Dennis and the Mormon Battalion
By Mabel Harmer
Chapter 2 – The Call to Arms
On a warm July day the wagon train came in sight of a great sprawling camp of tents and covered wagons on the banks of a wide river.
“Well, son,” said the elder Martin. “We’ve arrived. Yonder is the Missouri river, where Brigham Young and the rest of the pioneers are camped.”
“Gosh, Pa, there must be thousands of people here!” exclaimed Dennis, as his eager eyes swept over the bluffs above he river. “We’ll see everybody we knew back in Nauvoo, won’t we?”
“I hope so, son. Looks like there’s enough wagons for everybody in Illinois to have come West in. Where do you reckon we’d better stop?”
“Let’s follow the Framptons,” replied Dennis. “I’d like to be as close to Neil as I can.”
“Sure,” said his father indulgently. “They’re cutting out ahead right now. We’ll just follow right behind. You can always trust Eli Frampton to pick the best camping spot anyhow.”
They stopped finally at the lower edge of the tent village and the wagons had no sooner been halted than Dennis was over the wheel and running to greet Neil.
“Hi!” he called, his blue eyes sparkling with excitement. “We’re really here. Can you believe it? What’ll we do first? I guess we can go hunting for a whole day now if we want to.”
“I guess the first thing you’ll do is to get me some firewood,” interrupted his mother from the wagon seat. “You boys don’t need to think that the work’s all over just ‘cause we hit a stopping place.”
“All right, mother,” laughed Dennis. “I guess we can rustle some firewood as well as something to cook over it. Come on, Neil, it looks like we might have to go out quite a ways. Everything close in has already been cut.”
They started out for a ravine where they could see other boys already at work with their axes, and were joined on the way by Ezra Brown, an old-timer in the camp, having arrived with one of the first companies some three weeks earlier.
“What’s it like here?” questioned Dennis eagerly. “Are there any Indians?”
“Sure, lots of them. Pottawatamies,” answered Ezra easily. “But they’re friendly. We had a big pow-wow just after we came here, at a log trading house in their village. I went with Pa and sat outside in the yard. You never saw so much style in all your life as those braves put on. More paint and feathers and trappings than you could shake a broom at. The Pottawatamies offered to let us stay on their land and cut all the wood we wanted and in return we’re to help them harvest their crops.”
“And how long does Brigham Young intend that we shall stay here before we go on to the Rockies?” asked Neil.
“Oh, some of the company is going to push on right away,” answered Ezra, “as soon as the cattle get fed up, and they will choose a place for the rest of us. Some will have to stay here this winter, though, on account of having poor outfits.”
“I guess we’ll go on,” said Dennis complacently. “We have a good outfit.”
“I guess you’ll do just what Brigham Young tells you to,” laughed Ezra as they came up to a thicket of trees. “Well, here’s your Pottawatamie wood pile. Swing into it.”
During the next few days the two boys found so many tasks to occupy their time that the hunting expedition was pushed into the background along with the “berrying” trips and other pastimes which these children of the frontier had turned to with excited interest.’
The leaders had decided to build the greater part of their temporary village on the other side of the river, and all day long a big ferry was kept busy carrying wagons and families from the “Council Bluffs” to the Nebraska side. Neil and Dennis were assigned to the task of persuading the oxen to swim the mile-wide river – a task which they received with high glee, since it was one of the most sought after in the entire camp.
At first the boys had a hard time enticing the oxen to enter the swirling stream, but after a time they worked out a system that sent even the most stubborn animal onward. by herding a number of the oxen together on the bank, the boys would urge the front ones on until they had lost their footing and were swept into the current. If they attempted to turn back, the animals in the rear would gee and haw and kick up such a disturbance generally that the leaders found it simpler to keep right on going in the direction of the opposite shore.
The boys would ride on the backs of the leaders, sometimes changing from one to another in midstream, in order to be sure of riding up the opposite bank at the head of the herd.
