SALT LAKE CITY — Brigham Young pledged that the Mormon Battalion would be held "in honorable remembrance to the latest generation." Now, those 500 Mormons who enlisted in 1846 as U.S. Army soldiers in the war with Mexico are honored at This Is the Place Heritage Park, the Emigration Canyon location where the LDS Church president himself led his pioneer followers into the Salt Lake Valley.
Before several hundred spectators, Elder M. Russell Ballard of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Quorum of the Twelve on Saturday dedicated a new plaza near the park entrance. It features bronze statuary and bas-relief sculpture honoring the sacrifice and dedication of the battalion volunteers, who left their exiled families on the Iowa-Nebraska border. They did so at the behest of their country and of Brigham Young himself, who saw the enlistment as a way to demonstrate the patriotism of the Mormons and to help pay the cost of the westward trek to their Great Basin refuge from religious persecution.
Two heroic-size sculptures by Steven L. Neal, a Pendleton, Ore., plastic surgeon, dominate the plaza.
"Duty Calls" depicts Brigham Young with his hand on the shoulder of a departing enlistee stooped down to receive the embrace of his young daughter, his arm around his wife who, with tears in her eyes, holds an infant.
"Duty Triumphs" features two soldiers assisting a comrade who is obviously suffering from thirst and fatigue. Another soldier is depicted kneeling in prayer, while yet another battalion man clutches an American flag in a triumphal gesture as he and his wife gaze heavenward in gratitude.
Among other elements of the plaza, a bas-relief sculpture honors the Mormons who left from New York aboard the ship Brooklyn, sailed around Cape Horn, landed at present-day San Francisco and eventually rendezvoused with the pioneers who followed Brigham Young to the Great Basin. Another bas-relief honors the wives of battalion volunteers, a few of whom went along with the military companies as laundresses, but most of whom stayed behind to make their way West as best they could and await the return of their soldier-husbands.
In the forefront of the plaza is yet another bas-relief, proclaiming the battalion trek as "one of the longest infantry marches in U.S. history" and displaying a map with landmarks along the 2,000-mile route from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to the California coast.
"Even with all of their heartache and sorrow and all the problems they had, they did have a sense of humor," Elder Ballard said of the battalion enlistees. He cited a journal entry from one of the soldiers, who told of being dragged and whipped around after grasping one of the pack mules by the ears.
"He makes the entry that after that, he had a great deal more respect for the mules," Elder Ballard said. "In some ways, I think, that's life, isn't it? We get whipped around and turned around as we face challenges."
He said one of the great things abut coming to the park is to remember one's roots, not only of the Mormon pioneers, but Catholic, Protestant, evangelical and Jewish pioneers, "the marvelous pioneers of industry that have come from all different walks of life that have chosen to settle in this valley."
The park, he said, ultimately will be a celebration of all the pioneers who have made Salt Lake City the place it is.
In his prayer, Elder Ballard also dedicated a new Mormon Battalion Museum, located in the lower level of the existing park visitors center, and a recently constructed replica of the ship Brooklyn, located elsewhere in the park.
Also addressing the audience was Gail Miller, wife of the late Larry H. Miller, whose foundation was the principal benefactor for the plaza.
"We've watched and supported this project and the progress of it from inception to completion," she said. "Larry even sat as a model for one of the figures."
She added, "I know that the families of those who served in the battalion will come here and look upon these statues with pride and with reverence as they tell their children and their children's children about the sacrifices and hardships faced daily by these brave men, women and children."
Sculptor Neal traced some of the history of the battalion march, explaining his inspiration in creating the statues.
"It was common for the stronger soldiers to fill the canteens of water when the camp was struck and retrace their steps to find the soldiers that had dropped out exhausted along the way," he said. "Then, after giving them precious water, they would help them to camp during the night, arriving before dawn in time to see the main battalion leave and the cycle repeat. Meletiah Hatch saved the youngest member of the battalion by retracing his steps on the trail night after night to feed and give water to a sick boy until he could march on his own. The boy was his 16-year-old brother, Orrin Hatch.
"You will see these elements blended into this sculpture. The lack of adequate nutrition made blazing a wagon trail through deep sand almost impossible. When game became scarce, the soldiers would eat worn-out mules and oxen, hides and all. Some men boiled leather items to make a thin porridge. Their own body mass became the calories that powered the battalion's wagons."
But duty did triumph, he said, as the battalion arrived at Mission San Luis Rey, Calif., on Jan. 27, 1847, where, from a bluff, they viewed the Pacific Ocean for the first time. "It is this scene that I've depicted in sculpture."
He said the battalion did not have any major battles, "but they were a presence that stabilized the region from further bloodshed." They dug wells, built brick factories and helped build up San Diego and Fort Moore in Los Angeles, he said, adding that battalion soldiers were the ones who discovered gold in California, as they were digging John Sutter's millrace near Sacramento, sparking the famous Gold Rush of 1849. They then blazed trails over the Sierra Nevada, trails used by the forty-niners.
Noting that the monument also honors the women who marched with the battalion, Neal said Melissa Burton Coray was one of five women who went all the way to California. Her third-great-granddaughter, Melissa Garff Ballard (daughter-in-law of Elder Ballard), was the sculptor's model for Melissa Coray. Also, Heidi Morton was the model for her own ancestor, Melissa's sister, Rebecca Burton, he said.
The Utah Premiere Brass, directed by Todd Fiegle, and the Salt Lake Choral Artists, directed by Brady Allred, performed "The Star Spangled Banner," "America the Beautiful" and "Stars and Stripes Forever."
Costumed re-enactors representing battalion soldiers and wives presented a flag ceremony, some of them firing muskets in salute.
The Mormon Battalion Association raised funds for the monument and conducted the program. Contributions included in-kind donations such as design and engineering services.
While this is the first battalion monument at the park, it is not the first in Salt Lake City. A granite-and-bronze work, created by Gilbert Griswold and erected in 1927, is on the grounds of the Utah Capitol.
And in San Diego, the LDS Church maintains the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, recently renovated and opened to the public on Jan. 30 of this year.