While thumbing through a binder that holds brief biographies of some of my mother's ancestors recently, my eye was caught by a small folder of copies of letters written by George W. Taggart, a member of the Mormon Battalion, to his wife, Fanny. When he was called into the U.S. Army with more than 500 fellow Mormons to participate in the Mexican War, she and their little daughter remained with "the Camp of Zion" that was headed to the Great Basin at the same time.
The note attached to the letters only describes the Taggarts as "relatives of Grandpa (William Highland) Gagon's second wife, Mary Augusta Goodrich Gagon." Our famiy descends from his first wife, Lydia Ann Taylor, so my relationship to George is scant if anything. A real genealogist would research it and determine the degree of kinship. I'll settle for now on sharing some of the sentiments he sent in letters that had to traverse hundreds of miles of sage and mountains to get to Fanny. Surprisingly, he says little of the battalion's activities or conditions. His concern focuses primarily on whether Fanny and little Eliza Ann are being provided for in his absence.
Excerpts in order of date (with original spelling and punctuation retained) include:
• July 8, 1846, from Mount Pisgah, Iowa:
"Beloved and respected Wife I have calculated since the time I stopped at this place until this morning that I should see you and Eliza Ann before I left, but Brother B. Young and Kimball came here yesterday from Council Bluffs for the purpose of raising out of the camp 500 young men to send over the mountains this summer as United States trooops under U.S. officers, the fact of which you will learn when you arrive here. I went to the Council this morning and stated your situation as near as I could calculate it might be at this time, and asked the Council concerning the disposal of myself and the council (sic) to me was that I had better go. Brother Brigham said that the families of those that go will be taken care of You may be sure, Fanny it is a great disappointment and a wound to my natural feelings to tear myself as it were from my family that I have not seen for five months and when I have been imagining for the last week that you were almost in sight, but I believe the God of Israel will order all things right for those who act through a pure desire for the welfare of the Kingdom. Take good care of Eliza Ann and tell her that her father is sorry to go away and not see her and Mother, but tell her to be a good girl and not to forget her father. It is now night and I must close for I have to start probably tomorrow morning if I go on this expedition. We probably shall not see each other for at least a year. This will seem a long time. Postscript: If you can I wish you to keep the chest of tools along with your other things."
• Aug. 6, 1845, from Fort Leavenworth:
"I feel concerned for you for the last two or three months. I feel concerned for fear that I have left you to suffer, but I feel at the same time as though I was justified in the course I have taken inasmuch as I have forsaken all things as it were for the time being in accordance with the council (sic) of the Church to fulfil the mission that I have now undertaken. One thing I am confident of and in that I shall be comforted on my journey until I know to the contrary and that is that your faith and patience is such that you will not murmur or complain at any hardship that you may have to undergo by reason of my sacrifice that I have or may make for the salvation and the rolling on of the Kingdom of God. I feel, Fanny, as though I had made as great a sacrifice as I could well make in that I have foresaken (sic) for the time being, My possessions, My family at the risk of my life, start for Mexico as a United States soldier in order to show that the blood of my grandfather, who fought in the revolutionary war and the spirit of liberty and freedom still courses in the veins of their posterity that are called Mormons."
• Sept. 19, 1846 (includes no place, but is about 850 miles east of Santa Fe)
"Brothers Pace, Lee and Egan came up with the Mormon Camp and you may expect that I was greatly disappointed when I learned that thre was no letter for me, neither did I learn any verbal information concerning you But wherever you may be I hope this will find you and Eliza Ann enjoying the blessing of life and health, I hope to send you with this letter a small sum of money for your benefit I wish as soon as you receive this to have you write Brother Brigham and state to him where you are if you are not near enough to go and see him. Tell him also who you are and what you need The Battalion is now at a small stream, a branch of the river Semeeone, about 50 miles from the big Arkansas and about 850 miles this side of Santa Fe. We expect to get along as fast as possible Kiss Eliza Ann for me and tell her that which is right and be a mother to her and you shall be blessed."
• Oct. 18, 1845, from Santa Fe:
"I arrived in Santa Fe on the 12th and expect to leave for California today. I send for your benefit at this time 19 dollars and 4 cents The direction for its disposal I have given in the first part of this letter which I think will be your best plan. I wish I could send you a thousand dollars, but that you know is out of the question, but I hope I shall be able to bring some to you at the end of the year. Send a bill of what things you need to buy to the council and they will get it for you at much cheper than you can get them at the retail stores get Eliza Ann some clothes and shoes such as she needs and have your money laid out to the best advantage to keep you comfortable and help you along to California. (Note: At this point, the Mormons were not certain where they would settle and California described a huge area of Western land where boundaries had not been set.) If you are not under the necessity of disposing of those curtain prints I think you had better not do so for it will make me some good shirts which I think I shall need by the time I get back to you."
Such a small sampling from the epic Mormon Battalion simply whets the appetite. But without the letters, the story would be more incomplete. Value your letters. They seem to be becoming an anachronism.
About the Mormon Battalion6 comments on this story
At the request of then-U.S. President Polk, more than 500 men were selected from among Mormon pioneers preparing to settle in the Great Basin. The battalion, mustered in the summer of 1846, was unique in American military history, the only group of soldiers mustered from a single religious group. Their 2,000-mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego, is among the longest recorded in military annals. They fought no battles of significance in the Mexican War, but were instrumental in opening the American West to more settlement.
Twila Van Leer is a former Deseret News editor and staff writer who serves as a family history missionary.