The United States declared war against Mexico on May 13, 1846. In early June, President James Knox Polk directed Colonel Stephen W. Kearny to enlist 500 Mormon men to join the Army of the West. William Marcy, the Secretary of War, authorized Kearny to use Mormon recruits. Kearny, in turn, directed Captain James Allen, commander of "I" Company, 1st U.S. Dragoons, to proceed to the Mormon camps in present day Iowa and raise four to five companies of volunteers. Allen arrived at the settlement of Mt. Pisgah on June 26 to organize the Mormon Battalion.
He read from a circular Aca,!A"I have come among youAca,!A|to accept the service, for twelve months, of four or five companies of Mormon men who may be willing to serve their country for that period in our present war with Mexico; this force to unite with the Army of the West at Santa Fe, and be marched thence to California, where they will be dischargedAca,!A?. The offer was not accepted, and Allen continued west to Council Bluffs and met with church leader Brigham Young. Following this meeting, the Mormon community became much more responsive. By July 16, there were enough volunteers to organize four companies and part of a fifth. Allen read the oath and officially mustered these men into the Army. As lieutenant-colonel of Iowa volunteers, Allen became commanding officer of the Mormon Battalion.
By June 1846, more than ten thousand Mormon refugees were scattered throughout the Iowa Territory, having been forced to flee religious persecution in Missouri and Illinois. Brigham Young knew that the soldier's pay and other allowances would help buy needed supplies for the church's continuing trek westward. The Mormon Battalion became a reality because of Young's leadership, the enlistees' sense of religious obligation, and the U.S. Army's need for Soldiers in the war with Mexico. The newly formed battalion departed from Council Bluffs to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with more than 500 men, three dozen women, and fifty children.
The battalion traveled along the Missouri River, and reached Ft. Leavenworth by August 1. The soldiers were housed in the standard army tents of the day in a field outside the fort. Issued arms and accoutrements, they also received $42 each in lieu of the yearly clothing allotment. The majority of this money was sent back to Council Bluffs to help sustain families left behind and to provide general church support.
The men left Kansas for the Santa Fe Trail on August 13. They had to leave without their commander, Colonel Allen, who was sick and bedridden. To their dismay they received word of Allen's untimely death on August 26. First Lieutenant Andrew J. Smith of the U.S. Regular Army assumed command of the battalion. The unit and its camp followers proceeded to walk seven hundred miles, reaching Santa Fe on October 9. There Lieutenant Smith relinquished command to Captain Philip St. George Cooke, also of the U.S. Regulars. A large contingent of sick soldiers and most of the women and children were later separated and sent to Pueblo.
The battalion then turned south along the right bank of the Rio Grande River with wagons and supplies.. On November 6, south of present day Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, they cut loose from the river, headed southwest, and commenced to build what became known as "Cooke's Wagon Road," all bound for California. They endured hunger, thirst, and great fatigue in reaching present day Tucson, Arizona, by the middle of December. Battling incredible hardships, they finally crossed the Colorado River on January 9, 1847, and entered California. Eighteen days later, they reached the San Luis Rey Mission. There Sergeant Daniel Tyler recorded "one mile below the mission, we ascended a bluff; when the long-looked for great Pacific Ocean appeared plain to our view....the joy, the cheer that filled our souls...."
The battalion ended its march at the little village of San Diego on January 29, with 335 men and four women. Company B was assigned garrison duty in San Diego. They helped make bricks, construct houses, and build a courthouse. In the end, the battalion marched almost 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs to California; completing one of the longest infantry marches in history. The Mormon Battalion mustered out of the U.S. Army in Los Angeles on July 16, 1847.
The qualities of this unique military unit are reflected in today's Army; faith, personal sacrifice, and perseverance. The battalion's final commander, Philip St. George Cooke, summed up his feelings with these words: "History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry."
ABOUT THIS STORY: Many of the sources presented in this article are among 400,000 books, 1.7 million photos and 12.5 million manuscripts available for study through the U.S. Army Military History Institute (MHI). The artifacts shown are among nearly 50,000 items of the Army Heritage Museum (AHM) collections. MHI and AHM are part of the: Army Heritage and Education Center, 950 Soldiers Drive, Carlisle, PA, 17013-5021.