Chivington Did Nothing Wrong:
C. F. Robinson
The Sand Creek Massacre—An Honest Victory
At sunrise on November 29, 1864 Colonel John Chivington (1821–1894) gave the order to his Colorado Cavalry troopers to attack. With that order, four cannons opened up on a Cheyenne Indian village, and the troopers advanced. At the end of the battle, Indian warriors, women, and children were dead, and the American whites held the field in victory.
In a time when the uniquely American and uniquely white historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson are routinely vilified for violating the social Taboos of the current Dark Age, Colonel Chivington is uniquely easy to vilify. He can easily be portrayed as a crazed, white Christian militant and he fought a no quarter battle with the Cheyenne Indians based on irrational and unjust religious and racist fanaticism.
Indeed, in 1865 the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War condemned Colonel Chivington in terms today’s Social Justice Warriors could easily understand. The Joint Committee of the Conduct of the War was a committee made of members from both US House and Senate which consisted of lawmakers from the Radical Republican wing of the Northern Unionist political faction. Despite their political slant, they took a far more active interest in deployments of the American troops than much of today’s Congress. Regarding the battle at Sand Creek, Colorado Territory, the committee stated, “It is difficult to believe that beings in the form of men, and disgracing the uniform of the United States soldiers and officers, could commit or countenance the commission of such acts of cruelty and barbarity as are detailed in the testimony . . .”
In modern times, the Indian Wars are often used by the hostile elite as a cultural weapon against whites. The portrayal of this battle from a white guilt perspective paints the Coloradoans as attacking a peaceful, innocent band under a friendly Indian Chief named Black Kettle. Indeed, Chivington’s attack at Sand Creek is fictionalized in the most negative light in popular culture. For example, the fanatically anti-Indian character of Colonel Skimmerhorn in the James A. Michener book Centennial and mini-series of the same name is loosely based Chivington. The affair at Sand Creek was first politicized from a white-guilt perspective in May 1865, by Radical Republicans in Congress.
After reading the records of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War this author came to the conclusion that Colonel Chivington was not acting from motives of unjust bloodlust. In fact, this author was really surprised that the Committee came to the conclusion that “beings in the form of men” were “disgracing the uniform” in their attack. What did the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War expect war to be like? Chivington was operating well within the norms of nineteenth-century Indian Warfare, and Black Kettle was by no means unarmed, peaceful, or completely friendly. Indeed, the narrative that Black Kettle was “friendly” and the attack somehow “unjust” only exists at all due to a misunderstanding of Indian policy on the part of Federal and Territorial officials before the battle.
But why care about a US Government military/bureaucratic SNAFU from the days of the Civil War? Essentially, a study of Colonel Chivington and the fight at Sand Creek is important for the modern reader for several reasons.
First, as mentioned above the fight at Sand Creek is used by the hostile elite media and culture producers as ammunition to demoralize whites. Next, the context in which Chivington was condemned by the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War has many similarities to the actions of modern anti-whites in power as well as faith based organizations using non-white pathologies to “rent seek.”
Finally, the Indian Wars on the Plains during the Civil War is a type of insurgency not unlike the Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the Third World. Unfortunately, it is very likely that young men reading this article could be swept up in a Third World Style insurgency and be forced to make similar decisions as Chivington and then wind up facing the same sort of judgment.
On the first look it is curious that The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War investigated Sand Creek in the first place. The fight at Sand Creek was by no means the first or last battle with the Indians during the Civil War. It was not unique in that Indian women or children were killed. At Sand Creek, between 70 and 163 Indians were possibly killed, so Sand Creek was not by any means an exceptionally bloody battle in a war where it was possible to have 20,000 casualties in a single day. The battle wasn’t even the start of hostilities upon the plains.
The Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War got a negatively portrayed account of the Sand Creek affair from political rivals of Chivington very shortly after the battle as the fight occurred at the end of November 1864 and the investigation started in early January 1865. The Committee’s investigation of Sand Creek was wrapped up in May of 1865 and published under the title, Massacre of the Cheyenne Indians.
