David Bigler and Will Bagley’s book Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion Narratives is a remarkable set of documents involving the Mormon Battalion. Some are government documents, others are diaries and letters. In this post we will focus on the documents that show the events leading up to the creation of the Battalion. As I read, I learned that the things I had been told had happened were not quite right. This is why it’s important to go to the sources whenever possible to learn what really happened.
The previous post briefly outlined the Mormon perspective on how they felt the government had treated them. In 1846, when they left their homes in the dead of winter, events were happening far away that led to the start of the Mexican-American War. President Polk wanted California for the United States and was figuring out how many men he would need to take California when he received a letter from Jesse Little, an agent for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who was charged with getting whatever help he could from the government to help in the Saints’ westward movement.
Little’s letter, dated June 1, 1846, according to the editors, is “among the most important documents in the history of the Mormon movement during the nineteenth century…mak[ing] this spokesman one of the most significant, if still largely unsung, heroes of early Mormonism.”1 The letter starts out with his family history to bolster his claims of patriotism and “hatred to oppression” and goes on to rebut the claims against the Mormons. He then writes that “Our brethren in the West are compelled to go and we in the Eastern Country are determined to go…our determinations are fixed and cannot be changed.”2 He mentions 40,000 converts from the British Isles, many of whom were ready to sail to the United States and join the Mormons in their exodus.
Then comes the paragraph that attracted the attention of President Polk. “[We] are true hearted Americans, true to our country, true to its laws, true to its glorious institutions–and we have a desire to go under the outstretched wings of the American Eagle. We would disdain to receive assistance from a foreign power–although it should be proferred–unless our government shall turn us off in this great crisis and will not help us, but compel us to be foreigners. Means for the gathering of the poor we must obtain; thousands are looking to me for help and I cannot, yea I will not, give myself rest until I find means for the deliverance of the poor. In this thing I am determined, and if I cannot get it in the land of my Fathers I will cross the trackless ocean where I trust I shall find some friends to help.”3
The subtle threat to go to England if needed was a direct threat to President Polk’s plans. He knew that England was also interested in the west coast and did not want thousands of Mormons in what would become the Utah Territory getting assistance from England. One thing that is often mentioned in the documents included in this post is that the Mormons were headed to California. I am not sure if that is true or not–I’m not sure if the Mormons entirely knew were they were going in spring of 1846. The perception, however, that they were going to California, is what led to the events described below.
According to the diary of James Polk, quoted in Army of Israel, Polk met with his cabinet on June 2, 1846 and determined to send an army to California. Col. Kearney would be the leader. He was authorized to “receive into service as volunteers a few hundred of the Mormons who are now on their way to California, with a view to conciliate them, attach them to our country, & prevent them from taking part against us.”4
President Polk met with Jesse Little on June 3 and asked if the Mormons would be willing to volunteer in the U.S. Army once they reached their destination. Polk did not “deem it prudent” to tell him that the Mormons would make up less than 1/4 of the expedition and that the “main object to taking them into service would be to conciliate them, and prevent them from assuming a hostile attitude towards the U.S. after their arrival in California. It was with the view to prevent this singular sect from becoming hostile to the U.S. that I held the conference with Mr. Little.”5
Polk and Little met again on June 5 and Polk clarified that the Mormons could not join the army until they were in California. If the war was still ongoing when they arrived, up to 500 men could join as volunteers for 12 months. Little asked instead that the Mormons could be mustered into service sooner, that their pay might start immediately, but Polk said no. He did not want the only U.S. military force in California to be Mormons (but he did not tell this to Little).6
However, unclear orders sent to Col. Kearny seemed to indicate that he could enlist the Mormons immediately, which he did. The relevant portion of the orders read “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. It has been suggested here that many of these Mormons would willingly enter into the service of the United States, and aid us in our expedition against California. 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. Should they enter the service they will be paid as other volunteers, and you can allow them to designate, so far as it can be properly done, the persons to act as officers thereof.”7
This confusion in plans was a godsend to the Mormons. Rather than having to wait for many months for the opportunity to enlist and receive pay, they were able to enlist almost immediately. Much of their pay was sent home to their families and church leaders to help finance the move west. We will see next time, though, that not all saw this as a blessing in disguise.
1. Bigler, David L. and Will Bagley, editor, Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion Narratives, (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2000), 21.
2. Bigler, “Army of Israel,” 33-34.
3. Bigler, “Army of Israel,” 34.
4. Bigler, “Army of Israel,” 35-36.
5. Bigler, “Army of Israel,” 36.
6. Bigler, “Army of Israel,” 36-37.
7. Bigler, “Army of Israel,” 38-39.