John Milton Chivington was born on January 27, 1821, near Lebanon, Ohio, approximately twenty miles north of Cincinnati. He was one of six children born to Isaac and Jane Runyan Chivington, four of whom survived infancy. Isaac Chivington was a farmer and lumberman who fought against Tecumseh and the British at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812.
In August 1826, Isaac Chivington died, leaving his widow to raise five-year-old John and his three siblings. As a result, John Chivington spent much of his youth tending to the family farm and helping with the lumber business. Although a bright lad, Chivington attended the local school irregularly, receiving much of his education at home.
Upon reaching the age of eighteen, Chivington took charge of the family’s timber business. His new duties required him annually to make several trips to Cincinnati, where he met Martha Rollason. Although Rollason was eight years older than Chivington, the two became romantically involved. One year later, they married in Jefferson County, Indiana, on July 24, 1839. Their marriage produced three children before Martha passed away in 1867.
The “Fighting Parson”
In 1842, Chivington attended a Methodist revivalist meeting and embraced the evangelical fervor that had swept the nation during the Second Great Awakening. Chivington was so captivated that he entered the ministry preparing to teach the gospel on the American frontier. Unable to afford a formal religious education, Chivington studied at home for two years before being ordained in 1844.
For the next sixteen years, Chivington spread the word of God and tended to various flocks in the Midwest and on the Great Plains. In 1853, Chivington served as a missionary to the Wyandot Indians in western Missouri. Later, while serving in Kansas during the Kansas-Nebraska Wars, Chivington reportedly delivered some of his outspoken, Free-Soil sermons at the point of a six-shooter, earning him the nickname of the “Fighting Parson.” The bad blood that Chivington’s sermons aroused eventually prompted his reassignment to the safer environs of Omaha, Nebraska in 1856.
In March 1860, reassignment to the Rocky Mountain District required Chivington and his family to move to Denver, Colorado. The American Civil War erupted while Chivington was serving as Presiding Elder of the district. Colorado Territorial Governor William Gilpin offered Chivington a commission as a chaplain, but Chivington declined because he wanted to serve in a combat role. Instead, Chivington accepted a commission as a major in the 1st Colorado Volunteers, on August 26, 1861, serving under Colonel John P. Slough.
Chivington spent the rest of the year drilling his men and preparing them for battle. Although a stern taskmaster, personal accounts indicate that his men respected him.
Action in New Mexico – Glorieta Pass
Chivington’s first call to action came in 1862 when Confederate Brigadier-General Henry Hopkins Sibley led his Army of New Mexico (also known as Sibley’s Brigade) out of Texas into New Mexico. Sibley’s broad objectives were to subdue the remaining Union garrisons in New Mexico, to seize their supplies, to travel up the Santa Fe Trail to capture the Colorado goldfields, and then, to head west to conquer California.
On February 21, Sibley’s men defeated Union General Edward R. Canby’s troops at the Battle of Valverde, forcing them to retreat to Fort Craig. Sibley then bypassed Fort Craig and occupied Albuquerque on March 2 and the territorial capital at Santa Fe on March 10. His next target was Fort Union, a major Federal supply depot near the Santa Fe Trail in northern New Mexico.
On the same day that Sibley entered Santa Fe, Slough and Chivington arrived at Fort Union, leading 950 soldiers of the 1st Regiment of Colorado Volunteers to reinforce the existing garrison of 850 men. Being senior in command, Slough assumed command of all the troops at Fort Union.
Prior to Slough’s arrival at Fort Union, Canby had issued orders for the troops at Fort Union to stay put and defend the stronghold. Slough, however, had other ideas. On March 22, 1862, he led 1,300 men out of Fort Union and headed toward Sibley’s headquarters at Santa Fe.
As Slough headed west, Sibley dispatched Major Charles Pyron’s Fifth Texas Regiment east along the Santa Fe Trail toward Fort Union. By March 25, both armies were near Glorieta Pass, a gap in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains southeast of Santa Fe.
The next day, nearly 400 Federals, commanded by Chivington, engaged roughly 300 Rebels, led by Major Charles L. Pyron, at Apache Canyon on the west end of the pass. After outflanking his opponent several times, Chivington ordered a frontal attack that scattered the Confederates and forced them to retreat from the pass. Chivington then settled down and waited for Slough and the main Union force to arrive.
On the morning of March 28, 1862, both commanders in the field ordered an assault. As Scurry moved his men east through Glorieta Pass to engage the Federals, Slough divided his army. The Union commander ordered Chivington to lead two infantry battalions, totaling nearly 400 men, around the Rebels as they advanced and to hit them in the flank. As the Texans moved through the pass, Slough attacked with the rest of his force at approximately 11 a.m. After nearly five hours of fighting, the Confederates forced the Federals to retreat.
