The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown

Larry Holzwarth - November 27, 2019

Silas Soule (pronounced “sole”) was one of those people for whom the passage of time has not been kind. Few today know his name nor his story, which was both remarkable and controversial. He was raised in an abolitionist New England household. His family could trace its roots in America to the Mayflower. He was an ardent abolitionist himself and a friend and associate of John Brown. He rode with the Jayhawkers in Kansas during the period when John Brown led them, and the region became known in American newspapers as Bloody Kansas. When Brown was captured after the attack on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia, Soule joined the party to mount a rescue attempt.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Silas Soule, kneeling at right, at the Camp Weld Conference in 1864. Wikimedia

During his short life, he was often more concerned with his own conscience than the law, and on more than one occasion found himself on the wrong side of the latter. He developed skills as a jailbreaker and a bit of a con man. When the Civil War began he joined the Colorado Volunteers, serving honorably in New Mexico and Colorado, against not only Confederate troops and sympathizers, but also against Arapaho and Cheyenne under Black Kettle. He reached the rank of Captain in the army and was still serving when he was shot and killed – some say murdered – in April 1865. He faded into obscurity other than in the west, but aspects of his life deserve to be remembered. Here are some of them.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Among the abolitionists befriended by Soule was the poet Walt Whitman. Library of Congress

1. Silas Soule was born into an abolitionist family in 1839 Bath, Maine

The shipbuilding town of Bath, Maine was a hotbed of abolitionism in 1839, and Silas’s father, Amasa Soule, was zealous about his religion and ending the practice of slavery in America. The Emigrant Aid Society was formed in New England in 1854, expressly to help abolitionists relocate to the Kansas Territory, where they were to claim residence and vote to have the territory abolish slavery and enter the Union as a free state. Slavery supporters from Missouri and elsewhere entered the territory intent on the opposite, and Kansas descended into violence known as Bloody Kansas, with murder and the destruction of homes justified with bibles and sermons about doing the Lord’s work.

Amasa Soule answered the call in 1854 and moved his family to Lawrence, Kansas. Upon arrival, he established his home as a safe house on the Underground Railroad, a route for escaping slaves from Missouri to reach freedom in the North. Kansas was then torn between pro-slavery factions, abolitionists, slave hunters searching for runaways, and conductors on the Underground Railroad guiding the escaping slaves. At the age of fifteen, Silas became one of the latter, escorting escaping slaves and protecting them from slave hunters. To protect the conductors and slaves, New England abolitionists sent shipments to Kansas in crates marked “Bibles”. They actually were shipments of Sharps repeating rifles.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Abolitionist and terrorist John Brown. Wikimedia

2. John Brown became a close friend of the Soule family in Lawrence

After Amasa Soule established his home as a safe house on the Underground Railroad, John Brown became a frequent visitor and welcome guest. Brown, like Amasa, was a religious zealot who believed his duty to end slavery outweighed the law of the land. He considered violence against the pro-slavery faction, including ambush and murder of slavery supporters, was part of his moral obligation to end slavery, and found Amasa Soule to be in agreement. So was young Silas. He became one of Brown’s allies, and rode with him and his sons in many of their raids against the pro-slavery settlements along the Kansas-Missouri border.

Both sides became known by many names, including Border Ruffians for the proslavery factions, and Jayhawkers for Brown and like-minded groups. Both were derisive terms applied to their enemies by their opponents. Silas Soule developed the reputation of being one of the most dangerous of the Jayhawkers. By 1856 the two sides were engaged in guerrilla warfare, attacking armed parties and raiding settlements, in both Kansas and Missouri. Merciful treatment of opponents, especially by John Brown and his men, was rare. In 1859 Silas Soule took part in a raid which cemented his reputation as one of the most fearsome of the raiders.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Soule stands second from the right in this photograph of the band which rescued Dr. Doy. Wikipedia

3. The capture and trial of Lawrence physician John Doy

In 1859 John Doy, a doctor in Lawrence and friend of the Soule’s, escorted a party of 13 escaped slaves from Missouri toward the safety of Iowa. Whether they had been sheltered in the Soule home is uncertain, but a party of slave-catchers from Missouri caught Doy and the slaves and took them back to St. Joseph, where Doy was charged with stealing the slaves, a violation of Missouri law. Doy had never been in Missouri, and was conducting the slaves between stations of the Underground Railroad in Kansas. In essence, his arrest by the Border Ruffians was a kidnapping.

