Ari Kelman’s new book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek, is a complicated and beautiful narrative about narrative, a series of connected and interwoven stories about history and histories. It is also a damned fine read, one that I savored slowly over several weeks (though I think reviewers are supposed to knock things out quickly) and will continue thinking about for a long time.
The book starts by recounting the story of the Sand Creek Massacre, although the massacre is not the actual subject of the book. Indeed, it becomes clear almost immediately that there is no such thing as “the” story of Sand Creek. Kelman introduces us to three characters—two perpetrators and one survivor of the massacre itself—through the primary documents, written by themselves, that describe what happened. And great characters they are. John Chivington, committed abolitionist, Union colonel, and inveterately racist Indian hater, led the attack and devoted himself to defending (and exaggerating) it in newspapers and official statements for years afterwards. Silas Soule, gold seeker, joshing mama’s boy, and Captain, refused to participate in it or order his men to, and blew the whistle afterwards in letters home and to Colorado patriarch Edward Wynkoop, leading to the investigation and condemnation of Chivington’s actions. George Bent, the son of a federal Indian agent and a Cheyenne woman, was a Confederate volunteer, captured by Union soldiers and released after swearing loyalty to the United States, who went to live with his mother’s people in part to protect himself from anti-Confederate sentiment in Colorado; he was wounded in the massacre, but survived, was ignored by the investigation but published his story in a six-part series almost forty years later, and died with his book-length memoir yet unpublished (it finally saw print in 1968).