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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
The Field Artillery Journal
Vol. 40 No. 2 (Mar.‑Apr. 1950), pp70‑71

The text is in the public domain.​a

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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 p70  Doniphan's Artillery

By Jerome Kearful

Eight months and nearly 1500 miles out of their starting point at Fort Leavenworth, Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan and the First Missouri Mounted Volunteers were approaching Chihuahua, the principal city of northern Mexico. It was the end of February, 1847, and the capture of Chihuahua City was one of the main objectives of Doniphan's force of farmers and frontiersmen turned soldier, enlisted to fight one year of the war with Mexico.

If there were some skeptics back East who spoke contemptuously of "Mr. Polk's War," and derided Manifest Destiny as a figment of a fevered expansionist imagination, there were none among Doniphan's First Missouri. Only a boundless enthusiasm for the course on which they were embarked and an easy and complete confidence in themselves and their leader could have carried them through the terrible trials of the long trail from Leavenworth.

It all began May 13, 1846. On that day President James K. Polk not only signed a proclamation of war, but directed the governor of Missouri to supply 1000 mounted volunteers, to report to Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny at Fort Leavenworth. Kearny already had his own regiment, the First Dragoons, a crack outfit experienced in Indian fighting and the rough life of the frontier. It was Kearny's job to whip the volunteers from Missouri into shape in short order, and see that they elected their own officers.

The call to arms and adventure found a ready response among young Missourians who found little interest in planting corn or carrying on the prosaic operations of trade while an Empire was being made. Colonel Kearny soon had his quota of enthusiastic young individualists. Soon an election of officers came up, and they wisely chose Alexander W. Doniphan of Liberty, Missouri, to be colonel and leader of the First Missouri Volunteers.

Doniphan was a gangling, slow-talking man, kindly and indulgent, but hard as nails when the circumstances demanded it. He understood his Missourians perfectly, and they respected him in their equalitarian way. He had been a lawyer in Missouri, and an officer of the state militia. At Polk's call to arms, he had volunteered as a private; but now, by election, he was Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan, leader of the "Doniphesias."

The First Missouri Volunteers formed a part of Kearny's Army of the West that left Fort Leavenworth for Santa Fe in June, 1846. Besides Kearny's First Dragoons and Doniphan's Missourians, the Army of the West included a battalion of infantry, two companies of field artillery, a spare cavalry troop, staff troops, and engineers. The two artillery companies, Weightman's and Fischer's, comprised altogether about a dozen light field pieces and two hundred and fifty men. Fischer's company remedy in Santa Fe when the Doniphesias went on into Mexico.

In 1846, the Santa Fe trail had a long history of violence, Indian raids, and death from starvation and thirst. The bitter jornadas across alkaline burning suns took their toll from Kearny's Army of the West. Some men collapsed and were sent back to Leavenworth. Others went mad. Some found their graves along the Santa Fe trail. The toll among the horses was even heavier.

Nevertheless, Kearny and Doniphan marched into Santa Fe and raised the flag of the United States on August 18, 1846. Rumors that Mexican forces were gathering to oppose the expedition at different points on the march had turned out to be just rumors. As yet, Polk's grand strategic design to occupy New Mexico and the northern states of Mexico had not been resisted by the firing of a single shot.

After organizing New Mexico as a territory of the United States with Doniphan's help, Kearny and the First Dragoons continued on the dry and torrid route to San Diego. To Doniphan was entrusted the task of pacifying the Indian tribes of New Mexico and making treaties with them by which they would recognize the sovereignty of the United States. On their way from Fort Leavenworth were the Second Missouri Volunteers under the command of Sterling Price. When they should arrive in Santa Fe to relieve the First Missouri, there would be other tasks for the Doniphesias.

On September 26, the day after Kearny set out for California, leaving Doniphan in Santa Fe, a sizable American force under General Wool left San Antonio, Texas, under instructions to occupy Chihuahua, Mexico. The fact that difficulties of terrain and supply would eventually force the termination of the project was an eventuality that could not be foreseen. Kearny ordered Doniphan, on the arrival of Price, to march southward and rendezvous with Wool. President Polk and his advisors were aware that the occupation of Chihuahua would guarantee a firm hold upon New Mexico, and that New Mexico meant the conquest not only of the Southwest but of California as well.

Price and the Second Missouri Volunteers arrived in Santa Fe in due time, and Doniphan prepared to set out on his march to Chihuahua. The artillery, Price insisted, should be left with him in Santa Fe for a time, until his situation there should become more secure. It could be dispatched later to catch up with Doniphan. Doniphan reluctantly agreed.

So, in December, the gangling Missouri lawyer and 856 men set out for Chihuahua. A complete uniform was a rarity; the formalities and much of the discipline of a trained army were completely lacking. Yet, as a British officer who happened to see them at this time observed, "they were as full of fight as a gamecock." Cursing, unwashed, and unshaven, they were a wild-looking lot. But they made history.

Doniphan's route to Chihuahua would take him through El Paso del Norte, near the present El Paso, Texas. Here, if anywhere on the trail to Chihuahua, the Mexicans would offer resistance to the Missourians. As the  p71 Americans approached, more and more rumors began to drift in that a Mexican army would fight here. The American camp was watched by might, and fiving hoofprints in the sand were visible. One or two spies were captured. Yet even this threat was not enough to make the Doniphesias observe a military order in their march. They straggled for miles.

