Thursday, June 22, 2017

Review of Michno - "THE THREE BATTLES OF SAND CREEK: In Blood, in Court, and as the End of History"

[The Three Battles of Sand Creek: In Blood, in Court, and as the End of History by Gregory F. Michno (Savas Beatie, 2017). Hardcover, maps, photos, footnotes, appendices, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:224/244. ISBN:978-1-61121-311-9. $29.95]

Rivaling Fort Pillow in its controversial nature, the alleged massacre of ostensibly peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek by Colorado volunteers in November 1864 spawned national outrage. Studies of the event, most recently Ari Kelman's A Misplaced Massacre (2013) and the 2014 essay collection Battles and Massacres on the Southwestern Frontier, have generally concluded that the action was indeed more massacre than battle. Wading into this tangled, and arguably unresolvable, debate is Greg Michno's The Three Battles of Sand Creek: In Blood, in Court, and as the End of History.

As the title suggests, Michno divides his study into three parts. Part I recounts at some length the actual fighting at Sand Creek, and Part II examines the three official investigations into the event. Part III cites modern research into eyewitness testimony, false memories, memory alteration, lying, cognitive dissonance, and oral history tradition and looks at how all of these and more cloud, and even defy, our understanding of Sand Creek.

Contained in Part I and comprising roughly half the book's content, Michno's account of the November 29, 1864 attack by Colorado volunteers (the new 3rd regiment, and part of the 1st Colorado) led by Colonel John M. Chivington on Cheyenne and Arapaho camps located along Sand Creek is a fine rendering of events from the available evidence. This section also delves into the event's tragically confused origins, importantly setting the context of the attack within the explosive climate of fear in Colorado created by a panicked reaction to an unusually bloody season of Indian raids along the Platte River and upon numerous settler ranches (most infamously the June 11, 1864 murder and mutilation of the Hungate family a short distance east of Denver) and wagon trains.

Many writers and historians characterize the Camp Weld conference as leading to a peaceful understanding between Colorado authorities, the military, and attending tribal groups like the Cheyenne bands of Black Kettle, White Antelope, and others. Like other dissenters, Michno instead finds that Camp Weld created more misunderstanding than anything else, with each faction taking away a different interpretation of what had occurred. Seeking winter peace after a season of raiding (and getting government food and supplies in the bargain) was also a well-recognized tribal tactic designed to gain respite from retaliation during their most vulnerable months before returning to raiding in the spring and summer. There's also the question of individuals at the conference making promises they had no authority to make.

Michno's account of the Sand Creek attack itself is perhaps the most detailed and insightful one available. Contrary to popular belief, the Colorado volunteers did not conduct a mounted charge into the Indian camps, which were spread along the creek bed and not in a compact circle as many have asserted. The defenders were not caught in their tepees (another misconception), and Colorado casualties were far higher than the traditional numbers have indicated [Appendix B lists the names and wound details of 76 men (24 KIA and 52 wounded) of the 1st and 3rd Colorado at Sand Creek, a huge disparity over the 10 killed and 38 injured cited most recently in the Battles and Massacres volume referenced above, with the large percentage of arrow wounds discounting friendly fire theories]. The slow development of the attack, which converged on the villages from multiple directions, gave most of the Indians time to either move up the creek or escape altogether. Most of the close range fighting occurred in isolated pockets north of the camps, with the Indian defenders improvising foxholes from the creek bed's sandy banks. Sporadic fighting continued overnight, but renewed pursuit by Chivington's men on the 30th was largely uneventful.

Part II covers the three official investigations of the Sand Creek affair—the Denver military commission, an investigatory commission of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, and the Doolittle Commission. From Michno's description of their proceedings, it appears that none were procedurally set up to render an impartial judgment. All three commissions assumed from the beginning that an outrageous massacre occurred (the very question that needed to be answered, not used as the starting point of the investigation), badly prejudicing all that would follow.

Given the bad blood between the officers of the 1st and 3rd Colorado regiments, it could hardly have been worse for Chivington that the Denver commission was run by officers from the 1st Colorado and headed by an avowed Chivington enemy in Samuel Tappan. All of the witnesses called to testify by Tappan's court were hostile, and Chivington's legal team's objections over the introduction of what they believed to be illegal and irregular testimony were mostly overruled.

The Joint Committee's investigation was a similarly damning proceeding, with witnesses being asked leading questions and no person from the 3rd Colorado called to testify. According to Michno, the committee was particularly affected by, and accepted with apparently little question, the unsworn affadavit of Major Wynkoop, which was full of falsehoods and hearsay (Wynkoop wasn't even present at the battle/massacre).

Finally, a Joint Special Committee under Senator James Doolittle was tasked with probing government treatment of all the tribes living across the vast American West. The portion of this investigation pertaining to Sand Creek interviewed 30 individuals, over half of whom were not present at the incident under question. Some testimony (notably that of Samuel Colley) changed from that given before, and several affadavits were again composed of secondhand information.

In one eye-opening Part II chapter, Michno produces a long list of testimony excerpts demonstrating the pervasiveness of contradictory and altered eyewitness memory. In the author's estimation, this comprises an insurmountable challenge for historians trying to answer even the most basic questions regarding Sand Creek [Was peace made before Sand Creek? Were the Indians under army protection? Were there flags in the Indian camp? Were the Indians scalped and mutilated? Were there white scalps in the village? and more]. Given the situation, the author feels that trying to discover the 'truth' of Sand Creek to be essentially "an exercise in futility and frustration" (pg. 162).

