History Wars

What was the Mormon Battalion?

Jessica Evans Avatar
mormon battalion monument
Soldiers of the Mormon Battalion honored at Fort Moore Pioneer Memorial, Los Angeles, California.

February 1846 – Mob violence breaks out in Nauvoo, Illinois. The Mormons who settled the town are in big trouble. The Protestants in the region find Mormonism a little too . . . well . . . un-Protestant, and they viciously attack the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Brigham Young, the head honcho of the Mormons, needs to get his people out fast. Word on the street is that there’s refuge in Utah. That’s Young’s best bet for sure. But how will he get hundreds of Mormons across the frigid plains in the dead of winter? He begs the Unites States government for help, but his pleas go unanswered.

Then, suddenly, in the wee hours of the February night, Young gets an idea…

Enlistment

The Mexican-American War was underway, and President James Polk needed help. California was still a part of Mexico then. However, Polk wanted the Unites States to extend from sea to shining sea (Cue “America the Beautiful”).

Brigham Young wrote to Polk, insisting that the U.S. assist the Mormons or else. Young threatened to have his men join the Mexican army if they didn’t get protection. “Send help now or we’re switching teams, Bucko!” – Sincerely, Mr. Young.

Polk couldn’t take that risk. He went ahead and enlisted Young’s Mormon men into the U.S. Military. The deal was that the Mormons would help the U.S. duke it out with Mexico for territory in California. In exchange, the U.S. Army would protect the Mormons on their way to Utah. Young agreed, and in July, the Mormons packed their bags and hit the road.

Alleged to be the Mormon Battalion Flag but likely was not. This flag belonged to the Utah-period Nauvoo Legion

All Settled In . . . Almost

Now, if you’re good at U.S. geography, you know that Utah comes before California when traveling east to west. Young’s men had to first stop in Salt Lake Valley to drop off their wives and children. Then, they’d continue to southern California with the rest of the army. The trip from Illinois to Utah had already been painful, to say the least. The convoy ran out of water halfway there, and the Mormons got so thirsty that they siphoned rainwater from puddles on the ground. Still, a deal was a deal. Polk upheld his end of the bargain. Now, Young’s men would need to go fight off the Mexicans and win California.

Off to the land of sun

By the time the Mormon Battalion saw the Pacific, the Mexicans had already waved the white flag. Brigham Young’s men avoided warfare altogether– lucky them! Now, you might think they turned around and went right home to Utah, but they did no such thing. Young had promised Polk a full year of service. The battalion had to serve until July of 1847. They stuck around, built a courthouse, and helped the locals deal with their post-war trauma or whatever else it was veterans did back then. Then, in summer, they finally returned to their families in Utah.

Speaking of veterans doing things, here’s a list of 5 remarkable Marines who have created global empires.

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