Unbeknownst to Scurry, while he was winning the battle, he was losing the campaign. By the time Chivington arrived to attack Scurry’s flank, the Texans had advanced so far through the pass that they had exposed their rear.
At the urging of two regular army captains, William H. Lewis, and Asa B. Carey, Chivington ordered an assault on Scurry’s supply train. The Federals sacked and burned approximately eighty wagons of stores and ammunition, spiked several pieces of artillery, and drove off hundreds of horses and mules before rejoining Slough.
Lacking supplies and ammunition, any further advance against Fort Union was out of the question, so Scurry retreated to Santa Fe on March 31, to rejoin Sibley. With Canby still at his rear and no means to sustain his army in hostile territory, Sibley withdrew from New Mexico.
Canby then resumed command of all the troops in his department, including the garrison at Fort Union. When Slough returned to Fort Union, Canby charged him with disobeying orders for leading the expedition to Glorieta Pass, despite the success of this operation.
On April 9, 1862, Slough resigned his position with the Colorado unit. Because of his success at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, Chivington received a promotion to colonel and leap-frogged his immediate superior, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel F. Tappan, as Slough’s replacement. With Sibley’s threat to New Mexico eliminated, Chivington’s force returned to Colorado.
Military District of Colorado Commander
Reaping the benefits of his success in New Mexico, the War Department promoted Chivington to Commanding Colonel of the Military District of Colorado in November 1862. During that same month, army officials nominated him for an appointment as a brigadier general in the volunteer army. For unknown reasons, in February 1863, the appointment was withdrawn or Chivington declined it, perhaps because of his political aspirations to become the first United States Representative from Colorado when the territory achieved statehood.
An escalation of hostilities between American Indians and whites marred Chivington’s tenure as commander of the Military District of Colorado. Depravities on both sides fueled racial mistrust and hatred. Chivington fanned the flames with statements proclaiming that
the Cheyennes will have to be roundly whipped — or completely wiped out — before they will be quiet. I say that if any of them are caught in your vicinity, the only thing to do is kill them.
Sand Creek Massacre
The rancor reached its nadir on November 29, 1864, when Chivington ordered a force of nearly 700 Colorado volunteers to attack a village of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. Ignoring a white flag of truce and the United States flag that the village’s inhabitants raised when the assault began, Chivington’s men killed between 150 and 200 Indians. Most of the victims were unarmed women, children, and elderly people. When the carnage ended, some soldiers engaged in a bloodthirsty rampage, mutilating the remains of their victims for body parts to take back to Denver as trophies of their triumph.
Reactions to the Sand Creek Massacre were mixed. Generally commended by the press and by the populace in the West, critics in the East roundly denounced Chivington. Three separate federal investigations condemned his actions. A report by the Joint Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War concluded that
Wearing the uniform of the United States, which should be the emblem of justice and humanity . . . Chivington . . . deliberately planned and executed a foul and dastardly massacre which would have disgraced the veriest savage among those who were the victims of his cruelty.
Despite the outrage over his conduct, Chivington escaped any punishment because, technically, his volunteer commission had expired two months before the carnage occurred. His official resignation from the Volunteer Army on January 4, 1865, enabled Chivington to avoid being tried before a court-martial.
Although Chivington escaped any reprisals for his behavior, the controversy surrounding the Sand Creek Massacre ruined his military career and political aspirations. He went on to lead a scandalous life. In 1868, following the drowning death of his son, Chivington lured his daughter-in-law into marriage as part of a scheme to steal her inheritance. Later, he faced accusations of arson, forgery, beating, and stealing from his third wife, and of pilfering his mother’s life savings.
Often staying one step ahead of authorities, Chivington moved around the Western United States and Canada for the next decade, before returning to Ohio. In 1883, Chivington was a Republican candidate from Warren County for a seat in the Ohio General Assembly. After local newspapers published reports about his unscrupulous past and accounts of his role in the Sand Creek Massacre, Chivington withdrew from the race and returned to Colorado, where many still viewed him as a hero. There, he served as president of the Colorado Veterans’ Association, and he received employment as an under-sheriff and as a coroner. Not surprisingly, officials accused Chivington of filing false expense reports during his tenure as under-sheriff and of stealing from a corpse while serving as coroner.
Chivington died from stomach cancer on October 4, 1894, while living in Denver. His funeral took place at Trinity United Methodist Church, and he is buried at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver.