Battle Cry

While historians search for the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, Laird Cometsevah listens to his ancestors.

In August, territorial governor John Evans won authorization for a 100-day volunteer regiment, the Colorado 3rd Cavalry, which fell under the jurisdiction of Chivington. He was a six-foot-four-inch-tall Methodist preacher who'd gained hero status by fighting back Texas Confederates in northern New Mexico during the 1862 battle of Glorieta Pass. Chivington's new orders: Punish hostile Cheyenne and Arapaho.

That fall, while focusing most of his attention on pushing for Colorado statehood and his own political career, Chivington recruited soldiers, conducted occasional (and uneventful) patrols along the Platte River and bristled at the nickname given to his regiment, "the bloodless thirdsters."

Evans had given Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs who sought peace--including Black Kettle--an ultimatum: Surrender or risk attack. In September, representatives from both sides gathered for a summit at Denver's Camp Weld; Chivington was present. When Black Kettle asked how he could protect his people, he was told to report to Fort Lyon southeast of Denver and turn himself him. Which he did. Black Kettle and his people accepted U.S. protection and were fed and allowed to camp outside Fort Lyon for several weeks. When supplies ran low, he was told to relocate about forty miles away at Sand Creek, also known as the Big Sandy, where buffalo had been sighted. Wait there, officers said, until instructions come.

Instructions never came.
In November, as public pressure mounted and the 100-day deadline for his volunteers loomed, Chivington and his troops marched in secret to Fort Lyon. Where were the Cheyenne? he asked.

Sand Creek, officers at the fort replied. But Black Kettle was under protection of the U.S. flag, they said; hostile Cheyenne, including the Dog Soldiers, were camped fifty miles away from Sand Creek at Smoky Hill. Attacking Sand Creek would be wrong, the officers told Chivington.

It would be murder.
"Damn any man who is in sympathy with an Indian," Chivington responded, and he prepared his troops.

"Put on your 1864 hat," says Duane Smith, a historian from Durango. "What would your feelings be toward the Cheyenne and Arapaho? There was a lot of misunderstanding, racism and bigotry on both sides. It's like Desert Storm or the Ayatollah Khomeini when people said, 'Bomb them to the Stone Age!' It's no different with Sand Creek. People who had the power did exactly what they wanted."

At 8 p.m. on November 28, Chivington began marching toward Sand Creek with some 600 volunteers from the 3rd Cavalry, 125 seasoned 1st Cavalry troops from Fort Lyon and four twelve-pound mountain howitzers. At first light he addressed his troops: "I don't tell you to kill all ages and sexes, but look back on the plains of the Platte, where your mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters have been slain."

The bloodless third was about to change its nickname.
For six hours, Chivington's men showered the village with bullets, chasing fleeing Cheyenne and Arapaho up and down Sand Creek, butchering men, women and children, cutting away body parts as trophies.

"You have to remember that most of these were not trained troops but volunteers," says Mike Koury, a military historian whose Old Army Press published the Chivington defense, I Stand by Sand Creek. "These men enlisted in a moment of passion. Everyone had seen the Hungates or knew someone who had. This is a lot different than someone from back East who had never been threatened by Indians or did not have a personal stake. These people knew someone who had been killed or had their horses stolen. These people were angry. They were scared. It was personal. And they vented on the Indians. They might have been the wrong Indians, but they were close enough. They would do."

Chivington sent battlefield dispatches claiming 500 Indian deaths, including those of five chiefs, and 500 animals captured. He also reported finding "a white man's scalp, not three days old" in a Sand Creek lodge.

When they returned to Denver, Chivington and his "bloody third" were greeted as heroes. Their trophies hung in a theater. The Rocky Mountain News reported: "Cheyenne scalps are getting as thick here now as toads in Egypt. Everybody has got one and is anxious to get another to send East."

In January 1865, Chivington was mustered out of the Army and his 100-day regiment disbanded.

"You never condone killing women and children," Koury says. "But to his last dying day, Chivington said he stood by Sand Creek. If you had to ride a stagecoach through the Plains or had a family that did, you might be awful glad he did what he did. When he died, he had the largest funeral in Denver until Buffalo Bill. Nothing is as black and white as it appears."

That became clear within months of Sand Creek, when another version of the battle began to emerge. Eyewitness accounts of the attack reached Washington, D.C., where a joint congressional committee was holding an inquest on Civil War atrocities. At the committee's urging, the U.S. government condemned Sand Creek as a "gross and wanton" massacre and in a treaty promised to repay survivors for their losses. Later that year, Governor Evans was removed from office. Chivington, now a civilian, went unpunished.

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