Background to the Mexican War
By the mid-1840s the United States was caught up in an emotional upsurge known as Manifest Destiny. Countless citizens, feeling a sense of mission, believed that Almighty God had "manifestly" destined the American people for a hemispheric career. America would irresistibly spread its uplifting and ennobling democratic institutions over the entire continent. Land-hungry and restless westerners, together with many expansionist politicians, successfully united greed and democratic ideals into a popular philosophy.
James K. Polk, dark-horse Democratic Party presidential candidate in 1844, ran on this expansionist platform. He called for the annexation of Texas and the outright obtaining of Oregon (which was jointly held by Britain and the United States). After winning office, Polk added verdant California and its harbor at San Francisco (governed by Mexico) to his wish list. Polk was willing to pay Mexico handsomely for California, but negotiations with the Mexican government stalled because of anger on the part of Mexico regarding Texas and other disputes. Furthermore, the Mexican government was riddled by revolution. So Polk was worried when he heard disquieting rumors that the British intended to buy or seize California from Mexico.
Frustrated, President Polk prepared to force a showdown. He ordered the army to march to the Rio Grande, which was considered by Mexico to be part of her country. On April 25, 1846, Mexican troops attacked the American army. As soon as Polk heard of the encounter, he sent a vigorous war message to Congress. War was formally declared on May 13. One of the prongs in Polk's four-pronged attack against Mexico was for Col. Stephen W. Kearny of the Army of the West to occupy Santa Fe in New Mexico and then to traverse the desert to California and there overpower all Mexican garrisons and occupy California for the United States.
Authorization of the Mormon Battalion
Before leaving Nauvoo, the Twelve Apostles called Jesse C. Little to be president of the Eastern States Mission.1 President Brigham Young authorized Elder Little to go to Washington to embrace whatever facilities for immigration to the western coast the federal government might offer. On May 13, the exact day the U.S. declared war on Mexico, Brother Little was preaching in Philadelphia and became acquainted with 24-year-old Thomas L. Kane, who had been sympathetically following newspaper reports of persecutions against the Mormons. Kane was the son of a prominent Pennsylvania Democrat and prepared a letter of introduction for Elder Little to speak with high-placed Democrats in Washington.
Elder Little arrived in Washington on May 21. He became closely acquainted with Amos Kendall who was long a member of the inner circle of the Democratic Party. Kendall offered hope that approximately 1,000 Mormons could be enlisted into the army. On June 2, President Polk and his Cabinet approved a plan to have Col. Kearny receive into service a battalion of Mormons then on their way to California. Polk admitted in his diary that his move was to conciliate the Mormons and to prevent them from taking part in any conflict, perhaps on the side of the British, against America. In subsequent days Elder Little was able to meet twice with President Polk about the Mormon enlistment. Thomas Kane also conferred with Polk and the secretary of war, William L. Marcy, on the same subject. On June 3, 1846, Marcy sent orders to Col. Kearny who was setting up the Army of the West at Fort Leavenworth, just over the Missouri River in Kansas. These orders contained the following:
"It is known that a large body of Mormon emigrants are en route to California for the purpose of settling in that country. You are desired to use all proper means to have a good understanding with them, to the end that the United States may have their cooperation in taking possession of, and holding that country. . . . You are hereby authorized to muster into service such as can be induced to volunteer; not, however, to a number exceeding one-third of your entire force."2
When these orders reached Col. Kearny as delivered by Thomas L. Kane, Kearny was already well under way in building a volunteer force that would be the main portion of his Army of the West. He continued his plans of creating a fighting force of 2,000 Missourians and 500 Mormons. As it turns out, many of the Missourians who enlisted had been members of families opposed to the Mormons in the 1830s. But one of their officers was Alexander W. Doniphan, well-known to the Saints as a friend and who in 1838 saved the life of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Doniphan would go on to earn an important niche in military history during the Mexican War.
