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Mike Erfert
Battalion members up before dawn preparing for Silver Spur parade appearance during the the reenactment of the Mormon Battalion's march in February 2012 near Yuma, Ariz.

YUMA, Ariz. — The Mormon Battalion’s original trek through Yuma, Ariz., took place in January of 1847. Those who attended Yuma’s 2012 Silver Spur Rodeo Parade in February were treated to a trip back in time and a lesson in history. More than a dozen young men and young women from Yuma’s 9th Ward, in period clothing with authentic equipment (including a reproduction U.S. Army wagon), walked the parade route to bring alive a part of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints..

The Silver Parade is the largest local event of this type, and the Arizona Centennial brought additional historical focus. Their efforts were rewarded by receiving the parade trophies for Best Horse-Drawn Wagon and 1st Place Religious Organization. Freddy Martinez, 17, said that winning the awards made him “feel like we did a good job representing the Battalion,” adding, “I know we were noticed ... and in a good way.”

The recognition didn’t stop there. In attendance at the parade was the commanding officer of the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, Col. Reed Young. Young noted that the group was recreating a U.S. Army unit and commended them for keeping history alive. He produced a YPG “challenge coin” and, regretting he didn’t have enough for everyone, called for the youngest member to step forward. Matthew Hill, 14, stepped up and received the coin in a handshake from Young.

Matthew considered participation in the Battalion “a great honor,” saying it was “fun, but humbling at the same time.”

Walking the parade route of approximately 2 miles in period clothing and gear — including rifles — was a lot of work, but put the group in the community’s spotlight. Mixing fun and a healthy respect for the memory of those they were representing, the young men gave it their all. But the young men were not the only participants; they were joined by dedicated young women, which is true to history: there were several women who traveled and labored — even giving birth along the way — with the original Mormon Battalion.

Ashlie Winterton, 17 and one of the Battalion’s two young women, said she was “very proud of the boys, and to be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Her favorite part was “when the veterans would stand when we passed.”

This was a lot of attention for a group often overlooked in history. The U.S. Army of the West-Mormon Battalion was formed in Iowa to serve in the Mexican War (1846-1848). They were to take a southern route to California. Besides the obvious military purpose, the Battalion offered opportunities to the Saints in their often desperate circumstances on their way west from Nauvoo.

LDS Church leaders had been approached to supply 500 men. It was a way for church members to show their loyalty to the country, and it was also a way to provide financial support to their families and others in need through soldier's wages. To dedicate even more funds to this purpose, the Battalion was authorized to serve without regular uniforms. The money that would have gone for uniforms could be sent back to further aid the Saints.

A total of 541 men eventually would heed the call and join the Mormon Battalion. These were not the only members as 33 women and 42 children also made the historic trek. Although they never fought a battle with Mexican forces, the trail they blazed to California played an important role in the country's pioneer movement west.

The Mormon Battalion’s march of more than 2,000 miles was noted in an order signed in San Diego by the area’s military commander, Lt. Col. Geo. Cooke, on Jan. 30, 1847. It reads in part:

“History may be searched in vain for an equal march of infantry. Nine-tenths of it has been through a wilderness where nothing but savages and wild beasts are found, or deserts where, for want of water, there is no living creature. There, with almost hopeless labor, we have dug deep wells, which the future traveler will enjoy. Without a guide who had traversed them, we have ventured into trackless prairies where water was not found for several marches. With crowbar and pick and ax in hand we have worked our way over 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...”

Getting to this point was not easy for the 2012 group, either. The idea to reconstruct the unit started late in 2010. Larry Nelson, former mayor of Yuma and president of the U.S. Army of the West-Mormon Battalion committee, was approached by other community leaders about having a reenactment group participate in the 2012 Arizona Centennial Celebration. The committee voted to purchase equipment and asked the 9th Ward’s Rusty McBride and 5th Ward’s Gary Smith to “make it happen.”

Period clothing was purchased that had originally come from movie props. The outfits, first used in the movie “Master and Commander," were altered and dyed to suit the purpose. Leather backpacks were made by hand by McBride, Smith and another 9th Ward member Layton Pace, and all with a mind to things being as authentic as possible.

The teenagers enjoyed the authenticity. Joshua Huston, 17, said being given responsibility and carrying a “cavalry saber” were his favorite parts of the experience. The girls were also wearing clothing young frontier women would have worn. Aubrey Ann Pace,16, said she “loved dressing up in the pioneer clothes and marching with the guys.”

The Mexican War sergeant’s uniform worn by Gary Smith was made by a company in Mississippi. The rifles are non-firing reproductions of the flintlock firearms used by the U.S. Army at the time. The U.S. Army wagon — which arrived to the group at noon the day before the parade — is a rebuilt 1911 rig purchased from a company in South Dakota.

All these preparations would mean nothing if there were not volunteers to fill the uniforms. Just as the original members of the Battalion set aside their personal lives to embark on their march, the 9th Ward’s Varsity and Venture Scouts stepped up to the challenge. Beginning last November and using the U.S. Army’s 1846 “Manual of Arms,” McBride (who happens to be a retired master sergeant) drilled the new recruits on marching and protocol.

Although opinions varied among the youth about how hard the training and preparation were, they all agreed it was worth it. Fifteen-year-old Diego Huston observed that it really felt good to be “doing something important in remembrance of the members of the actual Mormon Battalion.” Evan Allen, 17, appreciated “working together and helping each other out.”

One member of the Battalion was not yet a member of the LDS Church, but he learned much about the group being portrayed. Jacob Stanley, 17, enjoyed “representing the church and the young men who were a part of the real Battalion.” Jacob was baptized just seven days after the parade.

The adults working on the project were inspired by the way the youths came together and put aside their regular routine to be involved. All had positive things to say about their experiences working with the youths, and the word “proud” was used over and over again. When helping with final preparations, the bishop of the 9th Ward, Greg Titensor, watched as his 10-year-old son tried on a backpack, wishing he could take part.

On the morning of the parade, the pre-dawn light revealed images of young men leaning on rifles, filling canteens, talking with young pioneer women. As they prepared for the start of the parade with last-minute drilling, adjusting equipment and killing time, they stayed very much in character. With their playful kidding or an observation about marching technique, they looked and acted the part of young men and women preparing to do their duty.

In the book "Women of the Mormon Battalion" compiled by Carl V. Larson and Shirley N. Maynes, President Brigham Young is quoted as telling the Mormon Battalion, "As the Lord lives, if you will but live up to your privileges, you will never be forgotten, without end, but you will be held in honorable remembrance, forever and ever."

More information about Yuma's past and present connection to the Mormon Battalion can be found at www.usarmyofthewest.org.

Mike Erfert has more than 32 years of public safety experience in both law enforcement and the fire service. He specializes in public information, public education and emergency management. His email is [email protected]