"The Girl I Left Behind Me": The Faith of the Mormon Battalion Wives

Chad C. Thompson, “‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’: The Faith of the Mormon Battalion Wives,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 23–34.

 “The Girl I Left Behind Me”: The Faith of the Mormon Battalion Wives

Chad C. Thompson

I’m lonesome since I crossed the hill,

And o’er the moor and valley;

Such heavy thoughts my heart do fill,

Since parting from my Sally,

I seek no more the fine and gay,

For each does but remind me,

How swift the hours did pass away,

With the girl I’ve left behind me.[1]

This cadence not only kept the five hundred Mormon soldiers in time as they marched through St. Joseph, Missouri, but also reminded the men of their families back in Iowa. Wives and children had been left to fend for themselves while passing through American Indian country with very limited provisions and with little more than wagon boxes for shelter.

Much is written about the historic march of the Mormon Battalion: the sacrifice, hunger, fatigue, cruel military leadership, cutting a wagon trail through the mountains of California, and so on. Yet surprisingly little is written about the sacrifice of the wives they left behind. The experiences of the Mormon Battalion wives were unique at Winter Quarters. These women were forced to take on their husbands’ roles as providers for their families while under pressure from Church leaders to give their husbands’ wages to the Church and with the overarching anxiety of having a loved one at war.

The nineteenth-century wives of deployed soldiers trod on fresh ground for all women of this young religious tradition. Now for over a century, Latter-day Saints have turned to the examples of their pioneer ancestors for inspiration. In today’s combat-laden environment, many Latter-day Saint spouses find themselves in circumstances similar to their plucky predecessors’, the wives of the Mormon Battalion, and the example of faith demonstrated by those women provides comfort to modern military wives and mothers.

At the beginning of the war with Mexico, on April 25, 1846, President James K. Polk was concerned about the loyalties of a large group of Mormon pioneers fleeing the persecutions in their Illinois home. His fears were not without foundation according to a correspondence from Jesse C. Little[2] to President Polk on June 1, 1846. Little began the letter by listing all of the injustices the Saints endured as they were driven from New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. He explicitly told Polk of the tens of thousands of Saints who were determined to settle in California.[3] Brother Little especially emphasized the forty thousand Saints in the British Isles preparing to emigrate. Little went on to explain that the Saints were devoted Americans at present, yet should the United States abandon them again in their time of need they might be willing to adjust their allegiances. He stated, “We would disdain to receive assistance from a foreign power—although it should be proferred—unless our government shall turn us off in this great crisis and will not help us, but compel us to be foreigners.”[4]

President Polk reluctantly agreed to allow a battalion of five hundred Mormon volunteers to be commissioned into the United States Army under the command of Captain James Allen in Colonel Stephen W. Kearny’s Army of the West. Kearny called upon Allen to recruit this group and make preparations to march them to California. Allen arrived at Council Bluffs to meet with Brigham Young and the other leaders of the Church on July 1, 1846.

“Here is one man who will not go, dam’ um.”[5] This was the reaction of Abraham Day when he heard the federal government’s request for five hundred able-bodied volunteers. Day’s retort was not uncommon for the Saints in general.[6] Zadock Knapp Judd recalled, “This was quite a hard pill to swallow,”[7] and William Hyde said when he heard the news that his “soul revolted.”[8]

Despite their concerns for the welfare of their families, William Hyde’s remarks were fitting for the remainder of the volunteers: “When our beloved President came to call upon the saints to know who among all the people were ready to offer for the cause, I said, ‘Here am I, take me.’”[9] On July 16, 1846, William Hyde enlisted in the Mormon Battalion as the second orderly sergeant for Company B.[10]

Though Church leaders reassured them, one of the gravest concerns for wives of battalion members was the fear that their husbands might die in combat. Christopher Layton reported hearing some sisters remarking that they would never live to be a soldier’s widow.[11] The Saints were undoubtedly aware of the dangers of war. After all, in the seventy-two years since the Declaration of Independence had been written, the United States had experienced over forty thousand soldier deaths.[12] Despite this fear, the wives of the Mormon Battalion stood resolutely patriotic to their home nation and loyal to their Church leaders. Layton reported how one faithful wife rebuffed the complaints of those opposed to their husbands’ deployment: “I would rather be a soldier’s widow than a coward’s wife.”[13] This powerful reply illustrates the respect many wives held for their husbands’ courageous decision to go off to war.

