Known as the "Fighting Parson," John M. Chivington was an ordained Methodist minister and Union officer, who was acclaimed for his performance at the Battle of Glorieta Pass but condemned for his role in the Sand Creek Massacre.
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 on an irregular basis, 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 were married in Jefferson County, Indiana, on July 24, 1839. Their marriage produced three children, before Martha passed away in 1867.
In 1842, Chivington attended a Methodist revivalist meeting and was smitten by the evangelical fervor that had swept the nation during the Second Great Awakening. Chivington was so captivated that he decided to enter the ministry and 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, he 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, a reassignment to the Rocky Mountain District required Chivington and his family to relocate 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 was commissioned as a major in the 1st Colorado Volunteers, on August 26, 1861, serving under Colonel John P. Slough. Chivington spent the remainder of the year drilling his men and preparing them for battle. Although a stern taskmaster, personal accounts indicate that he was respected by his men.
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 gold fields, 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 went on to occupy 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 located adjacent to 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 of the troops at Fort Union.
Prior to Slough's arrival at Fort Union, Canby, who was still isolated at Fort Craig, issued orders for the troops at Fort Union to stay put and to 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 in the vicinity of Glorieta Pass, a gap in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains southeast of Santa Fe. The next day, nearly four hundred Federals, commanded by Chivington, engaged approximately three hundred 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 awaited the arrival of Slough and the main Union force.
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 four hundred men, around the Rebels as they advanced and to hit them in the flank. As the Texans advanced through the pass, Slough attacked with the remainder 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 in position 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 was forced to begin withdrawing from New Mexico. Canby then resumed command of all of 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. Due to his success at the Battle of Glorieta Pass, Chivington was promoted 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.
Reaping the benefits of his success in New Mexico, Chivington was promoted to Commanding Colonel of the Military District of Colorado in November 1862. During that same month, he was nominated for an appointment as a brigadier-general in the volunteer army in Washington, DC. 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.
Chivington's tenure as commander of the Military District of Colorado was marred by an escalation of hostilities between American Indians and whites in the territory. Depravities on both sides fueled a burgeoning atmosphere characterized by 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."
The rancor reached its nadir on November 29, 1864 when Chivington ordered a force of nearly seven hundred 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 two hundred Indians. Most of the victims were unarmed women, children, and elderly people. When the carnage ended, some of the soldiers engaged in a bloodthirsty rampage, mutilating the remains of their victims for body parts to be taken back to Denver as trophies of their triumph.
Reactions to the Sand Creek Massacre were mixed. Generally commended by the press and the populace in the West, Chivington was roundly denounced in the East. 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 board.
Although Chivington escaped any reprisals for his behavior, his military career and political aspirations were ruined by the Sand Creek Massacre. He went on to lead an unscrupulous 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. He was later accused 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 188,3 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, as well as 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 was elected as president of the Colorado Veterans' Association, and he was employed as an under-sheriff and as a coroner. Perhaps not uncharacteristically, Chivington was accused of filing false expense reports during his tenure as undersheriff 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.
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"John Milton Chivington." (2021) In Ohio Civil War Central, Retrieved September 17, 2021, from Ohio Civil War Central: http://www.ohiocivilwarcentral.com/entry.php?rec=1370