Early on a snowy November morning, about 70 people gathered around a soldier’s grave in the Civil War section of Denver’s Riverside Cemetery. The date was November 29, 2008, and the grave belonged to Silas S. Soule, who died from an assassin’s bullet on April 23, 1865.
Most of those present were members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, whose ancestors lived on the land that has now become Colorado. They honor Silas Soule every year on this date because, as a young captain of the Colorado First Cavalry, he and his men refused to fire during the Sand Creek Massacre.
After a ceremony at Soule’s grave, 20 or so young Cheyenne and Arapahoe continued their Spiritual Healing Run, which began two days earlier at the Sand Creek National Historic Site in southeast Colorado. Escorted by Denver police, they ran to 15th and Arapahoe, where the entire group rendezvoused and walked up to the capitol building steps. There, the tired youngsters shivered in their sweats while organizers and tribal leaders spoke of Sand Creek, of their lost homeland, and their efforts to heal.
Byron Strom, a descendant of Silas Soule, then read a 145-year-old letter written by Soule after the massacre. The letter is graphic and deeply disturbing, describing the attack and the depraved mutilations that went on afterward. As Byron read, a stillness descended over the group. Five gruff-looking Vietnam vets from the tribes stood nearby. Earlier at Riverside, they had lovingly raised the American flag in honor of Silas. Now, one of them wiped his eyes with his white ceremonial glove.
Soule’s letter, along with a similar letter written by another Colorado officer, Joseph Cramer, prompted several federal investigations into Sand Creek. All three investigations concluded that the attack was not only unprovoked, but extremely foolish, since they slaughtered every tribal chief in the region who was trying to make peace. The architect of the attack, Colonel John Chivington, had political aspirations and needed some glory to help him along. The camp at Sand Creek was an easy target. In fact, the Sand Creek chiefs had met with Chivington only seven weeks earlier at Camp Weld near Denver, where they expressed their desire to make peace. After that meeting, they had moved their bands to Sand Creek upon instructions from the cavalry. This betrayal was one of the main points of the letters written by Soule and Cramer.
The Colorado Historical Society plans to erect a memorial to Silas Soule at 15th and Arapahoe in Denver. The memorial will mark the site of his assassination, which occurred four months after he sent his now-famous letter, and only three weeks after his wedding day. He was 26. Click here for an update on Captain Soule’s memorial marker.
On both sides during those violent times, there were those who tried to make peace and others who wanted war. Like many victims of Sand Creek, Silas Soule is remembered and honored as one who believed that a peaceful solution was possible.
The following is an excerpt from my book, “Forgotten Heroes and Villains of Sand Creek,” upcoming in June 2010 from the History Press…
On New Years Day 1865, Captain Silas S. Soule (pronounced “sole”) and his men walked their horses along a bend in Big Sandy Creek creek, counting Arapaho and Cheyenne bodies. Most of the corpses, or what was left of them, were women and children. They had lain in the winter grass for over a month. By then, the work of the elements, of wolves, coyotes and the hundred or so dogs living in the former camp had disguised the mutilations, but Soule wrote to his mother a few days later that all had been scalped. “I hope the authorities at Washington will investigate the killing of those Indians,” he wrote. “I think they will be apt to hoist some of our high officials. I would not fire on the Indians with my Co and the Col said he would have me cashiered but he is out of the service before me and I think I stand better than he does in regard to his great Indian fight.” (Silas Soule to his mother, January 8, 1865).
Twenty-six-year-old Silas Soule was no stranger to death and violence. He was a hardened frontiersman and cavalry officer without qualms about killing warriors in battle. He was also handsome and funny, well-loved by friends and family. He was known as a wag, a wit, a mischief, popular with ladies, fond of play-acting and imitation — he specialized in Irish and German accents. He was highly skilled at the art of persuasion. The Denver and Central City papers reported frequently on his doings — a broad canvas of snippet reportage, ranging from fact to rumor to inexplicable remarks with the tone of inside jokes. Even during his tense Sand Creek testimony in front of John Chivington, Soule joked about a fellow officer being “excited” when Chivington objected to his use of the word “drunk.”
Soule came from extraordinary beginnings and had a gift for taking part in important historical events. He was born in Maine of an abolitionist family descended from George Soule, a passenger on the Mayflower. His father, Amasa Soule, was a cooper with a taste for politics. The Soule family’s reading of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” inspired them to uproot and move to Kansas in the late 1850s. The race was on at the time between abolitionists and pro-slavers to populate the fledgling frontier territory with voters. The Emigrant Aid Society of Massachusetts sponsored the relocation of half a dozen parties of abolitionists — some of them more suited to life on the frontier than others. The Soules were among the hardy founding families of Lawrence, Kansas who stayed on.
Not surprisingly, Lawrence quickly became a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Soule and his father both worked as “conductors.” According to Annie Soule, one of his two sisters, Silas worked with John Brown, who was later arrested and executed after the raid on Harper’s Ferry….
For more about Silas Soule, see Forgotten Heroes and Villains of Sand Creek (June 11, 2010).