It is a rare Utah pioneer family that cannot claim an ancestor who served with the Mormon Battalion. Many of these 500 soldiers became polygamists and had dozens of children who also had dozens of children. Your average native Utahn probably has a dozen ancestors who served in this unique military unit during the Mexican War. The men of the battalion (and the 150-plus women and children who went with them) lived an epic adventure. They were part of the U.S. Army of the West that President James K. Polk sent to conquer the territory that now makes up five Western states, including Utah and California.
Most of the soldiers and four women laundresses tramped 2,000 miles across the Southwest to the Pacific Ocean. The march is a great story, but for inexplicable reasons, the LDS Church shows little interest in the battalion. The unit's pay largely subsidized the pioneer trek to Utah in 1847. While the crossing of the Plains is celebrated endlessly, the sacrifices that paid for it are forgotten.
Many of the battalion's most harrowing adventures remain untold. Historians have neglected the impact the soldiers' encounter with Mexican culture had on the settlement of the West. The march was where Mormons learned about irrigation and adobe. It is where they got the "Taos wheat" that helped them survive in the Rocky Mountains. As historian Michael Landon observed, its veterans were the mules on whose backs the Latter-day Saints colonized the Great Basin. The experience created a new type of Westerner: the Mormon frontiersman.
John Steele, a young Irish corporal, recalled in July 1847 that if he had looked in the mirror for the young man who left the States a year before, "I would not have known myself." These soldiers--some as young as fourteen--left home as farm boys and came back as buckaroos. "Went away afoot," Steele recalled, "came home riding a fine horse."
Myths obscure much of the battalion's true story. Perhaps the most common fable is that these 500 men were perfect, each and every one. In fact, many of the soldiers were cantankerous old men--the oldest, Samuel Gould, was sixty-seven when he enlisted. Most of the rest of the recruits were teen-agers--enough said. They served with honor and discipline, but they weren't choirboys. They were simple, ordinary people called upon to do an extraordinary task.
Another pernicious myth is that Polk was an anti-Mormon and the Mormon Battalion was part of a "secret plan" to exterminate the Latter-day Saints. It's a particularly foul slander because the government did Brigham Young an enormous favor when it rounded up all those teen-agers and old codgers. "The thing is from above," Young wrote at the time, "for our good." Polk was no bigot. When a senator asked him to stop the Mormons from going to Mexico in 1846, Polk told him to go fish. Even Young admitted "the president wants to do us good."
Polk was not an anti-Mormon monster. In fact, he personally donated $10 for the relief of Mormon refugees on the Missouri River. It is hard to believe a president would help feed the Latter-day Saints while he was conspiring to exterminate them. And let's not forget it or the sacrifices of the Mormon Battalion.
The Utah State Historical Society gave Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion Narratives, edited by David L. Bigler and Will Bagley, this year's Military History Award.