The Year of Decision 1846




In his earlier chapters Mr. DeVoto has told of the westward push in that year of Manifest Destiny, 1846. The mountain men opened up the trails and found the passes across the Sierra; the Mormons were on the march, and westward went other great wagon trains — people of wealth and quality like the Donner party, writers like Parkman the historian, and soldiers like Fremont who were going over the ground in the event that we might have to fight Mexico.

In the closing hours of his administration, President Tyler pushed the annexation of Texas through Congress. President Polk therefore had this new area on his mind from the moment he took office; as part of the United States, it had to be defended. Mexico declined to recognize its independence. And to certain large-minded “Texians" like Sam Houston, Texas included part of present-day Mexico and everything west and north of the Louisiana Purchase.

Acting on President Polk’s orders, Zachary Taylor reached the Rio Grande in March of 1846. A month later he was attacked by the Mexicans, who captured one of his patrols. This border incident, Congress declared, created a state of war. On May 8 and 9, Taylor attacked at Palo Alto and at Resaca de la Palma, and won.

Rather, the American artillery and the enterprise of the individual American soldier won for him. Taylor, though he was idolized by his troops, contributed nothing but “inspiration” throughout the war. He was brave but stupid, lethargic, without ideas, wholly ignorant of tactics, strategy, and maneuver. At the end of May he crossed the Rio Grande; two months later he began a leisurely, aimless invasion of Mexico’s “Northern Provinces.” In late September his officers won the bloody battle of Monterrey, but it had little effect on the war.

The idea that Mexico would capitulate after the occupation of her seaports and her “Northern Provinces” proved fallacious. Polk dispatched General John Ellis Wool to invade Chihuahua. Then he ordered the Army of the West under Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny, our best frontier officer, to invade New Mexico from Fort Leavenworth.

Kearny had six troops of his own crack regiment, the First Dragoons. The rest of his men were volunteers, practically all of them enlisted in Missouri. They included a regiment which has given his expedition a special color in history.

This was the First Missouri Mounted Volunteers, commanded by a frontier lawyer and commonwealth-builder named Alexander Doniphan, a remarkable man with a great gift of leadership. A colonel by election, Doniphan cajoled and drove his troops through hardship and danger. These “Doniphesias” were farm boys from Missouri and frontiersmen from all over — a bellyaching, blaspheming, fearless, friendly regiment. They were, quite literally, an army of good will.

The task carelessly confided to Kearny and his men was fantastic. They were to cross the Great American Desert by way of the Santa Fe Trail. They were to invade a hostile province and hold it, eight hundred miles from their base. Then — so Polk’s orders ran — if Kearny saw fit, he could go on and conquer California! Let’s inspect this “Army" of the West . . .




WHEN the Laclede Rangers arrived at Fort Leavenworth, it was too late in the day for them to be mustered in. Colonel Kearny invited the officers to dine with him, but could not entertain the whole outfit — and army regulations forbade the feeding of civilians. As heroes, they were willing to die in the Halls of Montezuma but they wanted to live to get there. So the officers, returning from an excellent dinner, found their command preparing to take the post apart. Fast thinking was called for, and Captain Hudson, the lawyer who had raised the company, made an oration. He waved not only the flag of freedom but the silk guidon stitched by fair fingers in the homeland, and the Rangers cheered. “Yes,” he bellowed, “we shall knock at the gates of Santa Fe as Ethan Allen knocked at the gates of Ticonderoga, and to the question ‘Who’s there?’ we shall reply, ‘Open these gates in the name of the great Jehovah and the Laclede Rangers.’” Tumultuous applause. The captain soared on: “But suppose the fellows inside should call out, ‘Are you the same Laclede Rangers who went whining round Fort Leavenworth in search of a supper?’” Hudson knew his Missourians and there was no mutiny.

This gives the tone of the Army of the West. It was the damnedest army. It could do nothing well except march and fight, and would not do those by the book. For a while, till they learned to respect the unalterable, the West Pointers who had to oversee it would willingly have murdered most of its components.

They were volunteers, they were farmers mostly, they were incredibly young, they were Missourians and frontiersmen. All good armies grouch; probably none has ever bellyached so continuously as this one. They groused about their officers, their equipment, the food, the service regulations, the climate, the trail, the future. They would accept direction or command no more easily here than at home, and were always assaulting their noncoms, on the grounds that Joe’s stripes could not neutralize his native stupidity and did not sanction him to put on airs. They howled derision of the officers whenever it was safe and frequently when it wasn’t, made fantastic plots against the more inflexible of them, and when a vacancy occurred resolved to elect no one except from the rank of private. They abominated neatness, they hated the routine of guard duty and the care of horses, they straggled worse than any other fighting troops in history. Till the army was concentrated at Bent’s Fort, its component parts were just where whim took them — a battalion strung out for five miles while the individual soldier wasted ammunition on imaginary antelope; or three-quarters of the army marching in a clump with the guard just to see what the country was like.

They were extremely uncomfortable until they learned the mechanics of soldiering. Their equipment was incomplete and faulty. Boots didn’t fit and blisters burned one’s heels but were no worse than the sores made by pack straps. Saddles were rudimentary, made running sores on the horses’ backs, and seemed designed to split the rider lengthwise. The first few days saw the only rain they would encounter till they reached the mountains, and initiated them in the pinch of sodden saddles, daylong drenching, water-soaked blankets, cold food, and muddy underdrawers.

The West Pointers fell back on the simple assumption of all military life, that though soldiers may be fighting men they are also children. Issued a day’s rations at dawn, they would eat it all for breakfast, grouching about having to do their own cooking, or throw away what they could not eat and then, at night, curse God, Polk, Kearny, and Doniphan, who required patriots to go supperless. Some would replace the water in their canteens with whiskey, sip it through torrid hours, and have to ride retching in the wagons. Or they would drink bad water till their bellies swelled, and have to crawl into the grass and lie foundered for hours. They knew the management of horses on farms but resented the cavalryman’s subjection to the well-being of his mount, and took such wretched care of theirs that the officers had to hold classes of instruction. Kearny anticipated that, coupled with the probable failure of supplies, this bad management would give him an army of infantry from Santa Fe on.

