Mormon Battalion: ‘Most unusual command’

The Mormon soldiers recruited by the U.S. government and mustered in at Council Bluffs, Iowa, on July 16, 1846, comprised one of the most unusual commands ever to serve in the U.S. Army, said Norma B. Ricketts, author of The Mormon Battalion: U.S. Army of the West, 1846-48.

"It is the only time in American history that a religious body has been asked to supply an army unit made up entirely of its own members. Because of this, Capt. James Allen said they would be known as the Mormon Battalion, U.S. Army of the West. The men served under military authority with officers appointed by their religious leader, a fact which sometimes caused conflict during the journey.Sister Ricketts, a member of the Fairway Groves Ward, Salt River Arizona Stake, noted that the battalion, recruited as the United States went to war against Mexico, included nearly 500 men in five companies; one had 87, others had a hundred or more each. Each company was allowed four women laundresses, and several of the men took their wives and children. There were 34 women, 44 children who started the journey; there also were 12 young men who served as aides to the soldiers.

"Another unique feature of this group was the large number of journals the men wrote."

Sister Ricketts quoted extensively from some of those journal entries. One account was of the day the battalion left Council Bluffs (July 20, 1846) to go to Fort Leavenworth 200 miles away to be outfitted for their journey.

She quoted from Samuel Rogers' journal regarding the day they reached Arizona: "The appetites of the men have become so sharp they now eat beef hides, tripe, feet, heads and entrails, in fine, everything that can be eaten."

Sister Ricketts said the journals of the soldiers supplemented each other. "Combining a number of journals on a given day provides a broader picture," she said. "For example, it took four journals to tell this story: One journal said, Today we baptized a sailor from the ship Congress. A second:We baptized a sailor Beckwourth.' Third: James Garner, Company B, baptized a sailor.' Fourth:We think this is the first Mormon convert in California.'

"Throughout the year in the army, the men continued to treat their army service as if they were on a mission to help the Church. William Coray wrote that even though conditions were extremely bad, they did what they were asked to do because if they didn't it would reflect on the Church. . . .

"They told of being hungry, thirsty, and without shoes, but they didn't complain, simply stated the facts from their standpoint. . . .

"After a while, the personalities of the writers came out. One man wrote so methodically it was as if he filled out a form each day: date, miles traveled, weather, name of campsite. Another wrote in much greater detail. One young man had a sweet spirit and always saw the bright side. After traveling several days in rain and mud, Azariah Smith wrote that when he lay down at night on his side half of him sank in the mud. But he wrote: `This morning I saw a rainbow.' "

Sister Ricketts spoke of the bond that forged as the men traveled in groups of six to a tent. "David Pettegrew wrote: `The connection and acquaintance we found in the service can never be blotted out.'

"Burying a comarde was one of their most difficult tasks. John Tippets wrote: `It is grievous to see our brethren left by the side of the road.'

"When young Joseph Richards died in Pueblo,

Colo.T, one of his messmates (Caritat Rowe) made this touching entry in his journal: `On the sad night of his departure, while I was endeavoring . . . to render him some assistance, after grasping me with a hug which almost took my breath, he gradually sank down and in a few moments expired in my arms without a struggle or a groan, but quietly passed away like a child going to sleep.' "

Sister Ricketts said there were few major historical events between 1846-1848 in the history of the Far West in which the Mormon Battalion did not participate. "Besides wagon roads, . . . they took part in the conquest of California and in the discovery of gold. They served as Col. Kearny's escort for Lt. Col. John C. Fremont's court martial, they carried the first news of the gold discovery to the world. Their wages and the gold they took to Utah provided financial aid to their church at a crucial time. The seeds, cuttings, equipment, horses, cattle and other items were helpful in the struggling Salt Lake settlement. They were experienced frontiersmen, who became leaders in colonizing outlying areas in the western states as assigned by Brigham Young. Knowledge of irrigation, observed as they passed through Indian country, was beneficial in communities where they later settled.

"With all these and other notable accomplishments, one must ask if their priceless journals, written on small pages by the light of campfires, are not their most important legacy. Without these journals, a chapter in western history, in Mormon history, in California history, in San Diego history, would have been lost."