Instructor: Jennifer Seward
November 29, 1864
The surprise attack on the nearby encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho savages is imminent. The other seven hundred troops and I will ride with Colonel John Chivington and the Third Regiment to the Sand Creek reservation at dawn. Everything is ready, and we have assembled all four mountain howitzers. I cannot wait to rid the world of these red-skinned pagans. I cannot wait to fight for civilization.
Private E. Thayer, First Colorado Regiment of Cavalry Volunteers
I signed my name at the bottom of the page before shoving the diary back into my army-issued deerskin haversack with my Bible. As I stepped out of my canvas tent into the frigid morning air, my heart pounded against the immaculately polished rifle strapped to my chest. The heathens won't know what hit them, I chuckled to myself, picturing the impending mayhem. As soon as the sun rises, victory will be ours.
A puff of hot air enveloped my hand as Charlemagne, the stallion my fiercely patriotic father gave me, ambled up behind me, his steamy breath spiraling upward into the rose-pink dawn sky. He nickered as I untied his halter and heaved his leather saddle onto his back. "Come on, Charlie," I whispered. "It's almost time for our first real battle."
A murmur ran through the crowd as Colonel Chivington emerged from his tent. Deftly, I mounted my steed to get a better look. The colonel was clothed in all his usual splendor, his golden epaulets glowing like lanterns in the dark and his navy kepi perched proudly atop his head.
"Form ranks!" he shouted curtly. Immediately, all seven hundred cavalrymen obeyed, hooves clopping rhythmically against the hard-packed earth. I turned and joined the left flank, where my regiment was settling into columns. While I waited for further command, I whispered a brief prayer for protection. Suddenly, a sliver of white appeared on the horizon that could mean only one thing. The sun was rising.
"Forward, march!" Another brusque order from the colonel rang out. Tightening my already tenacious grip on the reins, I gently squeezed Charlemagne with my legs. As we trotted north toward Sand Creek, the sun rose higher in the sky. Finally, the unit mounted one last hill, and the nearly one hundred buffalo-hide teepees of the camp came into view. For a few seconds, everyone was still. The wind, whistling through the trees, rustled their bare branches. A migrating goldfinch chirped as it flitted by. The pearly clouds drifted lazily overhead, following the straggling bird south. Then the colonel bellowed, "Charge!" and pandemonium broke out.
"Kill the savages!" someone hollered to my right, sparking a string of cheers throughout the company. As we galloped down the slope, I joined the chorus. "For civilization!" I shouted, following it with my fiercest war whoop. By now, the Indians, quickly emerging from their tents, had noticed the incoming invaders. In a blind panic, they rushed from place to place, searching for their weapons and their kin. The nearer we approached, the more frantic the yells in their peculiar language grew. As several redskins sprinted into the open plain, I scoffed, "They're not only heathens, but cowards, too!"
Suddenly, an ear-splitting crack from an American rifle pierced the air. I leaned forward on the saddle as a shell screamed overhead, the adrenaline surging through my veins. A brave, clad in the strange sheep-skin garment the Indians called war shirts, lifted his bow in my peripheral vision, and I swiftly turned and shot. My bullet went wide. Still gritting my teeth, I dismounted and fired again. This time, my aim was true.
Pops would be so proud if he saw that! I thought as the brave spun around and fell to the ground, where he lay unmoving. One pagan savage down, two hundred more to go.
Now more eager than ever after my first kill, I flattened myself on the ground to quickly reload my rifle. Peering through the gray clouds of smoke that billowed up around me, I scanned the camp for another target. Another brave was standing by the body of the one I had killed. Steadily, I raised my rifle again and, taking a deep breath, pulled the trigger.
Clutching his chest, the brave reeled backward. As he collapsed to the ground, his feathered headdress fell beside him. Long, unbraided hair as black as death flowed out from under the covering. Unbraided hair? Wait - that's not a war shirt… Time slowed as I realized what I had done. I killed a woman, I thought. My throat tightened like a knot. An Injun woman - but a woman nonetheless. And I slaughtered her.
I replayed what Colonel Chivington had said the night before - that the camp was full of men. I looked around in confusion and almost vomited as I suddenly saw everything I had missed in my excitement. A white flag waved high over the camp. Women and children huddling together screamed as bullets narrowly whizzed past them. Almost no one was fighting back, and most of the braves who had taken a stand were now dead. I had been tricked.
I staggered backward and, to my horror, stumbled over a severed infant's arm. Shuddering, I squeezed my eyes shut in an attempt to erase the sickening sight from my mind, but it was too late. For a second, I thought about telling the other soldiers to stop, to refuse to participate in the massacre. But as I watched one mercilessly beat an Arapaho woman with the butt of his weapon, I knew they wouldn't.
I was suddenly filled with rage at everything: at the colonel, at the soldiers, at myself. Standing tall, I hurled my rifle to the ground, vowing — for civilization — never again to fight with these barbaric brutes that were American soldiers. We had been the real savages all along. Exhausted, I toppled over, and the hot tears flowed down my cheeks. The blood-soaked dirt absorbed them all.