Colonel John Chivington was an abolitionist minister who had successfully led Union troops in a battle against the Confederate Army in New Mexico. Chivington’s overall character is difficult to defend in that he was a minister and politically ambitious. Therefore, the historical record on the man himself carefully documents his human failings from the perspectives both of failing to live up to the harsh yardstick of Protestant Christianity and carefully crafted character assassinations on the part of his political rivals. From a neutral perspective, Colonel Chivington was politically ambitious, pro-Union, and civically minded. He was motivated to support the newly formed Territory of Colorado and was attempting to set himself up for high office when Colorado converted to a state.
The Indian Situation Prior to the Affair at Sand Creek
During the Civil War (1861–1865) the United States was also faced with a series of Indian wars. The state of Kansas struggled with a modern-style refugee crisis in late 1861 after pro-Confederate Indians drove pro-Union Indians out of Indian Territory (Oklahoma). In Minnesota, a vicious war between whites and the Dakota Sioux broke out in 1862. In the Colorado Territory, the Cheyenne along with the Sioux and Arapaho had been causing a great deal of trouble on the high plains of eastern Colorado, southern Wyoming, and western Kansas.
The trouble was so bad that the local district commander Major General Samuel R. Curtis sent a series of messages to the War Department that read as follows:
July 23, 1864 “The Indian difficulties west of this point [Fort Riley, Kansas] are serious, and I have come here to rally a force on the borders to repress the mischief. . . . ” July 26, 1864 “The stage has just arrived from Laramie. The damage done amounts to ten teamsters killed, five wounded, two of them scalped, and the stealing of about three hundred cattle. . . .” August 8, 1864, “. . . The Kiowas, Comanches, and Big Mouth Arapahoes are evidently determined to do all the mischief they can. I hope no favor will be offered them by authorities at Washington. . . .” August 10, 1864, “Indians have attacked and killed inhabitants on Little Blue, this side of Fort Kearny.”
Messages containing lists of Indian outrages and requests for support against the Indians and local political leadership to the Union Army were fast and furious in 1864, and Colorado was the central base of operations for the Indians. In addition to the threat to the wagon trails, and settlements in the west, the Indians had a very real opportunity to cut off Denver which was then the center of the territory’s gold industry. That gold was essential for the Union War effort.
Remarking on the violence in the summer of 1864, Chivington’s Chief of Cavalry, Captain S. M. Robbins said to the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the war,
For the information of the committee, I should like to say a friendly word, under the circumstances, in the Chivington interest. For a year and a half past there has been a state of war existing between the Indians and the whites, as far as the opinion of the Indians was concerned; whether by the authority of the head chiefs or not we cannot tell. At all events, the interruption of communication on the Arkansas Route and on the Platte route raised the price of everything being consumed by the people out here. And the people emphatically demanded that something should be done.
In late 1864, the Third Colorado Cavalry was formed to help deal with the Indian Threat. They were brigaded together with the First Colorado Cavalry, a veteran unit. The Third Colorado was a 100 Day Regiment, so called because it was one of many Union regiments formed for enlistments of that duration in 1864 to help increase the army and push to end the war. Both the First and Third Colorado Cavalry were under the command of Colonel Chivington. Governor Evans of the Colorado Territory wanted to use Chivington’s force to put an end to the Indian troubles.
The Dangerous Game Played by Black Kettle
Chivington attacked Black Kettle for the following reasons. As mentioned above, the Indians, especially the Cheyenne were causing problems, throughout the territory. Overall, the Cheyenne tribe was led by Chief Black Kettle — sort of. Black Kettle had become known as a major leader in the Cheyenne tribe to Colorado Territory Governor John Evans when Black Kettle went to war with the Utes in 1862. However, in 1864, the main band of Cheyenne believed to be carrying out the lion’s share of raiding was known as the Dog Soldiers. The Dog Soldiers were Cheyenne, but they were not technically under the control of Black Kettle, although a Dog Soldier could leave the Dog Soldier band and join Black Kettle’s band and vice-versa.
