The conversation started almost immediately. Three women, visitors to History Colorado’s downtown museum, happened by the statue of a Union soldier that had been defaced and pulled off its pedestal during a stretch of racial equality protests months ago in Denver.
They quickly read several very different interpretations — representing historians, veterans, indigenous tribes and artists — ascribed to the rifle-bearing figure erected in 1909 to honor the Civil War volunteers who turned back Confederate troops marching on the Colorado territory from the south.
Suddenly, they had a lot to talk about.
The women were among the first to witness what the museum believes may be the first-of-its-kind exhibit in the U.S.: a display meant not only to showcase the controversial statue, which formerly stood outside the state Capitol, but also to tell its stories from divergent points of view. The entire nation has grappled with the issue as American society takes a new, critical look at monuments honoring Confederate war heroes to Founding Fathers.
IF YOU GO: Admission to History Colorado is free on weekends leading up to Election Day on Nov. 3. All four floors reflect the theme “This Is What Democracy Looks Like,” an inspiration for renewed participation in election-year democracy.
“I love it in a way, its impressionist vibe,” Gayle Simon, a retired military officer visiting the museum with her friends, said of the exhibit. “Now that I’m standing in here, seeing the interpretations, as a military person I can understand it better.
“Out there,” she added, pointing beyond the museum windows, “it’s just a statue.”
The monument — without its defaced pedestal, which remains at the Capitol — now stands in a spacious stairwell just off the atrium of History Colorado’s downtown museum. Visitors can take in a 360-degree view of the piece and also observe it from the building’s upper floors. The interpretations laid out on panels before it lend context to the whole story — not only to the sentiments surrounding its creation as the Civil War approached its 50th anniversary, but to the reasons some have despised it for years and others would tear it down.
Steve Turner, History Colorado executive director, noted that on one hand the statue’s history recalls the selflessness of an all-volunteer force that responded to protect the territory; another facet of its history recalls the atrocities committed against indigenous tribes under the same Union flag.
“But it also speaks to our 21st-century history as we grapple with the issues of social justice and equality,” Turner said. “The history in and around this model, which now includes the history we are making today, is enormous and powerful.”
The statue, titled “On Guard” and designed by Capt. Jack Howland of the 1st Colorado Cavalry, was erected in 1909. Unknown protesters damaged the piece in June, weeks into racial justice demonstrations that roiled the nation after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. They toppled it in the middle of the night.
It remained in the custody of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs as the agency explored possible restoration. Ultimately, much of the graffiti scrawled on the statue was removed, but some remained — including a notation in what looks like white chalk at the base that reads: SB217.
Even that plays a role in the statue’s story.
Controversy has simmered for years over differing interpretations of the statue. For some it represented the heroics of Union cavalry who famously thwarted Confederate troops at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico, preventing the South from accessing valuable mining resources in the territory.
But the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have long objected to the statue because it honors troops who killed their ancestors. The original plaque that recognized Civil War service also referred to what today is understood as the Sand Creek massacre as a “battle” fought by the soldiers — a description the tribes found both inaccurate and disturbing.
In 1864, about a thousand Cheyenne and Arapaho were camped along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado believing they had safe haven while peace talks were underway.
On Nov. 29, Col. John Chivington led troops against the encampment at dawn, ignoring both raised American flags and white flags as they killed those living there, burned their homes and mutilated bodies.
Sparked by the dialogue that followed the statue’s toppling, History Colorado’s Jason Hanson, the organization’s chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research, in August addressed the Capitol Building Advisory Committee about a one-year loan of the Union soldier statue. The museum suggested displaying the piece with commentary that would explain its interpretation from various perspectives.
Hanson said the museum viewed this as a teachable moment — “not as an erasure or reinstallation, but a chance to consider monuments and how we value them.”
The committee unanimously approved the loan.
Museums have long displayed controversial works, long enough to have developed a set of best practices. Those involve considering the piece in question from three separate periods — the time it commemorates (the 1860s), the time it was originally installed (1909) and the present day. History Colorado then set about fielding interpretations of the Union soldier statue from a variety of voices.
“I am concerned that the statue could be hidden away from public view,” wrote TIm Drago, a Vietnam veteran and founder of the Colorado Veterans Monument. “It is important that this physical symbol of proud service and sacrifice be available for the past, present and future. I would like to see the Colorado community get together to reach an inclusive agreement about the statue’s future.”
Fred Mosqueda, Arapaho Coordinator for the Southern Arapaho and Cheyenne Tribe, offered a counterpoint: “…When the statue fell, I said a little, ‘Yea! It’s gone.’ It’s a small victory because it will be replaced and we’re trying to commemorate Sand Creek in our own way … History should be told. This was a part of our nation’s growth. But the Civil War commemoration and the Sand Creek commemoration are two different things.”
Historian and professor Derek Everett, whose study of the Capitol spans nearly 25 years, wrote of a much different reaction to the fallen monument: “I felt a numbness deep within me. The statue had become a casualty of the passions that turned the capitol into a battleground of chemical weapons and vandalism. The monument has its flaws, its interpretive plaques in particular … Yet I believe that the statue’s place remains on the statehouse grounds, accompanied by a more inclusive, honest interpretation of Colorado in the Civil War.”
The interpretations could expand even further, History Colorado’s Hanson said.
“We want to find ways to keep building the story,” he said. “That’s not where it ends. We want to help create a conversation.”
State Sen. Susan Lontine, who heads the Capitol Building Advisory Committee, added yet another talking point — that message scrawled in white at the bottom of the statue.
At the official opening ceremony Wednesday, she recalled when the legislature returned to work in May after the coronavirus shutdown to see protesters persistently pressing for police accountability, as demonstrators were across the country. Colorado lawmakers worked quickly to try to address the longstanding concern that suddenly grew more urgent with the killing of Floyd.
And as they debated the bill, tension and tear gas sometimes swirling outside, protesters swarmed around the Union soldier statue and in several places signaled their support with graffiti. Most of it was washed off while the statue was in safe storage.
But one reminder remains: SB217, for Senate Bill 217. Now that’s part of the statue’s story, preserved.
“You know, people were looking for justice,” Lontine said. “And they were hoping that they could find justice by making sure that we hold police accountable when they deal with the public in ways that aren’t right. And we did pass that bill, and shortly after we adjourned from our session for the year is when the statue came down.”
Turner, the museum’s executive director, said he hopes that the space off the main lobby where the Union soldier now stands sentry can be a place for contemplation, consideration and dialogue. And undoubtedly, debate as well.
“We’re humbled by the support and trust that has been placed in us to display and interpret this monument because it holds and represents history that is so important to our state,” he said, “both in terms of where we have been and where we are going.”