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A statue depicting a Civil War soldier was toppled from its base outside the Colorado state Capitol and discovered June 25, 2020. The base is now covered with graffiti. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

A Civil War monument outside the Colorado Capitol was torn down in the early morning hours Thursday by protesters, according to the Colorado State Patrol.

The statue honoring Colorado soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War was toppled from its perch on the west side of the Capitol and the base was marred by graffiti.

A spokesman for the Colorado State Patrol told The Colorado Sun on Thursday morning that protesters are responsible but he could not provide more details. Master Trooper Gary Cutler said the statue came down about 1:30 a.m.

Denver police have identified four suspects involved in the toppling of the statue and were investigating how it was torn down, spokesman Doug Schepman said. 

Gov. Jared Polis, in a written statement, said he was “outraged at the damage to a statue that commemorates the Union heroes of the Civil War who fought and lost their lives to end slavery.

“This statue will be repaired,” he wrote, “and we will use every tool at our disposal to work with Denver Police and to hold accountable those responsible for the damage whether they are hooligans, white supremacists, Confederate sympathizers, or drunk teenagers.”

The statue — erected by the state in 1909 — was designed by Capt. Jack Howland, a member of the 1st Colorado Cavalry. It depicts a dismounted cavalryman in uniform, a rifle in hand. A plaque on it lists the names of soldiers who died.

The cavalry guarded Colorado against a possible Confederate invasion of the territory’s gold mines and protected settlements against Native Americans, according to the state archives.

A statue long controversial because of its memorialization of a Civil War era cavalry unit responsible for the Sand Creek Massacre of peaceful Native Americans in 1864 was toppled in front of the state Capitol. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

But the history of the statue, and the events it represents, is complicated, said University of California, Davis Professor Ari Kelman. His book, “A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek,” explores the political environment surrounding the way the massacre is remembered. 

The statue commemorates the Coloradans who fought in the Civil War. That includes those who fought in The Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862, where Union soldiers dealt a crippling blow to Confederates fighting in the West. Some of the soldiers memorialized by the statue played a key role in that victory, Kelman said. But two years later about 200 soldiers from the 1st Colorado Cavalry also took part in the Sand Creek Massacre near Eads on Nov. 29.

Joining them in the slaughter was the 3rd Cavalry, created in 1864 for the sole purpose of fighting Native Americans. 

The installation of the statue, which also commemorates the Third Cavalry, took place in a broader context, Kelman said, when friends and family of Civil War fighters wanted to create a “heroic narrative of Coloradans’ participation in the Civil War.  

“They wanted Sand Creek to be understood as a noble battle,” Kelman said. On the monument’s original plaque, Sand Creek is listed as a battle, not a massacre. Because of that, the monument doesn’t convey history; instead it conveys a politicized memory, he said. 

“The constraint of public memory is an inherently political process,” Kelman said.

In the 1990s, the state legislature moved to remove Sand Creek from the list of battles. But Cheyenne and Arapaho people, including some descendants of survivors of the massacre, opposed the decision. Instead, a plaque explaining the controversy connecting the memorial to the Sand Creek Massacre was added to the statue. 

The second plaque for the toppled Civil War statue, which explains the controversy connecting the memorial to the Sand Creek Massacre. The monument originally designated the massacre a “battle” to be commemorated with other Union battles and after decades of protests from Native American tribes, was reclassified as a massacre. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

In 2014, on the 150th anniversary of the attack, then Gov. John Hickenlooper issued a formal apology on behalf of the state for the slaughter of nearly 200 people at Sand Creek — mostly women and children who posted a white flag of surrender prior to the assault.

Tom Noel, co-director of the public history program at the University of Colorado, Denver, said it was a “tragedy” that the statue was torn down.

“I personally like these monuments — and like them kept up — because they remind us what happened in the past,” Noel said. 

That history, Noel said, includes the story of Union soldiers commemorated by the statue fighting to free slaves: “You would think [they] would be regarded as a hero rather than someone who needs to be toppled.” 

He said he hoped that the harmful past the statue memorializes, including the Sand Creek Massacre, would help ensure that similar atrocities don’t happen in the future. 

The removal of the statue follows similar actions across the country as protests about racial justice continue in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis.

Denver’s public art program is evaluating other installations in the city, including a piece in Civic Center placed in tribute to Christopher Columbus in 1970.

The pedestal for the Civil War soldier monument standing in front of the state Capitol on June 25, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

John Frank

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.

Evan Ochsner

The Colorado Sun | Twitter: @EvanOchsner