A little extra applause, a steady string of elementary school children and Boy Scout trail patches are all subtle evidences that the Mormon Battalion of 1846-47 hasn't been forgotten here.
The applause comes as today's Mormon Battalion members, with tunics emblazoned in red sashes and rows of gold buttons, march in local parades. Elementary school children and Boy Scouts regularly string through the Mormon Battalion Visitors Center in this city's Old Town to hear of the battalion's contributions to early San Diego, said Elder George B. Lemmon, visitors center director.Today's battalion and visitors center exist in remembrance of the 500 men who embarked in service of God and country on the longest infantry march in America's history. At the time, President Brigham Young prophesied that their "children would rise up and bless their fathers for what they did at that time." Modern battalion members, like the Lemmons and many others who are descendants of the early soldiers, take that prophecy very seriously.
Each year, some 9,000 fourth-graders of San Diego city schools tour the visitors center. The tour includes a short lecture, a multi-media show and viewing of a diorama, said Sister Colleen B. Lemmon, who served as a counselor in the general Primary presidency from 1977-80.
On the tours, "We tell them what the battalion contributed in getting this city started," said Sister Lemmon. "We tell them that the battalion's religious background meant so much to them that they would leave their families alone on the frontier. They suffered greatly. . . ."
In addition, each year about 1,000 Boy Scouts earn the Mormon trail patch. To earn the patch, Scouts tour the visitor center, and then hike a 15-mile segment of the battalion's trail that crosses a box canyon desert in Anza Borrego State Park, some 80 miles west of San Diego.
A number of tourists also come through the center. Last year's visitor total was 45,888, of whom 90 percent went on tours, and 622 received copies of the Book of Mormon.
In addition to the visitors center's public efforts, companies of Mormon Battalion Inc. have been organized here, in Utah, New Mexico and other states. Today's battalion takes part in service projects, marches in parades, and sponsors various activities. The major activity of the San Diego company is on Jan. 30, the anniversary of the battalion's arrival in San Diego. This day has has been proclaimed Mormon Battalion Day in San Diego.
One long-time member of the battalion is Keith A. Sears, patriarch in the San Diego East stake and past division commander.
"The battalion made a good name for itself in its day, and we are making a good name for ourselves in our day," he said.
"Our group is not big, but we like to do our part. A lot of good can come from it – there's a lot of good Church history in Southern California."
The Mormon Battalion was organized July 16, 1846, by the U.S. government. The Church had sent a representative to Washington, D.C. to request assistance in the Mormon migration west. The President responded by creating a battalion that could earn money to help in the migration, and also to help solidify claims to territory of the Southwest during the 1846 war with Mexico.
Under the leadership of Capt. James Allen, the group marched from Winter Quarters, Iowa, to Fort Leavenworth, Iowa. There they were equipped, and continued on to Santa Fe, in what is now New Mexico. At Santa Fe, three groups of sick, including some women and children, a total of about 200 people, separated from the main body and returned north. These groups wintered at Pueblo, Colo., and later rejoined the Mormon trek.
The remaining 350 battalion members built a wagon road from Santa Fe to Sand Diego, Calif. In California, they applied their skills toward improving the community. They fired the first brick, dug the first wells and built the first courthouse. Eventually, the group marched up the coast before being disbanded July 16, 1847, at San Francisco, Calif.
The battalion fulfilled a prophecy by Brigham Young that if the members lived their religion, they would never have to fire their weapons in anger at an enemy. The battalion saw that prophecy fulfilled as they never even saw an opposing army, instead making friends all along the way. And the modern batallion is following their example.