The Mormon History Association meets this week in Arizona, on the southern border of Mormon Country if not a good ways beyond it. One memorable event connected with this remarkable religious movement happened in Tucson, when 335 Latter-day Saints showed up during the Mexican War. They were volunteers in the Mormon Battalion of the Army of the West, and they were blazing a wagon road to California under Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke, one of the best officers to ever wear a U.S. uniform.
At age 37, Cooke had already served 19 years in the frontier Army. This 6-foot-4 Virginian was a stern-but-fair disciplinarian who swore a lot, a habit that did not endear him to his zealous infantrymen. Cooke took command of the battalion at Santa Fe, N.M., and thought his Mormon infantry showed "great heedlessness and ignorance and some obstinacy." Cooke and his men would change their minds after they had taken each other's measure.
In 1846, Tucson was part of the Mexican state of Sonora. It had a population of about 500, mostly soldiers and their families living at "an unimportant outpost of defense against Indians, surrounded by hostile Apaches.
Mexico had failed to protect its northern border from American Indians, and the state of Sonora felt so abused it refused to join the war with the United States. But when Cooke's command showed up, it was an open question as to whether the Mexican soldiers would deploy their two brass cannons and fight the U.S. troops.
Cooke's guides, who included Baptiste Charbonneau, son of Sacagawea of Lewis and Clark fame, told him his road ran through Tucson. "They assert that any other course is a hundred miles out of the way," Cooke wrote, "and over a trackless wilderness of mountains.
"We will march then to Tucson," Cooke told his men. "We came not to make war against Sonora, but we will take the straight course before us and overcome all resistance. But shall I remind you that the American soldier ever shows justice and kindness to the unarmed and unresisting?"
Near today's Tombstone, Ariz., the battalion had already fought "the Battle of the Bulls." It seems that when Mormons marched up the San Pedro River, they were "charged upon by a herd of wild cattle."
Bloodstained wild bulls ran into the soldiers along the river bottom and "wounded two or three of the boys killed three mules & upset a wagon," Henry Boyle wrote. "The Indians have killed nearly all the cows, & the bulls are as dareing & Savage as tigers."
Riding his big white mule, Cooke watched "an immense coal black bull charge" Cpl. Lafayette Frost, who "stood his ground while the animal rushed right on."
Cooke thought Frost "was in great danger to his life" and told him so. "He aimed his musket very deliberately, and only fired when the beast was within ten paces," Cooke wrote, "and it fell headlong, almost at his feet."
"Considerable shooting was done," Samuel Rogers wrote. "We wounded Some & killed ten or twelve," said Henry Boyle. "The Smell of blood Seemed to fill them full of fight." The next day the battalion passed the ruins of Santa Cruz de Terrenate Presidio, and the day after that the soldiers prepared to march on Tucson.
The officers read the men Cooke's orders: "Each man received cartridges up to 20. We cleaned our guns and mustered and drilled," wrote Private Rogers. "We would go to Tucson and conquer all who opposed."
Historian David L. Bigler, whose ancestor was wounded in the Battle of the Bulls, described the Mormon Battalion's march in Army of Israel.