Sculpture by Ed Fraughton of a Mormon Battalion Soldier
From Ms Bryant's manuscript:
Service in the Mormon Battalion
Late in 1845, persecution of Mormons was on the rise, and life in Nauvoo was becoming intolerable for Church members. Brigham Young and his advisors were planning an exodus whose destination would be somewhere west of the Rocky Mountains and outside what was then the United States. When the exodus began in February, 1846, John Forsgren was among the first of Heber C. Kimball’s family to cross the Mississippi River into Iowa. This time of crisis for the Church coincided with much larger events that were also shaping American westward expansion. The United States had annexed the Republic of Texas in 1845; the Mexican army responded in April, 1846, by crossing the Rio Grande and firing on American troops near the Texas border. A war with Mexico was imminent.
Church members were asked to join the United States military in a unit that became known as the Mormon Battalion. In addition to its obvious tactical purpose as a fighting force, the Mormon Battalion also figured into the strategic plans of both President James K. Polk and President Brigham Young. Young had sent Jesse Little of the Eastern States Mission to Washington, D. C., to ask for assistance in escaping persecution; Little arrived in the capital only days after the declaration of war with Mexico on May 13, 1846. Polk already knew about the persecution of the Mormons, and their desire to flee the United States; he had previously turned down requests for help. Now, it was to Polk’s and Young’s mutual advantage to cooperate in organizing the Mormon Battalion. From Polk’s point of view, creating the Battalion would serve “to conciliate [the Mormons], attach them to our country, and prevent them from taking part against us.”(19) Young could see that having Church members in the military was good public relations, showing that the Church was not an enemy of the United States. Then too, Young reasoned that the emigrants were in desperate need of money, and military pay and allowances, donated to the Church general fund, could “take their families over the mountains.”(20)
Recruiting for the Mormon Battalion began in late June, 1846, at settlements in Iowa where Mormon groups stopped to prepare for the journey west. Over the next three weeks, and after a good deal of Brigham Young’s encouragement, over 500 volunteers joined the unit, left their families in the care of others, and set off across the Great American Desert to prevent the Mexican army from invading the United States. (21)
John E. Forsgren was the lone Scandinavian member of the Mormon Battalion, the only unit of the U. S. military to be established based on the faith of its members. He enlisted as a private in Company D. Mustered in on July 16, 1846, he marched off toward the southwest on July 20; on August 21, he sent $18 to Heber C. Kimball, “aside from that sent to their families.”(22)
The Battalion arrived at San Diego on January 29, 1847, after a grueling journey of some 1900 miles. The war had ended; no one in the Battalion ever engaged the enemy. Forsgren and most of the other volunteers were mustered out at Los Angeles after exactly a year of service. If Forsgren had enlisted to help other Church members on their journey west while protecting future American claims to the Southwest, he should have been pleased with the results of his efforts. But if he joined the Battalion in the hope of finding adventure and glory, he would have been deeply disappointed, as his later recollections suggest.
With no work and apparently no taste for military life (although they were strongly encouraged to re-enlist), groups of men started northward out of the Los Angeles Basin and into the Central Valley. Eventually they found their way to the area of Sutter’s Fort in the Sierra Nevada foothills. A few lingered and became participants in the gold strike of January, 1848, but most simply headed east across the mountains and the Great Basin, returning to their friends and families in the new settlement of Great Salt Lake City.(23)
That is the straightforward part of the Mormon Battalion’s history. The backstory is much more complex and often unhappy. Long before arriving in California, the men’s clothes and shoes were in tatters. Rather than buy uniforms from the Army when they enlisted, they had donated the money to Church funds. Many men were sick, in part because Brigham Young had warned them not to accept military medicines (24) (which were standard for the times), but to rely on divine intervention instead. For that matter, at limited medical care was offered was sometimes negligent, (25) and some of the suffering could have been prevented.
Members of the Battalion later described deep resentments that grew up in the Battalion, not only between the officers and men, but among the officers themselves. (26) Many incidents arose from misunderstanding; many have been overblown. For John Forsgren, his year with the Battalion was both a source of pride and the basis of resentment he expressed much later.
