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
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