Mormon Battalion: U.S. Army of the West, 1846-1847

Mormon Battalion: U.S. Army of the West, 1846-1847

by Norma Ricketts

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Few events in the history of the American Far West from 1846 to 1849 did not involve the Mormon Battalion. The Battalion participated in the United States conquest of California and in the discovery of gold, opened four major wagon trails, and carried the news of gold east to an eager American public. Yet, the battalion is little known beyond Mormon history. This


Few events in the history of the American Far West from 1846 to 1849 did not involve the Mormon Battalion. The Battalion participated in the United States conquest of California and in the discovery of gold, opened four major wagon trails, and carried the news of gold east to an eager American public. Yet, the battalion is little known beyond Mormon history. This first complete history of the wide-ranging army unit restores it to its central place in Western history, and provides descendants a complete roster of the Battalion's members.

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Utah State University Press
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)
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16 Years

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The Mormon Battalion

U.S. Army of the West 1846â"1848

By Norma Baldwin Ricketts

University Press of Colorado

Copyright © 1996 Utah State University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87421-215-0


The Enlistment


Fri., June 26, Mt. Pisgah, Iowa. Five men, in army uniforms and with a baggage wagon, rode into camp. They talked with William Huntington, who was in charge, and Apostle Wilford Woodruff. There was instant alarm when the Saints saw the uniforms. Women rounded up their children and hid them while men reached for their rifles. They thought the soldiers might be spies trying to find out how many Mormons were here and what their plans were. It was only two years since Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, was murdered and the sight of the soldiers and the uniforms brought it all back.

Sat., June 27, Mt. Pisgah. The leader of the men who had arrived the day before was Captain James Allen, First Dragoons, U.S. Army of the West. He brought four dragoons with him. With Huntington's permission, the men gathered in the bowery and Allen told them he had a request from the president of the United States to enlist five hundred Mormons in the army for twelve months during the war with Mexico. The volunteers would go to Fort Leavenworth for supplies and then to California, where they would be discharged in a year.

The captain asked for healthy men, eighteen to forty-five years old, to make five companies of about one hundred soldiers each. The enlisted men were to choose their own officers consisting of a captain and a first and second lieutenant for each company. The volunteers would be allowed to keep their guns and accoutrements at the end of their service. Twenty women, four for each company, were to serve as laundresses and to receive rations and other allowances. Taking the men would cause serious hardships on families left behind. Many thought it was a plan to destroy the Mormons. Since the government hadn't offered any protection from the mobs in Missouri and Illinois, there was doubt about sending men to fight for the United States at this time. Huntington sent a letter by messenger to Brigham Young at Council Bluffs to tell him about the captain's proposition.

Sun., June 28, Mt. Pisgah. Everyone talked about the war and the government's request. Hosea Stout thought it was a plot to bring trouble to the Mormons. William Hyde said it would be very hard to leave his wife, children, and aged parents "in the midst of wild Indian country with only a wagon box for a home." Captain Allen left for Council Bluffs to see Brigham Young.

Mon., June 29, Mt. Pisgah. Talk about the war continued. Most denounced the idea of Mormons enlisting. Abraham Day said, "Here is one man who will not go." The women felt the request was unfair, that the Saints had given enough and owed the government nothing. The men were anxious to hear what Brigham Young thought about Allen's proposal.

Wed., July 1, Mt. Pisgah. There was a lot of talk in camp. Melissa Coray wanted to go with her husband and said she didn't see why women must always stay behind and worry about their husbands when they could just as well march beside them.

Sat., July 4, Mt. Pisgah. More talk and agitation. Dimick Huntington's wife was distraught at the thought of his leaving. George Taggart talked with William Huntington and Ezra T. Benson and told them he "wished to do that which would be productive of the most good in building up the Kingdom of God." Their counsel to him was "the importance of the case requires every man should go."

I felt indignant toward the Government that had suffered me to be raided and driven from my home. I made the uncouth remark that "I would see them all damned and in Hell." I would not enlist. On the way to the Bluffs we met President Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and W. Richards returning, calling for recruits. They said the salvation of Israel depended upon the raising of the army. When I heard this my mind changed. I felt that it was my duty to go. (Daniel B. Rawson)

As soon as the authority of the church made known their desires for us to enlist, I wished to go. Brother Miller tried to influence me to stay, but Brother Brigham had said he wanted all young men to go that could, so I was determined to go. (Henry G. Boyle)

Mon., July 6, Mt. Pisgah. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards arrived from Council Bluffs with Allen and his men. Allen stood in an empty wagon while announcing his message to the gathered exiles. Allen explained that thousands of volunteers were ready to enlist in the United States Army in the Mexican War. Through the benevolence of President James K. Polk, five hundred Mormons could enlist. Brigham Young said it was no hoax, that it was the first time the government had "stretched its arm to our assistance." Young stated enlisting would prove loyalty to the country. Further, the wages would help their families and the Mormon Church. Everyone listened attentively to the call of the church leaders. After the meeting the band commenced playing and marching. Parley P. Pratt called to the brethren to fall in line. It was a stirring scene. Charles Hancock was the first to step up and Brigham Young signed young Charles's name with a flourish as the first volunteer. Sixty men signed up.

