The last couple Independence Days I’ve chosen a person from the country’s past to write about. I’ve previously covered African American intelligence operative Mary Elizabeth Bowser, abolitionist John Brown, and the Chiricahua guerrilla leader Geronimo. This year, I figured I’d write a bit about an obscure personality, but one I’ve admired since running across his name my senior year of high school, Silas Stillman Soule.
Silas Soule was born in Bath (or Woolwich), Maine in 1838 to an abolitionist cooper, Amasa Soule. At the age of 17 his family moved to the small community of Coal Creek south of the free state oasis of Lawrence, Kansas as part of the New England Emigrant Aid Society. At this time the Kansas Territory was in the midst of a bitter partisan battle for its very soul, with Missouri and the north pouring in pro and anti-slavery settlers respectively to swing the popular vote on the question of whether it would be admitted into the Union as a slave or free state. Kansas swiftly became a battleground, a prelude to the Civil War, with pro and anti slavery neighbors eventually clashing in open guerrilla conflict. This was the same environment in which John Brown and his sons hacked a group of pro slavery settlers to death with swords and the anti-slavery or Jayhawker capitol of Lawrence was actually attacked and burned.
By 1859 Soule and his family had established their home as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and regularly escorted escaped slaves to freedom. John Brown was a regular guest, and became a good friend of the family.
Twenty pro-slavery Border Ruffians from Missouri crossed into Kansas and overtook a party of thirteen slaves led by anti-slavery man Dr. John Doy headed for Iowa. The slavers were captured and resold and Doy was sentenced to five years in the pen. He was incarcerated at St. Joseph, Missouri. Abolitionist James B. Abbott put together a group of ten men including Soule to break Doy out. They headed to St. Joseph, where Silas Soule talked his way into the jailhouse, convincing the jailkeeper he had a note for Doy from his wife.
The note said only, “Tonight, twelve o’clock.”
Two of the rescuers arrived with a third, pretending to be bounty hunters who had apprehended a horse thief. They drew their firearms inside and overpowered the guards, breaking out Doy, riding hard for Lawrence. The rescuers became known as The Immortal Ten.
Following John Brown’s unsuccessful raid on the Harpers Ferry federal armory, Silas Soule disguised himself as a drunk and got into a cell adjoining Brown and two of his men, Albert Hazlett and Aaron Stevens in Charles Town, West Virginia. Hoping to duplicate the earlier success of The Immortal Ten, Soule was authorized as part of a clandestine abolitionist group, The Secret Six to attempt to break the raiders out of jail. Brown and his men famously refused, having decided their executions would do more to galvanize the cause of abolitionism.
In 1860 Silas Soule, his brother William, and a cousin, John Glass, emigrated to Colorado to prospect, but a year later the Civil War broke out, and he enlisted in the 1st Colorado Infantry, fighting the Confederacy at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, rising to the rank of captain and commanding Company D of the 1st Colorado Cavalry.
In 1864 his regiment was ordered to Sand Creek, Colorado to apprehend dissident Cheyenne leader Black Kettle, who had made his camp with the Arapahoe there. Soule’s commanding officer, Colonel John M. Chivington, a former abolitionist but noted Indian hater (“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians! … I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians. … Kill and scalp all, big and little; nits make lice.”), ordered the regiment to attack Black Kettle’s camp despite the fact that he was flying the Union flag as a sign of peace.
What happened is recorded in Soule’s own words;
We arrived at Black Kettle’s and Left Hand’s camp at daylight. Lieut. Wilson with Co.s “C”, “E” & “G” were ordered to in advance to cut off their herd. He made a circle to the rear and formed a line 200 yds. From the village, and opened fire. Poor Old John Smith and Louderbeck ran out with white flags but they paid no attention to them, and they ran back to their tents. I refused to fire and swore that none but a coward would, for by this time hundreds of women and children were coming toward us and getting on their knees for mercy. Anthony shouted, “kill the sons of bitches” Smith and Louderbeck came to our command although I am confident there were 200 shots fired at them, for I heard an officer say that Old Smith and any one who sympathized with the Indians, ought to be killed and now was a good time to do it.
When the Indians found there was no hope for them they went for the Creek and got under the banks and some of the bucks got their bows and a few rifles and defended themselves as well as they could.The massacre lasted six or eight hours, and a good many Indians escaped. I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees have their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized. One squaw was wounded and a fellow took a hatchet to finish her, and he cut one arm off, and held the other with one hand and dashed the hatchet through her brain. One squaw with her two children, were on their knees, begging for their lives of a dozen soldiers, within ten feet of them all firing – when one succeeded in hitting the squaw in the thigh, when she took a knife and cut the throats of both children and then killed herself. One Old Squaw hung herself in the lodge – there was not enough room for her to hang and she held up her knees and choked herself to death. Some tried to escape on the Prairie, but most of them were run down by horsemen. I saw two Indians hold one of anothers hands, chased until they were exhausted, when they kneeled down, and clasped each other around the neck and both were shot together. They were all scalped, and as high as half a dozen taken from one head. They were all horribly mutilated. You would think it impossible for white men to butcher and mutilate human beings as they did.
Robert Bent related to the New York Tribune –
I saw one squaw lying on the bank, whose leg had been broken. A soldier came up to her with a drawn sabre. She raised her arm to protect herself; he struck, breaking her arm. She rolled over, and raised her other arm; he struck, breaking that, and then left her with out killing her. I saw one squaw cut open, with an unborn child lying by her side.
The cavalry suffered 15 dead and 50 wounded, apparently mostly due to friendly fire (they had been drinking heavily) and the death toll for the Indians was estimated at 150 to 200, the majority women and children.
In the days following the attack, soldiers were reported as displaying the ears and genitalia of dead Indians in Denver saloons.
When word of the Sand Creek Massacre reached the public’s ear, an official inquiry was made in January of 1865 and Silas Soule volunteered to testify against Chivington in the face of threats to his life from his commanding officer’s various supporters. However, Chivington avoided military prosecution since he had resigned his commission prior to the inquiry, and never suffered any penalty other than having his political aspirations curtailed.
In April, 1865, Soule married Hersa Cobley and was appointed Provost Marshal in Denver.
80 days after his testimony against Chivington he was shot dead in the street by Charles Squier, a former cavalryman in the 2nd Colorado. Though one of Soule’s friends, fellow officer First Lieutenant James Cannon tracked and apprehended Squier in New Mexico, and brought him back to Denver to stand trial, Squier escaped and was never seen again.
We are often taught to celebrate our soldiers as heroes unquestioned for putting their lives on the line at the behest of their country, but how much greater the hero is the one who has the bravery to turn against the tide and refuse an unjust order?