However, he had a job to do and he drove them hard. He was fortunate in having Doniphan, colonel by suffrage of free electors, a drawling uncle to farm boys who were far from home. Doniphan was seldom or never in uniform, unfenced by discipline, always approachable, forever calling privates Jim or Charlie, a master of impromptu exhortation. The boys looked at the Colonel, lounging his huge frame beside some poker game or amiably explaining that Joe had to go on guard tonight because Elmer had done his stint last night, and didn’t yield to that phantasy of chopping up a West Pointer. They dug in and marched. Fifteen miles was a standard day’s travel on the prairies but it was too slow going for Kearny. He demanded twenty miles a day, twenty-five, twenty-eight, thirty, sometimes thirty-two. The troops wailed but took it — took it, in fact, better than the horses, which weakened on a diet of grain and developed the vicious ailments of their species. And the infantry took it best of all. Companies A and B customarily forged ahead of the cavalry they were attached to and, though they cursed the inhumanity of their officers, took pride in their mileage. Their lips parched in the prairie wind, the sun nauseated them, the wagons and ambulances were always picking up some who had not stood the pace, they were sure that Kearny was a tyrant, but they made camp some hours before the cavalry and turned out to boo them in great content when the tired beasts sagged in at twilight. The legs of the men swelled at the shin with a queer distemper, which turned out to be periostitis, the common splint they were accustomed to treat in plow horses.

There were rattlesnakes by the hundred, killed on the march, buzzing from beside the buffalo chips the soldiers stooped to pick up, slithering into their blankets at night. There were the mosquitoes, much deadlier than the snakes. There were swarms of buffalo gnats to choke the nostrils and cluster under the eyelids of men and horses. The country began to break out in patches of “saline incrustation,” alkali. Like the emigrants to the northward, the army drank corrosive water and got violently physicked. And not only by alkali; the curse of armies, dysentery, had begun to flourish. Nor was the scummy standing water of the buffalo wallows any better for them, when it was all they got to drink at nooning, crawling with infusoria and noisome with buffalo urine. The less fit began to break. As the trains fell farther behind and rations shortened, scurvy appeared. Measles traveled with them. The wagons filled with sick; some of them died. A grave had to be dug at Pawnee Rock; and from there on, burial parties were no novelty. They had come for a patriotic summer while the eagle screamed, but for some of them the great adventure was ending in a short agony and a shallow grave filled with such stones as could be gathered to keep the wolves away.


Grouchy and hungry, they reached the Arkansas at its great bend. There was water in the river, which was by no means a constant condition. In these parts it is a muddy and rather odorous stream which runs in trickles through a wide bottom choked with cottonwoods and brush. Farther west it narrows to a more certain bed, like the Platte, and as it gets nearer the mountains has more water in it. The trail followed its general direction, touching its crazy course at the nodes, and the freighters were accustomed to camp on certain timbered islands as a defense against the Indians.

The country grew more severe now, the scale infinitely extended, the swell longer and the pitch steeper, the wind stronger, the sun hotter, the dust more inexhaustible, water scarcer and less drinkable. If there was little water, there were millions of flowers; if the steady wind blistered their faces and sudden torrid gusts sandblasted them with alkali, the infinitely blue sky produced cloud effects the most magnificent. They trudged through prairie-dog towns a mile wide, jackrabbits by the hundred streaked away from them, the nights were full of wolves. The horses grew weaker but the men slowly toughened. Kearny watched them and applied more pressure. They howled and lustily hated all officers, so much so that accusations of malingering and inefficiency now circulated about even the venerated Doniphan.

The oldest trail went to Bent’s Fort and thence south over Raton Pass. The army kept to the Arkansas in true desert, sandy, sparsely vegetated, beginning to break up into foothills, but supplied with drinking water of a sort at safe intervals. They crossed the Cimarron River at Chouteau’s Island and, since it was here the international boundary, became an army of invasion at last, though they would cross again to American soil before they reached Bent’s Fort.

Inconceivably, the weather got hotter still, but one day a storm passed near enough to cool the air. The nights were always cold, campfires were just buffalo chips, and rations were slim and bad. Then the unpredictable country got green for a space and even produced some patches of trees — and finally, at the Big Timbers, a substantial belt of them. Then more desert, more siroccos — and then the infantry came over an incline to a flat stretch, and on the western horizon thin, dark, cloudlike masses were suddenly recognizable as a culminating wonder, the Rocky Mountains. The doughboys yelled in delight and suddenly realized that they had come a long way from Missouri. A hell of a long way! They took up the march across a last stretch of parched sand and sagebrush and sometime before noon saw the walls of Bent’s Fort rising from the plain. Two miles from it they reached Moore’s detachment camped by the river, made their own camp, and started to dig a well. It was July 28 and the infantry had beaten everyone except the advance guard to the rendezvous.

Five hundred and thirty miles out from Independence, on the north bank of the Arkansas again, they had reached the first permanent settlement in what is now Colorado, Bent’s Old Fort or Fort William, at a crossroads of the West. Except for Fort Union, the American Fur Company’s headquarters at the mouth of the Yellowstone, Bent’s was the largest of all the trading posts, and it had perhaps the most varied and adventurous history. Its thick adobe walls made a rectangle a hundred by a hundred and fifty feet, inclosing a central patio; two of them were two stories high, and there was a walled corral beyond. It was a complete factory for the Indian trade — warehouses, smithy, wagon shop, storerooms — and it had dormitories and such incredibilities as a billiard table and an icehouse. Many mountain men wintered among its comforts; usually at least one village of Indians was camped by the river, three hundred yards away. They were usually Southern Cheyenne, whose trade the firm monopolized, but might be Arapaho or Ute or even Kiowa or Comanche. The post’s daily life was an adventure story, and the yarns it heard are our lost history.