Battalion organization seems to have been at the core of most problems. All the recruits and some of the officers were volunteers, and thus those officers were elected by the men and lacked the authority of regular military commissions. The volunteers had, prior to entering military service, been related to each other as family members, brothers in the Church, and through the priesthood hierarchy. There had been only two weeks for training and instructing them in military discipline before the unit elected its company-grade officers and set off on its march. The historian Sherman Fleek, a retired Army officer and a member of the LDS Church, explains that the Battalion thus had two conflicting hierarchies operating under entirely different rules, and that these would have been hard for both men and officers to reconcile.(27) The volunteers found it very difficult to accept, for example, that Elder George P. Dykes (who held no special position in the Church) was now 1st Lt. Dykes of D Company, their superior in the military chain of command. In Fleek’s judgement, Dykes’ efforts at discipline and order were evidence that Dykes was one of the few Battalion members who had “learned the profession of arms.”(28). The men in his company, John Forsgren among them, did not see it that way.
Dykes came to be disliked by many of his men, who objected to what they saw as his strictness and dictatorial style. Years later, John Forsgren’s family and friends must have been treated often to his complaints about Dykes and his resentment over being “locked up” for refusing duty because the unit had not received its bread ration. (29) Forsgren’s compiled service record is silent on the matter of discipline. Battalion members such as Tyler and Standage who kept journals or wrote of their experiences did not mention Forsgren by name, although Henry Standage wrote, “several of Co. D put under guard...for refusing to drill.” (30) While Forsgren may have found his experience in the Mormon Battalion unpleasant, that didn’t prevent him from joining his comrades at celebrations and reunions in 1865 and 1870. (31)
Battalion members who left California after mustering out reached Great Salt Lake City in mid-October, 1847. Forsgren traveled east with the loosely-organized Hancock/Hunt/Pace/Lytle Company. (32)
Forsgren’s life thus far had been one of almost constant travel; even his long journey with the Mormon Battalion seems not to have made him any less restless. Rather than settle down in Great Salt Lake City, by September, 1848, he was carrying “dispatches from the Valley” east along the Mormon Trail through Pacific Springs and as far east as Devil’s Gate, Wyoming.(33) In November, 1848, he was named a member of the Amasa Lyman-Orrin Porter Rockwell party for “an exploring mission and preaching mission to California.” (34) As it happened, when Lyman and Rockwell started out in early 1849, Forsgren was not with them. Rockwell had already gained an unsavory reputation for minting counterfeit gold coins; (35) it is tempting to imagine a partnership between the future “Bench Prophet” and the “Destroying Angel,” but Church leaders had other plans for John Forsgren.
Footnotes for the above:
19. Polk, James K., Polk: The Diary of a President, 1845-1849, 1929. A. Nevins, ed., p. 109. Longmans, Green and Company, London, New York, etc.
20. Brown, Joseph E., 1980. The Mormon Trek West, Doubleday, Garden City, New York, p. 50-52
21. Fleek, Sherman L., 2006. History May Be Searched in Vain: a military history of the Mormon Battalion, Arthur H. Clark Co., Spokane, Wash., p. 66
22. Journal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints (chronological scrapbook of typed entries and newspaper clippings, 1830-present), Aug. 21, 1846, p. 6, LDS Church Archives.
