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The Mormon Battalion, officially called the 1st Iowa Volunteers, was an infantry unit almost exclusively made up of Mormon men and a few women who undertook the longest infantry march in U.S. military history and explored vast regions of New Mexico, Arizona, and California. The invitation to serve was actually the result of talks between Mormon leaders living on the East Coast of the United States, and U.S. Government officials. Jesse C. Little, presiding elder of the Mormon Church in the eastern United States, met with President Polk and offered Mormon assistance in exploring and fortifying the American West in return for monetary help. Polk proposed enlisting Mormon men to fight in the controversial U.S.-Mexican War. Under Polk's orders Captain James Allen met with the Mormon leaders in Iowa and Nebraska and asked for five hundred men. In exchange, the impoverished Mormons, who had just been driven from their homes in Nauvoo, Illinois, received much needed funds to finance their trek west.
The Mormons had many reasons not to enlist. The U.S. government had failed to protect them from mobs in Missouri and Illinois which had driven them from their homes and massacred hundreds. They were also about to cross the plains to an unknown land somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. However, Brigham Young, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles encouraged the men to enlist. He knew that the money they would earn would help their families and other poor Mormon Pioneers. He also knew that it would show the U.S. that members of the Church were still loyal to their country.
On July 16, 1846, 541 men enlisted in the army and were organized into what was dubbed the Mormon Battalion. Some of the men’s wives and families joined them. There were 32 women and about 50 children who accompanied the battalion. The army hired 20 as laundresses. Brigham Young encouraged the men to be the best soldiers in the army, to be clean, neat, and polite. He prophesied to them that if they obeyed God’s commandments, they would not have to fight.
The Mormon Battalion left a few days after enlistment. It was difficult for many of them to leave their wives and children on the plains of Iowa, without homes, and with the task of crossing the country to Utah. However, Brigham Young assured the men that the the Church would take care of their families until their return.
The Battalion traveled to Fort Leavenworth to get supplies, and then began a long trek southwest to California. The Mormon battalion completed the longest infantry march in U.S. military history, over 2,000 miles. When they finally reached the Pacific Ocean on January 29, 1847, some six months later, they were overjoyed. Along the way they endured sickness, thirst, hunger, and strife, plus some hostile military leaders who did not like the Mormons. In New Mexico, a small contingent of seriously ill men departed the company and went to Pueblo, Colorado.
Brigham Young's prophesy came true, for by the time the Battalion arrived in California to aid in the war, it was over, and many of the men were assigned to work in California to finish out their year of service. The closest they had come to battle was in November of 1846, when the company was attacked by a herd of wild bulls in southern Arizona. The so-called "Battle of the Bulls" resulted in no deaths, two injuries, and much needed meat for the men. They also nearly engaged the Mexican army near the present-day Arizona-Mexican border, but the Mexican soldiers abandoned their posts at the approach of the battalion. Once in California, they built Fort Moore, a courthouse in San Diego, and made bricks and built houses in southern California. A monument and visitor's center stand as reminders of the work of the Battalion in exploring and settling California.
All of the members of the Mormon Battalion were released from duty on July 16, 1847. A few reenlisted for another eight months, but most began their journey back to Utah to be with their families. On their way back, many helped in building flour mills and sawmills for money to send to their families. Men of the Mormon Battalion were also the first to discover gold at Sutter’s Mill, starting the Gold Rush.