On November 29, 1864, the Sand Creek Massacre took place, one of if not the worst and most disturbing massacre of Native Americans in the history of the United States. The Colorado militia, under the command of Col. John Chivington, an ardent abolitionist, attacked a camp of Cheyenne and Arapaho in southeastern Colorado, killing around 200. We have discussed this event before here in conjunction with Ari Kelman’s book. Ned Blackhawk, one of the leading historians of Native America, notes the connections between the Civil War and the final crushing of indigenous peoples on the Plains.
Sand Creek, Bear River and the Long Walk remain important parts of the Civil War and of American history. But in our popular narrative, the Civil War obscures such campaigns against American Indians. In fact, the war made such violence possible: The paltry Union Army of 1858, before its wartime expansion, could not have attacked, let alone removed, the fortified Navajo communities in the Four Corners, while Southern secession gave a powerful impetus to expand American territory westward. Territorial leaders like Evans were given more resources and power to negotiate with, and fight against, powerful Western tribes like the Shoshone, Cheyenne, Lakota and Comanche. The violence of this time was fueled partly by the lust for power by civilian and military leaders desperate to obtain glory and wartime recognition.
Expansion continued after the war, powered by a revived American economy but also by a new spirit of national purpose, a sense that America, having suffered in the war, now had the right to conquer more peoples and territories.
The United States has yet to fully recognize the violent destruction wrought against indigenous peoples by the Civil War and the Union Army. Connor and Evans have cities, monuments and plaques in their honor, as well as two universities and even Colorado’s Mount Evans, home to the highest paved road in North America.
We have also talked about this recently in terms of Andrew Graybill’s new book on the Marias Massacre in 1870. The miitiarization and industrialization that the Civil War wrought were very easily turned against Native Americans. That doesn’t mean that without these things somehow the bison are not exterminated and Native resistance crushed eventually, but it wouldn’t have happened so rapidly and with such brutal force at that time. Moreover, it’s really important to think of the devastating conquering of indigenous people in the West as part and parcel of the larger Civil War. The brilliant tactics we rightly laud William Tecumseh Sherman for when used against slaveholders we can equally say were horrifying when used against Native Americans, in no small part because when racism was added to them, the murder of women and children was openly practiced by the military in the West when it was not in the South.