Four Things to Know about the Journey of the Mormon Battalion

Brandon J. Metcalf
21 March 2019

San Diego was a small town in the late 1840s. When approximately 330 people trudged into town on January 29, 1847, the locals certainly noticed. These newcomers, dressed in ragged clothes, were members of the Mormon Battalion. They arrived after marching almost 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers)1 under the direction of the United States Army.

The sight of the Mormon Battalion must have prompted questions in the minds of San Diego residents. How did these people become part of the U.S. Army? Why were they willing to march to the Pacific coast? What did they experience and accomplish along the way? What would they do now that they had arrived?

Let's take a brief look at each of these questions.

How Did the Mormon Battalion Become Part of the United States Army?

The story of the Mormon Battalion began in early 1846 as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prepared to abandon their city of Nauvoo, Illinois. Persecution and mob violence had made it impossible for them to stay. Under the direction of Brigham Young, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, they would leave their homes and most of their belongings behind. They would eventually establish a new community in the Salt Lake Valley.

This statue stands outside the Mormon Battalion Historic Site at San Diego.

Before the Saints left Nauvoo, President Young assigned Jesse C. Little to ask the United States government for help with the emigration. Little sent a letter to U.S. President James K. Polk. The letter detailed the Saints' plan to travel over the Rocky Mountains and settle in Mexican territory.2 The letter also contained a warning: if they did not receive help from the U.S. government, they would be willing to accept assistance from rival governments.3

At that time, the United States was engaged in the Mexican-American War, a battle for land that was then Mexican territory. Concerned about thousands of Saints heading into enemy territory, President Polk ordered U.S. Army officials to recruit a few hundred Saints to enlist in the army. President Polk said he hoped "to conciliate [the Mormons], attach them to our country, & prevent them from taking part against us."4

The Saints were building temporary settlements in the Middle Missouri River Valley when the army expedition met up with them. Army Captain James Allen worked with Brigham Young to recruit volunteers. After three weeks, about 500 Saints had enlisted for one year of service. The battalion consisted of five companies, each with approximately 100 men. More than 30 women and 40 children accompanied them. They mustered, or assembled, in the Council Bluffs area of Iowa. The first four companies left July 20, 1846, and the fifth left two days later.

Why Were Members of the Mormon Battalion Willing to March to the Pacific Coast?

At first, many Saints were hesitant to march with the army. They wanted to stay with their families, and they felt no loyalty to the United States government. After all, they were about to turn their backs on the United States, partly because they felt that government leaders had turned their backs when the Saints had needed protection and support.

Brigham Young Calling Volunteers for the Mormon Battalion, by C. C. A. Christensen, courtesy of Brigham Young University Museum of Art

Why did 500 volunteers agree to join the army? They joined because they listened to President Brigham Young, a living prophet. Captain Allen never would have been able to persuade them to enlist. But President Young knew that their service would provide funds to help the Saints reach the Salt Lake Valley, allowing them to gather as a covenant people. With trust in the Lord and a prophet, volunteers prepared to march with the U.S. Army.

For each member of the Mormon Battalion, the decision to enlist was an act of faith. Zadoc Judd wrote, "This was quite a hard pill to swallow-to leave wives and children on the wild prairie, destitute and almost helpless . . . , but the word came from the right source and seemed to bring the spirit of conviction of its truth with it and there was quite a number of company volunteered, myself and brother among them."5 James S. Brown observed that he did "not suppose there is an individual in the Battalion, who, had he been left to his own thoughts and feelings, independent of counsel, would have enlisted." He added, "I would have felt very reluctant under the circumstances had it not been for the counsel of my brethren whom God authorized to dictate the affairs of His kingdom."6

Two days before the volunteers left, Church leaders met privately with them. President Young and others gave them "their last charge and blessing," which included a promise that their "lives should be spared and [their] expedition result in great good, and [their] names be handed down in honorable remembrance to all generations."7 President Young made a declaration that must have comforted that group of non-soldiers. He promised "that they would have no fighting to do."8

Each man in the battalion received 42 dollars as a clothing allowance, as well as wages for his service. Some of the women were paid for doing laundry for the group. Members of the battalion donated a portion of their clothing allowance to the Church to provide essential funds for the trek west. This contribution was so valuable that President Young said they were the "present and temporal salvation" of the Saints.9 This was their first of many contributions to the Church and to the growth of the American West.

