The Mormon Battalion is a term used to describe a unit of the United States Army comprised of men who were members of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. They operated mainly during the Mexican-American War. Commanded by regular U.S. Army officers, they served mostly from July 1846 to July 1847. The Mormons had faced religious persecution in Illinois and Missouri. Church leader Joseph Smith and his brother Byrum Smith were murdered in Carthage, Illinois. They had been held without bail by the Governor of Illinois when an armed mob stormed the jail and the brothers died of gunshot wounds. A number of the Mormons then moved to Missouri where the Missouri governor signed a military order that the Mormons be driven out of Missouri or exterminated. It was in this climate that the idea of the Mormon Battalion was conceived, that of forming a battalion of the U. S. Army solely comprised of Mormon men. Leaders viewed this as one means to obtain federal governmental sanction for their efforts to migrate to the west.
Leaders found the federal government receptive to the plan. The proper political arrangements were made and Col. Stephen W. Kearny was authorized to accept several hundred individuals under the agreement. Combined with other troops, the Mormon soldiers mustered in at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas in August, 1846, intending to march all the way to San Diego, California. Their first leader was Capt. James Allen, promoted to Lt. Col., but Allen took ill and died just a little over a month into the march. Following his death, leadership might have naturally fallen to Capt. Jefferson Hunt, a volunteer, but Kearney instead appointed another regular Army officer, Lt. Andrew Smith.
The battalion entered New Mexico roughly north of Clayton. One waypoint is Grenville, Union County. They then followed the Santa Fe Trail, a southwesterly route passing east of Springer, all the way to Santa Fe, utilizing a route that approximately is the same as I-25, with another waypoint being Wagon Mound, Mora County. They reached Santa Fe on October 9, 1846. At the outset, a number of wives and children had accompanied the troops, but the hard conditions did not suit them and many of them left the march at Santa Fe. Under their new commander, Col. Phillip St. George Cook, from Santa Fe they angled down to the Rio Grande, passing through Agua Fria, San Bernalillo, Albuquerque, Sabinal, La Joya, Polvadera and Socorro following the old Spanish Trail. It took them about a month to pass Elephant Butte and come to Hot Springs, Sierra County, which they reached November 9. It took another several weeks to exit New Mexico. At Hatch they left the Rio Grande and continued on a southwesterly course to Ojo de Vaca and Playas Lake. They left the state a number of miles north of the western edge of the “boot heel.”
Their passage through New Mexico was not marked by any battles, and they continued on to California via southern Arizona. The closest they came to an engagement was when they encountered a small group of Mexican soldiers near Tucson, Arizona who fled rather than engage the troops. In California they came upon two Indian tribes who had just completed a battle and presided over the removal of their dead. They arrived in San Diego in late January, 1847 completing a total march of about 1,900 miles. Along the way, the outfit had suffered attrition due to illness, arriving with just over 300 of the original contingent of under 5 companies of men. By the time they reached California, the armed conflicts of the Mexican-American War were essentially over, but the troops continued to train and to serve occupation-related functions. Kearny also utilized the battalion to block the forces of John C. Fremont (a former Army hero who was critical to the conquest of California) when Fremont was arrested and charged with mutiny. At the end of the battalion’s one year commitment, about a company and a half, or 80 men, reinlisted. The effort was deemed to be a success and the battalion was considered a reliable unit, having served honorably.
The battalion is considered the only such unit organized specifically from one religious group. A large number of memorials and monuments were erected in California. One monument was constructed in New Mexico, and is pictured below:
“This marker is reached by taking I-25 between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Take exit 257 for Budaghers (site of a 1950s trading post) and follow the W Frontage Road south toward Albuquerque. You will soon arrive at a parking lot for the monument, which is easily seen. The gps coordinates are: 35°27’04.46″ N; 106°21’14.54″ W.” (Image and directions, courtesy of mormonhistoricsites.org)
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