The army of invasion moved out from Bent’s Fort on August 1 and 2. Kearny had done his best to tighten its organization, had left about seventy-five on sick call to rejoin him at Santa Fe or be carted back to Fort Leavenworth, and had clamped down such discipline as was at all possible.

The traders followed, practically all of this year’s trains to Santa Fe. Army and traders, it was a formidable caravan. One census makes it 1556 wagons and nearly 20,000 stock all told, oxen, beeves, horses, mules. A long column moving through the most intense heat yet encountered and the worst desert of the trail. Lieutenant Emory’s thermometers showed 120° and the sirocco never died across the sand. The troops tied handkerchiefs over their mouths, to no avail. They got nosebleeds from the altitude and dysentery from the alkali. They could not be controlled at water holes, where the first ones spoiled the drinking for the rest. The horses were even worse; Captain Johnston observed that when the water was scarcest they were most apt to urinate in it. Private Marcellus Edwards of Doniphan’s Company D said of one small pool they passed on August 4 that it was “so bad that one who drank it would have to shut both eyes and hold his breath until the nauseating dose was swallowed.”

All this time they were angling toward the mountains; the Spanish Peaks grew higher every mile and the main range of the Rockies stretched its abrupt bastion out of sight, north and south. At last they struck the Purgatoire near the present site of Trinidad, Colorado, and it proved to be a stream out of paradise, swift, cold, poetically timbered. They drank till all were surfeited and some vomited; they bathed, they washed their clothes. One of them went mad, several died from the now ended strain, but game was shot, some supplies caught up, and beef could be butchered. The next night the campfires slanted upward at a steep pitch: they were in the Raton Pass. Here was the first place where an alert enemy could have destroyed them, but in spite of the daily rumors no enemy appeared; the one alarm was just some Doniphesias wasting ammunition for the fun of it. Raton Pass is a long, twisting, arduous grade and they did better with it than the horses, which were now punchdrunk. They reached the top and looked out on one of the continent’s great views, all New Mexico spread out below in the molten gold of southwestern sun. They clambered down the other side and found that the molten gold was hot.

Now the scouts were bringing in various Mexicans. Spies probably, and Kearny sent them home to report that he was irresistible. They had proclamations by Armijo and others, the usual proclamations, and they brought notice of trouble ahead. Two thousand troops were assembling to oppose the invasion, then five thousand, eight thousand, twelve thousand. Kearny closed up his intervals, posted scouts, and kept on. At the Mora they found another beautiful campground and the first settlement since Fort Leavenworth, a half-dozen adobe huts and “a pretty Mexican woman with clean white stockings, who very cordially shook hands with us and asked for tobacco.” Every few miles there were more huts, where the streams made a green thread across burned plains, and the Doniphesias could buy mutton, corn, vegetables. They could also feel a hearty Protestant contempt for pop ish superstitions and, gaping at the Mexicans, marvel at the extremity of poverty, dirt, obsequiousness, and desire to please the conquerors.

The daily captives told conflicting stories. Either there were no preparations to resist or the whole province had risen. Americans from Santa Fe came in and the best thought was that Armijo would fight at Apache Canyon, fifteen miles from the city.

Las Vegas was the largest village they had seen so far. They bought some sheep, scorched their palates with the native stews, and stole some corn for themselves and their horses. Kearny promptly won the villagers by promising to pay for the corn, which was not the custom of any other troops who had ever passed this way. There was a growing murmur: some of the Missourians were remembering that the Texas Expedition of 1841 had been attacked and slaughtered in the canyon just beyond Las Vegas and that at San Miguel, a few miles farther on, General Salazar had shot some of the prisoners. That night word came that a Mexican force had reached that same canyon and was fortifying it.

Word of the expected battle went far back on the trail and Captain Weightman of the artillery, coming up after convalescing at Bent’s Fort, rode all night to take part in it. He reached the army at reveille and Major Swords was with him, the quartermaster, bringing Kearny’s commission as brigadier general. Kearny made combat dispositions, spare ammunition was issued; some of Doniphan’s officers reminded their men that, on General Taylor’s word, Missouri volunteers had not distinguished themselves at the battle of Okechobee, so maybe they had better wipe out that stain. Keyed up, the army marched through town and halted while Kearny, from a roof top, announced to the villagers that they were now Americans. He did it skillfully, reminding them of the oppressions they had suffered, promising them security in their property and religion, and assuring them that the United States would defend them against the Indians as in two centuries no one ever had. There is no record of what they felt, a humble folk whose entire history had been misery, paupered by all governments, preyed on by brigands, and called by the Apache the mere herders who raised stock for them. They knew no way of life that was not constant oppression and intermittent massacre. Probably the promise of protection from Indians warmed them a little, though it was not to be kept for half a century. Probably also they cared no more than anyone else to acknowledge another conqueror. However, much experience of conquest had taught them that courtesy was best. They smiled, bowed, cheered, gave fruits and wines to the guards, and took the meaningless forced oath of allegiance in the best of humor.

The first formal occupation made, Kearny prepared to drive the enemy out of the narrow canyon that today bears his name. He sent the infantry with a couple of dismounted companies of the First Missouri over the foothills to the right. He formed the rest of the Doniphesias and the artillery behind the Dragoons, took his place at the head of his old regiment, pushed out a cavalry point, and ordered the army forward. The Dragoons trotted, then broke into a gallop. There was a shine of sabers in the sunlight, the pound of hoofs and the long lift of the charge — and the guidons were fluttering in the empty pass. No enemy, just another rumor, and the army rejoiced in its first battle.