Doy was nonetheless tried in a Missouri court, convicted by a jury of slavery supporters, and sentenced to five years with hard labor in the state prison (the escaped slaves were either returned to their owners or sold). His lawyers immediately appealed, but he was ordered held pending the hearing. As Doy awaited his appeal in St. Joseph’s jail, a party of Jayhawkers including Silas Soule made plans to free him and escort him to safety in Lawrence. When the Kansas men arrived in St. Joseph their leader dispatched Soule to examine the jail. Soule approached the jailer carrying a note, which he said was from Doy’s wife, and surreptitiously examined the jail while inside.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Two men identified only as Border Ruffians. Library of Congress

4. Soule changed the Jayhawker’s plans after casing the jail

The note Soule passed to Doy simply read, “Tonight at twelve o’clock”, and Doy being aware of Soule’s reputation and activities realized it was a warning to be ready at that time. But Soule was troubled by the layout of the jail and didn’t believe their plan of forcing their way into the building would work. Instead, when he returned at the appointed hour, it was with several of his accomplices, with one being identified as a recently captured horse thief. They asked the jailer to hold the “thief” for them overnight. The jailer, at first reluctant, was persuaded and allowed them in with their prisoner. Inside, he was quickly overpowered and Doy freed.

The raiders fled to the Missouri River, where they had earlier hidden boats to carry them across to Kansas and safety from Missouri lawmen. Upon arriving at the site of their vessels they discovered one of them had been flooded. They were in the process of bailing it out when they were discovered by a St. Joseph police constable. Unaware of the jailbreak and not recognizing any of the party, the constable aided them in emptying the boat of water, and the Kansas men escaped, returning Dr. Doy to his family in Lawrence. His rescuers had their photograph taken, calling themselves the Immortal Ten.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
A political cartoon featuring Liberty in the hands of Border Ruffians. Library of Congress

5. Soule’s activities during the Bleeding Kansas period are largely undocumented

Prior to the jailbreak in St. Joseph, Missouri, Soule’s movements and activities during the many raids and ambushes which marked the period in Kansas and Missouri are not well known. But he was well known to John Brown and his followers. Brown led his supporters in the Pottawatomie Massacre, in which they murdered five pro-slavery settlers in 1856, but the known records of the raid did not include Soule among the raiders. The same can be said for the Battle of Osawatomie, where there were several dead, and an exchange of prisoners, though Soule has not been linked to Brown’s group during that raid either.

Following Osawatomie, Kansas descended into partisan violence which was really simply organized murder and terrorizing of each side. When Brown finally launched his raid on the Federal Arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, his friend Silas Soule was not among the party which was eventually forced to surrender to US Marines commanded by Army Lt. Colonel Robert E. Lee. But he was one of the men approached to join an expedition to the east in an attempt to free Brown and his followers from federal custody, and he joined with alacrity, traveling to Pennsylvania and Virginia in late 1859.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
John Brown’s attempt to start a slave insurrection led to his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Wikimedia

6. John Brown faced the death penalty following his failed raid in Virginia

John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was the first step in a planned slave insurrection he hoped to foment in the slave states of Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, and to the south. The arsenal was seized because it contained weapons which Brown intended to use to arm the slaves. Brown intended to raise an army starting with 500 freed slaves and black freemen and move southward from Harper’s Ferry through Virginia and North Carolina, stripping the south of its slaves, which would join his army. He was confident that he would be able to create a new state for the freed slaves, after the southern economy collapsed.

