Moral courage of Silas Soule and the Sand Creek Massacre

Moral Courage of Silas Soule

We immediately recognize brave acts of physical courage. They are often well witnessed and touted as a brave act. Sometimes, the strength of moral courage is missed. Moral courage is based on actions taken for moral reasons despite the risk of consequences. Having the moral courage to act, regardless of the consequences, is rare.

It is especially rare when it is not popular to do so. The life of Captain Silas Soule is one of those rare instances of a man having the moral courage to not act when it was not a popular decision amongst his peers.

Captain Silas Soule 1863 or 1864 photo: NPS/Denver Public Library

Captain Silas Soule 1863 or 1864 photo: NPS/Denver Public Library

Early Acts of Moral Courage

To understand the moral courage of Silas Soule, one must look at his early years that led to an unforgettable legacy of his tragically short life. Born in 1838, Silas Stillman Soule grew up just before the outbreak of the Civil War to a fervent abolitionist father. Silas’s family moved to the Kansas Territory which bridged the line between free and slave states. His family home became a part of the Underground Railroad.

The moral courage of Silas Soule ran strong as he helped his father transport freed slaves via the Underground Railroad and aided in the jailbreak of a doctor accused of aiding slaves. On October 16, 1859, the abolitionist John Brown led a group of 21 men in a raid on the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia. Soule participated in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue two of John Brown’s men after the raid. Not long after the rescue attempt, Silas joined the rush to the Pike’s Peak region in Colorado Territory where he mined for gold and worked as a blacksmith for the next year.

Service to the Nation

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Soule left the rough work gold mining for ordered service in the Army. He earned a commission as a lieutenant in the Colorado 1st Regiment of Volunteer Infantry.

The Army dispatched the Colorado 1st Regiment to New Mexico to stop the western advance of the Confederate Army. The North and South clashed at Glorietta Pass, near Pecos, NM. Soule recalled the fighting intense as it went to hand-to-hand combat in a letter, “…fighting hand to hand over rocks, stumps, and trees.” Colonel John Slough, supported by Major John M. Chivington, commanded the Colorado 1st Regiment. Their efforts helped bring about a Union victory that saw the collapse of the Confederate campaign in the west.

After Glorietta Pass, the Army stationed the Colorado 1st Regiment throughout Colorado Territory. The Army promoted John Chivington to Colonel and as the Commanding Officer. Chivington recognized Soule’s leadership and promoted him to Captain and assigned his troop to Fort Lyon, Colorado.

In September 1864, Captain Soule and Major Edward Wynkoop participated in the Smoky Hill peace talks with Chiefs from the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations. The talks were successful which led Soule, Wynkoop and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Chiefs traveling to Denver. The peace party met with the Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs John Evans and Colonel John Chivington in Denver. Soule’s presence at both of these important peace meetings reinforced his personal beliefs. The talks formed a deep respect for the Native American nations and hope for a peaceful resolution.

Chief Black Kettle (holding pipe) Camp Weld peace conference, 1864 photo credit: NPS/National Anthropological Archives

Chief Black Kettle (holding pipe) Camp Weld peace conference, 1864 photo credit: NPS/National Anthropological Archives

Moral Courage in Action

Reports of threats of attack swept the Colorado Territory in 1864 following murders by both the white settlers native peoples. Believing an attack imminent, Colonel Chivington left Denver to join his troops. He arrived at Fort Lyon on November 28th.

Colonel Chivington and men loyal to him secured the post. They did not allow anyone to leave. He arrested two officers and declared the intention to attack the Native Americans camped on Sand Creek.

Some of the officers joined him, but Soule did not. As soon as Soule learned of the plan, he went to a room where some officers were assembled and told them that any man who would take part in the murders was “a low lived cowardly son of a bitch.”

Men loyal to Chivington reported what had been said. Chivington swore they would hang Soule before they moved camp. Soule agreed to move his men but did not agree with an attack on the encampment. All the officers of the post, except one, backed Soule.