The next day Kearny swore in another, larger town, San Miguel, and among the day s pickups was the son of the General Salazar who had slaughtered the Texans. On the following day they passed the ruins at Pecos that had once been the largest town of the Pueblo Indians. Stephen Watts Kearny had intersected a conquest of his predecessor, Coronado. President Polk’s brigadier had taken over a harvesting whose last yields are not yet in, and today at Taos or Tesuque or Santo Domingo any tourist may catch a glimpse, making what he can of it, of blood and cruelty remembered for centuries and not yet resolved. The shaping of that memory began with Coronado and the Spanish search for cities named for the buffalo — cities which were said to be paved and roofed with gold.

That same day, August 12, all messengers and prisoners said that Armijo had fled his position in Apache Canyon. So the road was open and Captain Johnston, of Kearny’s staff, wrote in his journal, “here is the end of the campaign.”

Tuesday, August 18, a cloudy morning with occasional showers. The army marched before dawn, twisting through the defile. They reached the abandoned fortifications and decided that a few hundred men could have held them off, though the engineers thought that the position could have been turned. Out of the canyon to sagebrush flats, arroyos, foothills, small canyons. By midafternoon they were trudging across the high plain above Santa Fe, a slow line of dirty, ragged men on foot or riding emaciated horses. They halted and waited for the laboring artillery to come up.

They were tired and hungry, but below them lay the Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis. The sudden wealth of trees hid its full extent and the adobe houses were dingy against overcast skies. To most of the army it seemed a miserable and dirty town, but it was a capital city and older than any settlement in the United States.

Late in the afternoon the conquerors were ready. Two subofficials had come out to profess submission and, sending his artillery to a hill that commanded the town, Kearny rode back with them and his staff, the army following in column. Bridies jingled and scabbards clanked in the little, twisting, dirty streets, between the brown adobe houses. There was a low wailing behind shuttered windows where women cowered in terror of the rape and branding which the priests had told them the Americans meant to inflict. Soldiers filed into the Plaza of the Constitution, which has always been the center of the town’s life. The infantry stood at parade rest, the tired horses drooped; in the silence one heard the rustle of cottonwoods and the silver music of the creek. The ranks stiffened and the muskets came to present arms, Kearny and his staff raised their sabers, the bugles blared down those empty streets, and the flag went up. As it touched the top of the staff, the artillery on the hilltop boomed its salute, and for the first time in history the Americans had conquered a foreign capital. And they had done exactly what Mr. Polk had instructed them to do: they had taken New Mexico without firing a shot.


Kearny’s men began to shed some of the indurated provincialism they had brought here. At first they just gaped at the unfamiliar. It was laughable but it was nicely colored. The town was full of Indians — some of familiar types, others very strange. There were the Pueblo people, fat, docile, and tamed — or, as at Santo Domingo, warlike, haughty, bearing themselves with an ineffable contempt. Ute, Apache, Navajo, came in to investigate the conquerors and calculate the chances. All these in scarlet, green, purple — and the New Mexicans also violent in color. Men in breeches slit to show their drawers, operatic with cloaks, musical with spurs and silver ornaments. Women also in primary colors, barelegged, short-skirted, lowwaisted. The Missourians were shocked by the paint on their faces, their familiarity and easy laughter, and, the truth is, by the charm they gave to what had to be considered vice. They showed their breasts and, it was believed, — in fact it soon proved, — they could be easily possessed, for pay, for kindness, or for mere amenity. An instructed prudery showed itself: sex ought not to be decorative.

This was a simple, childlike, gay people, given to fandangos, feasts, parades. One joined them at first derisively, then with the simplicity of boys on a holiday. So the frail girls could be frail charmingly, and Inez glancing over her shoulder at Mass turned out to be much like Betsy when the fiddles were playing a hoedown at a corn husking back home.

Similarly with other things. The farm boys began by laughing at an alien way of life but pretty soon were taking to it with the readiness of all Yankee armies. They were lofty toward alien agriculture — irrigation, intensive cultivation, a French valuation of manure and waste. It was comic of the foreigners to work their women in the fields, of the women to carry baskets on their heads. The jackasses no larger than St. Bernards, with produce piled high on their backs, were funny. The communal herds were funny, goat’s milk was funny, the children herding the goats with hugs and kisses were funny. Then they weren’t funny any longer. The Missourians decided that they would never understand these people, and no matter. They crowded the Plaza with them, evenings and Sundays, shot dice and played monte with them, were rolling cigarettes and learning to eat chili without tears. They played with the children, dropped in on Juan or Jesus of an evening and jabbered with him and his wife and his aunts and aunts-in-law in a mixed jargon which no one understood. They swarmed to innumerable fandangos. They learned some good addresses.

They hauled a huge, antique press down from Taos and began to publish a newspaper. They organized debating societies, legislatures, glee clubs. The city slickers of the Laclede Rangers set up a theatrical company — and the New Mexicans could now raise their eyebrows at a barbarian morality which dressed up blond young lieutenants in women’s clothes.

Kearny was organizing the conquest and preparing the future. His proclamation was hardly dry when he began reducing the taxes that had sweated these people for two centuries. He made every possible demonstration of peace, courted the fat, powerful priests, was brisk and kind to the humble. Kearny broke bread, made speeches, granted privileges, accepted the kindly honors heaped on him, commanded the presence of raiding Indians whom he ordered to make treaties, memorized the protocol and details of local administration.

Kearny had delegated to Doniphan the task which Polk had imposed, of organizing the civil law. Whatever help he might need was at hand in his own regiment. He called on Francis P. Blair, Jr., Captain Waldo the trader, the historian John T. Hughes, and a private of Captain Moss’s Company C, a 26-year-old genius named Willard P. Hall, a Yale man removed from Baltimore to Missouri. They produced a constitution and a code, which Kearny proclaimed the law of the commonwealth. Later, in the chaos that headed up in 1850, Congress would find that Polk, through Kearny, had exceeded his authority and would rescind part of them. But, in their essentials, they governed New Mexico up to statehood, and large parts of them govern New Mexico today. Not a bad achievement for soldiers taken from barracks duty to build a state — and another way in which this conquest was strange to a much conquered people.


