Was Sand Creek A Part of the Civil War or the Indian Wars?

Part Three of a series of posts on the CWI 2014 Summer Conference and the Civil War in 1864.

John M. Chivington. Photo Credit: National Park Service
John M. Chivington. Photo Credit: National Park Service

The summer of 1864 in Colorado territory was marked by tension and violence between local Indian tribes and newly emigrated white settlers moving to and through the region. These disputes prompted territorial governor John Evans to call for a regiment of U.S. volunteers to serve a one hundred day term in Colorado to encourage peace and provide stability in the territory. Around the same time Evans got his troops, however, local Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes made a peace overture at Fort Lyon, Colorado. U.S. forces then demanded that these tribes lay down their weapons and surrender themselves to the military at Fort Lyon. Fort commander Edward W. Wynkoop accepted this surrender and proceeded to provide rations and government protection to the tribes before being sent to Washington, D.C. on assignment. New fort commander Scott Anthony finally ordered the Indians in October to move forty miles to Sand Creek, where they joined Black Kettle’s Cheyenne tribe. Even though the actions of the Indian tribes seemed to point the way to peace, Evans’ regiment remained on guard in Colorado.

With the Indians surrendered at Sand Creek, Colonel John M. Chivington made a fateful and sickening decision to attack Sand Creek. On November 29, 1864, Chivington’s men slaughtered at least seventy defenseless men, women, and children. In addition to killing many Indians outright, Chivington’s men scalped their victims and dressed their weapons with ears, fingers, and genitalia. Although Chivington defended his actions for the rest of his life, the massacre shocked many Americans at the time. Three separate government investigations of Sand Creek occurred in the aftermath of the massacre, with Congress’s Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War concluding that “for the purpose of vindicating the cause of justice and upholding the honor of the nation, prompt and energetic measures should be at once taken to remove from office those who have thus disgraced the government by whom they are employed, and to punish, as their crimes deserve, those who have been guilty of these brutal and cowardly acts.”


Penn State history professor Ari Kelman’s talk at the CWI Summer Conference addressed the Sand Creek Massacre and the ways the massacre has been remembered in American memory. He also has a book on this topic. During his talk, Kelman challenged audience members to consider whether Sand Creek should be considered a part of the American Civil War or of the Indian Wars that continued well into the early twentieth century. Even though Sand Creek occurred during the American Civil War, scholars have been reluctant to categorize the massacre as an outgrowth of that war. According to Kelman, Colorado schools today teach students that Sand Creek was a part of the Indian Wars, while the Sand Creek Massacre Wikipedia page currently describes the event as “an atrocity in the Indian Wars.”

Is it time to reconsider Sand Creek’s place in American history? I provide my answer below:

Before addressing whether or not Sand Creek was a part of the American Civil War, I believe it’s important to ask “what was the American Civil War?” At its most basic level, fundamental disagreements between white Americans over contested notions of freedom, liberty, citizenship, and democracy (many of which revolved around the institution of slavery) led to a sizable portion of white residents in eleven slave states to undertake an effort to formally secede from the United States. These people sought to form a separate nation whose founding principles rested on the perpetuation of a slavery-based economy and an ostensibly “federalist” style of limited government and state sovereignty. From the perspective of the U.S. government and its loyalist supporters, the war was first and foremost a war to stop this “rebellion” and preserve the Union, although emancipation would later evolve as another war aim of the U.S. military. Both sides used the legacy of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers to justify their respective positions.

Underlying these visions, however, was a rhetoric of empire that colored the perspectives of both Unionists and Confederates. The Civil War itself was not merely a battle for control of established American states but also Western territories mostly under Indian control. As Kelman argued at a “Dine-in” meeting I attended, the pressing questions in 1860 with regards to new western territories such as Kansas, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were “Who’s version of empire will lead the nation moving forward? Who will lead America’s expansion into the west: local/state governments or the federal government? Will the economies of these territories be based on slavery or free labor?” Control of western territories in the eyes of both Unionists and Confederates was integral for establishing political legitimacy both at home and abroad. Whoever gained control of the west would have control of a wealth of resources and an opportunity to oversee the growth of a potentially powerful empire.

These contested white visions of empire cannot be divorced from the outbreak of the American Civil War because these heated debates over westward expansion directly contributed to the outbreak of armed conflict in 1861. Take, for example, the efforts of white Americans in both free and slave states to settle in Kansas following the opening of that territory in 1854. Prior to 1854, new western territories were determined to be free or slave states based on their location in relation to the 36 30′ parallel established in the 1820 Missouri Compromise. In 1854, however, Congressman Stephen A. Douglas helped pass a bill abolishing the Missouri Compromise in favor of the idea of “popular sovereignty,” which stipulated that residents of a new territory would have the freedom to determine whether or not there would be slavery within its borders. Abolitionists, free soilers, and slaveholders rushed to Kansas to establish settlements and vote on a new constitution that would determine whether or not the state would have slavery. During the deliberations on the “Nebraska-Kansas” bill New York Senator William Seward, himself a strong opponent of slavery, warned his Southern colleagues in Congress that “We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right.”