What Did Members of the Mormon Battalion Experience and Accomplish on Their March?

Just as President Young had prophesied, the Mormon Battalion never had to fight in the Mexican-American War. They did, however, face hardships, including fatigue, hunger, and sickness. Their most severe challenges were lack of water and harsh terrain.

Extreme thirst threatened their health and survival. Battalion member Henry G. Boyle said, "We were all weary and fatigued, hungry, nearly naked, and barefoot, but our burning thirst drowned every other suffering."10

The battalion endured several lengthy marches without water. Out of desperation, they often relied on contaminated water sources. Some strained "water through their teeth to keep back the live as well as the dead insects and mud from being swallowed by wholesale, and after quenching their thirst, they filled their canteens out of the tracks of the oxen and mules."11

The Mormon Battalion, by George Ottinger, courtesy of Church History Museum

Many went to great lengths to quench their thirst by using quills to suck water through cracks in rocks and by putting stones or buckshot in their mouths to generate moisture. On at least one occasion, they drank water from mud holes, lying down and "lap[ping] it like a dog."12 After one waterless stretch on the march, Colonel Philip St. George Cooke observed, "Any other company under like circumstances would have mutinized."13

James S. Brown recalled that as they walked along the sandy banks of the Rio Grande River, their shoes "became so dry and hard that walking was very painful and difficult." He continued: "Our feet became raw. . . . As we tramped on through the sands we became so weak it was almost impossible to keep our ankles from striking together as we walked, and our hard and dry shoetops would cut our ankles till the blood came."14 Many became so weak during the march that they had to leave the battalion, reducing the total number from about 500 to about 300. Three detachments—including almost all the women and children and some men who were sick or injured—went north to Fort Pueblo, in present-day Colorado, in the early months of the march. They eventually made their way to Salt Lake City.

The men maintained a positive attitude through their suffering. Battalion member William Coray said, "Notwithstanding the extreme suffering of the men, there was not much grumbling after all."15 Their attitude was grounded in their trust in God and their gratitude for His mercies. Upon being ordered to go to San Diego at the end of the march, Robert S. Bliss expressed faith that represented the feelings of many of his fellow soldiers. He testified, "God be praised for his protection over us according to the Word of his Servant the Prophet."16

Battalion member David Pettigrew recorded his feelings when the company reached San Diego: "We shortly came in sight of the Pacific Ocean, which to us was a good sight as we had performed a long and tedious march and suffered many hardships and privations both with weariness, hunger, thirst and cold; most of us were barefoot and our clothes were very ragged."17

Those weary, hungry, thirsty, ragged soldiers established the first practical wagon road to the Pacific coast—another lasting contribution to the American West.

What Did Members of the Mormon Battalion Do after They Arrived in San Diego?

Armed conflicts in the Mexican-American War had essentially ceased by the time the Mormon Battalion reached San Diego, but the battalion members still owed six months of military service. Some received an assignment to stay in San Diego, where they worked on public service projects, including the construction of a courthouse. Most went to Los Angeles to help build a fort and to guard Cajon Pass, a route through the mountains. When they completed their one-year commitment in July 1847, most of them began making their way back to their families. About 80 men reenlisted for eight more months and stayed in California, which was still Mexican territory.

Sutter's Mill, by A. VaLoy Eaton

After their discharge, the members of the Mormon Battalion continued to make history as they made their way east. Many helped establish additional wagon routes connecting California, Nevada, and Utah. Some of them found temporary employment in California because they knew there was a shortage of supplies in the Salt Lake Valley. John Sutter hired these men to help build a mill on the American River in northern California. Six of those men were present when gold was discovered at the mill, prompting the famous gold rush of 1849.

These Mormon Battalion veterans gathered on July 16, 1896, commemorating the 50th anniversary of their enlistment in the U.S. Army.

San Diego was never the destination for the Mormon Battalion. Their destination was a return. With continuing faith and renewed determination, members of the Mormon Battalion eventually reunited with their families and fellow Saints. One group of about 30 men walked all the way back to the Middle Missouri River Valley after discovering that their families had not yet arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. Their initial march and their return march had the same purpose: devotion to the people and the cause they loved. Because of that devotion, their names have been "handed down in honorable remembrance to all generations."18