The fear of death was almost immediately confirmed. Five days after the battalion began their march, Samuel Boley died in the middle of the night. Boley, a private in Company B, was not married, but the news of his death undoubtedly worried the battalion members’ wives. For one sister the fear of death was realized with devastating force. Margaret Phelps recalled:

Two months from the day of his enlistment, the sad news of my bereavement arrived. This blow entirely prostrated me. But I had just embarked upon my sea of troubles; winter found me bed-ridden, destitute, in a wretched hovel which was built upon a hill-side; the season was one of constant rain; the situation of the hovel and its openness, gave free access to piercing winds, and water flowed over the dirt floor, . . . no relative to cheer or comfort me, a stranger away from all who ever loved me; . . . my little daughter of seven my only help.[14]

Margaret showed a determination of spirit and devotion to Deity, though she recalled this time as the darkest of her life. She still managed to make it through, declaring that God never deserted her.[15]

At least some members of the battalion expressed their fear of death by importuning Brigham Young to perform their temple ordinances for them despite the absence of a temple. The temporary setting of Council Bluffs, along with their recent arrival, did not allow for the construction of the temple; however, with or without an actual temple structure, soldiers such as George Dykes wrote letters to Brigham Young requesting the blessings promised in temple ceremonies prior to their deployment.[16]

The battalion wives also had other grave concerns such as the health of their husbands. Unfortunately, correspondence with their beloved soldiers did little to ease this concern. Elisha Averett, in a letter to his wife, Sarah, expressed gratitude for her reported good health but then went on to describe his own health problems. He told of an illness brought on by sleeping in wet clothes and how fatigue forced him to collapse at the side of the road. He then expressed gratitude for Brothers Samuel Gully and Roswell Stevens, who let him ride on their horses.[17] This friendly assistance allowed him to escape the notoriously insensitive medical techniques of army physician Dr. Sanderson.[18]

The wives also received word from their husbands regarding the temptations they suffered during their military service. Generally speaking, the members of the Mormon Battalion tried to avoid swearing, gambling, lasciviousness, and other base practices. Word of Wisdom issues were also a concern. Although enforcement of the Word of Wisdom was not as strict as in the present day, the service members were discouraged from overusing alcohol. Furthermore, instances of stealing produce from farms along the trail, drunkenness, and a general lack of attention to traditional standards of conduct were quickly evident. Even those who were striving to live up to the standards expected by their Church leaders and wives were subject to temptation. George Dykes, first lieutenant of Company D, described his difficulties during the social events among the military officers. He was urged to drink brandy and wine and smoke with the officers. He also lamented the foul language his fellow battalion members used.[19]

Coinciding with the worries over their husbands’ welfare, the wives were required to focus on their own concerns. As fall and winter approached, the number of illnesses and deaths at Winter Quarters increased. According to an analysis of the disease data in Richard E. Bennett’s landmark work on the Winter Quarters experience of the Saints, the leading cause of death at Winter Quarters and the surrounding vicinity was chills and fever. Other ailments included tuberculosis, scurvy, and measles.[20]

Winter Quarters was a deadly place for many Saints. For some, including some of the wives of Mormon Battalion soldiers, the Great Plains of western America became their final mortal resting place. In September of 1846, Charity Fuller Campbell and her newborn child died at Winter Quarters.[21] On October 3, 1846, Laura A. Smith Webb also died along with her infant son at Council Bluffs, Iowa.[22] Nancy Reeder Walker Alexander developed pneumonia shortly after the birth of a son. In her waning moments she reportedly asked that her husband’s riding boots be brought to her, and she embraced them until the pneumonia ultimately overcame her.[23] Elizabeth Shipley died in the winter of 1846, but her husband was not aware of her death until he completed the march.[24] Sabina Ann Harrison and Clarinda McCullough, both wives of privates in E Company, died in 1847.[25]

Not all health concerns were tragic, however. When Robert Harris wrote to his wife on September 19, 1846, he first expressed his sorrow to hear that some of his children were feeling ill, and then he turned his attention to his pregnant wife. The pregnancy, evidently, was not known at the time he left on the march. His wife also must have expressed concern that Robert would be upset by the news. Harris reassured his wife that he was not disappointed about the new child and even suggested possible names for their new addition.[26]

