Discrete Monument Honors Mormon Battalion Near Casa Grande
Excerpt from Arizoniana by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
Regarding monuments Will Rogers used to say: “You don’t need much monument if the cause is good. It’s only the monument that’s for no reason at all that has to be big.”
On the outskirts of Casa Grande, along what used to be the main highway between Tucson and Phoenix, stands a simple, concrete monument surrounded by weeds and showing the ravages of the passage of time. It was erected to honor a campsite of the Mormon Battalion on December 20, 1846. Monuments like these are scattered along the old Gila Trail. Some are erected by Boy Scout troops, others by interested civic groups or the descendants of the Mormon Battalion. Some members of this famed group of trail-blazers returned to Arizona by way of Utah more than 30 years after the war to take root in the land and build a new life.
The 397 men and five women, who left Santa Fe on October 19, 1846 to mark an overland road to California, were embarking on the second half of a 2,000-mile journey, the longest infantry march in American history. It was also the roughest, requiring great stamina and rugged determination. Their commanding officer, Captain Philip St. George Cooke and guides Antoine Leroux, Pauline Weaver and Baptiste Charbonneau were trail-toughened veterans used to the forbidding rough-hewn mountains and waterless wastes laced by impenetrable, boulder-choked canyons. But the Mormons, recruited by church leaders, were unprepared for the trials and tribulations that lay ahead. They were in the army as volunteers to show patriotism and receive government-paid transportation to California where they hoped to locate a new home for their displaced church. But they rose to the occasion and their heroic achievement won the everlasting respect of Captain Cooke, the no-nonsense, professional soldier who was charged with the inglorious job of building a wagon road to California.
Captain Cooke, disappointed at not receiving a combat command, would never know that his achievements and those of his Mormon volunteers would have greater significance than any glorious charge he might have led on the field of battle. The task of building a wagon road would have been demanding enough for these citizen-soldiers: but the hardships endured along the desert trail north of Tucson, as recorded in the journals of Captain Cooke and Sgt. Daniel Tyler, paint a vivid picture of their desert ordeal. The Mormon Battalion left Tucson on the morning of December 18 following the Santa Cruz River northwest towards the Gila. Seven miles north of town the river disappeared in the sand. The mules were watered and the expedition set out across the desert cutting its way on a 24-mile path through dense mesquite thickets. At about nine o’clock that evening, they made dry camp. Sergeant Tyler of Company C, and a stake patriarch in the Church, recorded the ordeal of that first night after leaving Tucson:
Struggling, worn out, famishing men came into camp at all hours of the night, and the rear guard did not reach camp until near daylight.
Resuming the march the next morning at sunrise they traveled 14 miles to a place where there was supposed to be water; but when they arrived, the hole was dry. Cooke wrote:
There was nothing to do, but march on; there was the same baked-clay surface, with a little sand. At sundown a very small pool was come to; too shallow for dipping with a cup, but enough for most of the men to get a drink by lying down.
There was, according to Tyler:
. . . water enough to give the most of those present a drink by lying down to it, which was the only method allowed. Dipping was forbidden, in order that as many as possible might have a chance to drink. The main portion of the army, however, had no water during the entire day, save a few drops which the men managed to suck from the mud in small puddle holes found by the wayside.
Later that evening the pack mules were turned loose. Their keen instincts drove them to a small pool and they plunged headlong into the water. By the time the thirsty soldiers arrived it was either consumed or undrinkable. Knowing the only chance for survival was to press on, Cooke urged them to move forward. By this time the battalion was strung out across the desert for several miles. Lieutenant George Rosecrans, of C Company, rode into the hills and located a small spring where a few were able to fill their canteens.
The soldiers continued on, crossing rocky arroyos and dense mesquite thickets. Finally, Cooke called a halt to the march:
The battalion had then marched 26 hours of the last 36; they were almost barefooted, carried their muskets and knapsacks; the mules had worked 47 miles without water. A little wheat was now given to them.
On the morning of the 20th, the scouts left long before sun-up and were several miles down the trail by the time the battalion resumed its march. Before noon on the 20th, water was found and canteens were filled and loaded on pack mules and rushed back down the trail to assist stragglers, many of whom were now lying along the trail unable to continue.
I have been mounted 32 of the last 52 hours; and what with midnight conferences, alarms and marches, have had little rest for five days . . .
The battalion have marched 62 miles from Tucson, in about 51 hours; no ration of meat was issued yesterday.
It was through the heroic efforts of those men and women, not to mention the pack mules, that the Mormon Battalion reached this little site north of Casa Grande on the evening of December 20, 1846. Will Rogers was right, you don’t need much of a monument if the cause is good. This one honors more than just a campsite—it is a testament to courage, perseverance and honest determination.
People ask, “Marshall, where do you come up with those story ideas?” I usually reply, “Well, one just pops into my mind and there’s nothin’ there to stop it.” This one just popped into my mind one day as I was driving that stretch of road that leads into Casa Grande. It sure taught me something about respect for unpretentious little monuments standing in patches of weeds beside highways.
Excerpt from Arizoniana by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
In Yuma, there’s a bronze statue of a Mormon Battalion soldier in West Wetlands Park that was erected in 2007 by the U.S. Army of the West Mormon Battalion Foundation. The park is located along the Colorado River, take the 4th Ave. exit off I-8, turn west on 1st Street and enter the park (right turn) at 12th or 22nd Avenue. Follow the main road through the park and look for an elevated footbridge on the river side.
Also in Yuma, there’s a digital exhibit recounting the stories of nine prominent Mormons who were jailed for polygamy in 1885 at the Yuma Territorial Prison, better known for incarcerating Arizona’s worst desperadoes during the Wild West era of shoot-outs and stagecoach robberies.
“This 21st-century digital exhibit tells the story of a 19th-century struggle over the issue of religious freedom colliding with the right of the nation to set certain moral standards,” said Charles Flynn, executive director of the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area, which manages the state park. “These are issues the nation continues to wrestle with today.”
The Yuma Territorial Prison State Historic Park is now open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through May. It can be accessed from Interstate 8 at the Giss Parkway Exit. For further information on the park, contact 928-783-4771. or on the web at http://www.historicyumaprison.com.
And don’t forget “The Battle of the Bulls” monument on the San Pedro River at Charleston Road between Sierra Vista and Tombstone.