Wed., July 8, Mt. Pisgah. Sixty-six men volunteered. Others were thinking about signing up. There was a feeling of sadness and worry among the wives and families. The volunteers left for Council Bluffs after receiving military advice from Charles C. Rich, who had been a general in the Nauvoo Legion, the Mormon militia.

Thurs., July 9, Mt. Pisgah. Brigham Young and other Mormon Church authorities left for Council Bluffs in the late afternoon to enlist volunteers there.

Fri., July 10, Mt. Pisgah. More men enlisted. Several women also signed with their husbands. The mood in camp was one of worry and grave concern. Captain Allen and Indian Agent R. B. Mitchell issued a proclamation at Council Bluffs granting permission to the Mormons for a portion of them to reside on Potawatomi land. Captain Allen did this in the name of the president of the United States.

Sun., July 12, Mt. Pisgah. Although it was hard to see families separated and the sadness in everyone's eyes, the murmurings stopped after President Young said, "This thing is from above for our good."

Mon., July 13, Council Bluffs, Iowa. The volunteers and families from Mt. Pisgah arrived. Twenty-two-year-old John J. Riser was traveling with his brother in the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo when they heard about the government's request for a battalion. John Riser probably was the only man eager to enter the military service:

This news aroused in me such a desire to reach the place of enlistment that I could hardly await the time until we should reach the place as I feared that I would be too late to offer my services to my country, and so I left the slow-going company behind and went ahead on foot to reach the camp where the enlisting took place, but I found there was plenty room for more. I had a great love for adventure and I had no doubt I inherited this military ardor from my forefathers who had seen much service in the wars of Germany. I had myself enrolled in Company C ... to serve one year, but with this enlistment commenced a series of hardships which I however cheerfully encountered and without complaint and became a true soldier.

Tues., July 14, Council Bluffs. Brigham Young announced that even though the battalion was part of the regular army, under Captain Allen, the battalion could appoint its own company leaders. The men voted to have President Young and the council choose the officers and non-commissioned officers of the five companies. Brigham Young next appointed the officers of each company. Some officers decided to take their wives and children along. More men signed up. Israel Evans and Isaac Carter, both eighteen and quite short, were turned down by the recruiting officer as "under size." Then they stood on a stump behind someone and were accepted. Lot Smith was afraid he might not measure up to the required height, so he raised up on his toes. Jacob Butterfield, 6'2", thought he was the tallest man to volunteer. Alonzo Raymond had an affliction for a considerable time, which the doctors told him was incurable. Heber C. Kimball saw him resting by the side of the road and asked him what was troubling him. Alonzo told of his illness. Kimball told him to enlist in the battalion and promised him he would recover and be able to complete the march. Alonzo enlisted in Company D.

Thurs., July 16, Council Bluffs. About 450 men gathered in the square in the morning. An American flag was "brought out from the store house of things rescued" when they fled from Nauvoo and "was hoisted to a tree mast and under it the enrollment took place." Samuel Rogers and William Johnstun had cut the liberty pole for the flag a few days before.

Colonel Thomas Kane, a longtime friend of the Mormons, was in camp and assured them enlisting was the right thing to do. Captain Allen assumed command after mustering the men into the army for one year. He had spent twenty-one days recruiting the battalion. Some of the delay was due to the scattered condition of the emigrants. After being among the Mormons for three weeks, Captain Allen said they "came into the service very readily and will ... make an active and efficient force."

Plans were made to leave as soon as more men signed up for the fifth company. Captain Allen announced the group was to be known as the Mormon Battalion, U.S. Army of the West. The men went eight miles to Sarpy's, a French trading post on the Missouri River, where each man was issued a blanket, coffee, and sugar. Most then returned to Council Bluffs for a final farewell to wives and families.

Fri., July 17, Council Bluffs. Sidney Willes was baptized this afternoon. He and his brother, Ira, were the only ones in their family to join the Mormon Church. Both were in Company B. Dimick Huntington signed up for Company D. His wife believed she would never see him again and was distraught. He laid his hands on her head and blessed her in the name of the Lord that they would see each other again and spend many happy years together. William Casper left his wife and baby in care of her sixteen-year-old brother. He told his wife, "Sarah Ann, you are in the hands of the same God as I am. May He bring us together again."

When the companies paraded and were inspected by Colonel Allen, one man was rejected in Company B. The battalion was under pay from this date.

Sat., July 18, Council Bluffs. A drum tattoo brought the men to attention for roll call by company. Then Brigham Young and Apostles Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor, Orson Pratt, and Wilford Woodruff met with both officers and non-commissioned officers in a poplar grove near the river. After exhorting the officers to be "fathers to their companies and manage their men by the power vested in the priesthood," Brigham Young concluded by explaining the plan of emigration to go to the Great Basin, where they would have protection against mobs and where they could build temples. He also told them they would be "dismissed about 800 miles from us."

