John M. Chivington
The hero of Glorietta Pass and the butcher of Sand Creek, John M. Chivington stands out as one of the most controversial figures in the history of the American West.
Chivington was born into an Ohio farm family in 1821. His father died when he was only five and the burden of providing for the family fell to Chivington's mother and older brothers. While he was growing up, Chivington worked on the family farm so much that he received only an irregular education. By the time of his marriage in 1844 he had been operating a small timber business in Ohio for several years.
Although he had not been particularly religious as a child and young man, Chivington found himself drawn toward Methodism when he was in his early twenties. He was ordained in 1844 and soon began his long career as a minister. He accepted whatever assignment the church gave him, moving his family to Illinois in 1848 and then to Missouri the next year. Chivington was something of a frontier minister, usually establishing congregations, supervising the erection of churches, and often serving as a de facto law enforcement officer. For a time in 1853 he assisted in a Methodist missionary expedition to the Wyandot Indians in Kansas.
Chivington's contempt for slavery and talk of secession caused him enormous trouble in Missouri. In 1856, pro-slavery members of his congregation sent him a threatening letter instructing him to cease preaching. When many of the signatories attended his service the next Sunday, intending to tar and feather him, Chivington ascended the pulpit with a Bible and two pistols. His declaration that "By the grace of God and these two revolvers, I am going to preach here today" earned him the sobriquet the "Fighting Parson."
Soon after this incident, the Methodist Church sent Chivington to Omaha, Nebraska to escape the tumult of Missouri. He and his family remained in Nebraska until 1860, when he was made the presiding elder of the Rocky Mountain District of the Methodist Church and moved to Denver to build a church and found a congregation.
When the Civil War broke out, Colorado's territorial governor, William Gilpin, offered Chivington a commission as a chaplain, but he declined the "praying" commission and asked for a "fighting" position instead. In 1862, Chivington, by that point a Major in the first Colorado Volunteer Regiment, played a critical role in defeating confederate forces at Glorietta Pass in eastern New Mexico, where his troops rapelled down the canyon walls in a surprise attack on the enemy's supply train. He was widely hailed as a military hero.
Back in Denver after the defeat of the Confederacy's Western forces, Chivington seemed destined for even greater prominence. He was a leading advocate of quick statehood for Colorado, and the likely Republican candidate for the state's first Congressional seat. In the midst of his blossoming political prospects, tensions between Colorado's burgeoning white population and the Cheyenne Indians reached a feverish pitch. The Denver newspaper printed a front-page editorial advocating the "extermination of the red devils" and urging its readers to "take a few months off and dedicate that time to wiping out the Indians."
Chivington took advantage of this dangerous public mood by blasting the territorial governor and others who counseled peace and treaty-making with the Cheyenne. In August of 1864, he declared that "the Cheyennes will have to be roundly whipped -- or completely wiped out -- before they will be quiet. I say that if any of them are caught in your vicinity, the only thing to do is kill them." A month later, while addressing a gathering of church deacons, he dismissed the possibility of making a treaty with the Cheyenne: "It simply is not possible for Indians to obey or even understand any treaty. I am fully satisfied, gentlemen, that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet in Colorado."
Several months later, Chivington made good on his genocidal promise. During the early morning hours of November 29, 1864, he led a regiment of Colorado Volunteers to the Cheyenne's Sand Creek reservation, where a band led by Black Kettle, a well-known "peace" chief, was encamped. Federal army officers had promised Black Kettle safety if he would return to the reservation, and he was in fact flying the American flag and a white flag of truce over his lodge, but Chivington ordered an attack on the unsuspecting village nonetheless. After hours of fighting, the Colorado volunteers had lost only 9 men in the process of murdering between 200 and 400 Cheyenne, most of them women and children. After the slaughter, they scalped and sexually mutilated many of the bodies, later exhibiting their trophies to cheering crowds in Denver.
Chivington was at first widely praised for the "battle" at Sand Creek, and honored with a widely-attended parade through the streets of Denver just two weeks after the massacre. Soon, however, rumors of drunken soldiers butchering unarmed women and children began to circulate, and at first seemed confirmed when Chivington arrested six of his men and charged them with cowardice in battle. But the six, who included Captain Silas Soule, a personal friend of Chivington's who had fought with him at Glorietta Pass, were in fact militia members who had refused to participate in the massacre and now spoke openly of the carnage they had witnessed. Shortly after their arrest, the U.S. Secretary of War ordered the six men released and Congress began preparing for a formal investigation of Sand Creek.
Soule himself could not be a witness at any of the investigations, because less than a week after his release he was shot from behind and killed on the streets of Denver. Although Chivington was eventually brought up on court-martial charges for his involvement in the massacre, he was no longer in the U.S. Army and could therefore not be punished. No criminal charges were ever filed against him. An Army judge, however, publicly stated that Sand Creek was "a cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation."
Although he was never punished for his role at Sand Creek, Chivington did at least pay some price. He was forced to resign from the Colorado militia, to withdraw from politics, and to stay away from the campaign for statehood. In 1865 he moved back to Nebraska, spending several unsuccessful years as a freight hauler. He lived briefly in California, and then returned to Ohio where he resumed farming and became editor of a small newspaper. In 1883 he re-entered politics with a campaign for a state legislature seat, but charges of his guilt in the Sand Creek massacre forced him to withdraw. He quickly returned to Denver and worked as a deputy sheriff until shortly before his death from cancer in 1892.
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