Alexander W. Doniphan

Alexander Doniphan attended the Lexington Convention as the Whig candidate for the United States Senate vying with David Atchison, one of his Democratic opponents. It was quickly decided that neither would address the convention. At a Platte County meeting a week earlier, Atchison's party, trying for a united front, put forward a resolution: "That in the selection of persons for office, State, Federal, or county, we will hereafter disregard all questions which have heretofore divided us as Whigs and Democrats." One Whig delegate then moved that Doniphan be supported for the Senate and the Atchison party then withdrew its conciliatory resolution. [Trexler, Slavery in Missouri,198] The Senate contest was part of a long, complicated relationship between the two men.

Alexander W. Doniphan (1808-1887)

Trial attorney and political moderate, he fought in the Mormon War and the Mexican War but not the Civil War
[Matthew Brady: Library of Congress]

Alexander William Doniphan, called "Will" by his friends, was born in Macon county, Kentucky, the youngest of ten children. His father died in 1813 bequeathing five-year-old Will a slave boy and part of the family farm. The young boy was sent to live with an older brother in Augusta, Kentucky. At 14 he entered Augusta College and graduated four years later, with excellent marks in oratory. He read law in a local office and after two years was admitted to the Kentucky bar. In 1830 the young lawyer moved to Lexington, Missouri, riding the circuit with the judge and his fellow lawyers, Abiel Leonard and David Atchison. In 1833, following Atchison's lead, he set up practice in Liberty. [Launius, Doniphan, Ch. 1]

Doniphan and Atchison had many interests in common. They hunted and fished together; gambled in taverns with friends, as well as meeting each other in court. Atchison organized a militia company, the "Liberty Blues" and Doniphan soon became an officer, too. The company "mustered out for drill three times per year, marched around in the sun a while, then settled down for a picnic and not just a little drink." Late in 1833, both men were retained by the Mormons, along with Amos Rees and W.T. Wood to assist the group in their Jackson County troubles. Joseph Smith and his followers had been forcibly driven from the county and their lands taken. Doniphan not only led the effort to reach a compromise but as captain of the "Liberty Blues" provided physical protection for the Saints in their court appearances. Instructed to hold out for return of the land and not to accept a monetary settlement, Doniphan was unable to achieve a good result for his clients, but was sufficiently aggressive on their behalf that he was hired again after the Mormon War of 1838. [Launius, Doniphan, 10ff]

Joseph Smith (1805-1844)

Attorney Doniphan represented the Mormons in their Missouri troubles.

A number of Mormons settled in Clay County after being rejected from Jackson county and troubles continued. In a public meeting in 1834, Doniphan spoke out against the vigilantes attacking the Mormons and defended "the right of citizen and individual liberty.and was opposed to Judge Lynch and mob violence; [and] was in favor of law and order.." Though he sympathized with the Saints, Doniphan joined Atchison and others in asking the Mormons to leave Clay County to avoid civil strife. As a member of the General Assembly in 1836, Doniphan introduced a bill organizing Caldwell County as a place for the Mormons to live. [LeSueur, Mormon War, 79]

The uneasy truce between Missourians and Mormons depended upon the Saints living only in Caldwell County. Doniphan recalled many years later that the Mormons began having problems when "they commenced forming a settlement in Daviess County, which, under their agreement, they had no right to do." Atchison, now Commanding General of the militia in Northwest Missouri, called out 400 men from Clay and Ray counties to quell disturbances among Missourians in Daviess county. Doniphan commanded the Clay County troops and Atchison dispatched him to Caldwell County to secure release of prisoners the Mormons had taken. Doniphan encountered no resistance and had a "friendly chat with Joseph Smith and the leading men, and appeared to be very friendly to the `mormons'." Caldwell County officials released their non-Mormon prisoners to Doniphan and surrendered their weapons. Doniphan then went to Daviess County and secured release of Mormon prisoners there. All was quiet for a few months. [LeSueur, Mormon War, 91-93]

But in October Mormon soldiers again prepared to march to Daviess County in retaliation for acts against them. Doniphan rode to Far West with 60 men to speak with Mormon leaders. He advised them his own troops could not be relied upon if trouble began and advised the Mormons to travel to Daviess county only in small groups and unarmed. But the Saints did not follow his advise and raided and plundered, just as had been done to them. . [LeSueur, Mormon War, 115-116]

Governor Boggs mobilized the State Militia, removed Atchison, gave command to Joseph Lucas, and ordered the Mormons "exterminated." Lucas' troops surrounded Far West and the town surrendered. Missouri soldiers threatened to shoot Mormon prisoners until forced by Doniphan and other officers to back off. A rump "court martial" then voted to execute Joseph Smith and the other leaders. Lucas wrote to Doniphan ordering him to carry out the court martial decree: "Sir: You will take Joseph Smith and the other prisoners into the public square at Far West, and shoot them at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning." Doniphan declared he would have none of it, answering by note: "It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty tomorrow morning, at 8 o'clock; and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God!" [LeSueur, Mormon War, 182- 183]