Having conquered and pacified his province, Kearny prepared to carry out the rest of his task — to take his three hundred Dragoons on to California. Another regiment of volunteers, the Second Missouri, was coming down the trail under Sterling Price. It could garrison Santa Fe. Five hundred of the migrating Mormons had been enlisted and would follow Kearny to California — Philip St. George Cooke, promoted lieutenant colonel, was sent back to lead them when their commander died. That left the First Missouri without occupation. Kearny decided that they would be most useful farther south. He ordered Doniphan to join General Wool at Chihuahua. There was no way of knowing that Wool was not at Chihuahua, that he never would get there, that even now his expedition was foundering in the country which Polk supposed it could cross without effort.

Kearny departed for California on September 25, leaving Doniphan one further chore: he would be so good as to settle the Indian question. He would, that is, notify the Navajo, the Apache, and the Ute that they were no longer licensed to rob and murder New Mexicans; he would make treaties with them, lecture them on behavior, and preach or scare them into peace.

Space is lacking to describe the campaigns of October and November, which were pure prodigy. In small detachments, the First Missouri combed country where troops had never gone before and have never gone since — country which, mostly, seems beyond the ability of armies to invade. They shoved their horses up mountains of glare ice; they slept under snow; they crossed rock deserts and climbed down the vertical canyons of that waste, even reaching the Canyon de Chelly. They convinced the Ute, who promised to be very good Indians indeed. The Navajo, who outnumbered them hundreds to one, could have annihilated them but achieved an idea that these were an altogether new and novel kind of white men and behaved with extreme respect. The First Missouri had danced with the Pueblo over some Navajo scalps; now it was their pleasure to dance with the Navajo over some Pueblo scalps. They got some new horses, they filled their pockets with souvenirs, some of them were able to get buckskins to replace their tattered uniforms — the quartermaster supplies they should have had never did catch up with them.

Finally, on November 21, Doniphan herded several thousand Navajo to a rendezvous at Bear Spring. There followed the slow, stately, and preposterous ceremonies by which Indians and army officers were accustomed to reach agreement — parades, feasts, drama, sham battles, and endless oratory. The Navajo claimed alliance with the Americans, who had come here to make war on the New Mexicans and appeared to be illogical when they asked the Indians not to do likewise. Doniphan got that point cleared up and the New Mexicans classified as Americans who must not be robbed or murdered from now on. A treaty as formal as one with a major power was drawn up. By its terms the Navajo agreed to cherish not only the New Mexicans but the Pueblo as well. Doniphan, Jackson, and Gilpin signed it on behalf of James K. Polk, the father of these good children, and no less than fourteen Navajo chiefs scratched their crosses underneath. It was impressive and affecting.

On December 12, Doniphan was back at the Rio Grande, where his various organizations were disposed between Socorro and Santa Fe. Some of them now got the $42 clothing allowance they should have had in May, the first pay they had received and the last they were to get while on active service. Doniphan began to prepare them for the rest of the campaign.

A good many of them had died in the Indian country or on the way back; more had fallen sick. The job had had to be done without preparation, with inadequate supplies, poor food, no shelter against the weather. The Doniphesias were baying their resentment — but with a difference now. They had always beefed and bellyached — they always would; but now their complaints had a new tone, the confidence of tested men. They had done the unparalleled, and had done it easily. They were veterans.

With 856 effectives Doniphan started south on December 12 (half their year’s enlistment had been completed on December 10), and the rest of his command followed in two sections. Most of the traders at Valverde broke camp and went with the army or just behind it, an anxiety and a ghastly inconvenience. The weather had turned cold and there was nothing but dry grass and soapweed for the fires. Between December 19 and 23 they came together again at Doña Ana.

Here rumors of great armies coming up from El Paso thickened. On Christmas Eve the camp was under investigation by Mexicans, but no one felt alarmed and no one thought to push the scouts out farther the next morning.

They welcomed Christmas with gunfire and band music, then took up the march in excellent spirits. The camp had not been well made or closely guarded, and much of the stock had strayed, so that Doniphan’s trains and a third of his regiment were strung out for miles behind him. The boys sang and joked their way for eighteen miles, then pitched camp toward three o clock, at a place called El Brazito. It was not far from the present hamlet of Mesilla, New Mexico, and about thirty miles from El Paso.

It looked like a good camp site and, rejoiced to be let off with a Christmas march of only eighteen miles, the greater part of the army whooped off to water their mounts and gather firewood. During the march some scouts had brought in a beautiful white stallion. It caught the appreciative Missouri eye. Doniphan and several of his officers spread out a blanket and sat down to a game of loo to determine whose horse it was. The cards ran Doniphan’s way and he had just got a hand which would have ended matters, when he looked up and saw a Mexican army forming a battle line half a mile away. Cursing the interruption, he buckled on his saber and prepared to improvise a battle.

It was an army somewhat larger than Doniphan’s total force and had been gathered at El Paso by a temporary general named Ponce de Leon after earlier recruiting efforts had failed, It was adequately equipped and clad in the gorgeous uniforms that no Mexican force ever failed to acquire, but it lacked fighting men. Properly primed with rhetoric, it had ridden out from El Paso to annihilate the Gringos, whom it despised with the universal Mexican contempt of blonds. It had a piratical black flag with two death’sheads lettered Libertad 6 muerte, and a punctilious officer carried this banner forward to invite Doniphan to surrender. Doniphan, who had got his sidearms on, returned the traditional answer, and the pause had allowed most of the wood-gatherers to come in shouting.

