The accomplishments of the Mormon Battalion are indisputable — it helped create wagon roads as it marched through what is now southwest United States. After their enlistment was completed, battalion members helped with additional wagon routes connecting California, Nevada and Utah. Many followed those routes, and they impacted the boundaries of the United States.
“For a one-year enlistment, the Mormon Battalion had an outsized presence in the history of the United States, not just the history of the Church,” said Greg Christofferson, vice president of the Mormon Battalion Association.
It was in 1846 — 175 years ago — and Church members had left Nauvoo, Illinois, due to persecution and mob violence, and they were scattered across Iowa and into Nebraska as they prepared to head west to the Salt Lake Valley, then in Mexican territory. President Brigham Young had sent a request to U.S. President James K. Polk for assistance to move west. The call for 500 men to join a battalion to help fight in the Mexican American War wasn’t what he expected, either.
Their service helped them finance the move West, which prompted “Brigham Young to credit the battalion with being the ‘temporal salvation’ of the Church,” said Brandon Metcalf, a historian with the Church History Department. Beyond the financial benefit of being able to outfit their families and help others move west, they gained experiences from the nearly 2,000-mile march that would benefit them as the Saints settled in the West.
“It is difficult for us to even fathom such a journey in our comfortable age of air-conditioned automobiles, paved highways, availability of food and water, clothing and supplies, and technology that allows us to instantly communicate with loved ones and friends,” Metcalf said.
On the 175th anniversary of the Mormon Battalion’s march, which started on July 16, 1846, there are several lessons from their journey that can apply today. Also, researchers from the Mormon Battalion Association have been working with documents, including from the National Archives, to verify who served in the battalion.
Battalion lessons for today
While members of the Church today aren’t asked to march with a military unit across the desert, there’s more to learn from the Mormon Battalion’s experiences.
“The story of the Mormon Battalion is one of sacrifice, faith and perseverance that is relevant to our day,” said Metcalf.
- Trust the wider vision of the prophets
Many of the pioneer Saints were apprehensive about enlisting and it wasn’t until Brigham Young supported the enlistment effort that people started signing up. It seemed counterintuitive to many.
“Ultimately, each of the promises given to the battalion by Brigham Young and members of the Twelve before they departed were fulfilled: they escaped difficulties, were never required to engage in warfare, and their expedition ‘result[ed] in great good, and our names handed down in honorable remembrance to all generations,’” Metcalf said.
- Perseverance in adversity
The call to join the U.S. Army and help in the Mexican American War wasn’t convenient, and the 2,000-mile march across desert wasn’t easy. They were being asked to leave their families and help in the war with Mexico.
“Participants noted that the request to enlist in the battalion was ‘quite a hard pill to swallow’ feeling insulted by the request coming from a government that failed to defend the Saints through years of brutal persecution,” Metcalf said.
During the march, they pushed wagons over sand and through mountains and many times had very limited water and food.
“Yet, throughout the ordeal they relied on their faith in the Lord and the prospect of reuniting with their families and establishing Zion in the West. Their story continues to inspire us today by offering lessons on the importance of faith, commitment and the resilience of the human spirit,” Metcalf said. “As we learn about their sacrifice, we draw strength from their examples of overcoming extreme adversity that inspire us to push forward along our own weary marches.”
- Faith in the Lord
“All of us encounter deep, sandy roads or march along barefoot and hungry carrying heavy loads of emotional, physical or spiritual trials,” Metcalf said. “It requires faith and the help of the Lord to overcome mortal suffering and recognizing as did one battalion member, that ‘nothing could have saved our lives but the unseen hand of Almighty God.’
“Just as the Lord saw the battalion through their trials, He will do the same for us even when our trials seem hopeless and unsurmountable.”
Digging into the records
But who, exactly, was in the Mormon Battalion?
As men were enlisting with the Mormon Battalion, Church leaders kept various rosters and lists of those who enlisted or volunteered, in part to make sure the families were cared for. Those lists and the Compiled Military Service Record Card have been frequently used to help identify who was in the Mormon Battalion, but they had men listed who volunteered, but never went, along with other errors, said Laura Anderson, the Mormon Battalion Association executive director.
Several years ago, Anderson heard that the Mormon Battalion muster and payroll records were in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. — official military records that had been previously thought lost.
The muster lists were created every two months, accounting for each person’s service, and included if they were sick, sent with a detachment, discharged, died or deserted, Anderson said. Anderson, with help from other researchers, volunteers and those at the National Archives, was able to locate the records. She’s been back to the National Archives about 10 times since. (She shared her experiences at RootsTech and it is available online at familysearch.org.)
They also found bounty land applications and pension records. Bounty lands were a reward for the completion of military service of 160 acres. As Utah wasn’t available for bounty land assignments, most of the battalion members sold their land, Anderson said. Pension records helped researchers find additional family members.
With multiple trips to the National Archives and other records available online, Anderson and other researchers have been able to verify the vast majority of those who were in the battalion, follow them through the records kept on the journey and when they got home, and connect them to their families.
“So it is a melding of all of these different records to allow us to uniquely identify” the battalion members, Anderson said.
One man they’ve recently researched is Peter Fife. He had been listed on a roster for Company B, and his obituary noted he was “one of the Mormon Battalion.” His name was eventually dropped from lists of those with the battalion as he wasn’t on a military roster. Thanks to other online and digitized records, including several journals of others during that time, the researchers were able to verify that Fife was with the battalion.
“Since Peter is not on the roster as a soldier, it is possible Peter is a teamster or aide, although no documentation for either of those possibilities has been found — yet,” Anderson said.
As researchers have been connecting individuals to the records, they’ve been adding the information to FamilySearch and also have plans to make their research available on the Mormon Battalion Association’s website.
“We know who the 496 men were,” Christofferson said, noting that an occasional nickname offers a challenge to the researchers. “We can identify 496 [names] that the records agree on.”
They’ve also been able to dispel myths about the battalion, too, including the men were literate, why they didn’t have uniforms and that all who went were members of the Church.
Anderson found many records where the men had to sign with an “X” — instead of signing their names — and it was countersigned by an officer.
“No volunteer unit in the Mexican War was given uniforms except by their state,” Anderson said. As the Saints weren’t enlisting in a particular state, they didn’t get uniforms. They were able to send a portion of their uniform allowance they received at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, back to their families.
They’ve found a man who joined the Mormon Battalion at Fort Leavenworth who wasn’t a member of the Church. Through their research, they haven’t found if he ever joined the Church, she said.
“And the thing that excites me more than anything else is the fact that we are still figuring these people out,” Anderson said.
Several events along the Mormon Battalion’s trail are being planned for the 175th anniversary by a variety of organizations, including in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Tucson, Arizona; and San Diego and Yuma, California. The Mormon Battalion Association will be part of the Military Appreciation Day in August at Camp Floyd, Utah. A historical symposium is scheduled in August at Council Bluffs, Iowa. See mormonbattalion.com for information.
For more about the Mormon Battalion, the Church has the Mormon Battalion Center in San Diego, California, which has both in-person and virtual tours. Also, see an interactive map from the Church History Department at history.churchofjesuschrist.org/maps/mormon-battalion?lang=eng