In less than a week the Martins were located on the other side and had started to build a dugout for, as Uncle Time said, “Even if we don’t stay here to use it, it’ll come in right handy for someone else – the widow Abbott, for instance.”
Dennis grunted an assent and went thoughtfully on digging out the dirt. Here was this widow Abbott business creeping up again. Why not give the dugout to the Morrell sisters, who had no men folk to take care of them either – or one of the other widows in the company?
Well, he guessed Tim was old enough to look out for himself. Maybe they would stay here and use the dugout themselves. It was really going to be sort of cozy when they got some kind of a door fastened on. Of course, they couldn’t put any windows in a hole in the ground and they would have to go outside to do their cooking, but they could bring in the wagon seat for a chair and maybe get some buffalo robes from the Indians for bedding.
He was down in the hole, which had been dug to almost the right depth, when a girl’s voice called above, “Hey, there, come on out and hear the news.” He looked up to see the round face of Nancy Abbott, with her two pigtails sticking out sideways from beneath her sun bonnet.
“I’m busy,” he answered briefly. “We want to get our dugout finished tonight, so as we can move in.”
“You’d better come up,” she sang, a note of mystery in her voice. “There’s an army officer just rode into camp and he’s having a meeting with Brigham Young and some of the other men, and I’ll bet you don’t know what that means.”
“Do you?” asked Dennis, scrambling out quickly enough now and sitting down beside her on a pile of dirt.
“Well – not exactly,” she admitted, “but I’ll bet it’s something serious. Maybe we have to go back to the states.”
“Rubbish,” returned Dennis, “how could anyone make us go back to the states? And what would they want with us back there anyhow? They just got through kicking us out.”
“Well, maybe he’s got a whole army back there a ways. Anyway, I’m going down and see what it’s all about. Want to come?” she asked as she jumped up and brushed some loose dirt from her calico skirts.
“I guess so,” replied Dennis, with seeming indifference, although in reality he was dying to know what purpose this armed messenger might have in coming to the Mormon encampment.
He would have preferred going down alone, but Nancy obviously intended that they should share one another’s company, so he walked along with her between the tents and dugouts, keeping just as far to one side as the narrow path permitted.
When they reached the site of President Young’s cabin they found that a crowd had already gathered and were waiting, curious but quiet, a respectful distance away. Rumors were flying thick and fast, but everyone admitted that he knew no more about the matter than did his neighbor.
“I’ll bet it’s the Sioux beating the life out of those miserable Omahas again,” volunteered one lad, “and the Government wants us to go up and shoot some sense into ‘em.”
“Humph! you know that Brigham Young wouldn’t let us go off fighting Indians,” answered another. “We’re going to have a hard enough time getting out West even if we stay friends with them.”
Just then Dennis caught sight of his father in the crowd and, running over to his side, asked, “What’s it all about, Pa? Do you think there’s going to be trouble?”
“Not likely, lad,” answered his father quietly, “but we’ll soon know. Here comes President Young now.”
A hush fell on the group as the dignified leader of the company stood in the doorway of his cabin and said in a clear voice, “We have some important matters to discuss with you. You will all meet in the Bowery at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”
“Well, that didn’t tell us much, did it?” said Dennis after the president had gone back inside and closed the door. “Don’t you have any idea what it’s all about?”
“None at all, son,” answered his father, “but we’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime we’d better get back and finish building our new home.”
Long before the appointed time he, with many others of the company, had gathered in the Bowery, the big meeting place which had been built of poles and then covered with branches to keep out the sun.
Just before ten o’clock, Brigham Young and his counselors escorted Captain Allen to the front of the room and, after a song and a prayer, he was introduced to the assembly.
