Battle at Sand Creek: The Military Perspective (Book Review)

6/12/2006 • Book Reviews, George Custer, Sand Creek Massacre

Reviewed by Alexander Cook
By Gregory F. Michno
Upton and Sons, El Segundo, Calif., 2004

If you want to read another retelling of the Sand Creek tale (traditionally referred to as a “massacre”) in which the blood-thirsty Coloradoans led by Colonel John Chivington did the peaceful Cheyennes in Black Kettle’s village an immoral wrong, then this is not the work for you. This 329-page book offers something else altogether—the perspective of the white soldiers, as well as that of the white civilians of Colorado Territory, on the infamous November 29, 1864, event. For that reason alone, Gregory F. Michno’s latest offering will ruffle some feathers, as did his article “The Real Villains of Sand Creek” (December 2003 Wild West). Not that there is anything wrong with that, especially not when you do your research and homework the way that Michno does. Interestingly enough, Michno made his biggest splash in the Western history world in the mid-1990s with an article in Wild West Magazine and a book—both called Lakota Noon—that told the story of George Custer’s Little Bighorn defeat through the perspective of the Plains Indian victors.

Not that Michno has really “sided” with the soldiers at Sand Creek. He does not condone the military actions. “The Sand Creek affair was not a stellar event in American history, but the fight, the surrounding events, and the people involved did not get a fair hearing,” the Colorado author writes in his introduction. Back in the 1990s, he figured rightly that Custer’s Last Stand needed an Indian narrative. In the 2000s, he figured that the standard Sand Creek Massacre treatment called out for a new perspective. It’s hard to disagree with that notion even if one doesn’t totally buy all of his arguments, such as that traditional heroes Major Edward Wynkoop and Black Kettle must share in much of the blame for the tragedy.

For anyone who can keep an open mind about Sand Creek, Michno makes plenty of convincing arguments. His most interesting chapter may be the one called “Legacy,” in which he examines how politics played a role in the affair and its aftermath. Michno—as the title of the book announces—says that Sand Creek was definitely a battle, not a massacre, albeit one with atrocities afterward. According to Michno, in the trans-Mississippi West from 1850 to 1890, Sand Creek was surpassed in white casualties by only six battles. Yes, the Little Bighorn was one. The others: Pyramid Lake (1860), Birch Coulee (1862), the Badlands (1864), Dove Creek (1865) and the Fetterman Fight (1866). The latter, in which the U.S. soldiers involved were all wiped out, used to be called a massacre, too. In light of plans to make the Sand Creek site into a unit of the National Park System, a decision will have to be made on whether or not to call it the “Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site” or something else. Whoever makes that decision, as well as the rest of us who take an interest in the Indian wars, would do well to read Michno’s book first.

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