Hobson's Choice: A Letter from Fort Lyon

31-year-old Private John Wesley Rainey served with First Lieutenant Horace Baldwin's Fort Lyon Battery (Company G, 1st Regiment Cavalry) at Sand Creek. From official records and testimonies, it appears Baldwin's men in action, sympathetic with Fort Lyon officers and men, stood down firing their howitzers with “little or no effect.” A witness in the village later told an interviewer that they aimed high with the intention shells would go over the village and the people. Another Company G artilleryman, Private Isaac Clarke, wrote they were so mad that they wanted to turn their guns (howitzers) on Chivington. As it was, these empathetic Company G men sided with their comrades led by Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer in obeying orders to fire but intentionally not hitting the intended targets.

Born in 1833, he was second generation Irish from Ulster born in America. The Raineys (an Irish diminutive of the Scottish surname Reynolds) were Quakers who fled the Northern Ireland Plantation (an English reservation for plaid-wearing, pipe-playing Scots, Gaelic speaking debtors and dissidents) to escape persecution. Campbell's great-great grandmother, Margaret Rainey, would have been John Wesley's father's sister. John W. mustered out at Fort Riley's Army hospital on November 18, 1865, came back to Colorado and lived out his life in the Pueblo environs.

It has been further confirmed that John W. of Company G was with Soule, Cramer, Baldwin and Wynkoop when, in September of 1864, they went to recover the captive white children up in the Smoky Hill country. It would follow that he likely was with the escort that took Cheyenne and Arapaho chiefs to Denver and Camp Weld for their council with Evans on September 28, 1864.

For this “letter”, Campbell chose a fictitious brother Private Jesse Rainey, Company G, 1st Regiment Cavalry, Colorado U.S. Volunteers, a composite of several 1st Regiment soldiers who served with Majors Anthony and Wynkoop, Captain Soule and Lieutenant Cramer as well as other soldiers who testified and wrote in diaries about 1864 episodes and Ft. Lyon.

Hobson's choice is defined as “a choice of taking what is offered or nothing at all; lack of an alternative.”

January 20, 1865
Fort Lyon, Colorado Territory

My Dear Sisters, Rebecca and Sarah,

It has been so long since I wrote. Hope Mother is recooperating well. Please tell all I wish I was in our home near Antrim. Perhaps one day soon. It's very cold here. We've been destitute for mail. I've read yours from Aug. 'til it's worn. My britches are near wore out. Our new uniforms are lost somewhere with our pay. The U. S. Paymaster died Christmas Eve. Your socks and linsey-woolseys arrived while we were up in Smokey Hill country gathering up some child captives Chief Left Hand & White Antelope & others traded for. Major Winecoop who led us there has returned to Lyon and things are in better order. He's a good officer, been with him since '61. My Lieut. Baldwin is returning to McLain's Artillery. His cherished horse Poker was killed on Sand Creek Nov. 29. Forgive my hand. This nub of pencil is near gone. Paper is a premium here.

Mr. Haire, the cobbler I wrote you from Circleville, Pickaway Co., Ohio lent me some fools cap for this. He's in Co. D. Met him in the mountains before the war. He calls his horse Buckeye.

I wish I could tell you of good times here. We had a very unsettling time of it this fall. We & our officers have been saddled with one Hobson's Choice after the other. Did the corn & oats harvest well? We're short of men in our company “G.” The boys that hadn't mustered out in Sept. have left very quick since the affair with our friendly Indians on Sand Creek. We've heard good men like Left Hand the Arapaho, White Antelope the Cheyenne and my friend One Eye, a good chief were all killed Some think Black Kettle and my young friend Ed Guerrier, the teamster I wrote about, were killed. One Eye's wife was shot in the gut and died close to him.

Our regimental majors have done some good for us. Many don't like Maj. Anthony. He's cured of the red face from the scurvy. Have to say I can't figure Maj. Downing, there's a bad fire burning inside him. He's had the devil prodding at him since losing so many men at Pigeon's Ranch. All the boys & most officers find Maj. Winecoop, his wife & children endearing. I don't think there's a mountain he wouldn't assail for us. Ned's a good soldier's officer.

They all got us potatoes and anti-scorbutics. The plague of scurvy that hit this post has waned. Ned worked a favor from Gen. Jim Carleton, an old-time regular soldier. He beat Hobson when we took ten crates of new Sharp's carbines of the .52 calibre and put those Starrs away and threw the key. One of our men most lost a hand firing his. Might as well use a bung mallet to stop Noah's flood.

It worries & saddens me dear Sisters that I can't reckon what happened with the Good Book. The Reverend Col. Chivington, an Ohio boy to boot & a preacher in so many words, said he couldn't see how any man could not do the Lord's Work in killing these savages. I spent many days on the trail with some of the chiefs like One Eye and spoke with Niwot—Left Hand is as good English as you or I. They were God's creatures as are we. I thought of grandpa Rainey who told of them leaving the British & Anglican thumb for being persecuted for being Friends in Ulster. These Indians came to us making great efforts for peace. We betrayed them. Many of the boys here feel same as me.