Doniphan formed them, perhaps four hundred all told, into a kind of line as infantry. The Mexicans began bleating at them with a twopound howitzer loaded with copper slugs, then fired continuously but wildly from their whole line. The First Missouri were under fire at last, six months out from Fort Leavenworth, and were pleasantly stimulated. Curious about the howitzer, which was posted on a flank, some Company G boys ran out and took it. The Mexicans knew that battles were won by charging and, infantry and lancers alike, trotted forward, firing as they came. Doniphan had his men lie down and got most of them to hold their fire. At about a hundred yards he gave the charge two volleys. The charge stopped and the Mexican army began to run away, except that a couple of hundred lancers veered off to a flank and tried to attack some of the wagons. The efficient Reid, however, had got some twenty of his company mounted and launched them at the lancers, who joined their companions to the rear. Reid could not catch up with them and they galloped on to El Paso, where they reported that the war was lost.

It had taken less than thirty minutes. Stragglers hurrying up the road at the sound of gunfire got there too late for the fun, and in fact not all the wood-gatherers got in. Doniphan reported 43 Mexicans known to be killed and 150 wounded. Seven of his Missourians had flesh wounds which they could flourish at less fortunate companions. Arguing violently about who had done the most execution, they went out to gather in the commissary. They got sizable stores of bread and cigars and a great quantity of wine. It was excellent wine; so, veterans also of gunfire now, the First Missouri settled down to celebrate Christmas.

But in the excitement the white stallion had bolted.


Entering El Paso the next day, the army had arrived at a considerable city. It was the last outpost of the Great Spain that had found New Mexico beyond its strength. More than ten thousand people, a more vigorous stock than the New Mexicans, lived in the beautiful town in its green valley, and an ancient culture flourished there.

But Doniphan, at the end of a thousand-mile line of communication, two thousand miles from the War Department, did not know what to do. The White House had arranged for Wool to take Chihuahua. Doniphan now knew that the trivialities of terrain and command which the White House strategy had disregarded had broken up the pretty plan. (Happily he did not know that Missouri, hearing that Wool had turned back, supposed that its Mounted Volunteers were lost forever and was now mourning them.) Rumor had Taylor badly licked and perhaps a prisoner; it also had Southern Chihuahua and its neighbors rising en masse to destroy its invaders. What was he to do? Councils of war produced conflicting advice, — the army, if consulted, would have turned back, Private Robinson said, — and finally Doniphan put an end to debate. The hell with it: he would go on and do Wool’s job.

He sent for his artillery but at Santa Fe Price, who had extinguished one revolt just as it got started, was wary. He would release only Major Meriwether Lewis Clark and the battery of Captain Weightman, and wanted some time before releasing them. Doniphan cracked down on the traders, who had been an annoyance all along and were a burden from now on. Some of them had set up shop in El Paso and were doing an excellent business. Some bolted ahead to Chihuahua to run their chances; and, though Doniphan sent a posse after them, most of these got away. Others held back, intending to wait till the invasion was settled one way or the other, or to detour it at their convenience. They were, however, a possible source of manpower, and Doniphan got tough. He called in his patrols, who had been looking for Chihuahua troops or chasing Apache for the inhabitants.

Clark arrived with Weightman’s artillery on February 1, and a week later the First Missouri took up the march. The unruly traders were now commanded to form themselves into a military battalion and take part in their own defense. They did so and Samuel Owens, the half-brother of one of A. Lincoln’s fiancees, was made their major. Over two hundred of them were enrolled and they had more than three hundred wagons. The arrival of the artillery had brought Doniphan’s strength to 924 effectives.

They were marching again, the job they did best. On the sixth day out they got themselves into a prairie fire. A campfire spread into the mountains, where it burned beside them throughout a day’s march. Lieutenant Gibson remembered an old song, “Fire in the mountains! run, boys, run!” and that night they had to run when a gale drove the flames down to their camp. There was a wild half-hour while the army set backfires, galloped the horses and wagons about, and swore at one another in pyrotechnic light till the show was over. Still another kind of campfire had been added to their memories.

Doniphan had been keeping them in military formation the last few days and his reconnaissance parties had seen evidence of hostilities ahead. On the night of February 27 he camped some fifteen miles north of a creek called the Sacramento, which was about the same distance north of the city of Chihuahua. His scouts and some stragglers who had come into camp had told him that the Mexicans had gathered at the Sacramento and were prepared to fight him there. The information was accurate; the First Missouri was going to have a battle.

Chihuahua had raised and equipped a sizable force, after floundering through the period of factionalism, jealousy, and treachery that attended every part of the Mexican war effort. It amounted to about three thousand organized troops and perhaps a thousand additional pressed peons who were armed principally with machetes. It did not have Santa Anna to drill it, however, and he was the only one who could make marksmen out of peaceable, oppressed people not used to bearing arms. Its general was a trained engineer but neither he, his soldiers, nor the supporting population had acquired any respect for their enemy. Throughout the war Mexican armies were always being half paralyzed at the beginning of an action by the discovery that the cowardly Gringos would fight. As scouts reported the approach of Doniphan’s command, an exhilaration seized Chihuahua. Battle rhetoric in newspapers, broadsides, and the sermons of priests promised everyone an overwhelming victory. About a thousand people went out to make a bleachers at the expected battleground, and the army took with it a thousand prepared ropes. They would make a coffle in which to lead the captured Americans to Mexico City.

Conde, the commander, had prepared a fortified position near the crossing of the Sacramento, where the hills came in and narrowed the approach. He was a first-rate engineer and brought against the First Missouri the science of fortification which reached back all the way to Roman times and had been maturing ever since. The works would have edified Uncle Toby and should have been impregnable to assault. Conde failed to consider only one eventuality: what if the Americans did not know the textbook approach?

