On May 12, 1846, soon after the first group of Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo, the United States declared war against Mexico. President James K. Polk sent Captain James Allen to recruit five hundred Mormon men to serve in the U.S. Army and march to California to conquer the territory for the United States.
Brigham Young recognized that fulfilling this request would provide some opportunities for the Saints’ trek west. He said that by serving, Mormons could show their loyalty to their country, earn money for their families, and receive free transportation to the West. He also hoped that approval would be given for the Saints to camp on Indian lands. “Let the Mormons be the first [United States soldiers] to set their feet on the soil of California,” President Young said.
After Brigham Young’s reassurance, the men volunteered to serve. They were promised by Church leaders that their families would be cared for, and Brigham Young told them that if they were faithful and kept the commandments, they would not be in any battles.
On July 21, 1846, the 541 men of the Mormon Battalion began their march under the command of newly promoted Lieutenant Colonel James Allen. Thirty-five women and forty-two children, most of whom were families of the soldiers, accompanied the battalion on their journey.
They first marched to Fort Leavenworth (in present-day Kansas), where they were given supplies, guns, and forty-two dollars each for clothing. Every soldier was able to sign his own name on the payroll, which impressed the paymaster—only a third of the previous recruits had been able to do so. Parley P. Pratt collected part of the Mormon soldiers’ pay to help support their families and the poor still in Nauvoo. The money was also used to help Parley P. Pratt, John Taylor, and Orson Hyde on their mission to England.
The Mormon Battalion stayed at Fort Leavenworth for two weeks. The days were extremely hot, and many of the men were ill with fevers. Colonel Allen was gravely ill and did not go with them when they left for Santa Fe. Later, they learned that he had died.
After crossing the Arkansas River on September 16, the new battalion commander, Lieutenant A. J. Smith, sent most of the women and children to the Mexican village of Pueblo (in present-day Colorado) for the winter. The soldiers were upset because they had been promised that their families could travel with them to California. But it was a wise decision because the battalion marched at a rapid pace with little time to rest. Just a month later, a group of sick men and women were also sent to Pueblo.
The weary soldiers trudged into Santa Fe, New Mexico, on October 9, 1846. Colonel Philip St. George Cooke became their new commander, with orders to blaze a wagon trail from Santa Fe to California. The work wore heavily on the battalion, and in November 1846, a third group of fifty-five weakened and tired soldiers turned back for Pueblo.
When the remaining soldiers marched toward Tucson, they were stampeded by a herd of wild bulls. The bulls charged toward them, and the men ran for cover. The stampede was brief, but three soldiers were wounded and several animals were killed, including two battalion mules. The event became known as the Battle of the Bulls—the Mormon Battalion’s only battle!
The soldiers marched peacefully through Tucson, even though a small group of Mexican soldiers was stationed there, then beyond the Colorado River into a hot desert where water could be found only by digging deep wells. They suffered through scorching days and freezing nights. Many had worn out the bottoms of their boots and were walking practically barefoot. Some wrapped rawhide and rags around their feet to protect them from the hot sands.
The end of their 2,030-mile (3266-k) march came on January 29, 1847, when they reached Mission San Diego. Fortunately the Mexicans had already surrendered and the United States had control of California, so the Mormon Battalion helped protect and build up the areas where they served. On July 16, 1847, the men were discharged; eighty-one chose to re-enlist for another six months.
Most of the discharged men planned to join their families in the Salt Lake Valley. But President Brigham Young sent a messenger to them, requesting that the men without families remain in California for the winter. Many of those who stayed behind worked at Sutter’s Fort on the Sacramento River. They were involved in the beginning of the California gold rush. The next summer, however, they left the gold fields to rejoin the Saints.