U.S. military marches conducted on foot.2 Philip St. George Cooke,the battalion’s commander, said the following about the Mormon Battalion’s march to California:

    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, from want of water, there is no living creature. There, with almost hopeless labor, we have dug deep wells, which the future traveller 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 axe in hand, we have worked our way over mountains which seemed to defy ought save the wild goat, and hewed a passage through a chasm of living rock more narrow than our wagons. To bring these first wagons to the Pacific, we have preserved the strength of our mules by herding them ever over large tracts, which you have laboriously guarded without loss. … 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.4

    Philip St. George Cooke, circa 1858.

    4. Did Brigham Young prophesy that no Mormon Battalion member would die?

    Tradition holds that Brigham Young promised the Mormon Battalion that not a single member would come to harm in battle. A few accounts mention the words Brigham Young gave right before the march of the Mormon Battalion; one notes that

    President Young encouraged the men by assuring them that their families should be cared for, that they should fare as well as his did, and that he would see that they were helped along. He also predicted that not one of those who might enlist would fall by the hands of the nation’s foe, that their only fighting would be with wild beasts; that there would not be as many bullets whistle around their ears as did around Dr. Willard Richards’ in Carthage jail, etc.5

    William Hyde mentions that Brigham and other leaders gave “a firm promise that on condition of faithfulness on our part, our lives should be spared and our expedition result in great good, and our names be handed down in honorable remembrance to all generations.”6

    Elijah Allen stated that “President Young asked me if I thought we would have any fighting to do? I said I did not know. He then said we would have no fighting to do.”7

    Battalion Attacked by Wild Bulls, by William L. Maughan.

    True to Brigham’s word, the battalion never fought a battle with enemy combatants during the war. They did, however, participate in two military engagements:

    • In December 1846, the battalion was ordered to attack the Mexican garrison at Tucson in what is now Arizona. The Mexican soldiers stationed there retreated before a battle could occur, and the battalion took the city without seeing combat. This event became known as the 1846 Capture of Tucson.
    • In 1847 the battalion enforced a cease-fire between the Mexican army and the Luiseño tribe after the army had massacred many of the Luiseños. The battalion stood guard while the tribe buried their dead.

    The only actual shooting the battalion did took place during November 1846, when the battalion marched along the San Pedro River in what is now Arizona. The river valley was home to wild cattle, and bulls from roaming herds began charging the battalion, attempting to gore men and livestock. Forced to open fire, the battalion managed to kill many of the angry cattle in what is now known as the Battle of the Bulls. One writer claimed that over 80 bulls were killed, while most historians place the number closer to 20. Sadly, members of the battalion realized after the dust had settled that the bulls had wounded two men, killed several mules, and destroyed some wagons.8

    Brigham Young’s promise that the battalion would never fight came true. But due to the hardships the battalion endured during its long journey, about 20 of its members died from illness and fatigue.

    5. Where can I find resources on the Mormon Battalion?

    The Church History Library contains many items about the Mormon Battalion that can be viewed either in person at the library or digitally through our Church History Library Catalog. Here is a sampling of digitized collections:

    There are also several online resources hosted by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

    Articles from the Ensign magazine:

    Others:

    The Mormon Battalion Association also hosts a website dedicated to the Mormon Battalion.9

    Additionally, the Church History Library is in the process of incorporating its Mormon Battalion resources into our online databases as we have previously done with other early Church history resources for the Pioneer and Missionary Databases. This project is still in the early stages of development; updates will be forthcoming.

    Top image: The Mormon Battalion, by George Martin Ottinger.