I tell you Sister, as long as I live I can never clear the sight of those women and children I came to know being butchered by God fearing men. We ran out of shells for our little cannons after we shot over the village into the prairie, but those Thirdster boys went up the creek after them in the sand. I don't think I can find forgiveness in my heart for the officers who wouldn't stop the guns from firing into them. The carnage was awful. We were adrift, our Sergeant told us to stay out of it. One Thirdster, a German from Franktown, tried to stop them for fear of hitting his daughter who he thought was in the camp. Our own were shot at by third.

A Scotsman named Moonlight has taken over Colorado from Chivington. He's reforming the boys into a battalion of 6 veteran companies, since we've lost so many. I think I'll stay on, Brother John W. is staying on. Col. Tappan was here with a broke leg and was hot. You remember Joe Cramer the miner I knew in the mountains? He broke his back in August but was at Sandy creek and he's so angry at Chivington & Downing and that other colonel Shoop he's started writing letters. Shoop was a tough soldier, but betrayed us. Lt. Cramer & his boys near to got in a shooting fight with Capt. Cree's Thirdsters when they went to check on old Colonel Bent who had relatives in the camps.

Last week we read a paper from Black Hawk that said the boys of the Third were coming home saying the fight at Sand creek was no less than a slaughter and the details were so horrorful they could not, would not print the descriptions.

I am afraid Sister in this distress I think of little else. It's hard to get my thoughts strait. How are the Campbell cousins doing? I heard a couple got captured by the rebs.

You recall mention of that jaunty young abolitionist Capt. Soule? I thought Chivington was going to have him shot out there. The boys with Soule & Cramer made sure to stand fast. We sided with them. In silence, we numbered ten dozen, but like Joe Cramer said, they would think twice before bucking against the First

If you see Uncle Jess thank him for his tobacco. I shared a bit with my bunk mate, William, that Buckeye from Zanesville. He's a clerk for the Post Adjt. and he copies important letters into the fort ledger. He said when Winecoop got here he was hot over the disgrace & betrayal is how he said it. He'd got letters from Soul & Joe. Ned is what they call the Major. Zanesville tells me Col. Ford of the Second is going to take over this section and his regiment is coming home from Kansas.

Ford told Ned to look into matters here. I hear the Major is all about taking affidavits as I write. Capt. Booth is an Englishman with the 11th Kans. Cav. came over here to look for General Curtis at the end of December. They saw bodies still frozen out there where they fell. One squaw had hung herself and they found young John, the one they called Jack Smith still where he was murdered, a prisoner. We're confounded how our promises, our word to these families could be broken so brashly. What must people think of us if they hear about these cowards who killed surrendered women and children?

Dear God, the camp dogs and some of the Indian ponies have wandered into our pickets. Maj. Anthony is disgusted & leaving for the East in the next day or two. I will try to get this letter in the pouch for the Eastbound mail coach. We think Major A. could have done more to stop the fight, but he did get Co. D & K out of the road of wild firing from the Third. Without regard they fired over our heads. A. is going to Washington. The last Denver paper says there's an investigation coming.

Those Thirdsters, they call Bloody now and some of our First comrades took scalps, blankets, and silver cones they hung in their hair. We stayed at the village for two days with the New Mexico lt. Cannon. Chiv and Downing sent Maj. A away very soon after. We went down Sandy to the Arkansas & into Kansas for sixty or more miles. It got cold. The Third's horses were dying a dozen or so a day. Chivington & Shoop didn't have the stomach for a campaign, so we tuck tail back to Lyon by the tenth of Dec.

The old Major, Rev. Chivington got on the first stage to Denver. We just don't know what to make of him. He changed from the officer who drilled with us in '61 and marched with us to Santa Fe. We expect he went to Denver to tell of his glories as when he left us with the Apaches on the Rio Grand in '62.

The things done on the field would make the hardest man sick. I can never get that out of my mind. Major W. will get things done. Col. M-light is out for a clean sweep too. A fellow wrote me, A little Moonlight is a good disinfectant. It embarrasses me to wear the same uniform as killers & who abused women and children, even unto after death. I am ashamed, we left all them mutilated and all on the ground.

Many only had what clothes they were wearing. We destroyed their food & as we left Capt. Jay Johnson' provost guard burned the village. I remember when he joined up as a private in '61, just a lad in his early twenties. One of the First boys who joined up with the Third told me this Captain played a game of shooting Indians that had covered themselves up in the sand with blankets.

Pray for me, Sisters. My prayers are for this terrible crucible of war to be done. I look to the day I may come back to the green hills of Guernsey County & the U. P. church on that knoll at Antrim. God bless to mother and the family. Write if you hear from Father. The last you wrote he is in Georgia.

Your affectionate brother,

P.S. Ed Guerrier came in worse for the wear and says Black Kettle and his wife are alive. Major A. is fed up, cashing out and going to Washington. I'll ask him to send this when he reaches St. Louis. Colonel Tappan is taking over what's left of the regiment. J.