Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Almost forgotten Mormon Battalion Monument Still Stands Along I-25

Originally erected in 1940, obelisk was rededicated in 1982


Interstate 25 drones in the background as thousands of people daily pass within a few hundred feet of perhaps the most ignored military monument in New Mexico.

Sited at Budaghers about 15 miles north of Bernalillo, the obelisk of mortared stone topped by a wagon wheel recognizes the 2,000-mile trek of the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican War of 1846-47. Erected in 1940, the monument led two lives disappearing for 14 years until a newspaper columnist, a political activist and two state legislators took up its cause.

As regular Army troops fought south and west snatching most of the modern Southwest from Mexico, about 450 Mormon men volunteered by church leaders clawed the first wagon road from New Mexico to California. At the time, Mormons, formally the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were fleeing religious persecution and violence in the East with an estimated 12,000 seeking refuge somewhere in the West.

Mormons considered the federal government a mortal enemy, but their leader Brigham Young saw cooperation serving two purposes: military pay collected by the church would sustain the faithful wintering in Iowa, and the war bringing Utah into the union made it a safe place to settle and be left alone.

Marching from Kansas and resting briefly in Santa Fe, the battalion began its assignment under the command of Lt. Col. Philip St. George Cooke of the First Dragoons, as the cavalry was then called. Their wagon caravan of mules, oxen and horses departed Santa Fe on Oct. 19, 1846, dropping off the plateau to the Rio Grande on El Camino Real, the royal road to interior Mexico.

The route along the river about 4 miles west of the monument took them past pueblos and through Algodones, Bernalillo, Alameda, Albuquerque and Socorro. Near present-day Hatch they headed southwest bypassing the pack trail through the rugged Gila country and Arizona mountains.

Widening and connecting trails, charting a course for future travelers and seeing no combat, they reached San Diego in January1847.

Cooke, an 1827 West Point graduate at age 18, lauded the men's work. But in 1846 his military precision put him at odds with the Latter-day Saints belief in church and divine leadership.

"And if holy obstinacy galled his nerves, he learned a boundless admiration for the spirit, good humor, and guts of his command," historian Bernard DeVoto wrote in his 1942 work "Year of Decision: 1846." "In their turn the Saints appreciated his fairness and came to admire his leadership."

Construction of I-25 took down the monument in 1982 with the state promising two first-class rest areas at Budaghers featuring the monument and a replica. Years passed as the Albuquerque Journal Action Line and The Albuquerque Tribune Fix It column periodically rehashed the loss and ever-pending plan.

In October 1994, Journal columnist and political reporter Larry Calloway took up the Mexican War suggesting the Legislature act to commemorate the next year's 150th anniversary of federal troops arriving in Santa Fe. He also singled out commanding Gen. Stephen Watts Kearney whose Kearney Code protected property and established civil liberties and civilian government in the territory.

That inspired Republican Party activist Georgia Frazier of Albuquerque to lean on two Republican legislators to undo the multimillon-dollar boondoggle of fancy rest areas and revive the monument. That led Sen. Joe Carrarro and Rep. Gerald Weeks, Army Reserve buddies from Albuquerque, to secure $50,000 each for the project.

Rededication of the monument, with its plaque, wagon wheel and new stone, came on Sept. 7, 1982, on a dead-end frontage road near its original site. Despite Calloway's column, the state generally ignored the war anniversary although at least the stubborn draftees from Zion no longer were not forgotten.


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