Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Short, Eventful Life


On the night of April 23, 1865, just eight days after President Abraham Lincoln met his earthly end in the Ford Theater, a young man named Silas Soule, a Civil War and Indian Wars veteran and a constable in a frontier town called Denver, Colorado, ran into two cavalrymen, late, who, presumably drunk, were shooting their handguns irresponsibly.  No one really knows what was said, but in a matter of minutes, Charles Squier, a ne'er-do-well with a rap sheet and a venomous hatred for Abraham Lincoln, shot Silas Soule in the head.  He died almost instantly.

And so ends what Tom Bensing calls "The Short, Eventful Life of Moral Courage," the life of Silas Soule, who had on April Fools Day, just three weeks before, married an 18-year-old sweetheart named Hersa Coberly. Soule was just 26 years old.

Every Thanksgiving, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho kids take part in a commemoration of the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864, when Native men, women, and children were killed, slaughtered by a regiment of 650 Colorado troops incensed by bloody acts perpetrated by Native people in eastern Colorado.  To white people, those attacks kept Denver and Colorado from growing, business from thriving.  To Native folks, those attacks came in retribution for the way their land was simply taken from them.  It's an old story.  The Arapahos and Northern Cheyenne want to remember.  Most of us white folks would rather forget.

The leader of the Colorado First was General John Chivington, a square-shouldered, charismatic military man nicknamed "The Fighting Parson," a man who considered Native people vermin and said so.  "The fighting parson" was, in fact, a man of the cloth, a preacher of the Word, something else white folks would rather forget.

The Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run/Walk was created to help Native children remember the deaths of their ancestors at Sand Creek, as well as to honor Silas Soule, who was among the officers riding along with Chivington that day, a man who daringly chose to keep his troops from participating in what he perceived as a massacre, not a battle. 

As Tom Bensing makes clear in his book about Soule, the man's short life was not at all uneventful.  He'd come west from Maine in the late 1850s, a determined abolitionist, to accompany John Brown and his band of activist terrorists who saw human slavery as a cancer that had to be cut out of humankind. Later, Silas Soule fought for the Union at the Battle of Glorieta Pass. He'd come out to Colorado, like so many others going west, to cut his fortune from the frontier.

Soule was neither angel nor saint, but something in his constitution turned away from what he saw happening at Sand Creek.  He refused to participate, then made public his shame at what had happened by accusing Chivington, after the carnage, of inhuman slaughter.  There are those who believe that when Charles Squier shot Silas Soule through the head, it was itself an assassination in retaliation for Soule's accusations against the horrors of Sand Creek.  To the white people and the white press of frontier Denver, Chivington was an authentic American hero.  Did Soule's untimely death result from his accusations against Chivington and Colorado Cavalry?  It's unlikely anyone will ever know.

I read Silas Soule: A Short, Eventful Life of Moral Courage, hoping to discover just what it is that makes some men and women capable of running against the tide when they determine that there is higher moral ground.  Why did Silas Soule command his troops not to fight?  What was it in his character that led him to make a decidedly unpopular decision, when all around him hundreds of cavalrymen were slaughtering Indians with the grinning approval of "the fighting parson"?  

On that question, Tom Bensing is largely silent or baffled himself.  "As he [Soule] approached the creek, he saw the situation for what it was," Bensing writes, "an out-of-control mob slaughtering men, women, and children, few of whom deserved it."  He's right, of course; that is what happened.  But why he saw what others didn't is a question that remains largely unanswered.

The book is finely researched and convincingly argued, but what I was looking for is something it didn't--or maybe couldn't--deliver.  What happens to make some good people rescue Jews in the face of Nazi terror and others refuse?  Why did Silas Soule make his troops wander up and down Sand Creek but stay out of the horrors, a massacre that may well have fomented what we call "the Sioux Indian Wars" on America's Great Plains, wars that ended with another massacre, this one at a creek named Wounded Knee.

I enjoyed the book immensely.  Bensing does a wonderful job at creating the context of Silas Soule's remarkable life--from John Brown to Johnny Reb to John Chivington.  But just exactly what went on in Soule's own soul with the first startling volleys at Sand Creek and why he and not others determined somehow that the higher moral ground was to disobey Chivington's own command is a mystery we'll probably never divine.

All we know is that he did, and that decision is what those Arapaho kids want us all to remember when they run from the banks of Sand Creek to downtown Denver every year at Thanksgiving. 

Still, for a number of reasons, Silas Soule: A Short, Eventful Life of Moral Courage tells a story that none of us should ever forget. 

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