The Trek of the Mormon Battalion

Sidebar by Ed Quillen

History – January 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

GIVEN THE AMERICAN PENCHANT for commemorating historic anniversaries, it’s rather surprising that two such events have eluded civic notice.

This year, 1998, is the centennial of the Spanish-American War, and we’ve yet to hear of any scheduled celebrations. It marked America’s emergence as a world power, it demonstrated the power of the media to manufacture public hysteria, and it resulted in a long and brutal guerrilla war in the Philippines that was an eerie preview of American involvement in Vietnam.

This year is also the sesquicentennial of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which ended the Mexican War. Again, no presidential proclamations or commemorative postage stamps have been scheduled.

If you’re looking for a monument to the Mexican War, you can just look around. All of Colorado south and west of the Arkansas River was part of Mexico before that war, as well as parts of Kansas and Wyoming, along with all of California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

As for a formal monument, there is one in Salt Lake City. Its granite came from the Salida quarries, and it honors the Mormon Battalion for its service in the Mexican War.

When the Mexican War began in 1846, the first Mormon parties had barely started West, destination unknown. They were fleeing from America to found their own realm, Deseret, which was in theory on Mexican territory, but in practice might be pretty much on its own.

Brigham Young, the most successful colonizer in American history, clearly saw the trend — America was coming his way, whether he wanted it or not. So it made political sense for his people to participate in the war against Mexico.

It also made economic sense. Soldiers may not have been paid much then, but they were paid in hard gold dollars, and the main Mormon congregation, huddled near modern Omaha after fleeing Illinois persecution in haste, desperately needed the money.

Young made a deal with the recruiting officers from the Army of the West when they came by in 1846. He would furnish a battalion of soldiers who would tramp all over the West during the war, but their pay, and the $21,000 advance clothing allowance, would go to the church to be distributed as needed among the faithful.

Young also promised the 500-plus men in the Mormon Battalion that as long as they remained true to the faith, none would be injured by enemy bullets.

The prophecy held, for the Mormon Battalion never faced hostile fire during its service, although several members died from disease, the big killer of armies in that era.

The number of Mormon troops dwindled, though, since the army deemed many of them too old and infirm to serve and thus discharged them. During those early days of their western odyssey, the Mormons had few able-bodied men to spare.

The Battalion left the Mormons’ Winter Quarters (near Council Bluffs, Iowa) on July 21, 1846, marching to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. There they drilled under Gen. Stephen Watts Kearny, commander of the Army of the West, and marched up the Santa Fé Trail on August 13, with many soldiers accompanied by their families.

They were commanded by Capt. Jefferson Hunt, a “gentile” whom they despised. The soldiers took the Cimarron Branch toward Santa Fé, but the infirm members, as well as most of the women, were sent directly west to Bent’s Fort, then to Pueblo, where they wintered with a group of Mormons from Mississippi whose westward progress had halted there.

The Battalion, now reduced to fewer than 400 men, reached Santa Fé on October 12; the territorial capital had been in American hands since August. There they got a new commander, Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, for whom they would develop great respect.

After taking Santa Fé without firing a shot (probably because James Magoffin, who was sent ahead of the army, had bribed provincial governor Manuel Armijo, but that’s another story), Kearny had left a small occupation force and proceeded west to California.

The Mormon Battalion had orders to follow Kearny to California, though by a different route, farther south — essentially the route by today’s Interstate 10. The Mormons were the first to take wagons along this route.

They left Santa Fé on October 19. Their march across the deserts took 103 days, many of them waterless and on short rations, and most of their mules died. The only “combat” came on December 11, along the San Pedro River, when a herd of wild cattle charged their camp. Several men were gored.

In San Diego, their enlistments ran out after their arrival on January 30, 1847. Some stayed in southern California, most made their way to join their families and the rest of the host of Zion at the Great Salt Lake, and a few went north and found work at Sutter’s Fort in the central valley of California. Several members of the Mormon Battalion were at hand on that fateful January day in 1848 when gold appeared in the tail race during construction of a sawmill.

That event will get commemorated, of course; 1999 will doubtless offer a host of “49er Gold Rush” sesquicentennial celebrations.

As for the Mexican War, its politics were sordid, but as a military operation, it deserves a memorial and more: We should take just pride in an army which won difficult campaigns against larger armies in hostile territory at the end of a long, tenuous supply line.

But the most notable public memorial honoring that war is to the Mormon Battalion, which never fought in a single battle of the Mexican War.