Fate consigns most people to lives of quiet anonymity, choosing only a favored few to shape an era’s epochal events. In the case of Silas S. Soule, a young Massachusetts abolitionist, fate was unusually fickle. It placed him at center stage for several historic moments, then, as if tired of his presence, killed him before he was 30 and left his name among the soon-to-be-forgotten.
Soule was born in 1839. His father, Amassa Soule, was a fanatical abolitionist and religious zealot. That combination set the Soule household apart from its neighbors, and Silas spent a great deal of his youth defending himself against charges of being ‘a damned Bobolishionist.’
In 1854, New England abolitionists formed the Emigrant Aid Society to help settle the Kansas Territory and–not incidentally–bring it into the Union as a Free State. Silas’ father answered the society’s call for pioneers, and by the end of the year the Soule family had taken up residence near Lawrence, Kan. Upon the family’s arrival, Amassa Soule immediately established his household as a way station on the underground railroad. Silas, at 15, began escorting runaway slaves from Missouri through Lawrence, and north to freedom.
By the time Silas was 18, Missouri slavers on one side and New England abolitionists on the other had armed themselves and were openly fighting for the territory’s future. The bitter struggle became known as ‘Bleeding Kansas.’ Young Soule quickly learned to handle a ‘Kansas Bible’–the deadly Sharps carbine that abolitionists had sent west in crates marked ‘Bibles.’ He also mastered hit-and-run tactics and became notorious as one of Kansas’ most-feared ‘Jayhawkers.’
In 1859, Soule played a major role in one of the border war’s most celebrated incidents. That January, 20 Missouri bushwhackers, seeking to recover runaway slaves, crossed the border into Kansas. They came upon and captured Dr. John Doy, a Lawrence physician and abolitionist, while he was escorting 12 escaped slaves to Oskaloosa. The slavers took their captives back to Weston, Mo., where they sold the blacks back into slavery and tried Doy, under Missouri law, for helping the slaves escape. Although Doy had not been in Missouri and hence could not have broken its law by helping the slaves, a Missouri jury quickly convicted him, and the judge sentenced him to five years at hard labor. Doy appealed his conviction, but while his lawyers argued the case, he sat in a St. Joseph jail cell.
Suspicious of Missouri’s courts, a group of Lawrence men, including young Silas Soule, set out to free the abolitionist physician. When they reached St. Joseph, their leader, Major James B. Abbott, dispatched Soule to reconnoiter the jailhouse. The affable Soule charmed his way into the jail by convincing its keeper that he was carrying a message from Doy’s wife. Once inside, Soule took careful note of the jail’s layout and of the room where Doy was being held. The jailer, he learned, lived alone and had only one sentry outside to sound the alarm in case of trouble. Soule met with Doy, and while the jailer’s attention was elsewhere, he slipped a note into the doctor’s cell. It said simply, ‘To-night, at twelve o’clock.’
When Soule reported back, the raiders realized their chances of successfully taking the jail by force were slim and changed their plans. At the appointed hour, they approached the building by pretending to have captured a horse thief. They asked the jailer, named Brown, to lock up the man until morning. After some argument, Brown admitted them. Once inside, they quickly disarmed the hapless jailer and freed Doy.
With Doy in tow, the raiders left the jail and headed for the Missouri River, which they intended to cross in boats previously cached for the purpose. At the river’s edge, they discovered one of the boats was leaking. Two policemen walking their beat came along and, not recognizing Doy, obligingly held a lantern while one of the jailbreakers bailed the boat with his hat. When the boat was safe to board, they pushed off, crossed the Missouri and made good their escape.
Within six months of returning Doy to his grateful family in Lawrence, Soule was involved in another, even more daring rescue attempt. John Brown, the fanatical abolitionist, had frequently visited the Soule household in Lawrence during the border wars, bringing runaway slaves for the underground railroad. When Brown failed in his crazed attempt to capture the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., on October 18, 1859, Colonel Robert E. Lee captured and delivered him to Charlestown, to be tried by state court. Virginia authorities quickly convicted Brown and, on November 2, Judge Richard Parker sentenced him to hang. The judge ordered that the execution take place one month later, on December 2.
