“Mormon Battalion,” Church History Topics
When the Saints were forced to leave Nauvoo in 1846, one of the biggest challenges they faced was financing the migration. Church leaders wanted to help support all Latter-day Saints, especially the poor, who wanted to gather.1 When efforts to sell the Nauvoo Temple and other Church properties faltered, Church leaders dispatched Jesse Little, a leader of the branches of the Church in the eastern United States, to ask for government assistance. Little met Thomas L. Kane, an activist who sympathized with the Saints’ troubles and helped arrange an audience with U.S. president James K. Polk.2
Just days before Little and Kane arrived in Washington, D.C., the United States Congress had declared war against Mexico, and President Polk had ordered army battalions stationed in the American Southwest to attack.3 During his meeting with Polk, Little persuaded the president to recruit troops from the Latter-day Saints, who were closer to the area of conflict than most other Americans. The soldiers’ pay, Little knew, could help fund the Saints’ migration.4
In June 1846, army officials approached Latter-day Saints in Iowa Territory, looking to recruit 500 soldiers for one year of duty. The offer sounded suspicious to many Saints, who had recently been forced from their homes without any government protection. “I felt indignant toward the Government that had suffered me to be raided and driven from my home,” reported Daniel B. Rawson. Soon after, Brigham Young and other Church leaders arrived at the encampment. “They said the salvation of Israel depended upon the raising of the army,” Rawson continued. “When I heard this my mind changed. I felt that it was my duty to go.”5
Once army officers were able to fill four companies of 100 men each, Captain James Allen announced the mustering of the Mormon Battalion, United States Army of the West. Brigham Young encouraged the soldiers to keep their religious covenants and to treat Mexicans and others they encountered with civility. He promised that their families would be cared for and that they would not face a battle. On July 20, the companies set out for Fort Leavenworth in Kansas Territory, with at least 34 women and 44 children joining the march.6 Two days later, an additional company of 100 men departed. Zacheus Cheney wrote that “the tears fell like rain drops” as families bade the soldiers farewell.7
The battalion’s march followed in the wake of other army units, ensuring that the battalion soldiers largely marched through areas under the control of the United States. Though called upon to capture the city of Tucson (now in Arizona) and to protect Pauma Indians in Temecula (now in California), they never participated in combat.8 The worst incident came when a herd of wild bulls charged soldiers while they stopped for water at the San Pedro River. The stampede left three mules dead and three men wounded, but no soldiers were killed.
With its arrival in San Diego about six months after leaving Iowa, the battalion had covered nearly 2,000 miles, making the march one of the longest in United States military history. The war in California had effectively ended by this point, so the battalion soldiers were assigned to garrison duty in San Diego, San Luis Rey, and Los Angeles. Their pay had proven important in funding the immigration of their families and others to the Salt Lake Valley.
Battalion veterans traversed several eastbound routes to reunite with their families in Utah. Some of these soldiers worked for a short time at Sutter’s Mill and discovered gold in 1848, sparking the largest gold rush in American history.9 Another group stumbled upon and buried the remains of an ill-fated immigrant group known as the Donner Party. Yet others carved a new road through the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Most of the soldiers reached Utah Territory in the late 1840s and early 1850s.
The Church’s Mormon Battalion Historic Site in San Diego celebrates the service and sacrifices of the soldiers and their families.