Frederick Douglas was appalled at the idea and said so, as did several of the northern abolitionists. According to some, Brown asked the assistance of Harriet Tubman in raising his initial army, with escaped slaves from Ontario. These sources claim that she delivered, but when Brown launched his attack against Harper’s Ferry he had 21 men under his command, only five of whom were black. His raid was an abject failure, fourteen people were killed (including ten of his men), and several others wounded. Brown faced trial for four murders, treason (against Virginia, rather than the United States) and other charges, and hanging if convicted.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
John Brown’s raid resulted in the deaths of fourteen, including two of his sons. Wikimedia

7. Soule was approached to join a party to free John Brown

Before Brown was brought to trial in Virginia (he was allowed time to recover from a wound sustained in the raid) his supporters began making plans to rescue him from Virginia custody. Northern publisher Richard Hinton, a staunch abolitionist, traveled to Lawrence, explained his plan to Soule, and persuaded the latter to travel with him to Pennsylvania. Soule and Hinton planned to recruit a party from the region to attack the jail where Brown was held and carry him off by force. Hinton had a grand vision of a rescue, but he did not have the money needed to pull it off, and he found little sympathy for the idea from fellow abolitionists.

A much smaller party assembled, and without enough men to force the jail through assault, other means were explored to free Brown, who was held in Charlestown, in what is today West Virginia. The conspirators planned to free Brown and escape through the region around Martinsburg. They were commanded by James Montgomery, who was aware of Soule’s actions in rescuing Doy from the St. Joseph jail. Montgomery sent Soule to Charlestown, to learn what he could and if possible, to visit Brown and the other survivors held captive and make them aware of the plan.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
An engraving of John Brown being led to his execution. Library of Congress

8. Soule had himself locked up in order to talk with Brown

When Soule arrived in Charlestown in mid-November, he had himself arrested. How he did so is disputed, but he likely either created a public disturbance, or was drunk, or both. At any rate, once in jail he persuaded the jailer to allow him to speak with Brown. The conversation did not go well, at least not in the point of view of those conspiring to free him. John Brown did not want to be rescued. He knew he was going to the gallows and he believed his martyrdom would inspire more people to take up his cause. He refused to be persuaded otherwise. John Brown wanted to die, secure in his religious beliefs that it was his destiny.

The jailer, a man named John Avis, released Silas shortly after his conversation with Brown, and Silas informed his fellow conspirators, including Hinton, that they had wasted their time. He used a similar ruse to attempt to free two of Brown’s conspirators but that too failed, for similar reasons. John Brown was hanged on December 2, 1859, his conscience apparently clear despite the several murders which should have weighed upon it, committed over the course of his lifetime. The execution was not open to the public, though it was witnessed by 2,000 soldiers. His desired martyrdom came from some, but did not lead to the mass uprising in support of his ideals which he had envisioned.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
The Colorado Volunteers were formed early in the Civil War. Wikimedia

9. Soule sought further adventures in Colorado

Following the failure to rescue John Brown, as well as two of his supporters who Soule contacted through similar subterfuges, Soule traveled north to Boston. There he met with fellow abolitionists, discussed the situation in Kansas and Missouri, and became friends with the poet Walt Whitman. There, as with many others, the talk of the gold fields in Colorado caught his attention and in the spring of 1860 Soule traveled to Colorado in company of his brother and a cousin, intent on striking it rich in the region near Denver. As with so many others, the promise of gold was far greater than the amount of gold actually found.

