Silas Stillman Soule may never be as famous as Col. John M. Chivington, the man whose reputation he rightly tarnished, but there is an excellent book about Soule, published in 2012, and a short documentary is promised for the sesquicentennial of his murder.  If Silas Soule had not blown the whistle on the barbarity Chivington unleashed at Sand Creek, the history of the West might be far different.  Because Soule and a few others testified about the horrors they had seen, the Army was hesitant to pursue a policy of blatant extermination of the Plains tribes, which was one of the cards waiting to be dealt.  Thus, Soule is no mere footnote to history, but a major player whose career was cut short by an assassin.  The period after his untimely death is rich with footnotes, a few of them containing heavy doses of irony.

What Soule revealed about Sand Creek shocked much of the nation.  Chivington was called to answer to a Congressional committee, and although neither he nor anyone else was ever punished over the massacre, the political career he had hoped for was stillborn.  He skulked out of the limelight, muttering to the very end of his life that he had done no wrong.  Seasoned Indian-fighters such as Kit Carson were indignant about the deliberate targeting of women and children at Sand Creek and the mutilation of their murdered bodies.  Jack the Ripper could not have done a more thorough job.  Brought in to identify the dead, interpreter Edmond Guerrier was forced to guess.  He thought one of the mangled corpses might be Chief Black Kettle, although the chief had managed to escape the carnage.  George Armstrong Custer, who was also appalled by Sand Creek, would one day face the judgment of history for his own dawn attack four years later, the Battle of the Washita, sometimes remembered as the Washita Massacre.  In his own time Custer was widely praised for the assault on Chief Black Kettle’s village in November of 1868, one which also completed a job started by Chivington, by finishing off Black Kettle as well as his wife.

Thomas Lovewell’s old boss Briagdier General Edward Connor, another officer with a bloody and controversial victory on his conscience, the 1863 Bear River Canyon Massacre, wrote a letter in December of 1865 to help smooth the way for Silas Soule’s widow to collect her pension.          

I do further certify that Silas S. Soule, Captain 1st Vol. Colorado Cavalry, was at that time, acting as Provost Marshal of the said City of Denver, and that he was, on the aforesaid twenty seventh day of April, eighteen hundred and sixty five, while attempting to arrest private Squires of the 1st Colorado Cavalry, killed in the said City of Denver, he, Capt. Soule being in the discharge of his duty as Provost Marshall and an officer in the United States Service.

And I do further certify that Mrs. Hersa C. Soule is personally known to me, and that she is the widow of the aforesaid Capt. Silas S. Soule 1st Vol. Colorado Cavalry, deceased.

Apparently Mrs. Soule got her pension, because in 1879 a Boulder physician discreetly inquired in a letter to the Bureau of Pensions, whether the checks were still coming in.  There was a rumor going around that two women continued to receive the widow’s portion of an Army pension, one “for the past 8 years the wife of a highly respectable citizen of this town named Alfred E. Lee.”  Although “the surroundings and situation in society that Mrs. Lee fills forbid my believing the assertion,” he explained that ratting out suspected pension abusers was only part his job “as per the instructions for examining surgeons for 1877, Page 16.”

Silas Soule’s widow, the former Hersa Coberly, had married a miner from Boulder named Alfred Erskine Lea in 1871.  If she had not informed the Bureau about her remarriage and was continuing to pocket the $20 a month she received as a captain’s widow, there would have been a thorough investigation and, perhaps, criminal charges.  No action was needed.  Three months after Boulder busybody Dr. Charles Ambrook wrote his letter, Hersa Lea contracted a strep infection which raced through her body and quickly killed her.

That may have been the end of the Lea case, but it was not the final chapter in the saga of Capt. Silas Soule’s pension.  Shortly after the turn of the century, a woman calling herself “Emma S. Soule” filed for a pension as the widow of the murdered captain who, she claimed, had married her near Denver in 1863 shortly after the death of her first husband, Emanuel Bright.  The intrepid sleuths from the Pension Bureau discovered that the woman’s real name was Emma Bennett.  She was indeed the widow of Emanuel Bright, but had married George B. Bennett in 1870 and divorced him in 1881.  Even if she had somehow married Silas Soule, her subsequent remarriage would have disqualified her for a pension.  After her subterfuge was discovered, there was talk of prosecuting Emma and a few of her supporting witnesses for fraud.  An affidavit filed by her attorney quoted an examining physician who found the defendant mentally unsound, with suicidal tendencies, and the belief “she entertains of being the widow of an officer in the Civil War by the name of Soule is an hallucination.”  Emma Bennett fled to Washington, D. C. to escape prosecution, perhaps unaware that it was the home of the Bureau of Pensions.

It may be that Emma did fixate on a soldier she had seen in Denver in the early 1860’s.  The handsome captain was said to be very popular with local belles, and it’s conceivable that Emma actually danced with him.  However, for a woman down on her luck, it must have been all too tempting to zero in on a dead hero and enlist a few friends who would swear they had been witnesses at a fictional wedding.  Emma even produced a marriage license, although one lacking an official seal.  Pension money was paid retroactively to the date of eligibility, meaning that Emma Bennett could have received $10,000 outright, a sizable sum in 1904, in addition to a small monthly stipend for the rest of her life.

The Bureau’s examiners turned up another interesting side note to the Soule pension case during their investigation.  John W. Rainey, a soldier who had ridden with Silas Soule in December of 1863, said a combined unit of men from several different companies had volunteered to free some prisoners held by a local Indian tribe.  The troopers managed to strike a bargain with the captors, convincing them to release two hostages in exchange for some hardtack and coffee.  One was a girl of 18 or 19, the other a boy of about 12.  Rainey recalled that "Lt. Soule of D Company I think afterwards married the girl.”  He said George H. Hardin of his own company was along and could vouch for it.

The Bureau must have braced itself for another filing.       


© Dale Switzer 2023