Along with health issues, the wives were required to deal with the hostile environment in which they lived. The Mormon leaders chose to establish their winter habitations in the heart of Omaha and Pottawattamie Indian lands. Brigham Young encouraged the Saints to settle in areas near each other for their own protection. Rumors were also rampant that mobs from Missouri might seek to further harass the Saints. Without husbands nearby, Mormon Battalion wives were particularly vulnerable. The wives were also wary of how their inadequate shelter would protect them from the weather. Margaret Phelps described the lack of protection she received from her hovel. However, this abode may have been an upgrade from the wagon bed she was dwelling in when her husband left. Another husband, William Hyde, also described leaving his family in the “scorching sun” with “no dwelling but a wagon.”[27]

Of necessity, the wives also took on roles traditionally reserved for their husbands such as taking care of the livestock. Eliza Hunsaker described her efforts in this arena to her husband, Abraham: “Our stock is all thriving and doing well. There has none of them strayed away.”[28] She also mentioned her desire to move closer to the creek near other families and the need to continue cutting hay in preparation for the winter. Other women were not doing as well with their livestock, even with the help of some men in the area. Marice B. Rawson told her husband Daniel about the house she was able to live in, but expressed her concern about gathering hay. She said the time of year was so late that she was afraid all of the hay would die before her father and her boys could cut enough. She feared that if they were unable to cut enough hay, she would be forced to leave her home for a location with more feed.

The women were keenly aware that Winter Quarters was not their final destination. Along with daily survival, they made preparations for their departure to the West in the spring of 1847. While on his trek through the desert, George Dykes found time to create a to-do list for his wife in preparation for her own journey across the plains. He recommended that she and the drivers take care of the team and wagons and that she get a good supply of flour. He also reminded her to make all the necessary repairs to the wagon.[29] Robert Harris, lamenting the problem of dehydration experienced by battalion members, asked his wife to purchase a cask for water.[30]

One of the most difficult sacrifices the wives of the Mormon Battalion soldiers made was to follow the counsel of their Church leaders by donating their husbands’ wages to the Church for the benefit of all the Saints. The pooled wages were taken to St. Louis to purchase necessary supplies for the whole population at Winter Quarters. The responses to President Young’s plan to collect and redistribute the battalion’s wages were mixed. Thomas Richardson applauded his wife for following Young’s plan. He lauded, “I am well Pleased with the course which you took in obeying council concerning the money which I sent to you For I Have all confidence in the Bishops and if you let them lay out the money they can get Double that you could for it and if you let them use the money and it Don’t Reach your wants you can, . . . call on them again.”[31] Despite the best efforts of the Church leadership and the well-organized plan for the distribution of supplies, the wives experienced hardships. Ferricity Barger expressed gratitude for the money her husband sent, “for I was entirely destitute of provisions.”[32] Fortunately, Ferricity explains, “Brother Rich had just helped me to some flour.”[33]

Despite her difficulties, Ferricity managed to not only survive her experience, but to thrive in her temporary abode. She reported on her efforts to continue with the education of their children. She declared that two of the children were reading well and that their youngest knew his letters.[34] Ferricity also described striving to maintain activity in the spiritual lives of her family. She described one of her days to her husband: “We have just come home from prayer meeting. We have been praying and fasting for the sick.”[35] Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she prayed and fasted for the needs of her fellow Saints. Ferricity also found time to reflect upon her relationship with her husband and the difficult journey ahead of her. Poetically she wrote,

The rose is red the grass is green,

The day’s have passed that I have seen.

And let not absence break the ties,

That bind the heart of you and I.

While I endure I’ll spend my breath,

In prayer for those who love the truth.”[36]

But Battalion members’ wives also experienced feelings of loneliness and discouragement. Eliza Hunsaker described her own loneliness after only a little over a month of separation from her husband. She also lamented the duration of their anticipated separation.[37] Maria Rawson expressed uncertainty about her ability to make the trek across the plains without her father, who was very discouraged at the time of her letter. She pleaded with her husband to leave his military duties and come to her aid if she was unable to convince her father to leave with her.[38]

Other wives forged through different personal trials without the presence of their soldier husbands. One soldier was particularly concerned about his pregnant wife. He encouraged her to find another woman in the area who could help her through the pregnancy and suggested that she pay the woman with his personal gun, at least until the time he could provide her with some money.[39]

While the accomplishments of the Mormon Battalion marchers are laudable, the travails of their faithful, courageous wives are largely marginalized. However, the wives left at Winter Quarters were a subject of paramount importance to the military men who marched to the rhythm of the following:

My mind shall still her form retain, in sleeping or in waking.