In the absence of readily discovered riches from the ground, Silas worked in a blacksmith shop, and was so employed when news of the Civil War reached Colorado. Soule enlisted in the 1st Regiment of Colorado Volunteers in 1861, joining the 1st Colorado Infantry. The regiment was assigned to take part in the New Mexico Campaign in 1862. The campaign was initiated to prevent Confederate troops under Brigadier General Henry Sibley from seizing New Mexico and threatening the Colorado gold fields. The Confederates marched to the north and west along the Rio Grande River, and the Colorado troops moved to stop them.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Confederate General Henry Sibley attempted to take the Colorado gold fields. Library of Congress

10. The New Mexico Campaign

In early 1861, the New Mexico territory consisted of several small settlements, for the most part, isolated from the territorial government in Santa Fe. Tucson and the community of Mesilla formed secession committees and voted to join the newly formed Confederacy, calling up militia to enforce their decisions. When word of their alignment with the Confederacy reached Texas, cavalry was dispatched to Mesilla to support them. It was followed by an Army of New Mexico, formed by the Confederate government in Richmond, to occupy New Mexico and Arizona and invade the Union Territory of Colorado, under the command of General Sibley.

Sibley’s (and the Confederacy’s) strategy included the seizure of Colorado, severing the Oregon Trail and isolating the Union from the wealth of the west, as well as the seizure of Nevada and California. After securing the western lands Sibley intended to take the Mexican states along the current US southern border, either through negotiation, purchase, or military conquest. Though the plans seem grandiose to modern eyes, the lands were for the most part sparsely settled, and Mexico was at the time occupied by French troops, and the possibility of a treaty between the Confederacy and France was very real. Stopping Sibley was the mission of the Colorado troops.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
The Glorieta Pass battlefield is part of Pecos National Historical Park. National Park Service

11. The campaign in New Mexico was a Confederate failure

Sibley’s campaign in the American Southwest was a series of Confederate military victories in battles that were small in relation to the bloodbaths unfolding in Virginia, Maryland, and Tennessee in 1862. The skirmishes were nearly all Confederate victories, though pyrrhic in nature, as their supplies dwindled to the point an army in the field could no longer be sustained. Silas Soule served throughout the campaign with distinction, rising in rank within the Colorado Volunteers. The largest battle of the campaign, at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, saw the Union troops driven from the field by Confederates who were then forced to withdraw.

The Colorado Volunteers returned to the Colorado Territory in the fall of 1862, with Soule assigned to serve as adjutant to Colonel John M. Chivington, who had his headquarters in Denver. Soule had by then risen to the rank of Lieutenant of Volunteers. In 1864, promoted to Captain, he was reassigned to the command of Major Edward Wynkoop, to serve as his second-in-command at Fort Lyon. The fort was located on the Arkansas River, in the southeast corner of Colorado. As well as maintaining a garrison to defend against Confederate incursion, Fort Lyon was necessary to protect the territory against the Arapaho and Cheyenne natives who preyed on the cattle herds of settlers.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Union troops were occupied with uprisings of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux in 1864. Wikimedia

12. The Indian uprisings in 1864

During the summer of 1864, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and small bands of Sioux warriors raided settlements and attacked stages carrying the mail west of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Mail and gold shipments from Denver to the east were also subject to Indian attacks. Throughout the summer settlements in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas were subject to Indian raids, more than three dozen settlers were killed, and numerous women and children were taken as hostages. By the end of the summer, the largest band of Cheyenne and Arapaho were camped on a site along the Smoky Hill River. It was approached by a force of Union troops from Fort Lyon, with Wynkoop in command and Soule included among their number.

The expedition from Fort Lyon wanted to negotiate peace with the Indians, rather than deal with them militarily, but was prepared to do the latter if the Indians proved intractable. Soule was assigned to escort seven of the tribal leaders to Denver, to have their grievances addressed by the territorial governor, John Evans, and Colonel John Chivington. Despite agreeing to cease raiding, the raids by bands of Cheyenne and Arapaho throughout the western territories continued, and the settlers demanded action from the government as several ranches and farms were destroyed by roving bands.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Black Kettle holds a pipe in this 1864 photograph taken in Denver. Wikimedia

13. The Smoky Hill and Camp Weld Councils in 1864

In September, 1864, Wynkoop and Soule negotiated with Cheyenne leader Black Kettle, and other Indian leaders, for the release of hostages held by the hostile bands, at the Indian encampment at Smoky Hill River. The hostages, four white children whose parents had been killed in raids, were offered by Black Kettle and Arapaho leader Left Hand in exchange for a promise to treat with governor Evans. Soule escorted the native leaders to meet with the governor and Colonel Chivington at Camp Weld, near Denver, while Wynkoop returned to Fort Lyon with the children.