He should have considered it, for, after reconnoitering the position, Doniphan and his staff saw no reason why they need come by the route prepared for them. On the morning of February 28 they started out from camp, Clark’s band rendering “Yankee Doodle.” On the way to the Sacramento, Doniphan gave them a battle formation new to the art of war but excellently adapted to the circumstances. He formed his train and the wagons of the traders in four parallel columns — the moving fort of any caravan on the Santa Fe Trail when it was on guard against Indian attack. In extremity the wagons could have formed a corral, within which the army could have held off many times its number. He put his cavalry, infantry, and artillery in the intervals between columns, where it was ready to deploy at need. The classical American symbol, a train of white-tops, moved compactly toward the Sacramento. Approaching the fortifications, Doniphan took his formation to the flank, half turning the Mexican position instead of coming from the front as he was expected to do. On the way to the flank there was an arroyo and the Mexican lancers might have cut a disorganized train to pieces. But this train was not disorganized. The high art of the bullwhackers scored a military triumph in getting the wagons across swiftly and in order, to the orchestrated profanity that was appropriate.

It was a wild and stimulating time. The now frustrated redoubts opened fire at long range and the panoplied lancers formed under banners.

Doniphan ordered his troops out into line and Clark’s artillery shattered the lancers before they got well started. Thereafter for an hour the artillery commands banged at each other. Clark had made his battalion (part of it was a St. Louis militia organization of honorable traditions) first-rate artillerists. Though the fuses were faulty and many shells exploded prematurely, he put down a successful barrage. The Mexican pieces were old, their powder was bad. The solid shot they fired came up visibly, bounding and ricocheting. The farm boys watched them come, yelled their appreciation of the show, made bets with one another, and dodged so successfully that the only casualties were horses.

The Mexicans made another charge, at the rear and the wagons this time; and the traders, who could shoot as well as the army, beat it off without trouble. Doniphan moved his lines nearer the half-turned redoubts, and musketry fire blazed everywhere. The Missourians were shooting in earnest, but the truth is that the Mexicans, who had had no practice with arms and had been battered by artillery, mostly contented themselves with hoisting their pieces over the parapets and discharging them at the sky. Doniphan, who sat on his horse and cursed with homespun eloquence, watched the army work up to within four hundred yards of the redoubts, and then launched three companies of cavalry and Weightman’s artillery in a charge at the Mexican guns. It started out gaudily, but his adjutant, DeCourcy (who was rumored to be drunk), halted two of the companies halfway across. Doniphan got a bad scare and the halted companies stood cursing with fire coming at them from two directions. Weightman galloped his two howitzers halfway to the redoubts, unlimbered, and began to fire again. Owens, the trader, with two companions galloped down the front of the redoubts and got himself killed. Reid had not obeyed the order to halt, but took his company up to the parapets and over them. The two companies that had halted joined him, and the forts were carried in a few minutes of chaotic battle. The Missourians used their sabers, their clubbed muskets, convenient stones, and even their fists. The few minutes were gory enough to provide them with a lifetime of reminiscence — beheaded Mexicans, Mexicans split lengthwise, Mexicans shot down on the run, Mexicans locked in death-grapples with their assailants, scared horses stampeding, roar of artillery, mountain men on one knee drawing beads, and the boys from home acting much as they did at a turkey shoot.

The Mexicans broke and ran. Some of them tried to rally on the other hill, but simultaneously Gilpin’s wing swarmed over those fortifications and now everyone was running. The First Missouri, an army of victorious individualists, milled round for anybody’s horse that was handy and began a pursuit. They sabered Mexicans on the run, they chased them down the river, they chased them into the hills, where some Apache who had taken box seats for the spectacle killed a number; and a big moon came up and the Mexicans were still running. Some of them ran the full fifteen miles to Chihuahua. The Americans came straggling back to the battlefield by moonlight, found the surgeons of both armies gathering in the wounded, and answered the yells of their officers, who were trying to bring the victors together again as an army.

They had been fighting for more than three hours. Owens, the trader, had been killed. (Legend says that he had some romantic reason for wanting to die and had dressed in white clothes before the battle.) A sergeant had received a wound from which he died, and seven others had minor wounds. On their part, they had killed more than three hundred Mexicans, wounded at least as many more, taken forty prisoners, and permanently broken resistance in the State of Chihuahua. While the wounded screamed in the mesquite, the First Missouri ranged over the field to gather in the spoils. They were considerable, for Chihuahua had done well by its defenders. The Doniphesias got ten cannon and a miscellany of antique trench pieces, hundreds of small arms, many tons of powder, seven elegant carriages belonging to generals and their guests, Conde’s field desk, scores of wagons and carts, hundreds of horses and mules and beeves, thousands of sheep. They got the ropes in which they were to have been marched to Mexico City and the black pirate flag with death’s-heads that had been flaunted at El Brazito. They got a paymaster’s box with $3000 in copper coin, and they got an amount of silver which may have been $5000 or $50,000, but was carefully not reported to their officers. They loaded their pockets, belts, and haversacks with loot and came back to report themselves.

So they had still another kind of campfire, victorious under a big moon with the wounded moaning near by and Missouri two thousand miles from home, pounding one another’s backs, wringing the officers’ hands, and beginning to tell the stories that would bore their grandchildren.

The next day, March 1, Doniphan sent Mitchell and an advance guard to occupy Chihuahua, and on March 2 rode at the head of his column into this, the principal city of Northern Mexico, which had fallen to a handful of ragged boys from the prairies. Forgive him if he swaggered, “not unlike a strutting gander,” and forgive the boys, frowzy, ill-smelling, and unshaved, if, with the bands producing “Yankee Doodle” again and “Washington’s March,” they told each other that they had kept their oath and captured the Halls of Montezuma. A populace which had been promised the complete destruction of the invading heretics was panic-stricken, gaped at the conquerors in terror mingled with disbelief, and hurried out the prettiest senoritas with melons, tortillas, and more wine. The army swaggered and yelled behind its bands — past the mint, past the great cathedral, round the plaza, and on to ceremonies of capitulation. Private Robinson, nineteen years old a few days back, wrote in his diary a good soldier’s summary: “We rode through the principal streets and public square, and on a rocky hill on the south side of the city fired a national salute in honor of the conquest, stole wood enough to get supper, and went to bed as usual among the rocks.”

