The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 2: Slaughter of the Innocents

The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 2: Slaughter of the Innocents

John killerlane - August 6, 2017

Colonel Chivington led a force of approximately 700 men overnight to the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho camp at Sand Creek, arriving on the morning of November 29, 1864. Major Anthony, now with a sufficient force to attack, commanded 125 troops of the Colorado First from Fort Lyon. Lieutenant Wilson led a further 125 men of the Colorado First, and Colonel Shoup led 450 men of the Colorado Third.

The camp at Sand Creek contained approximately 100 lodges and an estimated 500 Indians were residing there under the assumed protection of the U.S. Army. At the time of the attack, the vast majority of the warriors were out hunting. The males who stayed at the camp were either too young or too old to hunt. The remainders were women and children.

On seeing hundreds of soldiers on horseback riding towards the camp, Black Kettle hoisted a large American flag, with a smaller white flag tied to it, over his lodge, which had been given to him by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, A. B. Greenwood four years earlier. Greenwood had told Black Kettle to raise this flag when approached by soldiers to indicate that they were peaceful. Special Indian agent and interpreter, John Smith, who was camped with the Indians at Sand Creek at the time of the attack, ran out to the oncoming soldiers, but instead of stopping, they opened fire.

Cheyenne chief White Antelope, also ran out, waving his hands frantically, shouting for the soldiers to stop, before realizing the futility of his efforts, stood, arms folded, chanting his death song before being shot and killed. The troops scalped his head and cut off his ears and nose. The small number of warriors fought as best they could to hold off the attack, so that others, including Black Kettle, could escape.

The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 2: Slaughter of the Innocents
A depiction of one scene at Sand Creek by witness Howling Wolf. Wikipedia

Andrew J. Gill, a volunteer aid to Chivington later testified in a military investigation into the massacre at Sand Creek that Chivington gave a speech just prior to the attack where he said, “Now boys, I shan’t say who you shall kill, but remember our murdered women and children.” Captain Silas Soule, who opposed Chivington’s attack against peaceful Indians, refused to take part in the fighting and ordered his men not to fire.

Soule recounted in a letter written to Major Wynkoop a couple of weeks after the massacre, that he had witnessed little children, who were on their knees surrendering, having their “brains beaten out” by soldiers, and a wounded squaw having her arm cut off with a hatchet while trying to defend herself before the soldier “dashed the hatchet through her brain.”

The subsequent investigations into the massacre revealed other atrocities carried out on the day. One eye witness reported seeing an Indian child of about three years old, “perfectly naked,” who was walking behind the Indians who were fleeing the attack, being shot at by three different soldiers in turn before the “little fellow dropped.”

The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 2: Slaughter of the Innocents
Seeks Ghosts Blogger

From hero to villain

By the end of the fighting over one hundred Indians had been killed. Two-thirds of them were women and children. All of the dead were scalped, some had up to half a dozen scalps taken from their heads. Most were mutilated, some had their fingers cut off to steal their rings, while the chiefs, as well as others, had their genitalia cut off and taken as trophies.

Over the following weeks, Chivington and his men were lauded in the Denver press by the editor of the Rocky Mountain News, William Byers, who wrote in December, “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare, the recent campaign of our Colorado volunteers will stand in history with few rivals,” and that they had carried out a “thousand incidents of individual daring” and “once again covered themselves with glory.” Chivington led the victory parade of the now named Bloody Third Regiment into Denver to a hero’s welcome.

Indian agent Sam Colley, outraged by the massacre at Sand Creek, wrote to U.S. Senator James R. Doolittle of Wisconsin, who was a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the (Civil) War. Colley informed Doolittle that the Indians who had been attacked were peaceful and under the protection of his Indian agency and Fort Lyon. News of the massacre continued to spread and on January 10, 1865, the U.S. House of Representatives directed the Committee on the Conduct of the War to hold hearings to try to establish what took place at Sand Creek.

General Curtis immediately requested the resignation of Chivington in the hope that it would prevent an army inquiry into the matter. Chivington resigned, but it was futile. On January 11, the army chief of Staff, General Halleck ordered Curtis to open an investigation. Curtis reinstated Major Wynkoop as commander of Fort Lyon and asked him to conduct an investigation into the attack at Sand Creek. Wynkoop’s sent a report to Curtis containing testimonies received from John Smith, his teamster Watson Clark, Private David Lauderback, and Indian agent Sam Colley. All were scathing in their denunciations of Chivington’s attack.

