Sherman L. Fleek is the current command historian at United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month, an armistice was enacted between the Central Powers led by Germany along with the Entente nations of Great Britain, France and United States; the year was 1918. This day that ended the “Great War” soon became “Armistice Day” and a national holiday. In 1954 Congress changed this holiday to “Veterans Day” to recognize the services and sacrifices of all American military veterans; but this holiday continues to be observed on the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
As Americans observe Veterans Day this year, they should remember perhaps one of the most unusual military units in American history: the Mormon Battalion. Mustered in federal service during the Mexican War (1846-1848) in July 1846, the Mormon Battalion was the only religious unit in United States history and remains so. Some 500 members of the LDS Church enlisted as soldiers at the behest of senior apostle Brigham Young and other leaders, along with a few dozens wives and children, commenced their one year military service.
Francis Parkman, one of early great American historians wrote this after seeing the Mormon Battalion on the trek, “There was something very striking in the half-military, half-patriarchal appearance of these armed fanatics, thus on their way with their wives and families and children, to found, it might be, a Mormon empire in California.”
Because of the many family members, the battalion is often portrayed in history as a pioneer epic, but the service of these Mormon volunteer soldiers has a greater legacy. In a nation where the separation of religious homage and political power is itself a shrine, the rare circumstance arose where a combat unit consisted of nearly every soldier of one faith; it had a religious designation; much of the soldier’s salaries went to the general Church; and most importantly, the main reason these men enlisted was because of the urgings of LDS leaders. This service was both a tremendous sacrifice and blessing to the Church during the exodus west to the Rocky Mountains.
No other American combat unit has these unique features. Another interesting dimension of the battalion was the time-honored militia and volunteer tradition of the men electing their officers and noncommissioned officers, a truly democratic feature of citizen soldiers. But in this rare unit, Brigham Young “called” the company officers and leaders; the men did not elect them. Also, Captain James Allen, a graduate of West Point in 1829 along with his classmate Robert E. Lee of Virginia, was the officer assigned to recruit, muster and then command the battalion. He did not approach the Iowa territorial governor or legislature, nor any other political entity, but he sought out a religious leader― again, a rare circumstance.
To secure the church’s support, Captain Allen had to agree to several very unmilitary conditions; first, the battalion was not to be divided; the women and children were to remain with their soldier-men; and if Allen died or was no longer commander, then the senior Mormon officer, Captain Jefferson of A Company, would assume command. All these demands were eventually ignored for sound military reasons. For example, because of the long and lethargic march of the battalion in August to October 1846 to Santa Fe, New Mexico, the commanding general of the Army of the West, General Stephen Kearny (pronounced CAR-NEE) ordered that the battalion arrive at Santa Fe by October 10, 1846 or be discharged. Acting battalion commander Lieutenant Andrew Jackson Smith of the regular US Army, divided the battalion, and with 250 healthy men, some 50 soldiers per each of the five line companies and made a forced march of nearly 200 miles arriving on October 9, thus Smith and his dividing the battalion saved it from discharge.
The Mormon Battalion was a volunteer infantry of the Army of West commanded by General Kearny, arguably the most experienced frontier army officer in the antebellum Army. The battalion joined equally special military organizations such as the 1st Missouri Mounted Volunteers, whose wild and obnoxious soldiers, bullwhackers, muleskinners and rowdies from Missouri elected as their colonel, Alexander Doniphan. He was the same Missouri militia officer and lawyer who refused to execute Joseph Smith at Far West in 1838. Kearny’s 1st Dragoons, a mounted regiment trained to fight as both mounted cavalry or dismounted infantry, was perhaps the most elite unit in the frontier army. Also, the 2nd Missouri Volunteer Regiment was commanded by Mormon-hater, Colonel Sterling Price, a Missouri politician and militia officer who commanded the guard detail at Richmond where Joseph Smith rose and rebuked the vulgar guards. The Army of the West was itself a strange and rather unique field army.
President James K. Polk and his administration, once official war was declared against Mexico, fulfilled his vision of political and cultural “Manifest Destiny” by dispatching an armed force for occupation of first the Mexican state of New Mexico and then California. The genesis of the Mormon Battalion, that President Polk himself took a major role in, was not for military reasons but for political reasons as he wrote himself. His aim was “to conciliate them” to ensure the Mormons loyalty which would provide the cash-starved Saints with military salaries and entitlements. Pulitzer winning historian Daniel Walker Howe wrote, “The Mormon Battalion represented a bargain struck between James Knox Polk and Brigham Young . . . It was a heavy tax on the community’s manpower, but the soldier’s pay would help the financially hard-pressed migration.”
Thus the battalion was formed and mustered into federal military service on July 16, 1846 at present-day Council Bluffs, Iowa. Then the arduous and incredible march to California, just under 2,000 miles, began; one of the most spectacular marches in military history. The battalion’s expedition to California is often portrayed as the longest march in American or even world history: it was not. Alexander the Great made a march of 22,000 miles over ten years, one year his Macedonian army covered nearly 3,000 miles. In American history there are also longer marches, which begs the question: who cares? What does a tally of miles denote?
Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, the most important commander of the battalion offered this commentary: “History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry . . .” he did not mean miles because what he outlined was geography, terrain, hardships, and that the battalion men, and a few women, endured the difficult trek. This is the true accomplishment of the battalion’s journey to California, obedience, devotion duty, sacrifice and helping one another.
On three occasions crossing formidable desert stretches the battalion lost all unit cohesiveness and march discipline. But the men who reached the water holes and streams first returned along the line of march to help their fellow soldiers. Some twenty-two people perished, all from natural causes because the battalion saw no combat. One them was Lydia Hunter, wife of Captain Jesse Hunter, the commander of B Company garrisoned in San Diego.