On Christmas Day, 1846, the First Missouri encamped early, in observance of the holiday. They did eighteen miles that day before Doniphan called a halt at El Brabito, thirty miles short of El Paso. Doniphan and some of his officers began a card game, the prize a particularly attractive horse that had been brought in. Their game was interrupted by the appearance of a splendidly uniformed Mexican officer who demanded Doniphan's surrender.

Even while the Missouri colonel was declining in vigorous language, a force of a thousand or more Mexicans appeared in line of battle. More than half of Doniphan's force were still scattered over the country, or were gathering wood and watering horses. The Missourians assembled only four hundred as the Mexicans opened fire with a two‑pound cannon. When they charged, Doniphan's men gave them two volleys at short range, and they broke and fled. A second charge by Mexican lancers against the wagons failed, and the battle was over. The Americans had seven wounded; the Mexican losses were heavier.

Doniphan's Missourians were now the masters of El Paso del Norte, a town of 10,000 inhabitants. Jubilant over their first success under fire, they relaxed with food and drink. The native Mexicans were eager to please their conquerors, and the Missourians were eager to improve their rudimentary Spanish. Yet it was here that distressing news came. Doniphan learned that Wool's expedition from San Antonio against Chihuahua had run into difficulties and had been abandoned.

Less than nine hundred men, a thousand miles from home, and deep in enemy territory! The First Missouri was completely on its own. There was uncertainty in the ranks, and some of the officers advised turning back. Then Doniphan decided the issue. The First Missouri Volunteers would go ahead and take Chihuahua without General Wool. And Doniphan sent urgently for his artillery that had been left back in Santa Fe with Price.

But Price would part with only six small pieces, under the command of Major Meriwether Lewis Clark and Captain Weightman. The battery of Clark and Weightman joined Doniphan in El Paso del Norte on February 1st, and within a week the First Missouri was off on its fateful mission.

So it was that Colonel Alexander W. Doniphan and the First Missouri Mounted Volunteers, supported by a single battery of artillery, were approaching Chihuahua City at the end of February, 1847. This time there would be no easy victory, the Americans were aware. Chihuahua was a city of considerable importance to the Mexicans, and its defenses were under the direction of General Conde, an able military engineer. Under Conde's supervision, the Mexicans had constructed a strong fortification about fifteen miles north of Chihuahua City, at a point on the approach where the trail narrows as it passes between two imposing hills and crosses a small stream called the Sacramento. Conde had employed all of his skill in the construction of Chihuahua's defense, and he was certain that the Americans would never pass it.

Conde's confidence had so pervaded the Mexican city that, at a safe distance, a large grandstand had been built for spectators who wished to observe the battle and the defeat of the Americans. A thousand ropes, of the right strength and length, were on hand with which to truss up the Americans and march them into Chihuahua as prisoners. All that was necessary was for the Americans to walk into the trap.

Doniphan and the Missourians began the attack February 28, almost eight months to the day after leaving Fort Leavenworth. Doniphan arranged his forces frontier style, his wagon train moving in four parallel columns, with the cavalry, infantry, and artillery in between columns. As the Americans approached the front of the fortifications, they turned to the flank. The Mexicans opened fire as the wagons had difficulty crossing a ravine.

Doniphan ordered the troops to the front of the wagons as Mexican lancers gathered for a charge. Their backs against the hills, there was no retreat for the Missourians. Then Doniphan's artillery opened up! Before the well-aimed fire, the Mexican lancers broke up in disorder. Conde's artillery then started banging away itself, causing little damage save to a few horses and some of the wagons. Clark and Weightman were scoring hits in the Mexican fortifications.

After something more than an hour of firing, Doniphan ordered three companies of cavalry and two artillery pieces to charge the Mexican position. At a hundred yards, Captain Weightman's battery set up and began firing, raking the Mexican position with deadly effectiveness. Two of the cavalry companies had inexplicably halted halfway between the American and Mexican lines. Weightman's battery only worked the harder. Their shells crashed into General Conde's redoubts, crumbling the fortifications, destroying masses of infantry, and routing the lancers.

The halted cavalry and the rest of the Missourians took up the charge. The Mexicans resisted bravely for a time, but their confidence had been shattered by the destruction wrought by Doniphan's artillery. After a bloody hand-to‑hand struggle, the defenders of Chihuahua fled in disorder. The First Missouri collected more military supplies and equipment than they had ever had of their own; they got the Mexican paymaster's box, complete with cash; ornate carriages and Conde's field desk were a part of the booty.

Several months later, back in Washington, President Polk called Doniphan's capture of Chihuahua "One of the most decisive and brilliant achievements of the war." By this time, the First Missouri was well on its way on the long trail home through Reynosa on the Rio Grande, New Orleans, and up the Mississippi to St. Louis.

Thayer's Note:

a The journal was not a publication of the United States government, but of a private organization, The United States Field Artillery Association, and the title page bears a 1950 copyright notice; but that copyright was not renewed in 1977 or 1978 as required by the same law: this article therefore rose to the public domain on Jan. 1, 1979.

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