The mustering of the Mormon Battalion
In mid-June, 1846, Col. Kearny (who soon was promoted to general) dispatched 30-year-old Capt. James Allen to the Mormon camps in Iowa about 120 miles northeast of Fort Leavenworth. The orders read: "You will have the Mormons distinctly to understand that I wish to have them as volunteers for twelve months. They will be marched to California, receiving pay and allowances during the above time, and at its expiration they will be discharged, and allowed to retain, as their private property, the guns and accoutrements furnished to them at this post." Once Allen had recruited this battalion, he would become their lieutenant colonel.3
Capt. Allen arrived at Mount Pisgah on June 26. Elder Woodruff sent Allen to speak with Brigham Young at Council Bluffs on the Missouri River but not before sending an express messenger to President Young to explain to him about the presence of a few mounted army troops. Upon hearing the dispatch, Brigham Young knew immediately that Elder Jesse C. Little had succeeded in his political mission in Washington D.C. After only one meeting with his council, Brigham Young met with Capt. Allen and promised total support in recruiting the battalion. In fact, Allen appointed Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards as official recruiting sergeants in the effort. In an assembly at Council Bluffs on July 1, Brigham Young urged the Saints to make a distinction between this federal action and the Church's former oppressions in Missouri and Illinois. "Suppose we were admitted into the Union as a State and government did not call on us, we would feel ourselves neglected. Let the Mormons be the first men to set their feet on the soil of California."4
A few days later, President Young added the following in an official letter: "This is no hoax. Elder Little, President of the New England churches, is here also, direct from Washington, who has been to see the President on the subject of emigrating the Saints to the western coast, and confirms all that Capt. Allen has stated to us. The U.S. wants our friendship, the President wants to do us good, and secure our confidence. The outfit of these five hundred men costs us nothing, and their pay will be sufficient to take their families over the mountains. There is war between Mexico and the U.S., to whom California must fall prey, and if we are the first settlers, the old citizens cannot have a Hancock or Missouri pretext to mob the saints. The thing is from above, for our good."5
President Young and the apostles' influence won the day, and within less than three weeks the 500 recruits had gathered to Council Bluffs and were ready to march to Fort Leavenworth. On July 13 Brigham Young exclaimed to the Saints, "The President
of the United StatesT has now stretched out his hand to help us and I thank God and him too."6
One of the young recruits, James S. Brown, wrote in his memoirs:
"Just before our last farewell to friends at the Missouri River, and preparatory to taking up our line of march, we were formed into a hollow square, and President Brigham Young, with Heber C. Kimball and others of the Apostles, came to our camp, rode into the square, and gave us parting blessings and instructions. The words of President Young, as they fastened themselves upon my memory, were in substance as follows: "Now, brethren, you are going as soldiers at your country's call. You will travel in a foreign land, in an enemy's country; and if you will live your religion, obey your officers, attend to your prayers, and as you travel in an enemy's land, hold sacred the property of the people, never taking anything that does not belong to you only in case of starvation; though you may be traveling in an enemy's country, do not disturb fruit orchards or chicken coops or beehives, do not take anything but what you pay for - although it is customary for soldiers to plunder their enemies in time of war, it is wrong - always spare life when possible; if you obey this counsel, attending to your prayers to the Lord, I promise you in the name of the Lord God of Israel that not one soul of you shall fall by the hands of the enemy."7
This counsel came on Saturday, July 18. That evening a farewell ball was held for the soldiers. On Monday, the 20th, the first four companies of the battalion began marching along the Missouri River toward Fort Leavenworth. The fifth company marched out on the 21st. Before departing the soldiers pledged their uniform allowance and their pay to care for their families, to help the poor Saints leave Nauvoo, and to help the Church generally in its move west.
On July 12-13, 1996, a reenactment of the mustering-in of the Mormon Battalion will take place in Council Bluffs on the 150th anniversary of the event. (See Church News, May 25, 1996, p. 5.)
President Young also promised the battalion men that their names would be held in honorable remembrance to the latest generation. Indeed this has been the case. The Mexican War offered a chance for the U.S. government and the Latter-day Saints to strike a bargain beneficial to both. The Mormons would remain loyal and provide troops to President James K. Polk; the government would provide the opportunity for the Saints to acquire much-needed cash while transporting a large body of Mormons to the West at government expense and allowing the Mormon Battalion to retain its arms and other supplies.
1 John F. Yurtinus, "A Ram in the Thicket: The Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War," Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1975, pp. 21-36 provides an excellent summary of Elder Little's mission to Washington D.C.
2 As cited in Dwight L. Clarke, Stephen Watts Kearny: Soldier of the West (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), p. 395.
3 As cited in Sergeant Daniel Tyler, A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War (Salt Lake City: 1881), pp. 113-14.
4 Elden J. Watson, ed., Manuscript History of Brigham Young 1846-1847 (Salt Lake City: 1971), p. 205.
5 Ibid., p. 222.
6 Ibid., p. 236.
7 Life of a Pioneer Being the Autobiography of James S. Brown (Salt Lake City: Geo. Q. Cannon & Sons Co., 1900), p. 28.