The enlisted men cleared an eight-rod square while the meeting was going on. They stomped the grass down until it was smooth enough to dance. After the meeting with the officers, the church leaders, together with their wives, began the dancing with a double cotillion. It was a signal for the festivities to begin.

Captain Pitt's Brass Band played until the sun went behind the hills. All church authorities and officers and soldiers of the battalion joined in. There was "perfect order ... all was still and quiet ... nothing was heard but the music" — violins, horns, sleigh bells, and tambourines. What a merry dance it was. A sister with light hair, dark eyes, and a soprano voice, sang a touching song, accompanied by a quartet:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept.
We wept when we remembered Zion.

Many listening had tears in their eyes. "An elder asked the blessing of heaven on all who, with a purity of heart and brotherhood of spirit, had mingled in that society, and then all dispersed." Thomas Kane was in attendance.

Sun., July 19, Council Bluffs. In his Sunday sermon Brigham Young and the apostles said again it was right to serve in the battalion. All took courage from their words. Company E was filling up. Abraham Day, who said he wouldn't sign up, was in Company E. Dimick Huntington arranged for his wife and three children to go with him. William Kelley, assigned to Company A, married his sweetheart, Anna Farragher, in the evening. She did not go on the march.

A Sabbath meeting was held at Redemption Hill at Council Bluffs. Three apostles spoke — John Taylor, Parley P. Pratt, and Wilford Woodruff. After the meeting another thirty or forty volunteers signed up.

Mon., July 20, along the Missouri River, 10 miles. Allen and the first four companies started for Fort Leavenworth. Wives, mothers, and children cried as the men marched away. It was difficult for the men as well. They didn't take food with them, only a little flour and parched corn, since they didn't want to take food away from families left behind. They each had one blanket to use both as a bottom and top as they slept. Captain Allen led out along the east bank of the Missouri River for the two-hundred-mile journey to Fort Leavenworth. Zacheus Cheney wrote, "I tell you, on that day the tears fell like rain drops." But loyalty to their church leaders was paramount to men such as David Pettegrew: "I then left my family in the care of my son-in-law ... because I was counselled by President Young to go with the Mormon Battalion, it being a particular request."

Tues., July 21, Glenwood, Iowa, 4 miles. Dough was mixed by opening up a bag of flour and pouring a little water into a hollowed-out place in the flour. When the water and flour were mixed, each man got a branch like a walking stick, went to the sack and took a lump of dough. He pulled the dough out into a long string and wrapped it around and around the stick. Then it was held close to the fire until it was considered baked. Hard rain during the day made conditions muddy and miserable for walking. It was a trial for Thomas Dunn to leave his wife and baby. He left in the afternoon to go back and tell her good-bye one more time. When the group stopped for the night, the men made brush shelters. Jesse C. Little came into camp during early evening. The rain continued all night and the men discovered their brush shanties did not provide much shelter. The fifth company left Council Bluffs.

Wed., July 22, Thurman, Iowa, 18 miles. Thomas Dunn returned this morning. He continued to grieve for his wife and was very worried about his elderly parents, who were living in a wagon box, and had no means of sustenance while he was gone. Captain Allen became Lieutenant Colonel Allen when the fifth company was filled. Jesse Little made encouraging remarks and bestowed his blessings upon the group. He talked about Samuel Boley, who was very ill. Colonel Allen was very kind to the men. As the companies started out in the morning, the musicians played "The Girl I Left Behind." The men in Company B purchased a baggage wagon and three yoke of oxen to pull it. The wagon and oxen cost each man $1.62 and each one was allowed to place 20 lb. of goods in the wagon. The fifth company caught up at Mosquito Creek.

Thurs., July 23, Linden, Missouri, 26 miles. Samuel Boley died during the night. This was the first death in the battalion. Wrapped in his blanket, he was buried in a rough lumber coffin on Mosquito Creek. He was a man of integrity and energy. During his illness he was nursed by the assistant surgeon, Dr. William McIntire. Jesse Little spoke kindly of Boley.

Fri., July 24, Rocky Port, Missouri, 5 miles. The weather was excessively hot. It was hard to walk in the boiling sun. Many began to fail and this was just the beginning. Colonel Allen wanted moderate marches, but Adjutant George Dykes, who had a horse, urged long marches. The men who were sick were annointed with oil and blessed by the laying on of hands. There was a great deal of drinking in Company E. Alonzo Raymond took his place on the march as he had recovered from his illness. He believed Heber C. Kimball's promise was fulfilled. John Steele drank freely from a cold spring during the day and suffered from it: "My bowels being empty not eating much today, it took hold and cramped my bowels and stomach and I was in exceeding pain; then the Elders laid hands on me and I got a little better so as to go along. The brethren stand this journey pretty well, some of them walked 25 miles without tasting a mouthful of anything and a scanty supper at that."

Sat., July 25, 15 miles. No flour. Many went to bed fasting while others ate parched corn. Quite a few had sore feet as they were not used to long hours of marchin


Excerpted from The Mormon Battalion by Norma Baldwin Ricketts. Copyright © 1996 Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission of University Press of Colorado.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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