Silas Stillman Soule (July 26, 1838 – April 23, 1865) was an American radical abolitionist and Kansas Territory Jayhawker anti-slavery militant, and a friend of John Brown and Walt Whitman. Later, he became a soldier and eventually an officer in the Colorado volunteers during the American Civil War.
Captain Soule was in command of Company D, 1st Colorado Cavalry, which was present at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864, when he refused an order of his commander, Colonel John Chivington, to join an attack a peaceful encampment of members of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. During the subsequent inquiry into the resulting Sand Creek massacre, Soule testified against Chivington and was assassinated in Denver soon afterward.
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 slaves, escapees from Missouri, north to freedom. Silas's sister, Anne Julia Soule Prentiss, told of her family's early experience in Maine, Massachusetts and Kansas in a 1929 interview: "Our house was on the 'Underground Railway'. John Brown was often there... My Brother, Silas, and Brown were close friends. Silas went out on many a foray with him. I recall well when Brown came to our cabin one night with thirteen slaves, men, women and children. He had run them away from Missouri. Brown left them with us. Father would always take in all the Negroes he could. Silas took the whole thirteen from our home eight miles to Mr. Grover's stone barn..."
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 conflict, often called Bleeding Kansas, enhanced the reputation of Silas Soule as a brave and resourceful fighter.
In July 1859, Soule was part of an action on the Missouri Border. Twenty pro-slavery men had crossed into Kansas to look for escaped slaves. They ambushed a party led by Dr. John Doy, a physician in Lawrence, escorting 13 former slaves (eight men, three women and two children) toward safety in Iowa. The men from Missouri arrested Dr. Doy and sold the former slaves. Doy was soon tried and convicted in Missouri for abducting slaves and sentenced to 5 years in the penitentiary. Soule and a group of other men from Lawrence decided to free Doy. Soule was sent into the jailhouse in St. Joseph 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.
His skills at prison escapes came into use once again when John Brown was captured after his raid on Harper's Ferry. 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, and frustrating rescue attempts. Thomas Wentworth Higginson put together a rescue attempt of two of Brown's men, Albert Hazlett and Aaron Stevens, during which Silas posed as a drunken Irishman and got himself arrested. Put into the Charlestown jail, he charmed the jailor and contacted the two men, who also refused to be sprung from the jail. Afterwards, Silas traveled to Boston, where he hobnobbed with various abolitionists and befriended the poet Walt Whitman.
Life in Colorado and the Civil War
In May 1860, Silas, along with his brother William L.G. Soule, and his cousin, Sam Glass, went to the gold fields in Colorado. "When I arrived here I found a party waiting for me to go to pikes peak. My brother and cousin were in the gang going with a quartz machine belonging to Solomon and Parker of Lawrence and there was no way but I must go." Soule dug for gold and worked in a blacksmith shop.
In 1861, after the breakout of the American Civil War, Soule enlisted in Company K, 1st Colorado Infantry. He made his way up the ranks, and in November 1864, was assigned the command of Company D, 1st Colorado Cavalry.
The Sand Creek massacre
On November 29, 1864, Captain Soule and his company were with the regiment at Sand Creek, Colorado. A fellow abolitionist, Colonel John Chivington ordered the cavalry to attack the Cheyenne encampment there. Soule saw that the Cheyenne were flying the U.S. flag as a sign of peace, and, when told to attack, he and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer ordered their men to hold their fire and stay put. Most of Chivington's other forces, however, immediately attacked. The resulting action is now known as the Sand Creek massacre, one of the most notorious acts of mass murder 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."
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 Army began an investigation into the "battle," and Soule formally testified against Chivington in a court of inquiry. Soule's testimony against Chivington and about the massacre at Sand Creek led, in part, the Congress to refuse the Army's request for thousands of men for a general war against the Plains Indians.
On April 23, 1865, assassins fired five shots at Captain Soule, who was just married five weeks earlier and on duty as a Provost Marshal in Denver, Colorado; one of their bullets fatally hit him in the head. It was thought at the time by many that the killers were hired by men loyal to Chivington. One of Soule's friends, First Lieutenant James Cannon, tracked one suspect, a 2nd Colorado Cavalry soldier named Charles W. Squiers, down in New Mexico and brought him back to Denver to stand trial. Squiers escaped and Cannon was poisoned. Squiers was never again captured and escaped punishment.
In 2012, a memorial plaque was placed on a building at the northwest corner of Fifteenth and Arapaho Streets in Denver, marking the spot where Silas Soule died. The plaque reads:
- "She Looks Back Seventy-five Years to the Founding of Lawrence", The Kansas City Star, January 13, 1929, section C.
- "The Thrilling Narrative of Dr. John Doy, of Kansas or, Slavery As It Is, Inside and Out". Thayer and Eldridge, Boston, 1860. Kansas State Historical Society, Topeka.
- Tom Bensing, Silas Soule: A Short, Eventful Life of Moral Courage, Dog Ear Press, 2012.
- Letter of May 9, 1860 written at Coal Creek, Kansas, to Thayre, Eldridge and Hinton. Kansas State Historical Society.
- "Healing from Sand Creek". The Denver Post. 2006-11-26. Retrieved 2013-12-17.
- Gary L. Roberts and David Fridtjof Halaas, "Written in Blood," Colorado Heritage, winter 2001, p.25.
- Carol Turner, Enterprise columnist (2010-12-12). "On History: Silas Soule`s heroism officially recognized". Broomfield Enterprise. Retrieved 2013-11-15.
- Silas Soule at Find A Grave
- The Sand Creek Massacre » Silas Soule
- Silas Soule: Massachusetts Abolitionist at HistoryNet
- Captain Silas S. Soule, a Pioneer Martyr, an article originally published in The Colorado Magazine, Vol. IV, May 1927.