Sand Creek Massacre and John Chivington's explosive actions 151 years after Glorieta Pass

The explosions outside the State Capitol yesterday startled people from downtown to Capitol Hill. But unlike so many other explosions today, these were planned. Artillery blasts marked the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, on March 26, 1862, when Colonel Major John Chivington led members of the First Colorado Infantry, fighting alongside New Mexico volunteers and garrisoned Union Soldiers, in battle against Texas Confederate forces in what would become northern New Mexico. But there have been many explosions over a more controversial Chivington action: the Sand Creek Massacre.

In 1909, the Colorado Pioneer Association unveiled a Civil War memorial outside the Capitol. The bronze figure of a Union Soldier facing south, gun in hand, was designed by Captain John D. Howland, a member of the First Colorado Cavalry. Four tablets were placed on the stone stand below the sculpture, listing both those from the new territory who had died in the war and the battles in the area. Glorieta Pass is listed there -- as is Sand Creek.

Two and a half years after his victory at Glorieta Pass, on November 29, 1864, Chivington led 700 troops in a raid on Sand Creek, a peaceful Indian camp north of Fort Lyon. Between 150 and 200 Arapaho and Cheyenne were killed. Although Congress held inquiries into the action and the U.S. government proclaimed Sand Creek a massacre in the 1865 Treaty of the Little Arkansas, it was still listed as a battle on the Civil War memorial forty years later.

But in the 1990s, when historians were hunting for the actual site of what was then widely acknowledged as the Sand Creek Massacre, a legislator pushed to have the Sand Creek listing wiped off the memorial, arguing that it was not a Civil War battle. Rather than erase the Sand Creek name, though, historians and members of the tribes pushed to have an explanation placed by the monument -- because Sand Creek was definitely part of Colorado history, if a very sorry chapter. And legislators agreed. When that marker was unveiled in 2002, former state senator Bob Martinez, who'd pushed the original legislation, said, "This is as close to an official apology for the massacre that occurred 138 years ago as is possible."

Here's the wording on the Colorado Historical Societymarker that's now by the Civil War memorial:

The controversy surrounding this Civil War Monument has become a symbol of Coloradans' struggle to understand and take responsibility for our past. On November 29, 1864, Colorado's First and Third Cavalry, commanded by Colonel John Chivington, attacked Chief Black Kettle's peaceful camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians on the banks of Sand Creek, about 180 miles southeast of here. In the surprise attack, soldiers killed more than 150 of the village's 500 inhabitants. Most of the victims were elderly men, women, and children.

Though some civilians and military personnel immediately denounced the attack as a massacre, others claimed the village was a legitimate target. This Civil War Monument, paid for by funds from the State and the Pioneers' Association, was erected on July 24, 1909, to honor all Colorado soldiers who had fought in battles of the Civil War in Colorado and elsewhere. By designating Sand Creek a battle, the monument's designers mischaracterized the actual events. Protests led by some Sand Creek descendants and others throughout the twentieth century have since led to the widespread recognition of the tragedy as the Sand Creek Massacre.

This plaque authorized by Senate Joint Resolution 99-017

The tribes applauded the Colorado Historical Society for installing the monument. But they are not as happy with History Colorado, the organization's successor; members of the Northern Cheyenne have demanded that Collision, the History Colorado exhibit on Sand Creek, be closed.

Continue for more about Colonel John Chivington's explosive actions. And there are even some quibbles over the accuracy of the Colorado National Guard's take on the Battle of Glorietta Pass. Here's the release on yesterday's ceremony:

Colorado Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia will join Colorado National Guard leaders to commemorate a turning point in the state's history during a ceremony at 1 p.m. March 26 in Denver.

The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place on the west side of the state capitol building, near the Civil War monument.

The hallmark of the event will be the unveiling of a National Guard Bureau Heritage Series painting, "Action at Apache Canyon," by artist Domenick D'Andrea, that depicts the charge of Apache Canyon, which took place March 26, 1862.

On that fateful day, the First Colorado Infantry Regiment, along with New Mexico volunteers and garrisoned Union soldiers, first engaged Texas Confederate forces in what became the westernmost battleground of the Civil War. This strategic point on the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was the main entry point to the western half of the country -- and perhaps the fate of the United States.

When the Union and Confederate forces met, Colorado Maj. John Chivington ordered his infantry companies up the sides of the canyon to suppress the Texans, who had already established fire superiority with their artillery. Chivington then ordered a mounted infantry company led by Capt. Samuel H. Cook to charge the Confederates west of the Glorieta summit in snowy, narrow canyon and capture their rear guard.

The charge, which took place on March 26, 1862, marked the first day of the first hostile engagement for the First Colorado Volunteers. While this engagement ended in a draw, the entire battle of Glorieta Pass, which lasted through March 28, 1862, was a huge success for the Union.

However, had the Texans won the battle, the outcome of the Civil War could have been decidedly different.

According to the 1993 Congressionally-appointed Civil War Sites Advisory Commission, the battle of Glorieta Pass -- what some historians deem the "Gettysburg of the West" -- had as much or more impact on the outcome of the Civil War as the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam. A Texan victory could have transformed the conflict into an East-West battle and would have potentially invited alliances with foreign countries had the Confederates achieved that level of legitimacy....

For more on the Colorado National Guard's history pertaining to the Civil War, an abridged version of the battle of Glorieta Pass can be found online at co.ng.mil/Pages/Default.aspx

But even this version history is disputed. Glorieta was not the "western-most Civil War battle," as stated in the release. There were actions in present Arizona fought by the California volunteers, as documented in Andy Masich's book The Civil War in Arizona.

From the Calhoun: Wake-Up Call archive: "A century and a half later, the wounds of Sand Creek are still fresh."

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