The prisoners were taken to Richmond, Missouri for arraignment before Judge A. A. King. Doniphan, the leading criminal attorney in western Missouri was joined by Amos Rees, as attorney for the Mormon defendants, and advised them not to testify. The church leaders were dissatisfied with that advise because they wanted a chance to voice their grievances. Some were outspoken in their criticism of Doniphan, who in fact, kept them from incriminating themselves and others and perhaps prevented their lynching by the Missourians on the courthouse square. [LeSueur, Mormon War, 21]

In 1846, Doniphan joined the Missouri volunteers for the Mexican War. Enlisting as a private, he was elected Colonel of the First Missouri Volunteers when they mustered in at Ft. Leavenworth. Doniphan was one of few Whig colonels of State Regiments in the highly politicized war. President Polk appointed only Democratic generals. [Dawson, Doniphan's Epic March, 35] Regular Army Colonel Stephen Kearny of the First Regiment of Dragoons at Ft. Leavenworth led the command down the trail to Santa Fe.

Stephen Watts Kearny (1794-1848)

From the Dragoons he first organized at Ft. Leavenworth grew the United States Cavalry.

At Pawnee Rock, Kearny confronted Doniphan about the First Missouri's lack of discipline on the line of march. Having borne hardships of bad weather, short rations and lack of water, the regiment was unlikely to face Mexican soldiers for some weeks. Some men rode alone, some in pairs and trios, others bunched in small groups. Only a few rode in columns of twos. Kearny told Doniphan" "Your men can never be soldiers, you indulge them too much & they will be utterly demoralized and unreliable unless you adopt more strict and soldier like discipline." Doniphan answered: " We are 600 miles from the enemy-I fear more strict discipline would break down the men & the horses. When the time comes for efficient action, you will find these men unflinching." Kearny then said: "Well, you will be held responsible for their efficiency." Doniphan answered: "Certainly, I would not have accepted the command of men for whom I would not be responsible in any emergency." [Dawson, Doniphan's Epic March, 61]

New Mexico fell without a fight. In August, Kearny was promoted to Brigadier General and received new orders expanding the war aims. The United States government, Kearny told Doniphan, now "designed holding at least New Mexico & California, besides Texas at the conclusion of the War." That would entail "military occupation of this State (New Mexico) to administer the government as military Territory-naturalise (sic) all the male citizens as he (Kearny) reached their respective localities-appoint officers, etc." The occupation of New Mexico would be Doniphan's assignment, for it was "was more in the province of a lawyer than a military officer." For the first time in American history, military officers would administer conquered territory. [Dawson, Doniphan's Epic March, 75]

Doniphan devised an oath of allegiance for male Mexicans to swear and appointed all local officials. With the help of Private Willard P. Hall, an attorney from St. Joseph, and newly appointed U.S. Attorney Frank Blair from St. Louis, Doniphan in three weeks produced a constitution and 100 pages of laws for the territory. Not surprisingly, the "Kearny Code" they wrote, like the later Kansas "Bogus Laws," borrowed heavily from the statutes of Missouri. [Dawson, Doniphan's Epic March, 85]

The Ute and Navajo nations had a long standing struggle against the Mexican government that did not end with the American occupation. Doniphan quickly negotiated treaties with both but Governor Charles Bent reported to Secretary of State James Buchanan that he had "but little hope the (Navajo Treaty) will be permanent." [Dawson, Doniphan's Epic March, 100] Doniphan and the First Missouri marched out of Santa Fe in September after only one month in residence, leaving command to Colonel Sterling Price of the Second Missouri Volunteers. Doniphan reinforced General John Wool in the State of Chihauhua for the defense of Texas and to support the United States' claim to the Rio Grande as the border. The Missourians fought well as Doniphan had promised and won battles at Brazito and Sacramento.

After the War, Doniphan returned to Liberty and attended to local affairs. He was the first Superintendent of Schools in Clay County and was influential in obtaning William Jewell College for Liberty. He cheered on the pro- slavery movement in Kansas and Missouri, but neither voted in Kansas nor participated in raids into the territory. For the "Sack of Lawrence" in May 1856, Doniphan provided "Old Sacramento," a cannon he brought back from Mexico and had placed on the courthouse grounds in Lexington. In 1856, he was a director of the Clay County Pro-Slavery Aid Association.," raising funds for southerners who wanted to go Kansas. [Launius, Doniphan, 237]

Doniphan's position on Missouri's secession was in the "Conditional Unionist" camp. He was among those southern men who believed Missouri should resist coercion by the North forcing seceding states back into the Union. They hoped Missouri could remain in the Union by some compromise that would provide a Constitutional guarantee for the South. [Snead, Fight for Missouri, 54] Doniphan went to Washington Peace Conference in February 1861 but came away frustrated by its inability to hold the Union together. He turned down a generalship in Missouri's Confederate forces and moved to St. Louis in 1863 for the duration of the war. After the war he moved to Richmond, Missouri where he practiced law and ran a bank until his death.

Charles Clark