As Pitt's Brass Band played and a choir sang "The Girl I've Left Behind," five companies of the Mormon Battalion departed the parade grounds after passing in review. The battalion members had been hastily gathered and wore an odd assortment of clothing. They had just been mustered in. Now they were departing, and in the eyes of some who were left behind there were tears.
This could well be a description from 1846 after the Mormon Battalion was mustered in at Kanesville, Iowa, for duty during the Mexican War. But, instead, it is an account of a modern-day re-enactment of that mustering ceremony of 150 years ago. A crowd estimated at 9,500 attended the event.The re-enactment on July 13 was part of a two-day celebration here that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Mormon Trail, Iowa statehood and the founding of Council Bluffs. The celebration was known as the Grand Encampment and was held on the campus of the Iowa School for the Deaf, the site where the 500-man battalion was mustered in and departed for Fort Leavenworth, Kan., on its way to San Diego, Calif.
The 140-year-old deaf school is also the site where the Mormon pioneers camped as they reached the Missouri River in their exodus across Iowa. Within a month after the first pioneers arrived on June 14, 1846, as many as 10,000 Mormon refugees had reached the encampment. By fall of 1846, that number had swelled to 13,000. The vast collection of people, livestock, wagons and tents became known as the Grand Encampment, which stretched back to the east for nine miles.
Participants in the re-enactment ceremony were descendants of the original battalion members, who were recruited while the Mormon refugees were stretched out across 200 miles of southern Iowa. Dressed in period clothing, the battalion descendants had gathered from many areas of the country to be a part of the mustering ceremony.
Pres. Brian Hill of the Kearney Nebraska Stake was one of the descendants who participated.
He is a descendant of two battalion members, James Brown, who was commander of Company C, and Joseph Skeen, a private in Company E.
"It was thrilling to be a part of it all. Those who participated will never forget it. There were many participants that I talked with who really felt the spirit of the men in the battalion."
Pres. Hill said that every member of the original battalion had somebody representing them at the re-enactment.
Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy was the featured speaker and spoke as if his listeners were the actual battalion members. "Five hundred of you marched away as we are commemorating today," said Elder Pinnock.
He spoke of events leading up to the battalion's mustering. When it was learned that the U.S. government wanted to form the battalion, "there were great feelings of anxiety," explained Elder Pinnock. But when the Church leaders gave their approval for the battalion enlistment, the word that "the Church wants us to help our country was spoken from tent to tent, from log cabin to log cabin."
"To be organized as you are now took about three weeks," Elder Pinnock continued. He then said to the men, who were portraying their ancestors: "Thank you for your courage. We salute you, we wish you well. Our prayers, thoughts and dreams go with you. We will meet again to build Zion, a place of peace and joy, way out in the Rocky Mountains."
Also speaking at the mustering ceremony were Dr. Larry C. Porter, a professor at Brigham Young University, who gave a historical perspective of the battalion; Ann Stoddard Reese of Salt Lake City, who gave a descendant's perspective; and Council Bluffs Mayor Tom Hanafan.
Steve Young, a star football player and a great-great-great grandson of Brigham Young, and dressed perhaps as his famous ancestor might have been, represented President Young who gave the mustering speech. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jeff Haines represented Col. Thomas L. Kane and presented Kane's endorsement, and retired Army Maj. Joseph R. Carlson represented Capt. James Allen and gave Allen's call for recruits.
Representatives of the five companies were called to the stand to sign in. Then the battalion members were given the oath of allegiance by Maj. Carlson as he represented Capt. Allen.
Perhaps the most stirring part of the ceremony was the performing of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Pitts Brass Band and the 250-voice combined North America Central Area choir, with the huge crowd joining in for the final chorus.
The ceremony was impressive from the time the companies arrived on the parade grounds. "Left, left. Left, right, left," the commander of each company hollered out as the men tried to march in some form of military fashion. But still there were crooked lines and many were out of step - which was probably the way it was with their ancestors, who were raw recruits when they were mustered in.
After taking the oath of allegiance, the troops passed in review. The review included a company of women and children, also dressed in period clothing. They represented the 80 women and children who accompanied the battalion. Some of these were laundresses attached to each company, and some were underage young men who were designated as "servants of officers." Others were wives and children of battalion members.
In the re-enactment ceremony, a sixth company was included that wasn't part of the original battalion - "Company M" - which included the missionaries serving in the Nebraska Omaha Mission. As they passed in review, they received a loud applause from the onlookers.
The final activity of the Grand Encampment celebration was a Mormon Battalion cotillion, held the evening of July 13 on the grounds where the mustering ceremony had taken place. Historically, before the battalion left, a dance was also held.
While Brigham Young met with the commissioned and non-commissioned officers in a grove of cottonwood trees near the Missouri River, the privates were busily clearing an eight-rod square for the ball. The dance was a lively and spirited occasion, of which Col. Kane said, "A more merry dancing rout I have never seen
and includedT none of your minuets or other mortuary processions of gentles in etiquette, tight shoes, and pinching gloves."
The 1,200 who participated in the modern-day cotillion also had a great time as they danced on the grass of the parade field for two hours to the music of the 1840s.
The evening sky turned dark, and then the remembrances of the Mormon Battalion were over.
One of the members of the original battalion, Second Sergeant William Hyde, remembered that they were told by Church leaders that their "expedition
wouldT result in great good, and our names
would beT handed down in honorable remembrance to all generations."
For a few hours on one day 150 years later, on the site where the battalion was mustered in, hundreds of descendants and others, numbering in the thousands, celebrated "in honorable remembrance" the contributions of the battalion, which resulted in the longest infantry march in U.S. history.
"I think," summed up Pres. Hill, "that the remembrance of the Mormon Battalion came through in this re-enactment more than at any other time."