Seward’s reference to the “virgin soil” of Kansas alerts us to the rhetoric of empire that accompanied any discussion of Union, freedom, and westward expansion. Kansas, of course, was not literally a “virgin” area untouched by humans. Indians had been there for hundreds of years, but in the eyes of Americans like Seward, Kansas was a “virgin soil” ripe for white expansion, conquest, and settlement. The growth of the United States empire–which included the westward expansion of railroads, the easy availability of cheap land, and the eventual spread of white settlements westward–required the removal of Indian tribes that stood in the way of “progress” and expansion. White Americans disagreed about the best methods for expanding their control to western areas of the continent, and these disagreements accompanied other conflicts over the best methods for promoting democratic governance in previously established American states. But almost all white Americans, regardless of region, tacitly agreed that the rights of Indian settlers were secondary to their wishes of empire.

Therefore, it is my opinion that the Sand Creek Massacre was a part of the Civil War and should be taught as such. The massacre was an outgrowth of prewar visions of white hegemony and westward expansion that cannot be divorced from the U.S. government’s eventual promotion of free land for white laborers in the west during and after the war. Indeed, I think it’s appropriate for us to consider the idea that the Indian Wars of the late nineteenth century were not a collection of battles separate from the Civil War but rather an extension of the Civil War that lasted far beyond the end of Union/Confederate hostilities in 1865.

So I guess the new question I have is “Did the Civil War really end in 1865?”



10 thoughts on “Was Sand Creek A Part of the Civil War or the Indian Wars?

    1. Thanks, Andrew! I don’t know if I have any additional thoughts on when the war ended at this point in time. I’d rather leave the question out there for others to ponder 🙂

      With regards to the second point, the war was far from ‘civil,’ which is why it demands our attention, especially since it’s far too easy to paint the conflict as a milquetoast “Civil War to Civil Rights” saga.

      1. Sure thing. To me, as we look closer and closer it’s hard–if not impossible–to define any beginning and ending points, regardless of the event – at least in terms of roots and legacies.

        Agreed. The “Civil War” – was not “civil.” It’s just strange that we call it “civil.” I also enjoy in general taking the names of events and turning it around – so Progressive Era – how progressive was the progressive era; how Vietnam was the Vietnam war, etc.


        1. This idea of the impossibility of defining starting and ending points is certainly true to an extent. I’m reminded of Matthew McConaghey’s remark in TV show “True Detective” about time being a flat circle (instead of a linear progression), and David Hume would agree with you regarding the near impossibility of precisely defining causation in historical events. But as historians we are tasked with analyzing change over time.

          Many historical events–especially wars–are accompanied by changes in social, political, or economic thought that partly explain why things happened the way they did. We will always debate when the roots of the Civil War were planted and what the legacy of that war is today because history is an interpretive process that uses evidence to defend those interpretations. Perhaps it’s just nearly impossible to *objectively* define beginning and ending points.

  1. Good article. The conference sounds useful.
    On your question of the Civil War’s ending, I think we can stick with 1865 as the main ending point–for the war itself. The earthquake of 1860/1861 sees its major end in 1865 but there are regular and (sometimes) brutal tremors throughout the 1860s and 1870s, If we are really looking for an official end date I would pick 1877 with the end of Reconstruction and the final federal troops leaving the South.
    In regards to the Indian Wars I think this fits somewhat as well. The Indian conflicts before the Civil War were terrible and violent (as all wars are) but the goal was forced migration. The War with its harsh rhetoric and radicalizing ideals changed Indian fighting as well–the conflicts took on an annihilation mentality.
    In this regard I think you could say that Civil War and Indian Wars do have an intrinsic relationship, which did not return to the antebellum mentality after 1865. Like the remaining realities of a post-World War II world (North Korea being a prime example) the Indian Wars are an extension of Civil War rhetoric and ideology.

    I change my mind. Great article. That is the most I’ve ever thought about the relationship between the two conflicts. Not that I hadn’t studied both events, but I did not look at how one influenced the other.


    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nathan. Ari Kelman’s talk at CWI definitely exposed for me a clearer relationship between the Civil War and subsequent battles against Indians in the Western territories before, during, and after the war.

    2. The question of to what extent (if any) Indians were involved in the Civil War brings up another factor that I see as interconnecting much/all of historical events – any time there is an event (particularly a major one) there will be changes and spillovers for every one and every thing, even if it is only in very small ways. Kind of the hermeneutical relationship between an event/group and other events/groups.

  2. I just finished Ari’s book on Sand Creek. As you know, Nick, I questioned his inclusion of Sand Creek as part of the Civil War during the conference. I have to say I’m still somewhat skeptical. I had a conversation with Ari over lunchtime one day at the conference, and I was somewhat more open to the idea afterward. I keep coming back to the point that you have to define the Civil War in a specific way which I think is broader than it should be in order to include it as anything other than tangential to the war. Some historians I respect [you, Megan Kate Nelson, and Ken Noe] are convinced he’s right about that, so I’m really wrestling with this as I think about a blog post regarding it. Because you and others are convinced about it, I keep thinking that I’m missing something.

    1. Hi Al,

      Thanks for commenting here on this complex topic. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts on how events like Sand Creek could expand the definition of the Civil War to a breaking point that makes it “broader than it should be.”

Comments are closed.