Eight months after the administration strategists had laid out this campaign in the Executive office, an improvised organization had fulfilled the President’s intent, deep in enemy country, without support from the War Department, by application of their native talents to the task at hand. Frontiersmen easily changing phase, farmers becoming soldiers, they had conducted a probably impossible campaign to victory.

In a year of decision they had produced a decision. Chihuahua, one of the “Northern Provinces” of Mr. Polk’s concern, had been made secure for the duration. New Mexico was also secure. Since New Mexico was secure, California also was secure. Moreover, the Southwestern Indians, the Navajo and the Apache, though far from dissuaded, had at least learned to be cautious. Finally, by its mere presence in Chihuahua, the First Missouri had turned a balance farther to the east. On February 22 and 23, Taylor’s subalterns won the battle of Buena Vista — but barely won it. It was a bloody battle, and the excellent army which Santa Anna had raised lost it by an extremely narrow margin. If Santa Anna could have had the troops which faced Doniphan at Sacramento, it is likely that Taylor’s army would have been chased in fragments through the State of Coahuila.


Sacramento and Chihuahua made the high moment of the First Missouri. From then on, life was pleasant enough but an anti-climax of garrison duty, drill, abortive expeditions, rumors, rioting, and finally the march to the Rio Grande. They occupied Chihuahua through March till nearly the end of April, while Doniphan tried to get orders from the War Department or any superior officer.

They got the news of Buena Vista (fought February 22-23) and made the town reverberate. At last one of Doniphan’s patrols got through to Wool at Saltillo and came back with orders from Taylor to join him there. Some of the traders prepared to stay at Chihuahua, others to go back to Santa Fe, still others to march through the interior with their custodians. Doniphan released his prisoners and discharged his governors, turning the city back to its officials. He got the First Missouri ready to move again. A few farm boys " went over the hill” to marry their senoritas and make homesteads in this valley. A few señoritas put on breeches and prepared to follow their farm boys. And on April 25, 26, and 28, in various divisions, the army left Chihuahua, heading south and east.

They had a diversified march to make — more jornadas, more mountains, more green valleys. But they were certainly the best marchers in the world by now, and though — as always — some sickened and a few died, they put their shoulders into it. Dust, sand, swamps, summer heat, lizards, scorpions, snakes — nothing mattered now that they had turned east. Doniphan laid the gad to them and all their records toppled. They foraged liberally but also they chased Apache and Comanche for the natives, Mitchell and the indefatigable Reid riding the flanks in sweeping forays.

I he army came down to the beautiful oasis of Parras and for the first time encountered a population who had learned to fear and hate American soldiers, a lesson the Doniphesias had taught no one. " Wherever we encamped, in five minutes women and children would roam through the tents to sell different articles, never meeting with insult or injury. Wool’s and Taylor’s troops had given the natives wholly different emotions, and from now on the Doniphesias would see an ugliness of war that was strange to them.

Another hitch brought them to Saltillo and on to the battlefield of Buena Vista and the headquarters of General Wool. Doniphan tried to brush and curry them a little, but it was no use. Drawing full rations at last, after eleven months, some of them refused soap, explaining that they had no clothes to wash. Doniphan got them into line long enough for Wool, the precisian, to review them, but again it was no use — they gaped and lounged and made remarks. Wool tried to re-enlist them for another year, which showed optimism. Even Meriwether Lewis Clark made comments on the way the War Department had treated them, and when Wool said he would take care of them Clark remembered out loud that they had heard the same story at Fort Leavenworth.

They got a chance to stare at Taylor too, near Monterrey, and found that they loved him and his great-commoner act. They left their sick here — lowlands and tropical weather were cutting them down — and marched on to the Rio Grande. At Reynosa they had reached navigable water — by marching almost exactly thirty-five hundred miles from Fort Leavenworth. Here, ending a feat of arms without parallel, they awaited transports in rain, swamps, and muggy heat. They were dirty, they were lousy, they had practically no clothes left, and they acquired a new set of grievances against the war. The government could not send their horses home by boat but would try to drive them overland — and could not transport their outfits. They burned their saddles and blankets and crowded aboard bad transports, to eat weevily hardtack, be seasick, and find themselves with as little drinking water as if they were making another jornada. So they came to New Orleans and down the gangplanks, some of them wearing only greatcoats, some just their drawers, all long-haired and bearded and burned black.

New Orleans, which was near enough to the war to recognize heroes at sight, went wild over them. Missouri outdid New Orleans. St. Louis — where they found friends who had grown rich from the war, as they assuredly had not — broke out its bunting and illuminations and deafened the heroes with as much cannon fire as they had heard at Sacramento.

As long as they lived, the twelvemonth’s march would splash their past with carmine — prairie grass in the wind, night guard at the wagons, the high breasts of the Spanish Peaks and all New Mexico spread out before them from the Raton, fandangos at Santa Fe, glare ice above the Canyon de Chelly, the hot gladness of the charge at Sacramento, the grizzly that wandered through our camp that night, tongues swollen by the jornadas, Jim dying in the snow, the ammonia stench of the buffalo wallows, the campfires glimmering in a slanting line of rubies all the way up the pass, the señorita who looked in the wagon that day when I was sick and “oh the beauty of the exquisite Spanish word pobrecito when heard from such lips.”

They too had found the West and left their mark on it, an honorable signature.

(To be concluded)