Generals that battled the Indians 

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Generals that battled the Indians

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 1824 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.

Philip Henry Sheridan

A ruthless warrior, General Philip Sheridan played a decisive role in the army’s long campaign against the native peoples of the plains, forcing them onto reservations with the tactics of total war.

Sheridan was born in Albany, New York, in 1831, but grew up in Ohio. He attended West Point and, after a year’s suspension for assaulting a fellow cadet with a bayonet, graduated near the bottom of his class in 1853.

Like all the U.S. generals of the Indian wars, Sheridan gained his military experience in the Civil War. An obscure lieutenant serving in Oregon when Fort Sumter was shelled, Sheridan rose to the command of the Union’s cavalry by the time the Confederacy surrendered. He saw action in Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and in Virginia, where his campaign through the Shenandoah Valley laid waste to an important source of Confederate supplies. At Petersburg he won an important victory that halted Robert E. Lee’s retreat from Richmond and helped bring the war to an end.

After the war, Sheridan was first given command over Texas and Louisiana, where his support for Mexican Republicans helped speed the collapse of Maximillian’s regime and where his harsh treatment of former Confederates led to charges of "absolute tyranny." Within six months he was transferred to the Department of the Missouri, where he immediately shaped a battle plan to crush Indian resistance on the southern plains.

Following the tactics he had employed in Virginia, Sheridan sought to strike directly at the material basis of the Plains Indian nations. He believed — correctly, it turned out — that attacking the Indians’ in their encampments during the winter would give him the element of surprise and take advantage of the scarce forage available for Indian mounts. He was unconcerned about the likelihood of high casualties among noncombatants, once remarking that "If a village is attacked and women and children killed, the responsibility is not with the soldiers but with the people whose crimes necessitated the attack."

The first demonstration of this strategy came in 1868, when three columns of troops under Sheridan’s command converged on what is now northwestern Oklahoma to force the Kiowa, Comanche, Arapaho and Cheyenne onto their reservations. The key engagement in this successful campaign was George Armstrong Custer’s surprise attack on Black Kettle’s encampment along the Washita River, an attack that came at dawn after a forced march through a snowstorm. Many historians now regard this victory as a massacre, since Black Kettle was a peaceful chief whose encampment was on reservation soil, but for Sheridan the attack served its purpose, helping to persuade other bands to give up their traditional way of life and move onto the reservations.

In 1869, Sheridan succeeded William Tecumseh Sherman as commander of the Division of the Missouri, which encompassed the entire plains region from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi. With Sherman, he refined his tactics — massive force directed in surprise attacks against Indian encampments — to mount successful campaigns against the tribes of the southern plains in 1874-1875, and against those of the northern plains in 1876-1877. Where some of his generals in these campaigns, such as Nelson A. Miles, occasionally expressed a soldierly respect for the Indians they were fighting, Sheridan was notorious for his supposed declaration that "the only good Indians I ever saw were dead" — an attribution he steadfastly denied.

Sheridan became commanding general of the United States Army in 1884 and held that post until his death in 1888.

George Armstrong Custer


Flamboyant in life, George Armstrong Custer has remained one of the best-known figures in American history and popular mythology long after his death at the hands of Lakota and Cheyenne warriors at the Battle of the

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Little Bighorn.

Custer was born in New Rumley, Ohio, and spent much of his childhood with a half-sister in Monroe, Michigan. Immediately after high school he enrolled in West Point, where he utterly failed to distinguish himself in any positive way. Several days after graduating last in his class, he failed in his duty as officer of the guard to stop a fight between two cadets. He was court-martialed and saved from punishment only by the huge need for officers with the outbreak of the Civil War.

Custer did unexpectedly well in the Civil War. He fought in the First Battle of Bull Run, and served with panache and distinction in the Virginia and Gettysburg campaigns. Although his units suffered enormously high casualty rates — even by the standards of the bloody Civil War — his fearless aggression in battle earned him the respect of his commanding generals and increasingly put him in the public eye. His cavalry units played a critical role in forcing the retreat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s forces; in gratitude, General Philip Sheridan purchased and made a gift of the Appomatox surrender table to Custer and his wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer.

In July of 1866 Custer was appointed lieutenant-colonel of the Seventh Cavalry. The next year he led the cavalry in a muddled campaign against the Southern Cheyenne. In late 1867 Custer was court-martialed and suspended from duty for a year for being absent from duty during the campaign. Custer maintained that he was simply being made a scapegoat for a failed campaign, and his old friend General Phil Sheridan agreed, calling Custer back to duty in 1868. In the eyes of the army, Custer redeemed himself by his November 1868 attack on Black Kettle’s band on the banks of the Washita River.

Custer was sent to the Northern Plains in 1873, where he soon participated in a few small skirmishes with the Lakota in the Yellowstone area. The following year, he lead a 1,200 person expedition to the Black Hills, whose possession the United States had guaranteed the Lakota just six years before.

In 1876, Custer was scheduled to lead part of the anti-Lakota expedition, along with Generals John Gibbon and George Crook. He almost didn’t make it, however, because his March testimony about Indian Service corruption so infuriated President Ulysses S. Grant that he relieved Custer of his command and replaced him with General Alfred Terry. Popular disgust, however, forced Grant to reverse his decision. Custer went West to meet his destiny.

The original United States plan for defeating the Lakota called for the three forces under the command of Crook, Gibbon, and Custer to trap the bulk of the Lakota and Cheyenne population between them and deal them a crushing defeat. Custer, however, advanced much more quickly than he had been ordered to do, and neared what he thought was a large Indian village on the morning of June 25, 1876. Custer’s rapid advance had put him far ahead of Gibbon’s slower-moving infantry brigades, and unbeknownst to him, General Crook’s forces had been turned back by Crazy Horse and his band at Rosebud Creek.

On the verge of what seemed to him a certain and glorious victory for both the United States and himself, Custer ordered an immediate attack on the Indian village. Contemptuous of Indian military prowess, he split his forces into three parts to ensure that fewer Indians would escape. The attack was one the greatest fiascos of the United States Army, as thousands of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors forced Custer’s unit back onto a long, dusty ridge parallel to the Little Bighorn, surrounded them, and killed all 210 of them.

Custer’s blunders cost him his life but gained him everlasting fame. His defeat at the Little Bighorn made the life of what would have been an obscure 19th century military figure into the subject of countless songs, books and paintings. His widow, Elizabeth Bacon Custer, did what she could to further his reputation, writing laudatory accounts of his life that portrayed him as not only a military genius but also a refined and cultivated man, a patron of the arts, and a budding statesman.

Countless paintings of "Custer’s Last Stand" were made of "the Custer massacre" — they depicted Custer as a gallant victim, surrounded by bloodthirsty savages intent upon his annihilation. Forgotten was the other side of the story, and that most of Indians present were forced to surrender within a year of their greatest battlefield triumph.

There are many sides to most historical events, and this one is no different! No matter which side you align yourself with, in the end it was another tragedy of war. Many good people died on both sides. Is there a villain? I don’t believe so, just two sets of beliefs and values that for this date and time in our history couldn’t exist together.