Diary of Orrin Brown, Louisville, Georgia
The day has been clear and warm, there has been some of our foragers killed by Rebbels today, we are still in camp here one mile east of Louisville.
War is hell. There should be no illusion when men take up arms against other men, with the intent to settle issues by force. Yet throughout history, we have settled on codes of conduct. One goes outside those (sometimes formal, sometimes informal) rules of war at one’s own risk. This “civilization” of the most uncivilized acts breaks down when the understood codes change over time, and when different sides of the conflict adhere to different codes and expectations.
In the early morning hours of 29 November 1864, abolitionist and preacher Col. John M. Chivington and 675 troops of the First Colorado and First New Mexico Volunteer cavalry—veterans of Glorietta—marched out of Fort Lyon on the plains of southeastern Colorado. While the Southern Cheyenne warriors were out hunting buffalo, Chivington attacked the peaceful village of Chief Black Kettle flying the American flag on the banks of Sand Creek, exactly where the commander of Ft. Lyon had told them to camp.
The head chief of the nation, Black Kettle, and head chief of the Cheyennes, was encamped there with us. Some years previous he had been presented with a fine American flag by Colonel Greenwood, a commissioner, who had been sent out there. Black Kettle ran this American flag up to the top of his lodge, with a small white flag tied right under it, as he had been advised to do in case he should meet with any troops out on the prairies.
Black Kettle kew these men and had treated with Gov. Evans and Col. Chivington in Denver. Accounts varied, but trader George Bent (who was in the village at the time) wrote that 28 men and 109 women and children were killed.
the two conflicts were closely related, says Ari Kelman, a historian at Penn State University and author of A Misplaced Massacre, a Bancroft Prize-winning book about Sand Creek.
The Civil War, he observes, was rooted in westward expansion and strife over whether new territories would join the nation as free states or slave states. Slavery, however, wasn’t the only obstacle to free white settlement of the West; another was Plains Indians, many of whom staunchly resisted encroachment on their lands.
“We remember the Civil War as a war of liberation that freed four million slaves,” Kelman says. “But it also became a war of conquest to destroy and dispossess Native Americans.” Sand Creek, he adds, “is a bloody and mostly forgotten link” between the Civil War and the Plains Indian Wars that continued for 25 years after Appomattox.
The Sand Creek Massacre stands as a stark marker, one of the few clear black marks on the many shades of gray in military history. As Alvin Joshephy wrote in The Civil War in the America West, “Altogether, it was one of America’s blackest military scandals, and within weeks, when the facts got out, it precipitated outraged investigations.” Accounts by soldiers who refused to participate later led to a Congressional investigation and condemnation, with promises of reparations never paid.
Along with Minnesota Gen. Henry Hastings Sibley‘s cumbersome 1863 expedition against the Sioux into northern Dakota Territory, all the events accomplished was destroying food and shelter necessary to survive the harsh Plains winters, while bookmarking the beginning of decades of regional conflict between Native Americans and White settlers and adventurers.
We see the same practical and philosophical questions raised yet today. How do we resolve competing claims when cultures are inherently in conflict? How do we deal with a non-uniformed enemy hiding behind peaceful non-combatants? How do we conduct a just war, both ethically (in minimizing civilian suffering) and tactically (in effectively targeting combatants). If forced to war, then we should dedicate ourselves to a swift and just outcome. Yet there is no point to war if we win the battle and lose the peace.