Until I see my love again, for whom my heart is breaking.

If ever I return that way, and she should not decline me,

I ever more will live and stay with the girl I’ve left behind me.[40]


[1] “The Girl I Left Behind Me” was an old folk song often sung by soldiers. As with many songs during that time period, the lyrics often changed slightly depending on who was singing. The lyrics used here are from the Mormon Battalion Association website at http://www.mormonbattalion.com.

[2] Brigham Young sent Jesse C. Little to the East Coast in an effort to secure assistance from the United States government, financial and otherwise, for their trek across the Great Plains and into the West.

[3] Jesse C. Little to President James K. Polk, June 1, 1846, Brigham Young Collection, Historical Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, and quoted in Army of Israel: Mormon Battalion Narratives, ed. Will Bagley and David L. Bigler (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2000), 34.

[4] Jesse C. Little to President James K. Polk.

[5] John Frank George Yurtinus, A Ram in the Thicket: The Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University PhD dissertation, 1975), 1:41.

[6] Brigham Young and other Church leaders were aware of Jesse C. Little’s mission to President Polk. However, the general Church population seemed to be in the dark about the Church’s request to join in the battle.

[7] Autobiography of Zadock Knapp Judd, 17, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.

[8] Private Journal of William Hyde, 18, L. Tom Perry Special Collections.

[9] Private Journal of William Hyde, 18.

[10] Daniel Tyler, A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War: 1846–1847 (Chicago: Rio Grande Press, 1964), 120.

[11] Autobiography of Christopher Layton, ed. Myron W. McIntyre and Noel R. Barton (Salt Lake City, UT: Christopher Layton Family Organization, 1966), 30.

[12] The Saints may not have been aware of the exact number of U.S. casualties in the War of Independence or the War of 1812; however, they must have been conscious of the fact that their husbands were marching into combat and that one of the results of combat was the loss of life. Furthermore, the recruitment of the Battalion coincided with the Fourth of July, an ominous reminder of the costs of war.

[13] Autobiography of Christopher Layton, 30.

[14] Margaret Phelps to Sgt. Daniel Tyler, 1878, in Tyler, A Concise History, 130.

[15] Margaret Phelps to Sgt. Daniel Tyler, 130.

[16] Richard E. Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri 1846–1852, “And Should We Die . . .” (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 189.

[17] Elisha Averett to wife Sarah Averett, October 14, 1846, Mormon Battalion Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[18] Elisha Averett to wife Sarah Averett, HDC.

[19] George Dykes, MBN Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[20] Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri, 134.

[21] Shirley N. Maynes, 500 Wagons Stood Still: Wives of the Mormon Battalion (Providence, UT: Watkins Printing, 1995), 99. Maynes documents the burial places of six of the wives of Mormon Battalion soldiers as being in the Winter Quarters area during the period of the Battalion’s march. Four out of the six burial places are confirmed in Susan Easton Black, Membership of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1830–1838 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1989), 402. Maynes also provides details surrounding the deaths; however, the specifics as to which source she connects to each death are somewhat unclear in her citations.

[22] Maynes, 500 Wagons Stood Still, 509.

[23] Maynes, 500 Wagons Stood Still, 25; see also Black, Membership of the Church, 583.

[24] Maynes, 500 Wagons Stood Still, 415.

[25] Maynes, 500 Wagons Stood Still, 241, 335; see also Black, Membership of the Church, 64, 524.

[26] Robert Harris, MBN Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[27] Tyler, A Concise History, 128.

[28] Eliza Hunsaker, MBN Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[29] George Dykes, MBN Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[30] Robert Harris, MBN Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[31] Thomas Richardson to Ann Richardson, September 1846, MBN Correspondence, Collection, HDC.

[32] Ferricity Barger to William H. Barger, September 28, 1846, MBN Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[33] Ferricity Barger to William H. Barger.

[34] Ferricity Barger to William H. Barger.

[35] Ferricity Barger to William H. Barger.

[36] Ferricity Barger to William H. Barger.

[37] Eliza Hunsaker to Abraham Hunsaker, August 24, 1846, MBN Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[38] Maria Rawson to Daniel Rawson September 23, 1846, MBN Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[39] R. Harris to his wife September 19, 1846, MBN Correspondence Collection, HDC.

[40] “The Girl I Left Behind Me.”