Book Review: The Three Battles of Sand Creek

Sand Creek. I’d been reading about the Civil War for probably a full ten years before I’d ever heard about it. Granted, it’s an incident that aligns more with the Plains Wars than the Civil War, but considering the event happened in late November 1864, it is in the same time period. I’ve always been curious about the fight, but had not really followed up beyond reading a couple magazine articles until this month. When I was book shopping at the West Coast CWRT Conference, Ted Savas had this book on sale, and since we were planning some Native American history features, I decided the sale was one I could not refuse.

Gregory F. Michno’s book, The Three Battles of Sand Creek: In Blood, In Court, and as the End of History, is an unforgettable read for all the right reasons. It’s divided into three sections, focusing on the facts of the battle/massacre, the records developed in court inquiries, and how the event has been remembered, misremembered, and forgotten. The research was meticulous, but presented in a very readable style; at some points, the author leaves questions unanswered and admits that confusion reigns in the accounts which in this case win bonus points from me for an honest appraisal of the conflicting history.

On November 29, 1864, the camps of Chiefs Black Kettle, White Antelope, and Left Hand rested near the bed of Sand Creek. Around dawn, 675 cavalrymen attacked the camp in a surprise assault which created panic, resistance, death, and desecration. There had been trouble between the Native Americans and the settlers all summer, and by November, different individuals had differing memories whether there had been an enacted peace or if the conflict was still continuing. Certainly, some of the white soldiers were anxious to kill and destroy, and when attacked, many of the warriors fought back, trying to defend their families.

Through the years, debates have raged over the technicalities of whether Sand Creek ranks as a battle or a massacre – and Michno delves into the semantics of the words in the military sense. Eyewitnesses offered a variety of stories about the day, and some even changed their stories from week to week.

The author takes the study a step beyond the pieced together facts and the history of the inquiries, reflecting on the psychological difficulties with human’s abilities to remember, associate, and imply. The section on memory offers much to consider for all aspects of looking at the past and evaluating primary sources and oral history which would be useful to researchers looking at other areas and eras.

The book was clearly written, but it was not an easy topic to read about. At the center of the saga rests the unfortunate history of cultures in conflict and bloody brutalities on both sides. I felt saddened to read about the attacks made by natives on settlers in Colorado Territory earlier in 1864, but I felt angry and cried when I read about the fight on November 29 at Sand Creek.

Is that getting too emotional about the past? Am I being influenced by my emotions? That is something I work very hard balance in some areas of study so that I can think rationally and follow the facts in my research. Reading about Sand Creek gave me a chance to look at historical facts and confusion in an area of the history that is not likely to become my focus area of research which allowed me to experience it from the first as an invested learner, allowing my personal emotions and thoughts to have greater liberties as I read and processed the information.

Details aside, the fighting and deaths at Sand Creek are an overlooked part of history during the Civil War period. Fighting men die in combat and that is a tragic reality of war, but to learn about the slaughter of women and children trying to escape a sudden attack brings another level of horror to warfare. An added layer of sadness and sense of loss.

Yes, the book is difficult. Yes, history can be sad. But to be informed citizens and better researchers, we have to look at different passages of history – including the dark moments that are not the finest of the past. I think that is one of my takeaway reminders from reading this book.

I’ve also decided that someday I must visit Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado and am making plans to add it to a trip in 2020. I’ve read a book about the history and conflicted memories about what happened there. But I feel a need to go and see. Just like we appreciate going and standing at The Angle at Gettysburg, the Sunken Road at Fredericksburg, and other battle sites, I want to go to this lesser-known place. In some ways, I already know what I will find. Wind-swept Colorado prairie. But in other ways, I don’t know what I will learn by standing there and how my thoughts about the past may be challenged even more than they were when I read this book.

The Three Battles of Sand Creek: In Blood, In Court, and as the End of History

Gregory F. Michno; Savas Beatie, 2017.

5 Responses to Book Review: The Three Battles of Sand Creek

  1. Sarah, I subscribe to a magazine, ‘The Wild West” and the December 2019 issue has several articles on the massacre of Native American villages. There were many besides the ones in this issue. Sadly, the horrific genocide of these people is part of this country’s history.

  2. I have been researching John Chivington for some time. Sand Creek is just a part of his”legacy”. One needs to look at him to attempt to understand the horrors of this event. We may never know what really happened there as there is little said from native American survivors. It was truly a tragedy and disgrace in American history.

  3. Note in case you go: There is a Sand Creek Massacre National Monument with an interpretive center and a trail that leads to monuments and an overlook but the actual massacre “battleground” is federally recognized as sacred to the Cheyenne and is off-limits to tourism. I am afraid the NPS web site fails to make this clear.

  4. The Sand Creek site is well worth a visit. If you visit in the summer make sure you carry water, and watch for rattlesnakes. It is a very somber and sad site, sure to make you think.

    You’ll most likely drive through the “town” of Chivington on your way to the site. I’m surprised that that name is still on a town close to the site.

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