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Soldiers at Sand Creek (a series): Three Colonels, Three Majors and a General - Part 1

By Jeff C. Campbell

October 11, 2017

By starlight, the scouts found the troops in the dark moonless pre-dawn. They made their report. We don’t know if it was the French-Canadién (Antoine Janis), the old battered “mulatto” (Jim Beckwourth) or one of the younger men dressed in cavalry blue (Privates Alex. Safely and Duncan “Dunk” Kerr) or all. They passed along what they’d seen about two miles up the valley. They’d found an Indian village.

In this sandy bottom of the dry Big Sandy Creek valley, the column of about 675 mounted men, four 12# mountain howitzers on prairie carriages*, and as many as four ambulances* began collecting. The commanding officers came together awaiting orders from the expedition commander.

[* “prairie” carriages were like most standard horse-drawn artillery carriages from the Civil War era, unlike “mountain carriages” which had smaller diameter wheels (about 3’). The larger diameter (about 4’) wheels made it easier to traverse open ground like the sandy and grassy plains. “Ambulances” were used for carrying the wounded, but they also could carry passengers. They were light, enclosed, with narrow large diameter wheels.]

It was surprising where they found themselves that cold morning. Most reports note the cavalry rode through a large “pony herd.” It was unbelievable. The horses didn’t nicker, whiny or stampede. Like the people in the village, perhaps the ponies also assumed there was no danger at this place.

In the column, probably strung out for a mile or more, the grumbling of the troops quieted. The soldiers, for the most part, would later recall they didn’t know where they’d been going or what their mission was going to be. They would almost unanimously agree they didn’t know what they were supposed to do. The soldiers of Ft. Lyon believed the Cheyennes and Arapahos up on Sand Creek were under their protection. The Ft. Lyon officers had been told once the village was found, they were going to parlay, find out if there were any “hostiles” in the camps then move on against the known hostiles up on the Smoky Hill and Republican rivers’ headwaters.

The lot of soldiers is to be treated like mushrooms, being kept in the dark and fed copious amounts of manure (ask any veteran). The officers would figure it out, and they would follow orders. It was a time of war, and enlisted men could be shot or hung for failure to obey orders in the “face of the enemy.” There were probably 600 more Privates than officers, sergeants and corporals in the column. $13.00 a month wasn’t worth getting shot over, and who amongst them could remember the last time they were paid (summer 1864). Let the officers take their chances.

0600, Tuesday 29 November 1864

In the quiet calm darkness, horses snorted, shook, breathed out warm clouds of moist fog-like breath. The officers came together.

The command was made up of Expedition Commander, Colonel [COL] John Milton Chivington, Commander of the military District of Colorado and Commanding Officer of the 1st Regiment [Reg.] Cavalry, Colorado Volunteers, COL George Laird Shoup, Commander of the 3rd Reg. Cav., Colo. Vols., Lieutenant Colonel [LTC] Leavitt L. Bowen, vice-commander of the 3rd Reg. Cav. and 2nd Major (*) [MAJ] Jacob Downing, military District of Colo., District Inspector and 2nd MAJ of the 1st Reg. These four men made the command decisions at Sand Creek and were responsible for directing the movements of the hodge-podge of detachments from the two regiments that day.

(* Each cavalry regiment had three Majors, usually commissioned in order 1, 2. 3. This allowed a cavalry regiment to be divided into three battalions [Bn.] of 400 men each when at authorised strength of about 1,200 men. The 1st MAJ of the 1st Reg., Ed. W. Wynkoop was not present. He was the former C. O. of Ft. Lyon and was en route by stage, under orders to Ft. Riley to take command of the garrison there. On the 29th he was at or near Ft. Larned, KS. The first & third Majors of the 3rd Reg. (veteran 1st Reg. officers Wm. Wilder & Sam. Logan) had remained in Denver having fulfilled their duties as recruiters.)

There were two other Majors present who acted as the commanders of two wings of the attack. 3rd MAJ Hal Sayr, led the 2nd Bn., 3rd Reg. of about 300 to 350 men to the northwest and 3rd MAJ Scott J. Anthony, commander of Ft. Lyon, District of the Upper Arkansas and 1st Reg., would lead the “Fort Lyon Battalion” of about 125 men, including one battery of howitzers up the stream valley. Later in the day, he was ordered from the field.

Before we go any further, it must be noted and repeated that these officers and soldiers were all United States Army Volunteers, enlisted, mustered, commissioned, paid, uniformed and equipped under the auspices and chain-of-command of the U. S. Army under the U. S. War Department. As any U. S. troops, their Commander-in-Chief was the same then as today, the President of the United States. It should be noted that Chivington had exceeded his authority or jurisdiction by entering (without permission) into the military District of the Upper Arkansas headquartered out of Ft. Riley, KS.