While the attempts to negotiate peace with the Cheyenne went on, the federal government in Washington finally acquiesced to public pressure (and the lobbying of Colonel Chivington, among others) to create a Denver-based militia regiment to deal with the marauders. Soule returned to his post at Fort Lyon, while Black Kettle moved with his followers to a camp on the Sand River. Cheyenne and Arapaho raids continued, with Cheyenne “Dog Soldiers” (organized warriors) renouncing Black Kettle’s efforts to establish peace between the natives and the white settlers.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Cheyenne warriors were organized into bands known as Dog Soldiers. Wikimedia

14. The Indian bands split up after the Camp Weld Council

The Cheyenne and Arapaho bands split into different groups following the failed negotiations for peace, with Black Kettle and about 250 of his followers moving to Fort Lyon in the autumn. Most of the Dog Soldiers and the Arapaho warriors refused to comply with the demands of the Colorado government. The natives under Black Kettle were moved to an encampment on Big Sandy Creek, about 40 miles from Fort Lyon. Meanwhile, attacks by Dog Soldiers and other roving bands of Arapaho and Cheyenne continued throughout the region. In November, Colonel Chivington moved just over 400 men of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry from Denver to Fort Lyon.

When he arrived at Fort Lyon Chivington, the senior officer present, assumed command of the garrison, including Soule, who was in command of Company D of the 1st Colorado Cavalry. Chivington announced his plans to attack Black Kettle and his followers in their camp with the combined command, and Soule, as well as Lieutenant Joseph Cramer of K Company protested. Chivington threatened to place both men under arrest for disobedience to orders. “Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians”, Chivington reportedly said. “Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice”. In late November Chivington moved against the Cheyenne camp.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
A Cheyenne depiction of the attack at Sand Creek. Wikimedia

15. Chivington attacked the Cheyenne camp with over 650 men

Despite protesting vigorously over the attack on his fellow officers, Soule led his company with the rest of the command under Chivington on a night march, November 28-29, 1864. They arrived at the camp at Sand Creek just before dawn, with many of the men having spent the night consuming whiskey as a means of keeping warm. When Chivington ordered his men to attack the village, killing all found within, Soule and Cramer ordered their men not to fire, unless they were forced to in self-defense. The attack included the use of artillery by the Colorado troops, who also took some casualties from the resistance of the few warriors in the village.

Some of the Cheyenne fled along the banks of the creek, escaping the fusillade and reaching the camp at Smoky Hill River. Black Kettle was among the escapees, leaving his wife behind during the attack. Accounts of the number killed during what Chivington dubbed the Battle of Sand Creek varied among the participants and observers, but it was generally reported that 163 Cheyenne were killed, most of them women and children. When Ulysses Grant, then commanding the Union forces in Virginia, heard of the attack he called it “nothing less than murder” and called for a Congressional investigation.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Ulysses S. Grant called for investigation into the action at Sand Creek. Wikimedia

16. The Sand Creek Massacre created public outrage

After the fighting was over at Sand Creek, the Colorado troops looted the village, scalped and mutilated the victims, and burned the tents and other structures. Body parts were kept as souvenirs. With the village destroyed the troops moved back to Fort Lyon. Several reporters had accompanied them on the attack and eastern newspapers were soon describing the event in lurid detail in their news columns, while condemning them in their editorials. Public outcry was not 100% against the attack, especially in western newspapers. One, the Rocky Mountain News, ranked it, as “Among the brilliant feats of arms in Indian warfare”.