There was a tense silence as the officer began. “My good people,” he said, “I come to you in a spirit of helpfulness and friendship. Our country, as some of you may know, is at war with Mexico. Your help is needed. It is the request of the president of the United States that a battalion of five hundred men be raised from your number to go down and aid in this fight. I have been instructed to accept your enlistment. I trust that the full number may be raised within the next few days.”
As Dennis looked about he could see fear and consternation in the faces of the older people. Five hundred men. That was a lot, all right,. Especially when nearly every man in the company had young children or sick folks.
He turned his eyes back to the front where Brigham Young was now standing and almost unconsciously he could feel that fear was being replaced by confidence. President Young would see them through. He always had before.
He began speaking, quietly but firmly. “I want to say that this is a surprise to me, but I believe Captain Allen to be a gentleman and a man of honor and I accept his pledge to be a friend of our people. Now I would like the brethren to enlist and make up a battalion to go and serve our country, and if you do this and live your religion, I promise you in the name of Israel’s God that not one man of you shall fall in battle.”
Then, turning to Captain Allen, he said in a voice filled with pride and determination, “You shall have your battalion. If there are not enough young men we will take the old men, and if they are not enough, we will take the women.”
There was another song and prayer and the people filed out, their low murmurings growing louder and more excited as they reached the outside of the Bowery.
Dennis sought his parents at once and asked breathlessly, “What about me? Can I go?”
“I’m afraid not, son,” answered his father kindly. “You’re a mite young to enlist and besides, your mother will need you here. Your Uncle Tim and I will just about have to go. I wish there were five hundred others as able. You’ll stay here and take good care of your mother and little brothers, won’t you?”
“Yes – yes, sir,” answered Dennis slowly.
His mother smiled and patted his shoulder and together they watched while his father and Uncle Tim went over to the table and signed the papers that made them soldiers in the United States army.
As they walked away from the crowd they found many another family standing about grief-stricken at the thought of the impending separation. Among the number were Tom and Martha Winn.
“Tom thinks he has to go,” said Martha, tears coming into her eyes, “just because he’s young, and what in the world will I do here alone with two babies, I’d like to know? Let the country fight its own wars. We’ve got our hands full as it is.”
“But it’s still our country, too, Martha,” Tom reminded her gently. “And besides, I’ll be able to send you all my pay. That will come in handy when you want to buy some new furniture for that house you’re going to have some day.”
“I don’t want a house,” she sobbed. “I’ll live here in a dugout if they’ll just let you stay.”
“I can’t stay,” he answered quietly. “You heard what the president promised, that if he couldn’t get enough men he’d send the women. Anyway, I might be back before winter,” and with that he pushed his way through the crowd and added his name to the rapidly growing list.
Within a few days time the quota was filled and the battalion ready to start the long march to Fort Leavenworth, where the men were to receive their equipment.
The day before the departure of the battalion there was a grand ball held in the Bowery, with all the women dressed in their best calico gowns and every musical instrument in the company pressed into service. Dennis watched the proceedings from the background, being determined that under no circumstances would he again be drawn into the agonies of taking part in a Virginia Reel.
With something of bitterness he reflected on his bad luck in being left behind with the women. Even Neil had enlisted and he was only fifteen. His unhappy musings were interrupted by Nancy Abbott, who touched him on the shoulder and shouted above the din of music, “What do you think? I’m going, too.”
“You’re going where?” asked Dennis, puzzled.
“With the battalion.”
“But you can’t,” he shouted. “Only men go in an army.”
“Not in this army,” she answered, grinning. “Some of the women are going as laundresses. Ma got a job and I’m going, too.”
Dennis stared at her, his mind working rapidly. Mrs. Abbott going as a laundress. Then why not his mother? And why not he? In a flash eh was up and working his way around the Bowery to where his mother sat with a group of women.
“Ma,” he shouted breathlessly, “Nancy says that some of the women are going. Let’s go quick and see if you can’t go, too.”
To his enormous relief his mother smiled at him and said, “We are going, son. I just hadn’t had a chance to tell you yet.”