Another Federal Massacre of Indians

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"What you are proposing is murder," Lt. Joseph Cramer told his commanding officer, Colonel John Chivington of the Third Colorado Cavalry, shortly before daybreak on the morning of the planned assault. Cramer and several other members of Chivington's command staff had severe misgivings about the prospect of a sneak attack against a band of defenseless of Cheyenne Indians who had been promised protection.

Chief Black Kettle had distinguished himself through repeated efforts to secure the peace — on one occasion riding weaponless between opposing skirmish lines to prevent a battle from breaking out. In witness of his non-belligerency he had been provided with a United States flag by military officers who promised to protect the Cheyennes and Arapahos who lived in his encampment. 

The “Battle” of Sand Creek could be considered the last engagement in which the U.S. flag flew over Americans who mounted a desperate defense of their homes and families against a barbarous aggressor.

During the months leading up to the November 1864 attack on the Sand Creek Reservation, Black Kettle had cooperated in efforts to identify and apprehend Indians who had stolen horses and attacked white settlers. He had also repeatedly petitioned both civilian and military officials on behalf of Indians who had suffered similar abuses.

"The Indians talk very bitterly about the whites — say they have stolen their ponies and abused their women, taken their hunting grounds, and they expected that they would have to fight for their rights," wrote Lt. George Hawkins in an official report filed during the bitter winter of 1863. The concept that Indians had rights they were entitled to defend was foreign to Colorado Governor John Evans and General Samuel Curtis. 

During a September 1864 conference in Denver, Evans disingenuously insisted that owing to a "state of war" the military had plenary authority over Indian affairs, and that he was powerless to negotiate a peace treaty. Curtis wasn't interested in a modus vivendi with the Indians: "I want no peace until the Indians suffer more," he wrote in a directive to Colonel Chivington. "Pursue everywhere and chastise the Cheyennes and the Arapahos…. No presents must be made and no peace concluded without my consent." 

Chivington was indecently eager to carry out that barbarous directive. Considered a war hero of sorts following a Civil War engagement with Confederate forces in New Mexico, Chivington chafed under the restraints placed on his volunteers. He also resented the fact that the Third Colorado Cavalry, which had yet to see action, had been saddled with the sardonic sobriquet "The Bloodless Third." 

Chivington's zeal for combat was highly selective, however. In staging his punitive expedition he was careful to avoid contact with any group of Indians who were actually capable of fighting back. 

With Black Kettle's people still mired in slumber, and dawn's tentative fingers peeling away the blanket of darkness, Chivington dismissed the complaints of his underlings as an offense to his exquisitely refined sense of honor: "I believe it right and honorable to use any means under God's heaven to kill Indians who kill and torture women and children. Damn any man who is in sympathy with them." 

Chivington gave the order, and 750 troops opened fire on the undefended village. The pitiless rifle onslaught was intermittently punctuated by the throaty report of four twelve-pound howitzers. 

Emboldened by the sight of an unarmed and helpless opponent, Chivington's troops swarmed the camp and surrendered themselves unconditionally to their most depraved impulses.

"There are gruesome eyewitness accounts about braining live children, cutting off fingers to get rings, cutting off ears to get silver earrings, and multi-scalping the same corpse," recalled historian J. Jay Myers in his book Red Chiefs and White Challengers. A volunteer named Robert Grant later testified that he saw one dead Indian mother "cut open with an unborn child lying by her side. I saw the body of [a Cheyenne named] White Antelope with the privates cut off."

More than 150 Cheyennes — most of them women and children — were slaughtered at Sand Creek. Black Kettle, his gravely wounded wife Medicine Woman, and the other Cheyennes and Arapahos who survived were forced to sign another useless treaty and relocate to an even more desolate reservation on the shores of the Washita River in Oklahoma. 

Nearly four years to the day after Chivington's murderous raid, Black Kettle's band endured another unprovoked massacre, this one carried out by George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry at Washita. Black Kettle and his wife were gunned down while carrying a flag of truce. 

In his book  Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, Hampton Sides points out that the Sand Creek Massacre, which became the U.S. military's template for murderous "pacification" operations against the Indians, "is now widely regarded as the worst atrocity committed in all the Indian wars." At the time, it was celebrated as a brave and noble deed.

"Chivington returned to Denver in triumph," writes Sides. "At a theater his men paraded their war trophies before the cheering crowds: Scalps, fingers, tobacco pouches made from scrotums, purses of stretched pudenda hacked from Cheyenne women. The Denver newspapers praised the Colorado Volunteers for their glorious victory." 

"Posterity will speak of me as the great Indian fighter," boasted Chivington. "I have eclipsed Kit Carson."

