The 175th anniversary of the longest U.S. Army infantry march in history was celebrated in Old Town San Diego on Jan. 29. A little-known event in American history, it played a significant role in the country’s westward expansion, opening a southern wagon route to San Diego and Southern California.
Having been expelled from Missouri, and then suffering mob violence in Illinois, leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints determined in the fall of 1845 that they would move a thousand miles to the west, beyond the Rocky Mountains. By agreeing to move by spring, they managed to negotiate a fragile peace with the vigilantes.
An advance party was sent in early 1846, and as they were able, additional groups crossed the Mississippi into Iowa to seek refuge until they were able to travel west. Being forced to leave their homes and most of their possessions, funds and resources were a problem. Many were destitute. Obtaining wagons and oxen, as well as supplies for the westward journey, would take time.
On June 1, 1846, Elder James C. Little met with President James K. Polk to suggest that Church members would be willing to do some labor along the trail to Oregon in return for financial aid. Coincidentally, the government had just received word of the outbreak of the war with Mexico, and the authorities decided that the “Mormons” might be able to provide a different type of service.
A call for 500 volunteers to form a battalion to join Col. Stephen Kearny, commander of the Army of the West, was received. Since many of the men had sought work in St. Louis and other towns, taking 500 of the remaining men from the various camps to travel westward significantly weakened the already struggling camps.
Before leaving on their 2,100-mile march, the Mormon Battalion was counseled by President Brigham Young to “live (their) religion while in the Army.” He instructed, “Hold sacred the property of the people, never taking anything that does not belong to you. Always spare life when possible. … Teach chastity, gentility and civility.”
He also promised that the battalion would not have to fight a single battle in the Mexican-American War.
The battalion traveled from Winter Quarters, near Omaha, Nebraska, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they were outfitted with weapons and given a $42 clothing allowance (most of which they sent to their families.). From there they crossed the Kansas River and went west to the Arkansas River, which they followed upstream for 100 miles.
Turning southwest, they traveled to the Cimarron River and passed near the place Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma meet. After continuing southwesterly to Santa Fe, New Mexico, they followed the Rio Grande to El Paso. They then traveled west through Arizona to San Diego, a route utilized today by Interstates 25, 10 and 8.
The day following the battalion’s arrival in San Diego, Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, battalion commander, issued the following orders:
“History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry. Half of it has been through a wilderness where nothing but savages and wild beasts are found, or deserts where, for want of water, there is no living creature. There, with almost hopeless labor, we have dug deep wells. … With crow-bar and pick and axe in hand, we have … hewed a passage through a chasm of living rock more narrow than our wagons. … Thus, marching half naked and half fed, and living upon wild animals, we have discovered and made a road of great value to our country.”
Since their enlistment did not end until June, the battalion’s members were assigned duty at San Diego, San Luis Rey and Los Angeles. There they dug wells, made brick and built homes. At the end of their enlistment, 81 of them reenlisted for eight months, while others sought work in California before traveling to the Salt Lake Valley, where the first wagon train arrived on July 24, 1847.
While the $7 a month paid the volunteers was not a great amount, that money, forwarded to the struggling families in Winter Quarters, enabled them to make the trip across the Plains to the Salt Lake Valley. The aid the LDS Church had sought from the government came, albeit not in the form expected.
Glenna M. Christensen is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.