While Latter-day Saints were on their way west with Prophet Brigham Young, having been driven from Nauvoo by mobs, they were visited by representatives of the federal government, trying to conscript an army to participate in the war with Mexico. The Latter-day Saints had actually been forced to leave the U.S. in order to survive, and had arrived in Council Bluffs, Iowa. They had repeatedly sought redress from both state and federal governments, to no avail. So it was ironic that anyone should think they would risk their lives to fight with the American army.
The prospect, however, had some advantages, and so it was seriously considered by Brigham Young. The pay that the conscripted soldiers would receive would help the Saints make their move to Utah Territory. However, the Saints needed their men, and separating families was an unappealing idea. Brigham Young agreed, partly for the funds that would come in, and partly to demonstrate that Mormons were indeed good citizens.
Five hundred forty-one soldiers, 35 women (20 of whom were designated as laundresses), and 42 children began their march to Fort Leavenworth on 21 July 1846. Before they left, the officers, all of whom had been selected by Mormon Church leaders, met privately with members of the Twelve. The Brethren promised them that their lives would be spared if they were faithful. This promise was fulfilled. Sergeant William Hyde reported that they were charged “to remember their prayers, to see that the name of the Deity was revered, and that virtue and cleanliness were strictly observed. [The troops were instructed] to treat all men with kindness . . . and never take life when it could be avoided.”
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.”
The new soldiers marched two hundred miles down the east side of the Missouri River, then crossed over to Fort Leavenworth, arriving on 1 August 1846. There they were outfitted with supplies, guns, and forty-two dollars per man as clothing money for the year. The paymaster at the fort was surprised when every man was able to sign his name on the payroll. Only a third of the volunteers he had previously paid could write. A portion of the money was collected by Parley P. Pratt and others sent by the Church. This was used to support the battalion members’ families in Iowa and in unorganized territory, to assist in evacuating the poor from Nauvoo, and to help Parley P. Pratt, John Taylor, and Orson Hyde on their mission to England.
The Mormon Battalion eventually marched two thousand miles to California, enduring great hardships during the journey. However, the battalion saw no military action, and only twenty-two perished (all from natural causes — one as the result of childbirth).
Since California was already in the hands of the United States, the battalion men served as occupation troops with garrison duty in San Diego, San Luis Rey, and Los Angeles. While in southern California, the Saints gained the respect of the local citizens. Those in San Diego built a courthouse and houses, burned brick, and dug wells, thus contributing significantly to the building of the community. On 16 July, at the end of their year’s enlistment, the battalion members were discharged, although eighty-one men chose to reenlist for an additional six months.
Brigham Young sent a message asking those without families to stay in California to work during the winter of 1847–48. Most of them did. Many spent the winter at Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento River and assisted in the discovery of gold in January 1848 that began the California gold rush. The following summer they honorably completed their contracts with Sutter, abandoned the gold fields, and joined their families in Salt Lake City or at the Missouri River. “The officially recognized discovery of gold at Coloma in Northern California occurred on 24 January 1848 at John Sutter’s lumber mill. Of the eleven white men and one woman present, at least six were Church members from the Mormon Battalion.”
In 2010 “the LDS Church’s Mormon Battalion Visitors Center in San Diego, had a completely renovated structure dedicated. It also boasts an entirely new interpretive approach―history rather than mostly gospel themes. It is an outstanding community attraction with world-class interactive/interpretive devices, demonstrating the theme that soldiers and armies are not always agents of destruction.”
In Salt Lake City, the new Mormon Battalion Park at “This is the Place” state park and a museum was opened in July and August of 2010. There are also dozens and dozens of plaques, monuments, interpretive trail markers, across half the continent from Fort Leavenworth to Tucson to Los Angeles. Now with two major visitor attractions this one battalion of 500 soldiers has perhaps more markers, plaques and monuments than any other similar-sized unit in United States history.