The Legacy

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The Legacy

Part 3 of Three –

The Legacy, After April 28, 2007

 By Jeff C. Campbell

 After the dedication ceremonies are completed descendants, VIPs, officials, interested visitors and the citizens who live on the periphery of the new National Historic Site will go home and about their daily business.  The low knob of a grass sage covered hill overlooking the Sand Creek drainage will continue to be windswept and lonely in a panorama of silence on these plains.  Those that remain to build the trails and interpret the site for visitors in decades to come will begin making decisions on how the story is told.  For that is really all that is left, the story of how a massacre could have taken place here on the remote southeastern Colorado prairie.

 History is a fickle mistress in that those who tell the story may have their own perspectives tempered by how close or how far away from the events they are.  The chronicle of the events which climaxed here on November 29, 30 and December 1 of 1864 is as complicated to understand as any critical event in the course of the United States before and after.  Volumes have been written filled with conjecture, criticism and even racism placing blame, making defenses and creating a log of exoneration for all participants.  In a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life were killed, maimed, massacred, displaced or disenfranchised the deaths of a few score Indians hardly seems significant.

 The Sand Creek Massacre became immediately significant as a mirror of the United States, its honor, its word, its sacrifices and the reasons for which the millions inhabiting the country had been affected by the horrendous nature of our Civil War.  If all the things being fought for were exemplified by the acts of a few hundred cavalrymen in Colorado Territory then there was a flaw and the mirror of all the right reasons for the war between the states was cracked.

In the month following the wholesale killing of Cheyennes and Arapahoes on the Big Sandy, forty miles north-northeast of Fort Lyon, a cascade turned into an avalanche of outcry against the action from Colorado to Washington, D. C.  Even before the main body of 1st and 3rd Regiment soldiers returned to Denver their expedition commander, Colonel John M. Chivington applied to be relieved of command and to resign his commission.  Before the end of December an Inspector from the District of the Upper Arkansas was detailed to go to the site and make his report followed by actions within the U. S. Army chain-of-command to have Chivington replaced, to have the command of the Department of Kansas changed and send new commanders into the plains to investigate and prepare for the consequences of Sand Creek.

 By February 1865 the Committee on the Conduct of the War and the Committee on Indian Affairs were preparing to investigate the massacre.  The Army was ordered to empanel a Military Commission in Denver to investigate, not prosecute, the matter.  Newspapers throughout the country carried the story of how the word of soldiers and politicians was broken allowing several hundred Indians who professed peace to camp under the protection of the United States government and flag ostensibly under what seemed false pretenses.  And on the other side defenses were professed justifying the attack on the Indians as perpetrators of massacres, rape and torture of innocent white settlers and emigrants.  To this very day there are those who defend and try to justify the actions of the soldiers and those who vehemently protest against their actions.

As well, by early February 1865 all senior officers at Sand Creek had resigned, been replaced or mustered out due to their enlistments expiring.  Several persons involved in the actions were already in Washington or on their way.  Some Cheyennes, Arapahoes and their allies had begun attacks of retribution along the Platte rivers, while others sought refuge where they could.  Soldiers who had been involved at Sand Creek were killed and tortured near Julesburg while traveling to the States on the overland road with Cheyenne scalps in their possession.

 Colorado novelist Dorothy Gardiner, wrote in the foreword to her book The Great Betrayal published by Doubleday & Co., Inc., in 1949. 

    “Even before the firing stopped at Sand Creek the white ranks were splitting into two parts: Chivington's friends, who insisted that he was a hero and the fight justified, and his enemies, who called him at best an unscrupulous and brutal schemer, at worst a murderer.  In the investigations that followed the battle men in high places were to shuffle and hedge, while others lied under oath to justify their contentions or to save their own hides.  Still others, swearing to what they in all honesty believed to be the truth, flatly contradicted each other.  Faced with such a state of affairs, the historian can only record the contradictions, the novelist thread a dubious path through the thickets of conflicting testimony."

 In the testimonies of officers, soldiers and citizens questioned by the three commissions which investigated the incident, it is no mere coincidence that matters of honor, of what the United States flag represented, and what the word of men representing the United States government meant when given.  Generations of writers who were there or have tried to understand the event have told us how many good things, how successful or prominent the men who were there became.  It may also be no trivial footnote that only one individual spent any time in custody and not one person was ever tried in any court of law for crimes committed at Sand Creek.

 The looming question remained how good men could have done such horrific deeds.  Were they, the soldiers and officers, good men taken to the brink of sanity to commit the atrocities?  Were there bad men, who were to blame?  What drove otherwise good men to murder and mutilate and take as trophies body parts of men and women and parade those in front of the public with pride in the streets, theatres and saloons of Denver?

 Just as we look to the horrors of World War II and try to understand how over 50 million people worldwide were killed in the name of nationalism, imperialism, race, culture and politics, there exists right here in Kiowa County a site where, regardless of the number of humans killed, we must contemplate what makes humans abrogate the humanity of other humans and take their lives away in wholesale fashion.

 It is of value to understand the course of actions and events that lead up to the massacre, but it is of little value to try to exonerate, justify or condemn the dead for their actions.

Again quoting Gardiner, from her “Chapter Last” written in 1948,

   "No one, however, invented Sand Creek or Chivington and his Hundred Dazers; no one invented Black Kettle and Ed Wynkoop, Jack Smith and Silas Soule and Squires, and fancy young Lieutenant Cannon who died of poison in the Tremont House, and any man who cares to turn the yellowed pages of the Rocky Mountain News, to dig in the weighty records of congressional and Army investigations, may read the story for himself.

   Vindicate Sand Creek?  Some things can never be vindicated."

 The abundant record will prosecute or defend the participants.  Our role as humans is to take our contemplation and turn it into positive means to prevent holocausts and genocide in the name of good.

 

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