Mormon Battalion

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

The Mormon Battalion, the only religiously based unit in United States military history,[1] served from July 1846 to July 1847 during the Mexican–American War of 1846–1848. 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 U.S. Army officers. During its service, the battalion made a grueling march of nearly 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego.

The battalion’s march and service supported the eventual cession of much of the American Southwest from Mexico to the United States, especially the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 of southern Arizona and New Mexico. 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 February 4, 1846 across the Mississippi River. They camped among the Potawatomi Indians near present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa.

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 from the Illinois mobs. Little arrived in Washington D.C. on May 21, 1846, only eight days after Congress had declared war on Mexico.[2] 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 K. Polk. After several interviews in early June 1846, President Polk agreed to Little's offer if "a few hundred" men enlisted. On June 2, 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."[5]

On July 1, 1846 Captain James Allen, dispatched by Colonel (later Brigadier General) Stephen W. Kearny, arrived at the Mormons' Mosquito Creek camp. He carried President Polk's request for a battalion of 500 volunteers to fight in the Mexican War.[6] Most members of the Church were suspicious of the request, as the Federal government had ignored the 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.[7]

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 Mormon encampments on the Missouri. On July 17, 1846, he held a meeting with church leaders and Captain Allen.

Brigham Young had planned on moving the Mormons west that summer, but circumstances were against his plan. He saw several possible advantages to the Saints in the proposed federal service. Their enlistment would be a public relations victory for the church, demonstrating additional evidence of its loyalty to the United States.[7] As the men were given a uniform allowance at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., of US$42 each, paid in advance, for their one-year enlistment and 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 Battalion totaled nearly $30,000).[8] Having been forced to leave farms and homes in Nauvoo, 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.[9]

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 reluctant enlistees.[3] 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."[10] Each company was authorized four women as laundresses, "receiving rations and other allowances given to the laundresses of our army."[10] Approximately thirty-three women, twenty of whom served as laundresses, and fifty-one children accompanied the men.[2] Four women would eventually complete the cross-continental trek.[11] The Mormon Battalion was mustered into volunteer service on July 16, 1846 as part of the Army of the West under General Kearny, a 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 August 1.[12] 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 assure the main body of the group benefited from the men's wages, Young sent Orson Pratt to see that the men handed over their first pay. Young used this and the wages they earned later to buy 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."[10] 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 August 23, 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, including the use of feeding mercury to the sick, which were standard for the time. Because the church leaders had counseled the battalion members to avoid military medical treatment, 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 several sick men and all but a few of the women and children were sent to Pueblo, in present-day Colorado.[13] 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 Lt. 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, and Stoneman would later be elected Governor of California.

Battle of the Bulls

The Mormon Battalion in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona

The only "battle" they fought was near the San Pedro River in present-day Arizona against a sizable number of wild cattle. The battalion reached this area in November 1846, and their presence aroused curiosity among these animals. After the bulls of these herds caused destruction to some of the mules and wagons and resulted in two men being wounded, the men loaded their guns and attacked the charging bulls, killing 10–15 of the wild cattle, which was sarcastically termed the "Battle of the Bulls".[10]

Capture of Tucson

Approaching Tucson, in present-day Arizona, the battalion nearly had a battle with a small detachment of provisional Mexican soldiers on December 16, 1846. The Mexicans retreated as the US battalion approached. The local O'odham and other Piman tribes along the march route were helpful and charitable to the American soldiers. Mormon soldiers learned many methods of irrigation from these native inhabitants and employed the methods 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.[14][15]

Journey complete

The Mormon Battalion arrived in San Diego on January 29, 1847 after a march of some 1,900 miles from Iowa. For the next five months until their discharge on July 16, 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 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 that 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.

After being mustered out, Jesse D. Hunter, captain of Company B, was appointed Indian Agent for southern California by the military governor, Colonel Richard Mason. Hunter was California's third indian agent, the first two being Johann Sutter and Mariano Vallejo, both appointed by Mason's predecessor, Stephen Kearny. Hunter's mission was to protect ranchos and missions from depredations, and to generally control the Indian labor force, to the point of requiring Indians to carry passports.[16]

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 in his diary the actual date when gold was discovered, January 24, 1848. This gold find started the California Gold Rush the next year.[17] $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.[8]

Historic sites and monuments

The San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site
Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial, Los Angeles

Historic sites associated with the battalion include:

A stone monument with a bronze plaque that describes the details of the Mormon Battalion is located on the grounds of the Kaw Mission State Historic Site in Council Grove, Kansas. This is the site at which the Battalion camped while traveling along the Santa Fe Trail. Council Grove had a Government Blacksmith shop stationed along the Santa Fe Trail. One of the soldiers died while in Council Grove and was buried not far from the Kaw Mission Site.