Of course, Kit Carson — unlike Chivington — didn't specialize in sneak attacks on unarmed Indians to whom official protection had been promised.

A few days before Chivington’s "victory" over defenseless Cheyenne women and children, Carson had fought a real battle against a huge force of Comanches and Kiowa on the plains of Texas. Out-numbered ten-to-one and facing other strategic disadvantages, Carson managed to eke out a nominal "victory" in the Battle of Adobe Walls. 

"Just to think of that dog Chivington and his dirty hounds, up at Sand Creek," Carson commented contemptuously to Army Inspector Col. James Rusling after returning from battle. "His men shot down squaws, and blew the brains out of little innocent children. You call such soldiers Christians…? And Indians savages? What do you suppose our Heavenly Father, who made both them and us, thinks of these things? I tell you what, I don’t like a hostile Redskin any more than you do. And when they are hostile, I’ve fought ‘em, hard as any man. But I never yet drew bead on a squaw or a papoose, and I despise the man who would. I’ve seen as much of ‘em as any man livin’, and I can’t help but pity ‘em, right or wrong. They once owned this country…. But now they own next door to nothing, and will soon be gone."

Carson spent a brief term as commissioner of the Bosque Redondo Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, a project he understandably came to view with unalloyed disgust. The reservation's creator, General James Henry Carleton, regarded that reservation to be a model experiment in the forcible assimilation of Indian populations.

Uprooted by the army from their homeland — "severity will be the most humane course," Carleton insisted — the Navajo were forced to endure what they call the "Long Walk" to Bosque Redondo. 

As the defeated Navajos were enduring their murderous trek to the Bosque Redondo gulag, Carleton wrote what he thought was a gallant and generous epitaph for that people:

"The exodus of this whole people from the land of their fathers is a touching sight. They have fought us gallantly for years on years; they have defended their mountains and their stupendous canyons with heroism, but at length, they found it was their destiny, too, to give way to the insatiable progress of our race." 

The land in the new Navajo "home" was desolate, its water supply brackish and unfit for either consumption or cultivation. Promised supplies and farm implements arrived sporadically, if at all. Many of the Navajo, provided with bags of white flour for which they had no practical use, died of malnutrition from eating uncooked handfuls of the unfamiliar dust contained therein.

Washington's interest in the Navajo ended once they were cattle-penned at Bosque Redondo. Rather than seeing to the welfare of their new wards, the Feds focused on Carleton's fanciful claim that the stolen Navajo lands abounded in gold.

Carleton had told Washington that the "only peace" that could be made with the Navajo "must rest on the basis that they move onto the lands at Bosque Redondo…. Either subjugation or destruction … are the alternatives." He frequently wrote of the need to "chastise" and "overawe" the Navajo, to let them "feel the power and the sting of the government." He nearly chastised them into oblivion. 

Hundreds of Navajo were felled by starvation after a cutworm infestation struck their cornfields. The entire Navajo population would likely have died at Bosque Redondo if they hadn't been given grudging permission to leave in 1868 after signing yet another treaty surrendering ninety percent of their original lands.

The quaint notion expressed by a few throwbacks like Kit Carson that Indians should be dealt with as human beings created in God’s image was widely regarded as a relic of a less "progressive" era. Indeed, by the late 19th Century, the term "progressive" was used to describe Indians willing to undergo federally mandated reconstruction; "conservatives" were those who stubbornly clung to their rights.

Following Washington's conquest of the independent South, the Regime turned its eyes westward. General William Sherman, whose infernal columns had carved a bloody highway to the sea, was given the task of clearing the path for the corporatist railroad combine — which meant either subjugating, expelling, or liquidating the Plains Indians.

A little more than two years after Chivington's slaughter at Sand Creek, a vainglorious boob named Lt. Col. W.J. Fetterman, commanding a detachment of eighty men tasked to guard a supply train, abandoned his assignment to stage a punitive expedition of his own. He led his men straight into a fatal ambush laid by Red Cloud and American Horse.

When U.S. troops butchered Indian women and children, the event was called a "battle"; when they were killed by Indians defending their own territory, the incident was described as a "massacre." (Contemporary defeats of that variety are referred to as "terrorist attacks.") Rather than treating Fetterman's death and the annihilation of his command in Wyoming as the product of insubordination and lethal ineptitude, Sherman turned Fetterman into a martyr.

"This massacre should be treated as an act of war and should be punished with vindictive eagerness, until at least ten Indians are killed for each white life lost," Sherman instructed those under his command. This didn't mean waging war against the battle-hardened Indian warriors who had defeated Fetterman in a fair fight, of course. Notes historian Heather Cox Richardson in her recent book Wounded Knee, "Sherman told the commander of the Department of the Platte to consider all Sioux in the Power River region hostile." The object was to "punish them to the extent of utter extermination if possible." 

