Across the Southwest, ten markers and monuments commemorate the longest military march — by the Mormon Battalion — in U.S. history. Between July 1846 and July 1847, a volunteer group, made up entirely of Mormons, marched nearly 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego. They carried supplies, as well as establishing a southern wagon route.
Just prior to this (in April 1846) the U.S. and Mexico began fighting over the land now making up the state of Texas. At the same time, the leader of the Mormons, Brigham Young, was seeking assistance from the U.S. government to move his growing religious community westward. The Mormons had been based in Illinois but felt persecuted there. Eight days after the war broke out, Young offered a deal to the government: Young would put together a military unit of 500+ men to serve for a year, if the government helped the Mormons settle in the west.
Within three weeks Young had raised the 500+ men, and each was paid a military salary. In total, the Mormons earned $30,000. (To be certain that the Mormon Church received the money, Young sent Orson Pratt to collect their first wages.) They were outfitted in Fort Leavenworth and were under the command of Captain James Allen (the commanding officers were not Mormons). Upon Allen’s death, Phillip St. George Cooke became the commanding officer.
This was the only military unit in U.S. history to be based around one religion. As a result, there was some friction over the issue of medical procedures. The Mormons, encouraged by their elders, refused standard medical treatment. The physician, Dr. Sanderson, became a hated man.
The route of the march began in Iowa, following the Oregon Trail until it connected to the Santa Fe Trail. At Santa Fe, all of the infirm soldiers were sent to Fort Pueblo to recover. The battalion was reduced to 397 soldiers, along with several civilians to help with laundry and cooking. (Twenty-two soldiers and eight civilians perished, mostly due to illness). From here they took the Old Spanish Trail to the Rio Grande, essentially following the modern-day route of I-25 to southern New Mexico, before turning west.
The only skirmish that the battalion faced was against a herd of charging bulls near the San Pedro River in Arizona! The Mexicans essentially retreated, and the Native Tribes provided some assistance. As the battalion passed through Temecula, California, they cleaned up after a massacre between the Californios and Luiseno tribes.
The march was completed within seven months, so the remaining service time was spent training and building a blockade against a mutinous army officer, John C. Fremont. The battalion also helped to construct Fort Moore.
After the Mormons’ service was completed, eighty men re-enlisted. Others headed north to Sutter’s Mill and discovered gold, during the great California Gold Rush. One of the officers, George Stoneman, became a cavalry general in the Union Army then was elected Governor of California. Stephen Clark Foster, another officer, was elected as mayor of Los Angeles.
There are multiple monuments, including those in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Salt Lake City and Tucson. The one above is located off the I-25 freeway between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Follow the signs from the highway. It’s free and open 24/7. Parking lot. No amenities.
Disclaimer: We do not endorse any specific religion and are presenting this piece for its historical value. The only note of the Mormons’ religious activity during the march is when they encountered petroglyphs produced by ancient Native Tribes, near Deming in Cook’s Canyon. They believed the petroglyphs were signs supporting the Book of Mormon.