Monuments relating to the battalion are also located in New Mexico, Arizona, Kansas and Colorado, and trail markers have been placed on segments of the battalion route between Mount Pisgah (Iowa) and San Diego.[27]

Notable members of the battalion

See also


  1. Fleek 2006, p. 
  2. 1 2 3 Black, Susan Easton (1994), Powell, Allen Kent, ed., Utah History Encyclopedia, Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press
  3. 1 2 "Historic Events",, California Pioneer Heritage Foundation, retrieved April 9, 2013
  4. 1 2 Lloyd, R. Scott (June 6, 1992), "Monument honoring Mormon Battalion to regain its luster", Church News
  5. Polk, James K. (1929), Nevins, Allan, ed., Polk: the Diary of a President, 1845–1849, London and New York: Longmans, Green & Co., p. 109, OCLC 783494
  6. "Heritage Gateways: Mormon Battalion". Retrieved September 25, 2009.
  7. 1 2 McLynn, Frank. Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails. Grove Press. pp. 386–7. ISBN 0-8021-4063-7.
  8. 1 2 "The Pioneer Story: Pioneer Trail Map",, archived from the original on March 5, 2012
  9. Brown, Joseph D. (1980). The Mormon Trek West. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. pp. 50–52. ISBN 0-385-13030-9.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Roberts 1919
  11. "The Mormon Battalion (1846–1847) Roster". Archived from the original on June 24, 2008. Retrieved September 26, 2008.
  12. "Chapter Twenty-Six: Pioneers to the West". Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual: Religion 341-43. Institutes of Religion, Church Educational System, LDS Church. 2003. p. 323.
  13. "Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel: 1847–1868",, Church History Department, LDS Church, retrieved April 9, 2013
  14. Hallaran, Kevin; Archibald, Allene; Bean, Lowell John; Vane, Sylvia Brakke (1991), The Indian Cemetery at Old Temecula, Riverside, California: Archaeological Research Unit, University of California, Riverside, OCLC 44431925
  15. Cooke 1878, pp. 192-194
  16. Hurtado, Albert L. (Fall 1979). "Controlling California's Indian Labor Force; Federal Administration of California Indian Affairs During the Mexican War". Southern California Quarterly. University of California Press. 61 (3): 225–226. JSTOR 41170828.
  17. Sutter, John (November 1857). "The Discovery of Gold in California". Hutchings' California Magazine. 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.
  18. "Mormon Battalion Trail, Box Canyon, San Diego County, California".
  19. Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial
  20. "Monuments and Landscapes". Utah State Capitol. Retrieved October 2, 2012.
  21. Mormon Battalion Memorial Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery
  22. "Mormon Battalion Monument, (sculpture).".
  23. The Mormon Battalion, published by Utah State University circa 1998.
  24. "New monument in New Mexico memorializes Mormon Battalion -- marker replaces one built in 1940", Church News, October 5, 1996
  25. Nava, Margaret M. (2006), Remembering: A Guide to New Mexico Cemeteries, Monuments and Memorials, Santa Fe, N.M.: Sunstone Press, pp. 81–84, ISBN 0865344868, OCLC 67727597
  26. "The Historical Marker Database",, retrieved June 19, 2014
  27. Kimball 1988
  28. Porter, Larry C. (2006), Freeman, Robert C., ed., "Nineteenth-Century Saints at War", The Church and the Mexican-American War, Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, pp. 41–76, ISBN 978-0-8425-2651-7
  29. 1 2 3 4 Esshom, Frank Ellwood (1913), "Pioneers and Prominent Men of Utah", Names of Those in the Mormon Battalion, Salt Lake City, Utah: Utah Pioneers Book Publishing Co., pp. 43–45, OCLC 2286984
  30. Southern California Quarterly. Los Angeles County Pioneers of Southern California, Historical Society of Southern California, p. 297
  31. "California Military History: Californians and the Military",, California State Military Museum, California Military Department
  32. Christopher Layton's Journal


Further reading

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