Battalion Experience

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The Mormon Battalion:

A Ram in the Thicket




            A few years after the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith, there were in and around Nauvoo some 20,000 saints. Brigham Young had had his vision of "The Place" where the church would relocate out West, but had not yet completed the preparations for their exodus. After many years of being driven from place to place, even under orders of  "extermination" if they didn't leave Missouri, the mobs in Nauvoo thought they were finally getting rid of the Mormons for good when they drove them across the Mississippi river in the middle of the winter. Of all the trials the pioneers experienced, that first winter in Iowa was by far the most tragic. More saints died (over 600) that first winter, on the trek between Nauvoo and Winter Quarters, than on all the rest of the treks combined over the next 15 years.


            Brigham Young found himself the leader of a rag-tag, beaten up, poor, ill equipped, hungry, destitute but devoted people. As he and the first groups reached Council Bluffs Iowa, in June of 1846, the other 16,000 saints were scattered between there and Nauvoo, literally doing whatever they could just to survive. Because of their earlier than expected departure, few of them had sufficient provisions or gear.


            To cross the rocky mountains, that year, in their present condition, was impossible. Therefore, the first groups, totalling about 3500 people, decided to set up a camp along the Missouri river and called it Winter Quarters. Here, while waiting for the straggling saints to arrive, they built shelters and planted crops in order to survive the next winter, and  try to prepare for their long journey the next spring.


Under these circumstances, Brigham Young faced some very difficult problems.

*Could the saints survive the present, with so little food and supplies and no money to buy anything?


*How could he help the rest of the saints get to Winter Quarters?


*How could he equip these people to make a journey half way across the continent, without enough wagons, tents, horses, oxen, and all the rest of the equipment needed?


*As the saints left Nauvoo and crossed the mississippi, they were outside the borders of the United states, and found that they were camping on federal land illegally. How could he get the government, that hadn't exactly been favorable to them, to grant them permission to set up a permanent camp for the saints.


*Possibly the most severe problem was the challenge to overcome remaining prejudices from Politicians who hated the Mormons and wanted them destryed. Arguments were presented to the President that suggested the Mormons should be “wiped out.” His argument was that since war had just been declared with Mexico, and the Mormons, a significant population, had just left the U.S. running from mobs and state governments, that it would be very likely that they could join forces with either Mexico or Britain. Such a union could be devastating to the United States.  What the President thought of these schemes may never be known, but in the end he must have disregarded them and instead sent Army officials to the Mormon camps to ask for volunteers into the Army.


            Captain Allen of the US Army was sent to the Mormon camps in and around Winter Quarters and asked for 500 volunteers to fight in the war with Mexico. With the immediate population of approximately 3500 saints, of which maybe 700 were men that could serve, a request for 500 of their strongest men was indeed shocking. The truth is, that when the Army officers first arrived and announced their request, the initial thoughts and feelings were exactly what Senator Benton had predicted. Noone volunteered. Then the request was taken to Brigham Young. At that moment, he had a revelation that let him know of the evil plan. However, he also saw how the devious plan to wipe them out, was going to be their salvation. Brigham called some of the other church leaders and explained what needed to be done. Going from camp to camp, standing in the back of his wagon, he exhorted the men to volunteer. He assured them that their families would be taken care of. He said nothing of the evil plan, only that supporting the constitution and the U.S. government was the right thing to do.


            Upon his request, 500 men and 34 women (along with 55 children) volunteered to go. With that one single event, all of the other major problems facing Brigham Young at the time were solved.

*The money the men received was sent back to the Saints and gave them the means to survive the present, helped those behind to catch up, helped buy the necessary provisions for the journey to cross the Rocky Mountains and sent leaders on missions to foreign countries.

*Because they were now supporters of the U.S.government, they were granted permission to stay on federal lands.

*Last but not least, the Lord God Almighty turned the evil plan laid upon the Battalion to a blessing and the very effort to entrap the Latter-Day Saints became the means by which they were spared and prospered. "For the eternal purposes of the Lord shall roll on, until all his promises are fulfilled." (Mormon 8:22)


            Brigham Young said on many occasions how the Battalion  was the, "salvation" of the saints. He said that without them... "this people must have perished... and I say that these men... were the saviors of this people, and did save them from carnage and death." He said to the volunteers that were joining the army that it... "was like a ram caught in a thicket...  and it would be better to sacrifice the ram than to have Isaac die". They were the sacrifice that God provided. Brigham Young said that their willingness to go and be that sacrifice has secured them and their descendants all the blessings of Abraham. The Battalion adopted the motto "A Ram in the Thicket" and used it on their banners. 


            The Mormon Battalion, as they were officially called, began their march on July 16, 1846, being the only unit ever in US history to carry a religious designation. Their mission was to help General Fremont take California, and to build a road via the "southern route" through the deserts of what are now New Mexico, Arizona and California. Brigham Young had promised the Battalion that if they would stay true to their convictions that they would pass through the ordeal "without a shot" being fired at them.  The Battalion marched in and took claim of Tucson "without a shot". They raised the first American flag over what is now Arizona.   This flag, given to them by Brigham Young, happened to be the same flag that flew over the city of  Nauvoo. 


            The trials they encountered were much worse than those of the saints that crossed the plains.  Near the beginning of the journey, a conspiring medical officer of the army, from Missouri, literally tried to poison the men by giving them calomel with arsenic. The Battalions rout was often without water, across hot deserts with thick sand and high, very rugged and rocky mountains. Some times for lack of water, men would sip from mud puddles full of buffalo chips and urine. Their extreme hunger was such that when an ox or mule would give out, nearly every part of it was consumed, including the hide, eyeballs and other organs. By the end of the trip, even their clothes had become very sparse. Most of their shoes had given out and many were using anything they could find to wrap around their feet for protection, including sticks, bark and rawhide from dead animals. Though they made decent time on their 2000 mile journey to the coast, much of it was hard labor, carving roads as they went. The roads built by the Battalion were used for years by settlers of the West. Many of those roads are still used today by modern day railroads, highways and freeways. Though the battalion can not take claim to the longest march in US history,  this 2000 mile foot march stands out as an incredible accomplishment on its own merits.


            On January 30, 1847, Lt.Colonel Cooke issued the following:  "The Lieut. Col. commanding congratulates the Battalion on their safe arrival on the shore of the Pacific Ocean and the conclusion of their march of over 2000 miles.  History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry.  Half of it has been through a wilderness where nothing but savages and wild beasts are found.  There, with almost hopeless labor we have dug wells, which the future traveler will enjoy.  Without a guide who had traversed them, we have ventured into trackless tablelands where water was not found for several marches.  With crowbar and pick and ax in hand,we have worked our way over the mountains, which seemed to defy aught save the wild goat, and hewed a passage through a chasm of living rock more narrow than our wagons.  To bring these first wagons to the Pacific we have preserved the strength of our mules by herding them over large tracts which you have laboriously guarded without loss.  Thus, marching half naked, and half fed, and living upon wild animals, we have discovered and made a road of great value to our country."


            The sacrifice that the men and women in the Mormon Battalion offered, is much more important than we generally give it credit for. Brigham Young said to the members of the Mormon Battalion after the march, "Brethren... I will prophesy that... men and nations will rise up and bless the men who went in that Battalion... and you will never be forgotten, worlds without end, but you will be held in honorable remembrance, for ever and ever".


          Their story needs to be told!


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