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Lessons From the Mormon Battalion That Are Relevant 175 Years Later

Mormon Battalion’s march started on July 20, 1846

“The Mormon Battalion,” by George Ottinger.2021 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Christine Rappleye, Church News

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 assisted with additional wagon routes connecting California, Nevada and Utah. Many followed those routes, and the roads 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. They were scattered across Iowa and into Nebraska as they prepared to head west to the Salt Lake Valley, then in Mexican territory. Future 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, the group gained experiences from the nearly 2,000-mile march that would benefit them as 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 20, 1846, there are several lessons from their journey that apply today.

Battalion Lessons for Today

While contemporary members of the Church have not been asked to march with a military unit across the desert, there’s more to learn from the Mormon Battalion’s experiences.

“Duty Calls,” a sculpture at the Mormon Battalion Monument Plaza, depicts Brigham Young calling a young father to leave his family.2021 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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“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 Young supported the enlistment effort that people started signing up. Enlisting 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 [and] 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.

Persevere 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. The members of the battalion were being asked to leave their families and help in war.

“Participants noted that the request to enlist in the battalion was ‘quite a hard pill to swallow’ [and felt] 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.”

A painting depicting the enlistment of the Mormon Battalion, July 20, 1846, Council Bluffs, Iowa.2021 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Have 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 [recognize], 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? Researchers from the Mormon Battalion Association have been reviewing documents, including those from the National Archives, to verify who served in the battalion.

As men were enlisting with the Mormon Battalion, Church leaders kept various rosters of those who enlisted or volunteered, in part to make sure the families were cared for. Those lists and the Compiled Military Service Records have been frequently used to help identify who was in the Mormon Battalion. However, the roster lists men who volunteered but never went and contain 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. These official military records had been thought lost.

The muster lists were created every two months, accounting for each person’s service, and included whether they were sick, had been sent with a detachment, were discharged, were dead or had deserted, Anderson said. Anderson — with help from other researchers, volunteers and National Archives staff — 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 a recording is available online at familysearch.org.)

This historical marker in Temecula is adjacent to a Latter-day Saint chapel. After its time at Warner’s Ranch, the Mormon Battalion marched on toward the Pacific Ocean. On January 24, 1847, they camped at a site near modern day Temecula in Riverside County that is presently covered by Vail Lake. Photo by Kenneth Mays, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

The researchers also found bounty land applications and pension records. Bounty lands were a reward of 160 acres for the completion of military service. 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 [that allowed] 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 [of the 500] 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.”

Researchers also have been able to dispel myths about the battalion, including that the men were literate and that all who went were members of the Church. They can also explain why the battalion didn’t have uniforms.

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 — received at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas — back to their families.

In addition, researchers found a man who joined the Mormon Battalion at Fort Leavenworth who wasn’t a member of the Church. They haven’t discovered whether he ever joined the Church, Anderson said.

“And the thing that excites me more than anything else is the fact that we are still figuring these people out,” she added.

The Mormon Battalion Center at San Diego, California.2021 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Several events along the Mormon Battalion’s trail are being planned for the 175th anniversary by a variety of organizations, including those in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Tucson and Yuma, Arizona; and San Diego California. The Mormon Battalion Association will participate in Military Appreciation Day in August at Camp Floyd, Utah. They will also attend a historical symposium scheduled in August at Council Bluffs, Iowa. See mormonbattalion.com for information.

The Church also offers information about the Mormon Battalion at the Mormon Battalion Center in San Diego. The center has both in-person and virtual tours. Also, see an interactive map from the Church History Department.

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