In a modern context, the situation was not unlike the official Taliban government of Afghanistan in 2001 having links to, but technically no real control over al-Qaeda, or the Israeli government having links to, but technically no real control over the Lebanese Phalange Militias that murdered many Palestinian refugees in 1982. Therefore, it was unclear to the Coloradoan whites which Cheyenne was good and which was bad.
Black Kettle was playing a very dangerous game with very dangerous enemies. In 1864, the wily chief was starting a trick all Indian tribes would do until the end of the Indian Wars on the Plains several decades later. The Indians would spend the summer raiding, and then sit out the winter on the Reservation drawing supplies from the government. Come spring, they’d be off again.
As for his enemies, they weren’t united in their Indian Policy, and Black Kettle did not fully understand this. Black Kettle surrendered to Major Edward W. Wynkoop, commander of Fort Lyon, who was directly under the control of the Union Army but not the Colorado Territory Governor. Additionally, Major Wynkoop might not have had the authority to accept surrender, as by their actions in the summer, the whole of the Cheyenne was at war with the American whites. Black Kettle was declaring himself “friendly” just as it was convenient to stop raiding and settle down for the winter.
While Black Kettle resided near Fort Lyon, Major Wynkoop was recalled to Fort Riley and replaced by Major Scott J. Anderson. With regard to the status of the Indians Major Anderson remarked that, “I told them I had no authority from department headquarters to make peace with them.” Major Anderson informed the Cheyenne of that status. Due to the lack of supplies, Major Anderson couldn’t feed the Indians through the winter so he told them to remove to an area off the reservation where they could hunt buffalo. The Indians were thus armed, off the reservation, and not really at peace with the whites.
The fight itself occurred when Colonel Chivington’s Colorado Troopers moved to Fort Lyon in appallingly cold weather conditions. Along with the cavalry, they took four artillery pieces. Chivington stopped the US Mail in the area and then threw up a guard at the fort to not allow any messengers to get to the Indians. At sunrise his men attacked Black Kettle’s band. The Indians rallied, and there was a battle of several hours. Angered by the killings perpetrated by Indians in the summer of 1864, Chivington’s Cavalry took no prisoners, and the men took back body parts for display in Denver.
A territorial governor sending a force to defeat Indians, even neutral or Indians not presently engaged in warfare against the US Government or American whites is not unusual in American history — especially when the situation was as tense as it was in 1864. In December 1675, the United Colonies of New England sent a large army to destroy the main Narragansett Indian Fort during King Philip’s War. The Narragansett were neutral at the time, but they were supporting many of King Philip’s hostile braves and appeared to be preparing to attack the whites. In 1779, when giving instructions to General John Sullivan and his army to attack the Iroquois, George Washington ordered “that country may not merely be overrun but destroyed.” Sullivan’s army went on to destroy the Iroquois towns including the towns which fielded hostiles and towns which did not. When Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet Tenskwatawa raised tensions in the Mid-West by arranging an anti-American confederation among the Indians, William Henry Harrison famously brought his army to battle at Tippecanoe in a preemptive attack. Following his victory there, his army burned down the Indian village of Prophetstown. The soldiers who attacked the Narragansett were given land for their service. Washington and Harrison were both elected president after their Indian Wars, but Chivington — who did no more or less than any others — is the subject of scorn.
Changing Nineteenth-Century Metapolitics and Rent Seeking
What made the attack on Sand Creek different in political effects from the previous attacks on Indians illustrates all the differences of the over-arching metapolitical attitudes of the American people from Colonial and early Republic times to the Civil War and today. Many of the abolitionist’s anti-slavery actions were motivated by the desire to rid the United States of blacks through a colonization scheme, but a faction of the abolitionist movement elevated blacks to the status of religious icons. By late 1864, it was clear that the Civil War would be won and slavery vanquished so the religious icon status enjoyed by blacks moved to Indians.