Sherman had often heard the grim but irresistible summons to slaughter. In a letter to his wife Ellen written during the War Between the States, Sherman noted the "the problem of war consists in the awful fact that the present class of men who rule the South must be killed outright rather than in the conquest of territory." He expressed nearly identical sentiments toward the Plains Indians in a letter to his brother John, a Republican Senator from Ohio, declaring that the Sioux and Cheyenne "must be exterminated, for they cannot and will not settle down, and our people will force us to it." 

Sherman's most notable Indian opponents didn't share his Total War ethic. After Custer's Seventh Army was defeated in Battle of Greasy Grass — known by the losers as the Battle of Little Bighorn — Sitting Bull issued orders not to pursue and kill off the survivors: "Let them live. They came against us, and we have killed a few. If we kill them all, they will send a bigger army against us."

That army came anyway. Sitting Bull and his band fled to Canada, where they were initially given refuge. The vengeful Regime in Washington used its influence to intimidate the Canadians into denying the refugees a suitable tract of land. Confronting the prospect of mass starvation, Sitting Bull and his followers returned to the United States in July 1881. 

After being illegally imprisoned at Fort Randall, Sitting Bull was forced to endure a totalitarian homily preached by Republican Senator John Logan of Illinois.

“You are not a great chief of this country," Logan lectured. "You have no following, no power, no control, and no right to any control. You are on an Indian reservation merely at the sufferance of the government. You are fed by the government, clothed by the government, your children are educated by the government, and all that you have and are today is because of the government…. The government feeds and clothes and educates your children now, and desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and make you as white men."

In practice, the policy described by Logan was designed to kill, through attrition, any Indians who refused to be assimilated. As Charles Eastman described the process, the government — through corrupt appointees — "robbed the Indians, then bullied them, and finally in a panic called for troops to suppress them" if the haggard and starving captive Indians exhibited the slightest capacity for resistance. 

Sitting Bull was murdered by police at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on the morning of December 15, 1890. The unarmed chief was shot in the chest after refusing to submit to an unlawful arrest. This was an overture to the climactic slaughter on the frozen shores of Wounded Knee Creek two weeks later. 

To this day, the U.S. Army proudly displays the "battle streamer" of what is called the Wounded Knee "campaign." Dozens of participants in that atrocity — which can properly be called America's Babi Yar — were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The monument to the "heroes of Wounded Knee Creek" still exists at Ft. Riley, Kansas

"By the turn of the [20th] century, Wounded Knee had become a symbol of the strength of the American government and its democratic idea," writes Heather Richardson in Wounded Knee. "The military tactics used at Wounded Knee not only won Medals of Honor for the soldiers, they also became the face of the modern American Army. Lieutenant Henry L. Hawthorne, who had directed the artillery unit until he had been shot in the groin, took his Medal of Honor with him to MIT, where in 1891 he became a professor of military tactics."

A decade later, the U.S. Army would apply the lessons it learned at Wounded Knee in its effort to pacify the Filipinos whom they had "liberated" from Spanish rule. By some estimates the military relieved roughly two million Filipinos of their corporeal burdens during its errand of enlightenment in the archipelago.

In 1883, with the Plains Indians effectively broken, a retirement-bound William Sherman boasted that his campaign of extermination against the Indians "did more good for our country and for the human race than I did in the Civil War." Since he died and went to hell on Valentine's Day 1891, roughly a month and a half after the Wounded Knee Massacre, Sherman didn't survive to see the uses to which his example would be put by his 20th Century imitators. 

"They were not subjects of fascism who clubbed to death infants in the arms of Indian mothers," writes historian John Upton Terrell in his study Land Grab. "They were not Nazis who shot running Indian children to demonstrate their prowess as marksmen. It was not a dictatorship which condoned the illegal appropriation of territory awarded to Indians by solemn treaty for `as long as the waters run and the sun rises.’ It was not … a fuhrer or a duce who herded [Indians] into prison camps and let them die of malnutrition, cold and disease…. The bugle calls of American history proclaim not only noble victories and morally justified accomplishments. They proclaim, as well, base deeds and infamous triumphs."

This year, Memorial Day — during which Americans are barraged with admonitions that we sing hymns of chastened gratitude to the memory of those who killed and died on behalf of the State that rules us — coincided with the 182nd anniversary of Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act.  Only by remembering the latter can we put the former in proper perspective.

Reprinted with permission from Pro Libertate.

William Norman Grigg [send him mail] publishes the Pro Libertate blog and hosts the Pro Libertate radio program.

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