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Oops. I missed Memorial Day. You’d think after 60 years as a journalist I’d remember that you have to be ahead of the calendar to meet some deadlines. But my calendar seems to be out of order these days. It’s running very fast, dropping whole days so that Sunday bumps into Sunday with nothing in between, leaving me running to keep up.
I did, however, think about Memorial Day as a time to pay respects to those who have gone before, particularly those who served in the military at various times of need in our country’s history. I thought in a special way of those who served during the pioneer era, although our Memorial Day reminiscences rarely go back beyond World Wars I and II, Korea and the Middle East conflicts.
What started me down that pioneer trail was finding a history recently of my great-great-grandfather Joseph Taylor, my mother’s ancestor. He joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, along with other members of his family, in Missouri during the early persecutions of the church members in that state, traveled to Nauvoo and was en route to Utah Territory when he was mustered into the Mormon Battalion.
With some 500 of the men in the pioneer companies then camped at Council Bluffs, Iowa, he answered this call to fight in the Mexican War. He left without an opportunity to say goodbye to his wife, Mary, who was living in a camp wagon and in “delicate condition,” the euphemism they used to describe a woman expecting a baby.
The woman who wrote Grandpa Taylor’s history, Lela T. Wells, said she was of the opinion that the miseries of service in the battalion have been “treated too lightly.” The men were not only subjected to the rigors of a 2,000-mile march from Council Bluffs to San Diego, California (or what would become California in a couple of years), but suffered deprivations at the hands of their army leaders, who had little liking for the Mormons.
Wells wrote that the men were near-starved at times, reduced to eating the decaying meat of dead sheep. When they became ill, their officers, including a government doctor assigned to the battalion, would give them medicines that, in fact, increased the cramping and illness. In one instance, a very sickly lamb was all the men were given for a meal. The man who cooked the lamb was so hungry he ate all the meat himself. Joseph’s antipathy to mutton lasted a lifetime, Wells said.
In 1847, Joseph returned to his family, but his goods and animals had become so scattered in his absence that they could not leave to continue their trip West until May 1850. His family, including four children, the last born just two weeks before they started their journey, joined the James Lake Company to make the trek to the Salt Lake Valley.
The family ultimately settled on a farm in Kaysville. When his wife died in childbirth on April 4, 1852, he put her and the tiny newborn into their wagon and drove the bodies to Salt Lake City, where they were among the first to be buried in the Salt Lake City Cemetery.
Joseph’s next military experience came in 1856, when Johnston’s Army was marching on Salt Lake City, supposedly to quell a “rebellion” by the Saints. Joseph became a major in the army that was mustered by Brigham Young to fend off the federal troops. Their instructions were to delay the invading soldiers by any means possible, but not to engage in actual combat.
While traveling on business to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, with William Stowell, Joseph unexpectedly ran into some U.S. troops. The two were taken prisoner and their captors tried to kill them by putting poison in their soup. Joseph warned William not to eat the tainted soup, but William took only a small bite and became very ill.
The soldiers then tried to kill the two Mormon soldiers by funneling smoke into their tent. They survived by digging shallow holes in the ground and breathing the air from the ground. They survived, but Joseph’s eyesight was permanently affected by the smoke.
Determined to escape, Joseph asked the guards to build up the fire because he was cold. He took off his boots and put his feet to the fire to put his captors off their guard. When they turned their backs, he bolted from the fire and into the middle of their horses and cattle. In the confusion that ensued, he ran without stopping for many miles. A day or two later, he found an overcoat that had a pair of clean socks in one pocket. He gratefully used them to replace his own shredded socks.
The following day, he spotted a group of men on horseback and feared it was U.S. troops coming to find him. It proved to be just a friendly group out looking for the lost overcoat. When they heard his story, they gave him the coat and a ride back to his soldiers.
The “Utah War” fizzled to an end the following year, when Johnston’s Army marched into Salt Lake City to find the community deserted by its inhabitants just in case of armed conflict. During the time that the Mormon soldiers had successfully kept Johnston from entering the valley, Brigham Young and government representatives had resolved the issues that had precipitated the federal march against the Saints.
Joseph lived to be 75 and was a faithful Latter-day Saint, serving in his older years as a patriarch. He died Aug. 9, 1900. Five Mormon Battalion veterans spoke at his funeral, extolling him for his willingness to defend his people and his church.
Now, that’s a story worth repeating on a Memorial Day.