U. S. - Mexican War: Part III
Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. Smith followers were called “Mormons”, after the “Book of Mormon”, a document purportedly translated by Smith from golden tablets given to him by an angel. The Mormons were persecuted and hounded out of New York, Ohio, Missouri, and between 1839 and 1846 settled in Nauvoo, Illinois. In 1844, Joseph Smith was shot to death by an angry mob while incarcerated in Carthage, Illinois. In February, 1846, the Mormons, under the direction of Brigham Young, fled west into the Iowa Territory. The main body of Mormons continued west along the Platte River, and eventually, Brigham Young arrived in the Valley of the Great Salt Lake in July, 1847 and there founded the state of Deseret, which eventually became Utah.
In the meantime, however, in July 1846, the United States government devised a means of getting rid of the Mormons while at the same time supporting the war against Mexico: they formed a volunteer “battalion” of Mormons in Iowa and sent them to join General Stephen W. Kearny’s forces marching on Santa Fe from St. Louis, Missouri.
Up through and including the Civil War, the regular standing army of the United States was always extremely small, and had to be augmented with volunteer units. Volunteers were paid in hard gold dollars. The main Mormon congregation, huddled near modern Omaha after fleeing Illinois persecution, needed cash. While some Mormons suspected the government was up to no good, perhaps trying to test the loyalty of the Mormons, Brigham Young encouraged enlistment. Five companies totaling over 500 men were mustered in at Council Bluffs, Iowa on July 16, 1846. There were 32 women, of which 20 were laundresses hired at private's pay, that left with the Battalion.
"In addition to the 500 men, some of the officers chose to take their families and their possessions and their own wagons at no expense to the government, which the Army permitted. There were 15 or 16 families, including 50 or 55 children and dependents, who left Council Bluffs with the Battalion. They made the longest march in U.S. military history consisting of 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego, California." (U.S. Mormon Battalion, Inc.).
Captain Philip Cooke (regular Army and not a Mormon) took command of the unit at Sante Fe. They blazed a wagon road up from the Rio Grande valley in New Mexico and crossed the continental divide at Guadalupe Pass. "After briefly entering today's Mexico, the march reached the San Pedro River on December 9, 1846 at present day Palominas, Arizona and two days later the Battalion fought its only battle at Charleston, Arizona--with wild bulls. About twenty bulls were killed and two men were seriously injured." (see Overland Trail website) "Although 19 men died from accidents and disease while serving in the army, the Mormon Battalion never faced hostile troops."
The Battalion proceeded north to Tucson, where it might have encountered resistance form a Mexican garrison, but the Mexicans retreated. From Tucson the Battalion went north to the Gila River. Their wagon road crossed the Anza-Borrego desert and then descended to the coastal plains of San Diego. Upon reaching San Diego in 1847, the Battalion was discharged.
Some of the men stayed on in California to work, including a group who worked at Sutter's Mills in the early California Gold Rush days. Others headed back east for the new Mormon State of Deseret in Utah, and discovered the ill-fated Donner Party.
The Mormon Battalion hacked a wagon trial --in some cases, literally hacked it out of the rock of canyon walls-- along what became the southernmost transcontinental route, to Los Angeles. In so doing, they blazed the trail for the Southern Pacific Railroad and later interstate highways.
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