History is often told as if it consisted of little more than the deeds and blunders of great men (and women), but it's not simply the story of the crimes and triumphs of kings, presidents and potentates. The sacrifices and achievements of ordinary men and women grease the wheels of history. Consider the story of the Mormon Battalion, common enlisted soldiers in a unique military unit during the Mexican War. They were part of the army President Polk used to conquer the territory of five modern Western states, including Utah and California. About 397 soldiers and four women laundresses tramped 2,000 miles across the Southwest to the Pacific Ocean to help make the United States a continental nation.
They lived an epic adventure. Many American historians consider the unit's contribution to the outcome of the Mexican War so inconsequential they have written entire books on the subject without once using the word "Mormon." A recent PBS documentary spent four hours describing the colorful campaigns in the Halls of Montezuma, but never found it necessary to refer to the battalion.
The state of Utah has not forgotten the men of the Mormon Battalion. It recently spent more than a quarter of a million dollars to refurbish a monument to the battalion's memory on the state Capitol grounds. But even Utah has forgotten the suffering of the women the soldiers left behind. Their stories of sacrifice and loss evoke the tragic consequences of war in a way that speaks to all humanity.
Eliza Hunsaker regretted she could not march west with her husband, "for long and lonesome seems the time we are to be separated." After the departure of the battalion, "one woman in her distracted state throwed herself in the creek of a shallow stream," Samuel Turnbow recalled. "I fetched her out dead." The women in Mormon refugee camps on the Missouri River had to survive a midwestern winter under primitive conditions. The lucky ones lived in dugouts and wagons and had something to eat. In desperate letters to their husbands, these heroines express their desire for one blessing: a cow.
One out of six Mormons died at Winter Quarters before the spring of 1847. On their return, many of the soldiers found their wives and children dead. And many of the soldiers never returned. Corporal John Scott died at Pueblo, Colorado, in February 1847. "Why has he fallen?" Scott's sister, Margaret, asked Mormon leader Brigham Young. "He was young, his talents above the common order, his education tolerably good, his conduct exemplary through life. And yet he is gone in the bloom of youth," she mourned, "far far from those he loved." Her brother's death left her "alone in the world, without protector or guide."
Like American servicemen and women of all generations, the outfit's veterans were not always welcomed home with open arms. Private John J. Riser remembered the hard fate of the despised men who were called "low Hungry ragged Soldiers, that knew nothing but blood and thunder." Even their prophet considered the soldiers "the lowest scrapings of Hell--notwithstanding there was some good men among them." He blamed their wives for stirring up "strife & contention." Eventually, even Young came to appreciate the service these men and women had done for their church and their nation."The Mormon Battalion will be held in honorable remembrance to the latest generation," he promised. "God bless them for ever and for ever."
Will Bagley recently published Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion Narratives with David L. Bigler.