The Mormons and their (U.S. Army) Battalion

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) has revolutionized its venerable Mormon Battalion Museum located at Juan and Harney Streets in Old Town San Diego.

It is now unique from any such exhibition I have ever visited.

Instead of walking by passive dioramas, guests are invited into several four-dimensional salons to experience historic moments with the famed military unit.

I say “four dimensions” because in addition to the normal three, they also time travel.

In one scene, visitors enter a re-created Battalion campsite; sit on one of the (made comfortable) campfire logs; and are treated as if they were actually on the 2,000-mile-long trail between Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the Battalion was recruited by the U.S. Army and Old Town San Diego where it ended up.

Volunteers in period dress populate the various historic tableaus; interact with the audience; and interact with cleverly insinuated video presentations.

In the short time it takes to circuit the museum repertory, one cannot help but have a sense of having “been there” with the 550 men and women who responded to their country’s call.

So what was “The Mormon Battalion”?

For context, Google up the interactive website “Growth of a Nation” @ Animated

Dial the software forward from the original 13 colonies to the fateful year of 1846.

Early America, which commenced as solely an Atlantic Coast nation had adopted the notion of “Manifest Destiny” seeking to expand American territory into the bi-coastal form it enjoys today.

Southerners were animated primarily by slave states’ fears of being outvoted in the U.S. Congress.

They subdivided their states to obtain more federal representatives; successfully advocated the admission of the Florida Territory as a state in 1845; and aggressively campaigned to steal “Tejas” from Mexico to increase their votes in the national legislature.

The nation’s expansive hubris was reflected in the election of James K. Polk as president.

Polk linked the Texas issue with the dispute with England over the Oregon territory to appease both pro- and anti-slavery interests.

Oregon came into U.S. possession in 1846 which allowed Polk to turn his attention to Texas, California and the wild and wooly Indian territory in between.

Mexico refused an offer of outright purchase for some $20 million.

Thus, one of the most shameful antics in American history, was undertaken: one that rankles our relationships with Mexico to this very day.

President Polk sent Zachary Taylor and elements of the U.S. Army south ostensibly to guard the claimed Rio Grande River border.

Most likely Taylor was secretly ordered into Mexico to goad their army into armed reaction, which occurred. Taylor then trumpeted such as an attack on the United States.

Future generals U.S. Grant and Robert E. Lee served as junior officers in that war. Both later condemned it as a blot on the honor the United States.

In our defense, I cannot think of a single nation in the entire history of the world, including Mexico that did not establish and does not maintain its boundaries through the use of sharp elbows.

With Texas secure, the rest of the Southwest and especially California became the big prize.

Working undercover on behalf of President Polk and his own father in law, white-hot “Manifest Destiny” Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, a bigger-than-life-character named John C. Fremont fomented American settlers in California to revolt resulting in “The California Republic.”

That ephemeral “Republic” lasted only days until Fremont could hoist the Stars and Stripes. It is remembered solely because a modified version of its “Bear Flag” is now the California State Flag.

Backed up by a marauding squadron of the U.S. Navy and believing that he had successfully secured California for the United States, Fremont ordered his faithful scout Kit Carson to trek all the way to Washington D.C. to inform President Polk of his success.

Polk had dispatched Gen. Stephen Kearney with an army to consolidate the American hold on west Texas and the future states of New Mexico, Arizona and California.

In addition to Kearney’s main army, Polk also authorized the recruitment of an additional battalion made up of young Mormons to march to California in support of Kearney.

It is a good thing he did because of what happened next.

Through a sheer quirk of history, Carson, heading to Washington D.C., encountered Kearney, headed to California, at the small town of Valverde on the Rio Grande River.

Based on Carson’s news, Kearney detached much of his force for the local Indian wars thereby setting up his defeat by Californios at the Battle of San Pasqual in December 1846.

That defeat called into question the ability of the Americans to control California.

Would control of California be retained by the Californios; Great Britain, which had warships in the area; or the Russians, who also had a claim?

The issue remained factually in doubt until the Mormon Battalion crossed the Colorado River on Jan. 10th, 1847 thereby cementing control of California by the U.S. government.

In 1848, all legal doubt was removed as a result of the Mexican Cession which settled the war between the U.S. and Mexico.

The Battalion did not have to fight any battles. They did not know that when they started out. But they did suffer terribly during the trek.

Without their courage and their timely arrival in California, San Diego would look very much different today.

You will enjoy a visit to the Mormon Battalion Museum.

Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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Jana Fowers 7:05am August 31, 2011

I, too, had an ancestor who served with the Battalion: Jefferson Hunt, Captain of Company A. He took his wife and children with him. This was an amazing group of people, and I marvel at their courage and acomplishments. Am glad to see that there is some recognition of their contributions. (Huntsville, UT, named in honor of Jefferson Hunt.)

Dayle Rust 10:28am August 30, 2011

My Great, Great, Great Grand Father was in the Mormon Battalion (William Walker Rust). This column gave an excellent background in history which expanded my knowledge. The Mormon's received no kindness from the federal government and got no help from Washington as they were driven by violence from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Their homes and property and possessions were either stolen or destroyed in by mobs of intolerant and cruel US citizens. For this reason, they were in Council Buffs, Iowa fleeing the persecution and hatred. They were also there in Iowa preparing for the last leg of their journey to Salt Lake. Despite this ill treatment from the federal government, they served their country with honor.

Stan Softley 10:49am August 15, 2011

I want to produce the Mormon Battalion flag but all I can find is a picture that shows two pieces missing. Do you know of anyone who has a complete flag.