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Silas Stillman Soule (July 26, 1838 – April 23, 1865) was a Massachusetts abolitionist, Kansas Territory Jayhawker, and a soldier in the Colorado infantry and cavalry during the American Civil War. Captain Soule, as commander of Company D, 1st Colorado Cavalry, was present at the Sand Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864. He refused an order of his commander, Colonel John Chivington, to fire on defenseless Indians, primarily old men, women, and young children. Soule later testified against Chivington for the atrocities committed by him and his troops. He was shot and killed soon after, believed to be by Chivington loyalists.
Early life and "Bleeding Kansas"
Silas Soule was born into a family of abolitionists in Bath, Maine. He was raised in Maine and Massachusetts and, in 1854, his family became part of the newly formed New England Emigrant Aid Company, an organization whose goal was to help settle the Kansas Territory and bring it into the Union as a free state. His father and brother arrived in Kansas, near Lawrence, in November 1854. Silas, his mother and two sisters came the following summer.
Shortly after the family's arrival at Coal Creek, a few miles south of Lawrence near present day Vinland, Amasa Soule, Silas's father, established his household as a stop on the Underground Railroad. At the young age of 17, Silas was escorting escaped slaves from Missouri Territory north to freedom. During these pre-war years pro-slavery forces from Missouri and abolitionist forces from Kansas were engaged in open warfare. The fight was whether Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a slave or as a free state. This war, known as Bleeding Kansas, would see Silas Soule become an expert at hit-and-run tactics. His name soon held widespread recognition around Kansas.
In 1859, Soule was part of an action on the Missouri Border. Twenty pro-slavery U.S. soldiers had crossed into Kansas to look for escaped slaves. They chanced upon Dr. John Doy, a physician in Lawrence, and the twelve slaves he was escorting. The men from Missouri arrested Dr. Doy and sold the twelve slaves. Doy was soon tried and convicted in Missouri for assisting escaped slaves. Soule and a group of other men from Lawrence decided to free Doy. Soule was sent into the jailhouse where Doy was being held. Soule convinced the jailkeeper that he had a message from Doy's wife. The note, in fact, read "Tonight, at twelve o'clock." Later that night, they overpowered the jailer, freed Doy, and led him across the Missouri back to Kansas. When they reached Lawrence, they had their photo taken. (This photo of "The Immortal Ten," now held by the Kansas State Historical Society, is widely circulated. see )
His skills at prison escapes came into use once again when John Brown, a friend of the Soule family, was captured after his raid on Harper's Ferry. Soule found his way into the prison where Brown was being held, some say by posing as a drunk. Once inside, he tricked the jailer into letting him see Brown. When Soule explained the plans to Brown, Brown refused to be rescued, himself having developed a new plan to end slavery. Brown had decided to become a martyr for the abolitionist cause and allowed himself to be hanged, hoping his death would help bring on a war between north and south.
Sand Creek Massacre
Silas Soule later found himself in the west once again. In 1861, he enlisted in Company K, 1st Colorado Volunteers. He made his way up the ranks, and in November 1864, was named as commander of Company D, 1st Colorado Cavalry. On November 29, 1864, Captain Soule and his company were with the regiment at Sand Creek, Colorado. Col. John Chivington ordered the cavalry to attack the Cheyenne encampment. Soule saw that the Cheyenne were flying the U.S. flag as a sign of peace, and, when told to attack, ordered his men to hold their fire and stay put. Chivington's men, however, immediately attacked. The resulting action is now known as the Sand Creek Massacre, one of the biggest mass slaughters in U.S. history.
- "I refused to fire, and swore that none but a coward would, for by this time hundreds of women and children were coming towards us, and getting on their knees for mercy. ... I tell you Ned it was hard to see little children on their knees, having their brains beat out by men professing to be civilized."
- - Captain Silas Soule, letter to Major Edward W. Wynkoop, 14 December 1864
Chivington was furious over Soule's refusal to attack the camp and branded him a coward. Soule's men came to his defense, saying that Soule was indeed very courageous in refusing Chivington's order.
The massacre sparked outrage and shock around the country. The United States Army began an investigation into the "battle," and Soule formally testified against Chivington in a court of inquiry.
On April 23, 1865, Charles Squires, a soldier, shot Soule in the head near his Denver, Colorado home, killing him. It is thought that Squires was hired by men loyal to Chivington to kill Soule. One of Soule's men, First Lieutenant James Cannon, tracked Squires down in New Mexico and brought him back to Denver to stand trial. Squires escaped and Cannon was poisoned. Squires was never again captured and escaped punishment.
Soule's testimony against Chivington and about the massacre at Sand Creek led, in part, the United States Congress to refuse the Army's request for thousands of men for a general war against the Native Americans of the Plains States.
- Gary L. Roberts and David Fridtjof Halaas, "Written in blood," Colorado Heritage, winter 2001, p.25.