In December, the same newspaper responded to the announcement from Washington of a congressional investigation into the Sand Creek attack with outrage. “It is unquestioned and undenied that the site of the Sand Creek battle was the rendezvous of the thieving and marauding bands of savages who roamed over this country last summer and fall”, the News opined, ignoring the issues cited by the investigation announcement. Participants were to be called to give testimony to the investigators, among them Silas Soule, who had opposed the attack and resisted carrying it out.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Walt Whitman was among the people to whom Soule described the Sand Creek Massacre. Wikimedia

17. Soule wrote letters describing the massacre to family and friends, including Whitman

Following the Sand Creek event, Chivington called the attack a battle, and the Colorado Volunteers were lauded as heroes in Denver and the regions where the Cheyenne depredations had occurred (and continued to occur). In a letter to Edward Wynkoop, known as Ned to friends, Silas wrote, “I tell you Ned, it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized”. Soule wrote in a similar vein to Whitman, as well as others, and the Army, under pressure from the prominent abolitionists, opened an investigation into the event at the time known as the Battle of Sand Creek.

Chivington retired from the Army in January, 1865, just over one month following the massacre, and in doing so removed himself from the jurisdiction of a military court martial. The investigation was held in the form of a Military Court of Inquiry in Denver. The city and public opinion were sharply divided, with some continuing to praise Chivington and the Colorado Volunteers as heroes, and those who condemned the Sand Creek action as “Fort Lyon Indian lovers”. Threats against Soule, and others who testified against Chivington were common.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Painting of Yellow Wolf, a Cheyenne leader who was killed at Sand Creek. Wikimedia

18. Soule testified that he protested the attack to an officer junior to Chivington

Although the overwhelming number of sources describing the life of Silas Soule claim that he protested the attack on Sand Creek directly to Chivington, his testimony in Denver did not. He testified that he protested to his own commanding officer, Major Anthony of the 1st Colorado Volunteers. He also described Chivington’s direct command splitting across the creek, putting each other under friendly fire during the attack. He stated that women and children, attempting to escape, were shot and killed by Chivington’s men, after which many were scalped and mutilated. Asked if Chivington intervened to stop them, he testified, “Not that I know of”.

Soule testified before the Court of Inquiry for ten days, answering questions with Chivington present in the room, and often over the latter’s objections. After the Court completed its questioning, he was submitted to cross-examination by Chivington. He was then re-examined by the Court to clear up issues which had arisen during the cross-examination. During his re-examination, he stated, in response to a question about the attack, “I believed until the firing commenced that we would not attack the village”. His testimony ended on February 21, 1865.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
The Sand Creek Massacre was a divisive issue in the west in early 1865. National Park Service

19. Chivington offered to pay a bounty to anyone who killed an Indian or Indian sympathizer

Just before the Court of Inquiry convened, Chivington took advantage of the heated divide in Denver to publicly announce he would personally pay a $500 bounty to anyone who killed either an Indian or an Indian sympathizer. With newspapers such as the Rocky Mountain News calling the men of the 1st Colorado Cavalry – which included Soule and Cramer, as well as its commander Major Anthony – Indian lovers, it was a clear threat against the men of the 1st scheduled to testify regarding the Sand Creek affair. Both Cramer and Soule informed members of the court privately that they had received death threats prior to and following their testimony.

Chivington was not subjected to any legal nor financial penalty for the action at Sand Creek, which throughout his own testimony he continued to call a battle. He also continued to claim a far higher number of warriors were killed in the action than the physical evidence supported. All of the testimony critical of Chivington came from the officers of the 1st Colorado Volunteers; those of the 3rd were all supportive of their commander. In all, three different investigations into the Sand Creek affair were conducted, none of which resulted in anything other than the destruction of Chivington’s reputation, which in turn prevented him from entering his desired political career.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Testimony of Silas Soule at the Court of Inquiry in Denver. Kansas State Historical Society

20. Soule continued to serve as an assistant provost marshal in Denver

While still an officer in the 1st Colorado Volunteers, Soule served as an assistant provost marshal – a policemen, in essence – in Denver. He mustered out as a soldier in early 1865, but continued to serve as a provost marshal, a position he held when he delivered his testimony, and when Chivington announced his $500 bounty. Following his testimony, he and other provost marshals patrolled Denver’s streets. The city remained divided over the Sand Creek affair, and the reporting of events in eastern newspapers was bitterly decried by those of the west. Other than in Denver, Soule’s role in the affair was almost completely unknown.