One religious minister who felt that Christian men could handle Indians better than anyone else was Episcopalian Bishop Henry Benjamin Whipple. He blamed the 1862 Dakota War (between Minnesota whites and Dakota Sioux living in Minnesota) on dishonest Indian Agents. He lobbied President Lincoln to change the system whereby what we call in modern times welfare goods were distributed to Indians. Bishop Whipple argued that politically appointed Indian Agents were often motivated by greed and comfortable with corruption, therefore they should be replaced by religious men.
President Lincoln didn’t act on Whipple’s proposals, but his ideas took root in Washington D.C. One Senator, Zachariah Chandler, (R-MI) was certainly influenced by Whipple. After the Civil War Senator Chandler became President Grant’s Secretary of the Interior, and he worked to change the Bureau of Indian Affairs to match Bishop Whipple’s ideas. While Secretary of the Interior, Chandler drove the Bureau of Indian Affairs became, to put in a modern context, a Government entity cooperating with Faith-Based Organizations to benefit non-whites.
Additionally, the post-war Grant Administration made a big push to reduce warfare with the Indians by interfacing with the Indians through Bureau of Indian Affairs and using the Army only for backup. Senator Chandler was also a member of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War so his findings against Colonel Chivington, where in line with the direction which Chandler wanted to take Indian Policy. With that in mind, it becomes clear exactly why the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War chose to make an issue of Sand Creek.
Chivington’s attack on Black Kettle’s band was therefore a perfect incident to adjust political policy in the same way the Emmett Till incident was used to bring Federal Agencies to intervene in the South a century later. Much like this author suspects that details of the Emmett Till lynching are altered considerably to highlight Till’s supposed innocence and downplay is actual crime to “wolf whistling,” the Joint Committee altered the weight of the evidence to portray Chivington as unjust and Black Kettle and the Cheyenne as entirely innocent.
Senator Chandler was moralizing against Chivington and the Colorado Cavalry in the same way that “civil rights” activists moralized in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a means to a political end. Bishop Whipple was able to use the Indian conflicts occurring within the Civil War as an opportunity to gain funds and positions, i.e., “rent seek” from the taxpayer to himself and his like-minded religious cronies. After the Civil War, Major Wynkoop, the official that overstepped his bounds by accepting surrender from Black Kettle got a job as an Indian Agent.
As with all relations between white Europeans and non-white others, the new policy didn’t work as promised. Bishop Whipple’s churchmen were a shade more honest than the graft-seeking political operatives who had distributed treaty goods to the Indians prior to the Civil War, but they were unable to stop the Indian Warfare. In 1868, Black Kettle “surrendered” for the winter and drew welfare while the young men in his band continued to raid white settlements. General Sheridan tired of the matter and sent the Seventh US Cavalry to attack Black Kettle’s band and end Black Kettle’s life on 27 November 1868.
When dealing with non-whites, American whites have a curious and consistent mental outlook that implies that the policies of white government and the attitudes of white citizens towards non-whites are the reason for conflict while often ignoring the very real desire on the part of non-whites for violence against whites.
In fact, Bishop Whipple’s Sioux Indians displayed hostile attitudes towards Americans and the US Government from the very first official contact during the Lewis and Clark expedition on 25 September 1804. The hostility continued until the Sioux were forced to yield in the late 1870s. Hostility still lingered though; the mostly Sioux Ghost Dancers had to be violently cut down by the army in 1890 after months of rising tension. As recently in 1973 there was an armed stand-off between Sioux and the Federal Government at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Additionally, the government policy re-alignment after the Civil War proved to be ineffective. In his Ph.D. dissertation Henry Waltmann wrote of the clash between the military War and civil Interior Departments:
In theory, most tribes, through treaties, were under the management of the civil branch. In practice, the military branch, which had been nominally in control of Indian affairs from 1789 to 1849, had jurisdiction over hostile Indians. Hostility, however, was not easily defined, and neither department’s interpretation was supreme. The result was confused and divided control, accompanied by constant bickering over whether civil or military jurisdiction was most conducive to permanent solution of the Indian problem.
Indecisive government policy related to the Indians during Chivington’s time thus continued long after the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the war issued its damning anti-Chivington findings. Furthermore, other battles in the Indian Wars following the Civil War were every bit as bloody as Chivington’s. In short, Chivington was no better or worse than any other white soldier on the plains.
