“I have forsaken all things … to fulfill the mission that I have now undertaken. … I have forsaken, for the time being, my possessions, my family, and at the risk of life start for Mexico as a United States soldier with 500 of my brethren in order to show that the blood of my grandfathers who fought and bled in the Revolutionary War and the spirit of liberty and freedom still courses in the veins of some of their posterity that are called Mormons.”1
These words were written by my great-great-grandfather George Washington Taggart in a letter to his wife, Fanny. At the time, he was camped at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with the Mormon Battalion. These five companies of some 100 men each had begun their march to San Diego, California, on 21 July 1846 in response to an invitation from U.S. President James Polk for Mormon volunteers to fight against Mexico.
George had already made many sacrifices since arriving at Nauvoo, including suffering the deaths of his parents, brother, and first wife, Harriet. “My wife has ceased to live,” he wrote. “I think my lot has been one of sorrow and tribulation since I came to Nauvoo, but I do not feel like complaining, for sorrow and perplexity is the common lot of mankind here in this life.” Fortunately, George’s infant daughter, Eliza Ann, was still alive. And before long he married a woman named Fanny Park. When the call for Mormon volunteers came from President Polk, George had already been away from his family for five months, yet he volunteered because he “wished to do that which would be … of the most good in building up and establishing the Kingdom of God.”
On the battalion roster, George is listed as a company musician. He wrote in a letter to Fanny: “My faith is that you will not murmur at my volunteering to absent myself from you for so long inasmuch as I go by counsel of the Church. You may be assured Fanny, it is a great disappointment and a wound to my natural feelings to tear myself, as it were, away from my family … when I have been imagining to myself for the last week that you were almost in sight. But I believe that the God of Israel will order all things right for those that act through a pure desire for the welfare of his kingdom.”
It was this disposition that sustained George on this 2,000-mile journey. “The company suffered considerably for want of water,” he recorded regarding one period of the march. “Traveled about 30 miles and found no water except two or three small puddles … , which was very muddy and bad but it was swallowed with eagerness by everyone.” Of the prairie grandeur he recorded, “We traveled over a more beautiful prairie than I had ever seen.”
Despite heat, fatigue, exposure, hunger, and illness, the battalion moved at a rapid pace, and on 9 October 1846 they arrived at Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their clothing was inadequate, their food meager, and their animals frail from lack of grazing.
Back in Winter Quarters, Nebraska, Fanny and Eliza Ann—like many other Latter-day Saint refugees—had no home. “I had no relatives … so I went to President Brigham Young and asked him what I had better do and he told me to hunt up some acquaintances and get in with them until I could get myself a house. On hearing this the tears came in my eyes and I felt like having a good cry, and to hide my tears I turned quickly away and said nothing. Well thought I, this will never do, I must do something.” So Fanny wiped her eyes and did as President Young suggested.
George wrote from Santa Fe: “Fanny, I feel anxious to hear from you and my little daughter and I am more anxious to see you. … I trust that our minds and feelings are not separated although distance between us may intervene.” He tried to send money with this letter and wrote, “I send for your benefit at this time 19 dollars and 4 cents.” However, at the end of his letter he added this note: “Have just learned that we have to take up a line of march tomorrow morning without receiving any of our wages, consequently I shall send no money with this letter.”
What a disappointment this must have been to Fanny and Eliza Ann, who at the time had nothing to eat but parched corn. Yet Fanny wrote of Eliza Ann, “Through all the hardships and trials to come I had her with me, but she was a great comfort to me.”
George too was on scant rations. He recorded in his journal after they left Santa Fe, “There is now about 30 days’ rations in camp to serve the Battalion for a three months’ journey through the unsettled and barren country of Mexico.” It was a great occasion when they eventually killed several buffaloes. George wrote, “This circumstance it might be supposed caused some joy among the soldiers inasmuch as we anticipated gratifying our appetites once again with a full meal.”
President Brigham Young had promised the men that if they were faithful, not one would lose his life in battle. This proved to be true. In a journal entry on 16 December, George wrote of their only encounter with Mexican soldiers: “Traveled about 15 miles this day. We went into the town without molestation and found it evacuated by the soldiery, who had fled to the mountains.” The only violent action the battalion faced was the Battle of the Bulls on 11 December, when in a stampede of 15 wild bulls, two mules were killed and three soldiers were wounded.
On 22 December the battalion traded with Indians for food, and George tasted his first melon. “I enjoyed the pleasure of helping to eat it, which was something quite new to me.” On Christmas Eve they rested, but on Christmas Day they pushed on. On New Year’s Day, 1847, George recorded: “For the last week we have traveled over a barren and desolate looking country. There is hardly a blade of grass to be seen.” By 9 January their situation was such that he recorded, “Our mules are worn out and are dying almost every day.”
Finally, on 29 January 1847 the battalion arrived at San Diego. Mexican forces in California had surrendered on 13 January, and George served out the remainder of his enlistment in San Diego. On 16 July 1847 he was discharged from the U.S. Army and joyously returned to Fanny and Eliza Ann in Winter Quarters on 17 December.
President Brigham Young said in February 1855 at the First General Festival of the Mormon Battalion: “The Mormon Battalion will be held in honorable remembrance to the latest generation; and I will prophesy that the children of those who have been in the army, in defense of their country, will grow up and bless their fathers for what they did at that time. And men and nations will rise up and bless the men who went in that Battalion.”2