During Pioneer weekend, Thursday to Saturday, July 21-23, history lovers, reenactors, and curious individuals gathered at the Benson Grist Mill to perform and witness a living history encampment reenactment of the Mormon Battalion.
Those participating learned how to start a fire, performed military drills and learned about weapons that the Battalion used. The reenactors kept things as accurate as possible by wearing period-accurate clothing.
The weekend’s events on Friday also included a symposium at the Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Church on Benson Road, near the Gristmill. Attendees and members of the public learned about Battalion-era topics, such as medicine in the 1840’s, information about the Battalion caravan, and military laundresses and other topics.
On Saturday, some of those participating gathered in downtown Salt Lake City to march in the Days of ’47 parade dressed as old-time pioneers.
Sunday, the events closed out with a live performance of a symphonic saga of the Mormon Battalion and a talk by Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the Tabernacle on Temple Square.
The weekend’s events were put on by the Mormon Battalion Association and the Utah Living History Association.
Although the Mormon Battalion marched 175 years ago, its rich history has played significant roles in Utah’s and the United States’ history, as well as the history of Latter-day Saints.
The Battalion story begins in 1846 in Iowa where more than 15,000 Latter-day Saints were living in encampments after being forced to leave their homes in Illinois as a result of religious persecution.
During their journey from Illinois to Iowa, many individuals had died of starvation, exposure, and disease.
Each individual had little food, clothing, and possessions, except what they could carry themselves or put on their wagons. Many were upset with the U.S government, because it seemed like they didn’t care, according to Californiapioneer.com.
Brigham Young wrote a letter in January of 1846 to Jesse C. Little, presiding elder over the New England and Middle States Mission, instructing Little to meet with national leaders in the nation’s capital and to seek aid for the migrating members of the church.
Little journeyed to Washington in May 1846, eight days after Congress had declared war on Mexico, and met with President James K. Polk, urging him to aid migrating Mormon pioneers by employing them to defend the West during the war, according to historytogo.utah.gov.
Polk offered to help the pioneers by permitting them to raise a Battalion of 500 men who would join the Commander of the Army of the West, Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, to fight.
Little accepted the offer and Kearny designated Captain James Allen, to raise five companies of volunteer soldiers from able-bodied men between the ages of 18 and 45 from the pioneer encampments.
Some members of the church were skeptical, so Allen allowed them to camp on United States lands in turn for the church members’ help with the war. Young accepted the offer and asked members if they would be involved, and when they said yes, in July 1846, around 500 men enlisted in the Mormon Battalion.
With them they brought women, who served as laundresses and 51 children, according to Laura Anderson, executive director of the Mormon Battalion Association.
“When Brigham told them that this was of the Lord and that they needed to do this, they eventually got 496 men to join,” Laura Anderson said.
The Battalion marched from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they were outfitted for their trek to Santa Fe. They were given firearms and weapons, along with a clothing allowance of $42. Since a military uniform wasn’t mandatory, many soldiers sent their clothing allowance back to their families.
The march out from Fort Leavenworth was delayed by the illness of Allen. Capt. Jefferson Hunt took over for him and he began the march to Santa Fe.
A short time later, Hunt received word that Allen was dead and everyone became confused about who should lead the march. Finally, a man named A.J Smith arrived and took over operations. He was chosen as the commanding officer by Battalion officers.
During their way to Santa Fe, many of the soldiers suffered from excessive heat, lack of sufficient food, improper medical treatment, and forced long-distance marches, according to Historytogo.
The first division of the Mormon Battalion arrived in Santa Fe on Oct. 9, 1846. There, Smith was relieved of his command.
From Santa Fe, leaders planned to march the Battalion to California, but first they sent the sick men, along with the women and children, to Pueblo, Colorado for the winter. Over 250 individuals were sent to Colorado.
The remaining soldiers left Santa Fe for the journey to California on Oct. 19, 1846 and they journeyed down the Rio Grande to Del Norte, and crossed the Continental Divide at the end of November.
While moving along the San Pedro River in what is now known as Arizona, some of the men were attacked by a herd of wild cattle, causing two men to be wounded.
After this, the Battalion continued their march towards Tucson, where they believed there would be a battle between them and the Mexican soldiers, but when they arrived, there were no soldiers in sight and no battle ensued.
At the end of December, the Battalion camped on the Gila River, crossed the Colorado river in early January, 1847, and ended up camping at the Mission of San Diego.
During the remainder of their service, some of the members of the Battalion were assigned to garrison duty in California; others accompanied Kearny back to Fort Leavenworth. All soldiers were mustered out of the Army on July 16, 1847 and 81 of those men decided to reenlist and serve an additional eight months of military duty. The rest of the members migrated to the Salt Lake Valley and spread out from there.
Following discharge, many men helped build flour mills and sawmills in California. Some of them were also among the first to discover gold at Sutter’s Mill.
“The record of the discovery of gold was recorded by two Battalion members,” said Mike Anderson, a creator of the Utah Living History Association.
The march of the Mormon Battalion from Council Bluffs to California is one of the longest military marches in history at around 2,000 miles.
“The Battalion was one of the most unique military units in American history,” Mike Anderson said.
Since then, many groups have set out to commemorate and remember the Mormon Battalion.
“We are trying to keep a promise Brigham Young made that the Battalion won’t be forgotten,” Mike Anderson said. “Independence in America has no future without a reverence for its past.”