Sand Creek and Glorieta Pass

The LA Times carries the story of the dedication of the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in southeastern Colorado. It tells of the sad story of how Col. John Chivington and his regiment, the First Colorado Volunteers, attacked a peaceful and unprepared village of Cheyenne and Arapahoe under Chief Black Kettle on November 29, 1864. Over 160 Indians were killed in cold blood, mostly women, children and the elderly. Former Colorado Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell was able to get funding through Congress to establish this memorial. The National Park Service has this website that tells more about the site and its history.

This was of particular interest to me, as my graduate school colleague and friend Doug Scott led the effort to relocate the site and conducted archaeological investigations to prove its identity. Doug co-authored a book on his work entitled Finding Sand Creek. Doug has had a great career doing historical archaeology for the National Park Service. He is best known for his work at the Battle of the Little Bighorn battlefield, where his innovative research totally recast our understanding of the course of the battle. That deserves a post of its own that I’ll get to later.

Chivington and the First Colorado Volunteers are now rightfully remembered in infamy for their inexcusable behavior at Sand Creek. It is an amazing turnabout, as he and his troops had covered themselves in glory two years before in a little known battle in an obscure chapter of Civil War history.

In the summer of 1861, Confederate troops left El Paso, TX and occupied the town of Mesilla, NM. They proclaimed Mesilla the capital of the Confederate Territory of Arizona. In February, 1862, a Confederate force under Gen. Henry Sibley invaded the rest of New Mexico Territory, working his way north along the Rio Grande. He outmaneuvered or outfought several Union garrisons, caught asleep and out of the rigors of Civil War campaigns in the East. By March 10, 1862, Sibley had occupied Santa Fe.

Confederate strategic aims were two-fold. First, capture the Colorado gold fields to secure another means of financing the war. Second, set up land communication with California where there were many Confederate sympathizers.

In late March, 1862, Sibley sent troops north toward Colorado. On March 26, the Confederates were met by the First Colorado Volunteers, with Chivington second in command, at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in the mountains northeast of Santa Fe. The Confederates were soundly defeated. This defeat coupled with overextended supply lines led to a complete collapse of the Confederate occupation of New Mexico. By May, all of Sibley’s surviving troops were back to Mesilla and El Paso and their dreams of a Confederate Southwest were at an end.

5 thoughts on “Sand Creek and Glorieta Pass”

  1. Good post on the Confederate military operations in the Southwest. Some of the most fascinating episodes in the War took place outside the major theaters.

    Not mentioned in some newspaper accounts (though I see the LAT did include it) was the eventual fate of Black Kettle: Four years after Sand Creek, his camp was attacked again, this time by US troops under George Armstrong Custer, on the banks of the Washita River in Oklahoma. Black Kettle was killed in this massacre. These episodes and others demonstrate one of the tragedies of American history: it was nearly as dangerous — and sometimes more so — to be a “friendly” Indian as a “hostile” one, as the Army often went after the easiest targets it could find. Whether ignorance (mistaken identity) or apathy (sheer angry racism) on the part of the Army was to blame isn’t always clear, but non-combatant groups such as Black Kettle’s, having no particular reason to hide, often ended up bearing the brunt of military retribution.

    Parallels in the present war (e.g., Haditha) are sobering.

  2. As I recall, Custer attacked the Cheyenne camp on the Washita after trailing an Indian war party back to it. Black Kettle’s band had been killing, raping or enslaving more than two hundred white civilians in Colorado and Kansas.

    Washita was a battle conducted by the regular army, not a massacre. And it was not against an “easy” target. That village was one among many in the area, and Custer came close to being cut off and wiped out, eight years before Little Big Horn.

    Sand Creek was clearly a massacre, a crime conducted by a militia against innocent people. But it also was preceded by Indian atrocities against settlers. That doesn’t excuse the crime. But it explains the angry, vengeful mood in Colorado.

    Slandering our current soldiers fighting in Iraq by the behavior of a militia 142 years ago is Horse Shit.

  3. Certainly some Cheyennes had been raiding in Kansas, but Black Kettle was not necessarily among them; the consensus seems to be that he was committed to peace. After Sand Creek, he signed treaties in 1865 and again in 1867. His very presence on the Washita was an indication of his intentions, as the government had ordered “friendlies” to go there; Indians elsewhere in the territory were to be considered ipso facto hostile. And while it is possible that some raiders may have taken refuge in Black Kettle’s camp, it is also possible that Custer’s Osage scouts may simply have taken the opportunity to settle old scores with their Cheyenne and Arapaho adversaries.

    Whether Washita is considered a battle or a massacre depends largely on one’s point of view, but has nothing to do with whether militia or Regular Army troops were involved. I will concede that Custer’s men were far more disciplined than Chivington’s, and Custer proved himself willing to take prisoners.

    I will dispute Jerry’s contention that Black Kettle’s camp on the Washita was not an easy target. Black Kettle had just returned from a meeting with military officials, and had every reason to believe that his camp on the Washita, the designated location for non-hostile Indians, would be safe. And while there were other villages in the area, Custer seems to have been entirely unaware of this fact until his unit was already engaged.

    The incident at Haditha is well-documented. I suspect that similar incidents occur in most wars, especially “unconventional” wars, without coming to public attention. This is not slander (I find the accusation offensive) but an observation on human nature and the nature of warfare. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  4. The Sand Creek Massacre was a retaliatory raid that hit the wrong encampment. Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors had banded together in an organization called the “Dog Soldiers.” They had been raiding ranch and farm houses in the Denver area, where they murdered and multilating men, women and children. The Colorado militia were searching for the Dog Soldiers’ camp and found Black Kettle’s camp instead. The Dog Soldiers were encamped nearby and had been going back and forth between villages. The Colorado militia found fresh scalps in Black Kettle’s village. (Whether Black Kettle’s band was really peaceful is questionable. Custer later tracked a raiding party back to Black Kettle’s camp on the Washita.)

    The Sand Creek Massacre, which inspried the movie “Soldier Blue,” has been the one of most publicized massacres because it happened relatively recently. It is far from the worst massacre. The worst massacre was probably the Fort Mims massacre in 1813 near Mobile, Alabama, where a faction of Creek Indians known as the “Red Sticks” killed 500 white men, women and children. As the Lakota Sioux migrated from the Great Lakes area to the Black Hills in 1175, they massacred 400 Arikara and Mandan men, women and children at a village near the Missouri.

    As a percentage of population, casualties were low on both sides in warfare between Native Americans and Europeans. Native Americans killed more Europeans than Europeans killed Native Americans. About 7,193 Native Americans died in conflicts with European and their allied Native American forces. Native Americans killed about 9,156 whites. These figures cover more than 300 years and include all the famous massacres such as Sand Creek and Wounded Knee. The combined death toll is about the same a three days of fighting between Union and Confederate forces at the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. Assuming that the Native American population north of Mexico was about 5 million—a mid-range estimate—the number of Native Americans killed in combat against Europeans would have amounted to less than one half of one percent of the Native American population


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