The Three Battles of Sand Creek: In Blood, in Court and as the End of History, by Gregory F. Michno, Savas Beatie, Eldorado Hills, Calif., 2017, $29.95
Sand Creek never seems to run dry on paper, as words keep flowing about the controversial Nov. 29, 1864, clash along its banks in eastern Colorado Territory. Most historians and authors deem it a massacre, as Colorado Volunteers led by Colonel John Chivington attacked and destroyed a peaceful village of Cheyennes and Arapahos, slaughtering women and children in the process. But soldiers died there, too, and some historians prefer to label it—if it must be labeled—a fight or a battle. In 2004 Gregory Michno published Sand Creek: The Military Perspective. Some critics denounced the Colorado author as anti-Indian—though he’d earlier been accused of being too pro-Indian in the narrative of his 1997 book Lakota Noon: The Indian Narrative of Custer’s Defeat. While Michno certainly didn’t condone the soldiers’ actions at Sand Creek, he saw the clash as a battle (surpassed in white casualties, he noted, by only six other Western Indian conflicts from 1850 to ’90), albeit one that ended with horrific atrocities on the part of the soldiers. In the early 2000s he figured the standard Sand Creek Massacre treatment called for a new perspective, and he delivered. So why venture onto that uneasy ground once again 13 years later?
In brief, Michno realized that simply presenting the facts was not enough to change anyone’s views on Sand Creek. “What I didn’t fully appreciate,” he writes in the preface, “was that the truth becomes more elusive the deeper and more detailed we drill into the history of events.” As one might expect, many of the so-called facts are contradictory. Eyewitnesses disagree on the number of soldiers present, how many American flags were flying in the village, how “peaceful” the Indians actually were, how much of a fight the defenders put up, how many women and children were killed and the extent of the atrocities. Michno gives a comprehensive account of the bloody engagement in Part I (“In Blood”), and in Part II (“In Court”) he relates the three investigations that followed the action and spurred controversy in their own right. The contradictory testimony, which the author details, is overwhelming. “How one comes to view the evidence depends upon one’s own preconceptions and biases,” he writes. The only facts we can count on about Sand Creek—or any other event, it seems—are that humans make mighty poor witnesses and have highly unreliable memories.
Part III covers the “third battle” in the book title. That would be the impossible battle historians face in trying to sort fact from fiction. The question of whether Sand Creek was a conventional battle or a massacre, for example, will never be settled. “The question itself is fallacious to begin with,” Michno insists, as it demands a choice between two extremes and doesn’t consider the possibility Sand Creek was something in between or both. Those present did not agree on the facts, nor did all those who weren’t there but were more than willing to offer their respective “definitive” answers. Michno calls his Part III, ominously enough, “The End of History.” In other words, the history of Sand Creek, like all histories, is suspect. “After the ‘facts’ have been either consciously or unconsciously transformed by the participants and the historians,” Michno concludes, “the reader strains a book or article through the sieve of her own prejudices, experience and judgment.”
Michno makes cogent points, the central one being the fact we will never be able to determine what truly happened at Sand Creek. A sense of helplessness, if not hopelessness, prevails for all of us who write and read history. But the show must go on.