On March 13, 1865, the Committee on the Conduct of the War began congressional hearings in Washington D.C. regarding the events which had occurred at Sand Creek. Indian agent John Smith gave his eyewitness testimony as to the atrocities he had witnessed carried out by Chivington’s men. Smith told how he had witnessed around 100 Indians, men, women and children, surrounded by soldiers who fired on them indiscriminately. Smith testified that he witnessed Indians killed from “sucking infants up to warriors…women cut all to pieces, worse mutilated” than he had ever seen before, with “their brains knocked out.”

Smith felt that Chivington’s reason for the attack at Sand Creek was that he had intended to rerun for Congress and that an Indian war would result in him remaining in Colorado where he could continue “electioneering.” Smith also stated that Major Anthony had promised the Indians camped at Sand Creek protection.

The Sand Creek Massacre, Part 2: Slaughter of the Innocents
High Plains Public Radio

Further investigations into the massacre

Anthony testified on the second day of the hearing that he had told the Indians that he would inform them if he received instructions from Curtis if there was to be any change in policy towards them. He added that Chivington’s arrival and subsequent attack, of which he was a part, occurred before that happened. Anthony also stated that he was opposed to attacking Sand Creek as a matter of policy rather than morality. He felt that attacking Sand Creek would inevitably lead to a larger war with the Indians camped at Smoky Hill.

He stated that he had told Chivington that once they had a force strong enough that he would be in favor of a more general war against all the Indians. Anthony also admitted witnessing soldiers committing many acts of mutilation, and that the only way to fight Indians, was to “fight them as they fight us.” “If they scalp and mutilate the bodies, then we must do the same,” as well as “killing women and children”.

Governor Evans testified before the committee on the third day and pleaded ignorance regarding Chivington’s intentions to attack, and also that the Indians camped there were known to be peaceful. Evans suggested that a “great many” of the reports had come from people he knew were enemies of Chivington. His evasiveness before the committee did not save his political career, as his resignation was requested by Secretary of State, William H. Seward a few weeks later.

The committee reprimanded Chivington in the most withering terms. It stated that Chivington had “planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre” against the Indians at Sand Creek, “having full knowledge of their friendly character, having himself been instrumental to some extent in placing them in their position of fancied security, took advantage of their in apprehension and defenseless condition to gratify the worst passions that ever cursed the heart of man.”

A second investigation conducted by a joint special committee of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives also concluded that Chivington had perpetrated a massacre at Sand Creek of Indians who believed they were under the protection of the U.S. Army. Chivington provided the joint committee with a written deposition outlining his version of events at Sand Creek.

In it, Chivington stated that he believed the Indians camped at Sand Creek were of the same tribes who were known to be hostile towards whites and that he “had every reason to believe” that they were either “directly or indirectly involved.” He also said that the officers he sent out after the attack to ascertain the numbers of dead, reported seeing “but few women and children dead” and that he personally had only seen one dead woman and no dead children.

Chivington did acknowledge that Major Wynkoop had allowed the Indians to camp at Fort Lyon under the protection of the American flag before his replacement Major Anthony drove them out after they failed to comply with General Curtis’s terms. Chivington went on to point the finger of blame at Anthony and Major Colley who had told him that the Indians encamped at Sand Creek were hostile, but never mentioned to him that they were under the protection of the government.

A third hearing, this one presided over by a three-man military commission ran for seventy-six days. It was solely a fact-finding mission to determine whether Chivington had acted in accordance with the rule of civilized warfare, that the Indians at Sand Creek were under the protection of the United States Army, and that Chivington had taken the necessary measures to prevent “unnatural outrages” by the soldiers during after the attack.

Chivington was allowed to cross-examine the witnesses who testified against him, such as Major Wynkoop, Captain Silas Soule, Lieutenants Cannon, Minton and Cossitt among others. When the committee adjourned in May 1865, it issued no conclusions. The 228 pages of written testimony were printed two years later and subsequently filed in government archives.

Chivington’s attack at Sand Creek failed to bring him the glory and political power he so desperately wished for. It brought him infamy, disgrace, and dishonor. He, along with the men responsible for the massacre has gone down in history as having taken part in one of the darkest episodes of the decades-long conflict between the United States and the Native Americans.


Sources For Further Reading:

National Public Service – John Chivington Biography

History – Sand Creek Massacre

Digital History – Four Documents on the Sand Creek Massacre

Wall Street Journal – Sand Creek Massacre: American Indian Tragedy

Smithsonian Magazine – The Horrific Sand Creek Massacre Will Be Forgotten No More

National Park Service – Sand Creek Massacre Timeline

NBC News – Memorial Opens At Site Of Indian Massacre