In 1846, the United States was at war with Mexico over the annexation of Texas. That year, the Latter-day Saints, driven by mobs from Nauvoo, Ill., were making their way across the muddy Iowa prairie toward the Rocky Mountains.
During their exodus, they were surprised when U.S. Army Capt. James Allen rode into their camps to enlist 500 volunteers for the war. Some Church members were indignant in light of the persecution the saints had suffered in Illinois, Missouri and Ohio, much of it with the acquiescence of state and federal governments. They were surprised when President Brigham Young supported the enlistment and called on his followers to comply. He saw it as a means for some of the exiled saints to reach their destination in the West at government expense, help the nation to win some of the territory the Mormons intended to settle and, at the same time, demonstrate their loyalty to the United States.
What most Church members didn’t realize at the time was that Church agent Jesse C. Little and non-Mormon benefactor Thomas L. Kane had been negotiating in Washington for government contracts the Church could undertake to defray the cost of the westward trek. Enlistment in the army was not what President Young had in mind initially, but he nevertheless welcomed the opportunity.
Five companies of volunteers were mustered at Council Bluffs, Iowa, on July 16, 1846. Among their number were 32 women, including 20 hired as laundresses. The Mormon Battalion, as it came to be called, was outfitted at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., from which it made the longest infantry march in the nation’s history, about 350 of the volunteers arriving at San Diego, Calif., on Jan. 29, 1847. (A detachment of sick soldiers had been sent earlier to rendezvous with the first company of Saints to arrive in the Salt Lake Valley the following summer.)
In fulfillment of a prophecy by President Young, the battalion has been held in “honorable remembrance” in the annals of Mormon Pioneer history.
“The accomplishments of the Mormon Battalion, I think in modern parlance, would probably be known as a ‘win-win'” said Elder Marlin K. Jensen, then a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, as he spoke at a battalion “Heritage Day” June 24, 2000, on the Utah State Capitol grounds.
He explained that the government profited from the work of the battalion. “A road was carved out of the southwestern wilderness, the Gadsden Purchase [of land in 1853 from Mexico, which became part of New Mexico and Arizona] was accomplished, the acquisition of California certainly was stabilized and probably facilitated more than by any other single group of people or single act. And an economic impact was felt, not just in California with the Gold Rush, but in Utah as well for many, many years.”