This is the featured book for September’s Bookbar book club, and will be hosted by our staff member Tommy. Joseph Hutchison will be present as well to join in on the discussion of his book. Be there, September 13 at 7 pm!
It’s difficult not to wonder if this story is more poignant today than it might have been say, six months ago. That isn’t to suggest this story stood any less strong when published in 2013, but it’s a cogent reminder that progress attained is never permanent. Progress doesn’t preclude regression, and a regression feels a little less like a morbid fantasy daily.
Marked Men follows an easily traced line between Columbus’ intrusion into the ‘New World’ up to the end of the Civil War—400 years and a reminder that progress is a shoddy ship in a raging ocean, assailed from all sides yet inconceivably still intact, steady on the horizon of ostensibly calmer waters.
This book tells the forgotten story of the Civil War—the war that didn’t end with the South’s capitulation. The Plains Indian War dragged on for nearly twenty-five years, fueled by hatred and de-humanization by each side who reveled in the desecration of their enemies. The Sand Creek Massacre, which this story follows the account of, is agreed upon as the fuse of this war. It was here that Colonel Chivington, an up-and-coming military commander and fierce abolitionist, unleashed 700 men on a village of peaceful Indians promised safety by territorial governor John Evans. So it was that Chief Black Kettle raised the stars and stripes above his home while others cast out white flags against the dawn light, and were summarily butchered, man woman and child.
Marked Men observes Captain Silas Soule who refused to obey the order given by Chivington, and watched with his men from afar as their countrymen razed the village. His story after the massacre is a short one.
What transpires in part two, A Marked Man, is a series of moments that attempt to capture the end of Soule’s story, and the cost of his conviction. This account is given by way of small scenes that piece together who Silas was both before and after the massacre. In a handful of pages, we see what Silas has given up, how he has changed, and how those around him are affected. It’s in these vignettes that Joseph Hutchison’s simple, yet powerful prose is allowed to shine and flourish. In these imagined moments, he is able to extract meaning from the mundane, and subsequently make Soule’s sacrifice that much more poignant and powerful. Hutchison reminds us that it’s people like Silas that have always been the forgers of progress, those who refuse to stay silent, who can’t help but speak out, and who wear their dissent for all to see, even knowing the potential cost.
Silas is only half of the story however, though he’s a worthy agent through which to tell it. The looming horror over this entire story, the other reason Marked Men demands telling, is the existential evil embodied by Colonel Chivington. He is only featured once in the story, and barely even a page at that, but his message is straightforward and chilling. It’s an odd phenomena (though I sadly suppose, not surprising) indeed that a man so opposed to slavery, and willing to champion the rights of black men could see Indians as common beasts. His account tells it simply:
“It sounds (strange to say) wicked, although God knows it cannot be. Elsewise the Bible would say Thou Shalt Not Kill Vermin. It does not. It endows Man with dominion over Nature—cattle and cowbirds, deer, bears, cutthroat trout, field mice, serpents—all! Therefore these savages too. Odd how these creatures’ fates can so move Christian folk that they set aside their rational fears to whine about a few killed Indians.”
In the Caribbean, Columbus made it his mission to exterminate the Taino from the lands he deemed now Spanish. By all accounts, he was very successful in his endeavor. Colonel Chivington brings us full circle—embodying the spirit of Columbus, believing in the superiority of his race. Sober yourself by remembering that Colonel Chivington and Columbus weren’t deliberately de-humanizing their opposition, but plainly never believed they were human in the first place. They were simply exterminating vermin.
Marked Men reminds us how far we’ve come, and what we’re capable of—both for good and bad, that a good uniform doesn’t guarantee a good person, that a group of people stood in good faith with the hope of building peace and paid for it with their lives. It reminds us of the cost of progress—time, blood, agony. We’re reminded as well that the price of inaction is much worse. The arc of history seems to suggest that progress is an inevitability, but it’s when we look closer, as Marked Men does, that we see inevitability is driven by countless forgotten people that believed in a better world, and acted.