Chivingon’s story illuminates the very real problems which white soldiers, policemen, teachers, and other officials deal with when handling non-whites in the modern metapolitical environment. The modern metapolitical culture puts powerful whites with a religious sense of duty to protect, promote, and otherwise look after non-whites in positions of unjust judgment over those same soldiers, policemen, or teachers who must keep civilization on track. This religious impulse, what today is called anti-racism, automatically ignores the very real difficulties of whites dealing with non-whites.
Today, there is very little support from the establishment for any white dealing with such an enemy either with physical or moral resources. The religious anti-racism also shifts the burden of agency and responsibility on to the shoulders of any responsible white, while ignoring the free will actions of the non-white.
All warfare is a bloody mess, causing harm to all parties. Once engaged in it, the soldiers and leaders involved must pursue their duty to protect their people. Colonel Chivington did protect his people and do his duty.
The lessons of Sand Creek and the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War’s political attack on Chivington can be crystalized into the bullet points below.
- The Committee was very likely using the Sand Creek affair as a pretext for a change in government policy, therefore Chivington was slandered for reasons other than the basic facts of the situation.
- The Committee took the word of Black Kettle at face value. As Sheridan discovered several years later, Black Kettle was not fully honest about his ability to actually keep up the Cheyenne peaceful while drawing government rations.
- The Committee didn’t take Sand Creek in context with the entire war. While some wigwams were burned and 70 to 163 Indians were killed on the high plains of Colorado, William T. Sherman’s army was burning down civilian infrastructure worth millions in Georgia. On the same day as Sand Creek, more than 800 were killed at the Battle of Spring Hill, Tennessee.
- The Committee ignored the very real problem of a failure on the part of the US Government to have one official in overall control of peace or war with the Indians. Additionally, it is clear that Union Army officers were uncertain of the exact policy.
- While a Union officer could have possibly made peace in good faith, he couldn’t secure the Indians from raiding in the future, and he wasn’t supplied to feed or otherwise secure the Indians.
- There was clearly a failure of intelligence. Chivington had only one chance to bring the Indians to decisive battle, why didn’t his superior General Curtis give him info as to where the Dog Soldiers were? After Chivington shot his bolt at Sand Creek, the Indians were nearly impossible to bring to a quick decisive battle.
- Chivington himself failed to realize that every military career or action is “Swift-Boatable.” He failed to defend himself from military rivals who were looking for post-war jobs as Indian Agents.
All historical works are interpretations of past events by people who are using the events to illuminate the problems of the present. This article is no different. After reading the 1865 findings of the Joint Committee of the conduct of the war, and looking at the Indian Wars from the perspective of a veteran of the Global War on Terror comfortable with the ideas of the “Alt Right,” this author came away with different conclusions than the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War.
2. For some reason, combat against a non-Western, non-white enemy in an insurgency gets far less glory than another kind of war. There is a big asterisk to a military operation stemming from a victory in such a war. I can only speculate as to why this is the case, but I propose the following: When the fight comes, the superior organization of the whites is taken as a matter of course. Chivington moved a brigade of cavalry and an artillery battery across the plains in winter and still kept the element of surprise, and yet this feat of excellence is ignored. Today, many of the terrorist fighters are flying drones across the world and yet the incredible feats of targeting, intelligence, logistics, and technical acumen are so ignored and downplayed that a proposed Drone Warfare Medal was shouted down by every couch commando in America.
6. Whites discovering that the non-white leader they seek to negotiate with is not a leader of his people is a common theme through history. One recent example is Ahmed Chalabi, who had sold himself to the Bush Administration Neoconservatives as the “George Washington of Iraq.”
9. A good account of the exact mechanics of religious men being unable to stop the warfare can be found at the following location: http://www.amren.com/archives/back-issues/july-2010/
10. Waltmann, Henry George The Interior Department, War Department and Indian Policy, 1865-1887 University of Nebraska – Lincoln, Lincoln, Nebraska 1963 Page 12 http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1074&context=historydiss