Almost immediately after Brown’s capture, some of his New England financial backers began planning his rescue. Richard Hinton, an abolitionist newspaper reporter, knew of Soule’s acquaintance with Brown and his role in the Doy rescue. Hinton traveled to Lawrence, met with Soule and recruited him into the plot. Returning east, the two abolitionists set out to recruit 75 to 100 men, who would take the jail by force. They ran into trouble, however, securing funds. There was also opposition from within the group by those who felt that a direct assault on the jail would surely fail. In response to the problems, the conspirators scaled back their rescue plans and began searching for ways to free Brown through guile and deception. In November, they began converging on Charlestown.
The raiders traveled separately to avoid arousing suspicion. Some passed themselves off as stockmen, others as laborers or land seekers. After going through Harrisburg, Pa., they gathered in Hagerstown, Md., where they made their final preparations.
James Montgomery, commander of the raid, dispatched H.C. Seaman to scout the hills around Martinsburg, Va., where they planned to take Brown after the break-out. Mindful of Soule’s success in the Doy rescue, Montgomery ordered Soule to Charlestown to collect intelligence about Brown’s confinement and the situation within the community.
Soule arrived in Charlestown sometime in mid-November. As he had done in St. Joseph, he managed to get inside the jail where Brown was being held. Exactly how he did this is unknown, although it is believed that local police arrested him for public drunkenness. Once inside, he turned his boyish charm on the jailer, John Avis, and wheedled a meeting with Brown.
His old friend had greatly changed from his Kansas days. Brown’s hair had turned white, and he wore a long beard. The fire had not left his eyes, however, and he still dreamed of freeing the slaves and bringing the Lord’s revenge upon their owners. He had devised a new strategy for destroying the ‘peculiar institution,’ but it did not include his being rescued. He understood the power of martyrdom and was prepared to die if it would bring an end to slavery. He adamantly refused to be saved. Soule had failed in his mission.
Soule drifted back to Kansas, and then to Colorado. In December 1861, he joined Company K, 1st Regiment, Colorado Infantry. On November 29, 1864, he found himself in command of a cavalry company, on a bluff overlooking a peaceful Cheyenne village at Sand Creek, Colo. The 3rd Colorado Volunteers, under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington–a preacher turned bloodthirsty soldier–had been ordered by the politically ambitious territorial governor to conduct a punitive expedition against the Cheyenne. Chivington located the Indian camp at Sand Creek and, notwithstanding its peaceful inhabitants, decided to attack it. Soule argued against the plan, calling it outright murder.
In the end, Soule’s arguments failed and one of the worst massacres in American history followed. Ordered to accompany Chivington, Soule remained steadfast in his opposition to the assault. When the colonel gave the order to charge, Soule checked his men, forbidding them tofire upon the village. Other commanders obeyed Chivington, and their soldiers killed and mutilated more than 200 Cheyenne, mostly women and children. Later, when Chivington publicly branded him a coward, Soule’s men came to his defense, praising his courage in the face of Chivington’s infamous order.
The Sand Creek atrocities shocked the nation, even in the midst of the Civil War. The army convened a committee of inquiry in Denver to investigate Chivington’s actions. Westerners loyal to the ‘fighting parson’ threatened anyone they thought might testify against him, and the hearings were held in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Nevertheless, Soule testified forcefully against Chivington. His comments were crucial to the committee’s findings. When the hearings ended, the committee branded Chivington’s raid at Sand Creek ‘a cowardly and coldblooded slaughter, sufficient to cover its perpetrators with indelible infamy, and the face of every American with shame and indignation.’
Soule was not alive to hear the committee’s vindication of his actions. Following his testimony, there was a disturbance near his home in Denver, where he was serving as the city’s provost marshal. When Soule investigated, he was shot down by Charles W. Squiers of the 2nd Colorado Cavalry, who may have been hired to kill him by forces loyal to Chivington. Squiers eventually fled to California and was never tried for the crime.
Soule’s description of the events at Sand Creek produced a wave of indignation in the East. By the end of 1865, widespread revulsion at the Army’s tactics produced a peace offensive on behalf of the Indians. Congress derailed the Army’s plans to campaign against the Indians with thousands of troops no longer needed to save the Union. The subsequent Indian wars were brutal enough by anyone’s standards, but the Army did not fight a ‘war of extermination.’ Silas Soule’s testimony had helped save lives.
This article was written by Bruce M. Lawlor and originally appeared in America’s Civil War magazine.
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