gold rush settlers

03. The Enlistment

of the Mormon Battalion

Subsequent to the strategies decided on by President Polk and his adviser, Amos Kendall, and with the assurance from Elder Jesse C. Little that 500 Mormon men would enlist into the army, Secretary of War, William Marcy dispatched Capt. Thomas L. Kane to deliver confidential orders addressed to Col. Stephen W. Kearny at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for the enlistment of 500 volunteers from the Mormon refugee camps in Iowa Territory into the U.S. Army as part of Kearny’s Army of the West. Col. Kearny delegated this charge by way of written instructions to Capt. James Allen, Company I, of Kearny’s elite 1st Dragoons. Upon successful completion of enlisting 4 companies (~ 100 men/company), Capt. Allen would immediately be promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel of Infantry over the newly formed battalion.

On June 26, 1846, Capt. Allen, accompanied by 3 army dragoons, rode into the Mt. Pisgah settlement and presented his credentials to William Huntington, president of the Mt. Pisgah group. Here Capt. Allen read his “Circular to the Mormons” in which he elucidated the request of the U.S. government to “… accept the service for twelve months of four or five companies of Mormon men who may be willing to serve their country for that period in our present war with Mexico; this force to unite with the Army of the West at Santa Fe, and be marched thence to California, where they will be discharged. … Those of the Mormons who are desirous of serving their country on the conditions here enumerated are requested to meet me without delay at their principal camp at the Council Bluffs, whither I am now going to consult with their principal men, and to receive and organize the force contemplated to be raised. I will receive all healthy able men from eighteen to forty-five years of age.”

Capt. Allen’s request was not well received by the skeptical Saints. No one volunteered at this time since the U.S. government had failed the Saints over the years to provide protection and redress for losses incurred by mob actions. Church leaders at Mt. Pisgah, including visiting authority, Elder Wilford Woodruff, thought the dragoons might be spies, but nonetheless they treated the army representatives with civility and gave Capt. Allen a letter of introduction to Brigham Young who was 138 miles to the west at Council Bluffs. Elder Woodruff also dispatched a private messenger with a letter alerting Brigham Young of the situation. Three days later, on June 29, the rider delivered the letter, a day before Capt. Allen arrived at Council Bluffs. This advanced notification enabled Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards to counsel together regarding the raising of the battalion before meeting with Capt. Allen.

Capt. Allen counseled with Brigham Young and several Church leaders where, after much discussion, the decision to raise the battalion was sustained. The recruitment efforts began in earnest. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball accompanied Capt. Allen back to Mt. Pisgah. John Taylor, Parley P. Pratt and George A. Smith spearheaded the recruitment around Council Bluffs. Riders were dispatched to the main encampments, such as Garden Grove, and even back to Nauvoo with letters from Brigham Young giving instructions to the Saints and requesting 500 volunteers, ages 18-45, to assemble at Council Bluffs. Three weeks after Allen’s initial arrival, because of Brigham Young’s endorsement, encouragement, but then finally and only under Priesthood direction, hearts were turned and within 3 days (July 12-14), 4 companies (A, B, C, D) had enrolled and the 5th company (E) was near its recruitment quota.

Col. Thomas L. Kane had arrived at Council Bluffs on July 11, 1846 with Elder Little to reassure the Saints and to make sure the government kept their word. He summarized the enlistment activities as follows: “A central mass meeting for council, some harangues at the more remotely scattered camps, an American flag brought out from the storehouse of things rescued, and hoisted to the top of a tree-mast, and in three days the force was reported, mustered, organized, and ready to march.”

On July 16, 1846 at Mosquito Creek, near Council Bluffs, Capt. Allen administered the Oath of Enlistment into the U.S. Army to the 4-1/2 companies of assembled volunteers. Newly promoted Lt. Col. Allen dubbed his new charge, “The Mormon Battalion.” He chose this designation possibly because, although enlisted in Iowa, the Mormon volunteers were not actually Iowa citizens. Allen went directly to the Mormon encampments; he did not solicit the Iowa Territorial government for these volunteers. Thus the Mormon Battalion has the unique distinction of being identified as a military unit of a religious group rather than as volunteers from the specific State where they were citizens, e.g. 1st New York Volunteers. A small contingency of about 229 volunteers from Iowa citizens were formed and they were called the Iowa Volunteers.

Lt. Col. Allen took his new command 8 miles south to Trader’s Point on the Missouri River to prepare for the remainder of Company E to be recruited. Here, a licensed government merchant, Peter Sarpy, issued to the soldiers such basic items as blankets, kettles, and eating utensils. Due to recording inaccuracies and historical interpretations, the Battalion personnel numbered from 496-543. In addition to the enlisted 18-20 laundresses, 15 women and 42-44 children (mainly officer’s families) were given permission to accompany the Battalion. Some of the children served as officer’s aides. The youngest recruit was 14 year-old Alfred Higgins, Company D, commanded by his father, Capt. Nelson Higgins, and the oldest was 67 year-old Samuel Gould, Company C (who turned 68 on July 17, the day after the enlistment).

The soldiers assembled at the Council Bluffs Bowery (Father Taylor’s Bowery) on July 18, where Brigham Young instructed the captains to be fathers to their companies and manage their affairs by the power and influence of their Priesthood. He further counseled the volunteers to be faithful soldiers, keep the commandments and abide by the counsel of their leaders. He promised them that if they were faithful they would not have to fight the enemy; their only fighting would be against wild beast. A farewell cotillion was held at the Bowery on Saturday, July 18, where the volunteers and families danced to the music from violins, horns, bells, triangles and tambourines provided by Capt. William Pitt’s Brass Band.

On July 20, 1846 (some journals state July 21), singing the traditional army marching tune, “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” Battalion companies A, B, C and D departed the Council Bluffs area. On July 22, Company E, now completely formed, marched to meet the already departed companies on the first leg of their famous march, about 200 miles south to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, headquarters of the Army of the West.