Few of the letters which Soule and Walt Whitman exchanged survive, and in those that do there is little discussion of political affairs. Instead, Soule’s letter are frank reports of his travels and adventures, including while on military expeditions. Another letter which he wrote, to Ned Wynkoop, reported his objections to the attack on Black Kettle’s village at Sand Creek, stating that he made the objections to officers of the 3rd Colorado Volunteers, who in turn reported them to Chivington. In both his testimony and his surviving letters, he never stated that he made the objections directly to Chivington, neither before nor after the attack.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
The Colorado Volunteers were split in their testimony about Sand Creek. Colorado Virtual Library

21. Throughout his short life Soule was a practical joker

Soule developed a reputation for practical jokes throughout his life, through the time-honored pastime on the frontier of swapping tall tales, and in pranks played on friends, some of them elaborate. He enjoyed leaving his friends wondering if he had been serious or not when telling them of some change in his life. When he married Hersa Coberly in Denver in 1865, he did so on April 1, in a private ceremony, a decision the couple made mutually. The date was chosen, in part, by the pair to keep their friends guessing if they were actually married or not. The Court of Inquiry had not yet completed its investigation of Sand Creek.

The federal investigations into the Sand Creek affair were dealt a blow just two weeks after his marriage, when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington DC. The murder, which came on the heels of the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, removed the story of Sand Creek from the pages of newspapers, and the public’s attention shifted to Lincoln’s funeral and the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth. The army investigation into Sand Creek continued. In July, Colorado Territorial Governor John Evans’ complicity with Chivington both before the massacre and attempting to cover it up had been revealed, in part through Soule’s testimony. He was asked to resign by President Johnson.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
The Union defeat at First Bull Run led Congress to create a Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. National Park Service

22. The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War

After the Union lost the First Battle of Bull Run in 1861, Congress created the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, which continued to operate throughout the American Civil War. In 1865 the committee joined in the investigation of the Sand Creek affair, taking testimony from participants through investigators at Fort Riley, Kansas. Soule was not available to testify, but others that did corroborated his accounts of Sand Creek in their separate testimony. Others gave conflicting testimony which supported Chivington’s account.

After hearing testimony, the Joint Committee addressed the Sand Creek affair in detail, calling it a massacre, and admitting that the United States government was culpable for the actions of its officer. In its statement, the committee called the action at Sand Creek a “foul and dastardly massacre”, deliberately planned and executed. It said of Chivington, “the truth is that he surprised and murdered, in cold blood, the unsuspecting men, women, and children on Sand creek, who had every reason to believe they were under the protection of the United States authorities”.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
The Cheyenne continued to fight for more than a decade following Sand Creek. Wikimedia

23. Soule was murdered in Denver in early 1865

Silas Soule was 26 years old in April, 1865, the month he married his bride. He continued to serve as a provost marshal in the city, unable to find another form of employment as the Civil War ended. On April 23, 1865, Soule was either at home, or patrolling the streets, or walking with his wife, (reports vary) when he went to investigate gunfire he heard in a Denver alley. Again, reports vary, but Soule was shot at least once, and wounded his assailant before falling. A trail of blood led to a former member of the Colorado Volunteers named Charles W. Squier. The wounded Squier escaped with an accomplice by the name of William Morrow.