23. Bigler, D., and Bagley, W. eds., 2000. Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion narratives, Arthur H. Clark Co., Spokane, Wash., Chapter 10
24. Fleek, S., History May Be Searched in Vain: a military history of the Mormon Battalion. Arthur H. Clark Co., Spokane, Wash. p. 140
25. Fleek, S., History May Be Searched in Vain: a military history of the Mormon Battalion. Arthur H. Clark Co., Spokane, Wash., p. 218
26. Tyler, D., 1881. A concise history of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War 1846-1847. p. 143-144.
27. Fleek, S. 2006, History May Be Searched in Vain: a military history of the Mormon Battalion, Arthur H. Clark Co., Spokane, Wash., p. 206
28. Fleek, S., 2006. History May Be Searched in Vain; a military history of the Mormon Battalion, Arthur H. Clark Co., Spokane, Wash. , p. 334
29. U. S. Bureau of Pensions, deposition of Kiersten Forsgren, February 15, 1893, p. 14
30. Golder, F. A., 1928. The March of the Mormon Battalion, from Council Bluffs to California, taken from the journal of Henry Standage. Century Co., NY, p. 213
31. Deseret News, August 2, 1865, p. 2 and October 19, 1870, p. 1
32. Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel, Church History Library database
33. Journal History, September 5, p. 1; Sept. 12, p. 2; and 13, p. 1,1848
34. Journal History, Nov. 26, p. 1, 1848
35. Owens, Kenneth., Gold Rush Saints, Arthur H. Clark Co., Spokane, Wash., p. 80
The following are photocopies of cards from John Forsgren's compiled service record. The originals are in the National Archives in Washington D.C. These copies I obtained during an interview with LeJune Forsgren Maughan, the granddaughter of Peter Adolph Forsgren thru wife Elise Thomassen. You will note that they don't tell you much other than to corroborate dates of mustering in and out. Typed notes at the bottom of each card that they are "corrected" pages are intriguing. Have no idea what that means.
While living in Moroni John was active in the 24th of July celebrations with other Battalion members. He served as "Marshal of the Day" on July 24, 1865. Later, he and his wife Kiersten moved to Santaquin. John held the same honor in a similar celebration held there on 24 July 1868. On that occasion John led a procession of the Martial Band, former members of the Mormon Battalion, and others to the house of President Hollady who served as the "Orator of the Day."
One account of John E's life states that he arrived back in Salt Lake on 1 Oct. 1847 after being released from Battalion service. Other sources state that Oct. 16th is the more likely date. The question at this point in our narrative is: what or whom did he hope to find in Salt Lake? Did he know that his wife Mary Ann Hunt Forsgren would be there waiting for him? Was he surprised? What caused the final rift in their relationship - an ocurrence which seems so amazing to me since Mary Ann had traveled all the way across the plains experiencing her own privations and difficulties. For much more detail on that story, please go to the blog post about Mary Ann (created in May 2010 and recently updated). What feels certain is that John Forsgren wanted to be important, still wanted to make a place and name for himself among the Brethren. He got that chance, of course, when shortly afterwards he was called to serve his famous mission to Sweden.
Anyone interested in the Mormon Battalion should visit the new Battalion Historic Site in San Diego, California. Though I have not yet been there myself I recently heard from family members that it is a popular attraction, very interactive and nicely done. Get an overview of all that it has to offer at http://historicmormonbattalion.net/
Update: Feb. 2012:
While vacationing with my family in Oceanside, California we took advantage of the opportunity to finally visit the monument. It is indeed a nice place to be. (Complete with talking portraits just like in Harry Potter!). Very intersting for young children who also get to pan for gold, work a pump, find their ancestor's name in the Battalion logbooks and have their photo taken in "old time" mode. Guides are well informed and helpful. The emphasis of their presentation of the Battalion experience was that it was a huge financial help to the saints as they crossed the plains since most of the monies paid the soldiers by the U.S. Government went to the families instead of being spent on uniforms, etc.
Our guide choses a volunteer from the group to come get dressed up with the typical gear of a Battalion volunteer.
There's our John in the volunteer logbook
My husband Victor with the statue of the soldier at the entrance to the monument.
Our granddaughter, Noelle, seeking her fortune
A small-scale covered wagon is part of the display.
The Monument is part of San Diego's Old Town and across the street from a synagogue and several beautiful homes that have been moved to the area for tourist appeal. There is a small picnic area behind the battalion monument as well which we were grateful for since we had packed a quicky lunch that Sunday afternoon and the kids were "starving." (of course). Go visit; Enjoy!