Chivington ordered movement and the regiment, with Soule and his men, departed that night heading north toward the Cheyenne and Arapaho camps at Sand Creek.

“The Sand Creek Massacre" by Robert Lindneaux portrays his concept of the assault on the peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village by the U.S. Army. Courtesy of History Colorado H.6130.37

“The Sand Creek Massacre” by Robert Lindneaux portrays his concept of the assault on the peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho village by the U.S. Army.
Courtesy of History Colorado H.6130.37

Sand Creek Massacre

The events that followed was to be one of the blackest moments in U.S. history at the time.

At dawn on November 29, 1864, approximately 675 U.S. soldiers commanded by Chivington attacked a village of about 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women and children along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado Territory. Using carbines, pistols and cannon fire, the troops drove the people out of their camp.

Captain Silas S. Soule and Lieutenant Joseph A. Cramer refused to fire during the attack. Not only is Soule and Cramer put their military career at risk, but their lives as well. Soule and his soldiers refused to take part in the slaughter.

Some managed to escape the initial onslaught. Some women, children, and the elderly fled to the bottom of a dry stream bed. The soldiers followed, shooting at them as they struggled to escape death. Women and children frantically scraped at the sandy earth along the sides of the streambed to protect themselves.

Over the course of eight hours, the troops killed over 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people composed mostly of women, children, and the elderly. That afternoon and following day, soldiers mutilated the dead before departing on December 1.


Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer wrote letters to their former commander, Major Edward “Ned” Wynkoop. The letters described the scene in detail of what they had witnessed. They condemned the leadership of Colonel Chivington who ordered the attack. These letters led to investigations by the Army and two congressional committees.

Army’s investigation began in January 1865. It was Silas that was the first to testify against John Chivington.

Chivington was brought before a US Army court-martial. Following the investigations, an Army commission changed history’s judgment of Sand Creek from a battle to a massacre of men, women, and children.

Chivington was condemned for his actions, but not punished. He resigned from the Army in February 1865. He died penniless in 1894.

Soule Returns to Civilian Life

By April 1865, Soule left Fort Lyon, Colorado. He married Hersa Coberly, and the couple made their home in Denver, Colorado.

Less than 80 days following his testimony to the military investigation, Soule was shot and killed in the streets of Denver by a soldier loyal to Chivington, Charles Squier. Soule was performing his duties as Provost Marshal. His murderer was never brought to justice. Squier, a decorated soldier himself, was buried a hero four years later.


Captain Soule’s actions prove that a brave act may be having the moral courage to not taking action that may be unpopular.

In 2000, letters written by Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer were found in Denver. The letters provide detailed, firsthand accounts of the day of the massacre. They reveal the moral resistance to the atrocities that surrounded them. As primary sources, these letters reveal the heinous acts at Sand Creek while also demonstrating how a hundred men stood in resistance to unlawful orders.

As a retired Army Officer, I can fully appreciate the weight of the decision that Captain Soule made that day in 1864. Soule was a battle-hardened officer who served alongside his Commander in the Civil War. A bond that only a warrior could understand. Captain Soule decided to no longer follow his commander which breaks with the warrior code. To disobey an unlawful order is not an easy thing to do. It was Soule’s moral compass that steered him.

Fortunately, I was not confronted with such a dilemma in my own military career. I observed instances of moral ambiguity, but nothing unlawful or unethical that warranted action. Even so, I try to be mindful of the principles and values that I believe in. The story of Silas Soule is a reminder to keep faith with our principles and values and do the right thing even if it may not be popular.


If you want to learn more:

Letters from Captain Silas S. Soule and Lieutenant Joseph A. Cramer of the 1st Colorado (U.S.) Volunteer Cavalry to Major Edward “Ned” Wynkoop.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

“Sand Creek Massacre: Colorado’s land grab from Native tribes,” Special to The Denver Post November 21, 2014

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