The link with the regiment formerly commanded by Chivington led to speculation that he had sanctioned the murder, as revenge for the testimony which tarnished his reputation, but the findings of the Joint Committee had not been revealed at the time. The Military Court had not issued a finding yet either. In his testimony at the Military Court, Soule had linked Squier and others of the Colorado Volunteers with missing military equipment, stolen during their campaigns and in camp. Soule was buried in Denver on April 26, 1865. Chivington took the opportunity to introduce evidence that Soule had profited from the Indian war through theft of equipment, but the Court refused to consider his charges.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
An 1898 photograph of Cheyenne leader White Buffalo. Wikimedia

24. Chivington faced a life of failure following Soule’s death

Chivington found the rumors that he had been involved in Soule’s death were widespread, and when the reports of the various committees into the Sand Creek Massacre were published, the rumors intensified. He married his daughter-in-law, Sarah, and in 1868 he went to Washington to attempt to collect over $37,000 of what he said he was owed as reparations for losses to the Indians. Failing in that attempt, he moved to Troy, New York, with Sarah, to reside with her parents. Sarah later said of their life together that he “spent his time trying to get money without labor”. Eventually, he abandoned her.

Chivington eventually returned to Denver, where there remained enough support for his views that he gained work as a deputy sheriff. For the rest of his life, he defended his actions at Sand Creek, and refused to accept that the massacre had caused the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux Indians to increase their attacks on white settlements. He also continued to denounce the men who had testified against him as liars, and cited the favorable testimony of the men who had served in the 3rd Colorado as being a true accounting of the event.

The Forgotten Story of Silas Soule, Hero and Friend of Walt Whitman and John Brown
Jesse James was a contemporary of Soule’s, an opponent as a Border Ruffian, made famous through dime novels. Library of Congress

25. The true story of Silas Soule is often merged with myth

Much of the story of Silas Soule is sprinkled with undocumented assertions, such as tales regarding his activities during the period known as Bloody Kansas. The Kansas frontier was the scene of repeated murders, thefts, rapine, arson, and other crimes by both sides. Soule was part of them throughout the period. He also attempted to help free a man held by the Commonwealth of Virginia for multiple murders, which he freely admitted. Although he did oppose the slaughter at Sand Creek, he voiced his opposition to his fellow officers, not to Chivington, who commanded them.

His testimony at the Military Court – which can be read online – focused more on malfeasance committed by Chivington, than a description of the massacre itself, and he specifically stated in his testimony that he had not seen any scalping, though he had seen men carrying scalps. Nor does his testimony contain a reference to his ordering his men not to shoot during the assault, as many tributes to Soule attest. He is one of many to emerge from the Kansas – Missouri border wars (the James brothers were others) to become mythical in the American west, though Soule lacked the characterizations of dime novels and magazines to make him famous.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“How Bloody was Bleeding Kansas? Political Killings in Kansas Territory, 1854-1861”. Dale Watts, Kansas History. 1995

“The Pottawatomie Killings: It is Established Beyond Controversy That John Brown Was the Leader”. James Townsley, Republican Citizen (Paola, Kansas). December 20, 1879

“Avenging Angel: John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry 1859”. Ron Field. 2012

“The Life of Silas Soule”. Article, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. National Park Service. Online

“The Father of American Terrorism”. Ken Chowder, American Heritage Magazine. February/March, 2000

“Silas Soule: Massachusetts Abolitionist”. Bruce M. Lawlor, America’s Civil War Magazine. Reprinted on HistoryNet.Online

“Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign”. Martin Hall. 2000

“Cheyenne War: Indian Raids on the Roads to Denver, 1864-1869”. Jeff Broome. 2013

“The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado”. Elliot West. 1998

“Report of the Secretary of War Communicating, In Compliance With a Resolution of the Senate of February 4, 1867, a Copy of the Evidence Taken at Denver and Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory, By a Military Commission, Ordered to Inquire into the Sand Creek Massacre, November, 1864”. United States Army. 1867

“On History: Silas Soule’s heroism officially recognized”. Broomfield Enterprise. Online

“Silas Soule’s letter tells the true story of Sand Creek…but like the massacre, it was misplaced”, Patricia Calhoun, Westword. February 18, 2013. Online

“Condition of the Indian Tribes”. Report of the United States Congress. 1867

“Testimony of Colonel J. M. Chivington, April 26, 1865”. Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. PBS. Online