Michno makes a strong case that labeling Sand Creek either a battle or a massacre is a false dichotomy. In reviewing his own findings as well as the most recent literature from historian Ari Kelman and battlefield archaeologist Douglas Scott, it is clear that enough evidence exists to assemble a reasonably persuasive supporting argument either way, but is doing so good history? Seeing the book's photograph of the entrance sign to the NPS's Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, one might think that history itself and the teaching mandate of the NPS both would have been better served by calling it the Sand Creek National Historic Site, with contextual exhibits discussing the merits of the battle and massacre arguments inside the visitor center rather than so starkly coloring the views of visitors from the moment they step onto the grounds.

The rest of the book (Part III) is an often fascinating examination of the general (and often frightful) unreliability of eyewitness accounts of events and the many factors that go into memory forming. The section cites modern research along the way and applies those findings to the various questions and controversies surrounding Sand Creek. The challenges of accepting oral history as valid evidence are also discussed. What is truth if no two witnesses see the same thing and all memory is malleable from the very beginning? Events of profound stress like Sand Creek, when parties also view themselves as victims of the diabolical acts of others, complicate matters even more. One can argue that this is a well-recognized problem common to all historical investigation, but perhaps Sand Creek does take it to another level. In terms of the "end of history," Michno posits that, using Sand Creek as an example, we might be witnessing the complete breakdown of the classic Hegelian dialectic of history, with the level of cognitive dissonance in modern society so powerful that synthesis is no longer possible between the current thesis and the antithetical reaction to it.

Complaints with the book mostly center around presentation, with the text containing a superabundance of typos. There are so many myths and controversies attached to Sand Creek that it's probably inevitable that more than a few would be left out. Notable omissions include allegations that drunkenness was widespread in Chivington's command prior to the attack and that his men publicly exhibited body part trophies on their return to Denver. Perhaps feeling the topic outside the scope of his study, the author also chooses not to enter the current debate over whether events like Sand Creek that occurred between 1861 and 1865 should be considered part of the Civil War. At the time, more than a few individuals tried to attach blame to Confederate agents for stirring up Indian troubles during the conflict, especially those that occurred along the main emigrant trails and avenues of military transport and communications in the Trans-Mississippi West.

In trying to discover what really happened at Sand Creek on that terrible November day in 1864, Michno doesn't find the battle vs. massacre debate very fruitful and doesn't try to convince readers one way or another. What his book does do very effectively is prompt the thinking reader to question prior assumptions (especially those many consider already settled) and perhaps come to the conclusion that the available evidence paints a far more complicated and contradictory picture than the one handed down to us in the literature.


  1. Hi Drew

    Thanks for the in-depth review. Michno did a great job, and we think it is the best book on the subject, and one of the finest Indian Wars' titles in print. He knows his stuff. (Frankly, I found Part III disturbing. Of course as a former very active attorney, I understand the nearly worthless value of eyewitness testimony. But adds so many layers to it, that one can call into question the "recollections" of accounts of damn near everything.

    1. I think this might inspire me to finally get to his other Sand Creek book. It's been sitting on the shelf for years.

  2. Drew: Thanks for posting this (as always) thorough review. This looks like a worthwhile purchase. I will be interested in seeing how the author deals with the casualty figures on the Cheyenne/Arapaho side, which have generally been in the 2/3 women and children category. Those do not suggest the "battle" option, if accurate. I'm also not sure how anybody can assess that issue without looking into the widespread allegations that Chivington's outfit was "liquored up" or examining Chivington's history (specifically, some of his threats regarding prisoners after Glorieta). Chivington was something of a zealot (beware clergy who take up the sword) and while dissecting eyewitness testimony serves a purpose, so does taking as step back and applying common sense. I have Dakota Dawn and Deadliest War by this author and both are well-done.

    1. He would probably say that given the wild differences in numbers thrown around (from a low of 75 to a high of 500) and with no systematic policing of the battlefield, no one can really offer views on proportional casualties with any degree of confidence. Officers changed their estimates frequently, giving exaggerated numbers like 500 to puff up their military credentials, then, after discovering not everyone was so keen of being a participant in what was being widely considered a massacre, the same guys drastically cut the numbers back down.

      Given the very nature of mobile frontier Indian warfare, I am not sure if a high proportion of women and children deaths is always suggestive of massacre. The only way for the army to bring plains tribes to battle was to catch them in camp and Indian camps were obviously filled with non-combatants since the entire population moved together. In the firefights north of the Sand Creek encampments, one can imagine all ages and sexes intermixed in the improvised rife pits with many women and children being caught in the crossfire.

      I agree with you re: Dakota Dawn and Deadliest War. The Settlers' War is good, too.

    2. Drew: You make a valid point about the nature of mobile warfare against the Plains tribes. Unfortunately, that illustrates one of the many "ignoble" aspects of that warfare, and I don't think many would argue that the troops were overly concerned about appropriate precautions regarding non-combatants on the NA side. I'll have to check out The Settlers War.

  3. Good discussion.

    John, if you haven't I hope you will leave a review of "Dakota Dawn." every one helps and we want to get it into trade paper. Have a good weekend, both of you.


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