Why has the State of Colorado yet again acquiesced to destructive riots by deciding to not return the mob-toppled Union Soldier statue that stood in front of the Capitol for 111 years? And why has the state decided a monument to a horrible massacre from 150 years ago should replace that soldier in the most prominent spot on Capitol grounds, thereby signaling that this murderous event defines our state?
I certainly understand the importance of commemorating the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864. Having grown up in southeastern Colorado, this infamous massacre is deeply embedded in the history of the region.
Other historical tragedies also occurred in southeastern Colorado such as the incarceration of Japanese Americans at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s internment site at Camp Amache near Granada. Eleven women and two children were killed at the Ludlow Massacre north of Trinidad in 1914 when Colorado National Guard troops attacked striking coal miners. All of these sordid events serve as cautionary tales about the gross misuse of government power and the abuse of fundamental human rights.
The Civil War soldier statue, entitled “On Guard,” was erected in 1909 by the Pioneers Association to commemorate the role of the First and Third Colorado Cavalry regiments in the Civil War. While Colorado was certainly not on the front lines of the warlike eastern states were, these Colorado volunteers played a critical role in the defeat of the Confederate Army at Glorieta Pass in New Mexico when the Confederacy attempted to capture Colorado’s goldfields.
Since then, “On Guard” has been omnipresent at countless inaugurations, rallies, protests and news conferences held on the west steps of the Capitol. It seemed appropriate that it was there as it commemorated the role of Colorado volunteers in helping to defeat the Confederacy which set the stage for statehood in 1876 in the United States of America, not an America with a bifurcated North and South.
It was dead wrong for those who created the plaque listing the battles fought by Colorado volunteers to include the woefully misnamed “Battle of Sand Creek.” Indeed, some of the very soldiers who were at Glorietta Pass later were involved in the Sand Creek Massacre.
But does this totally obliterate the otherwise outstanding record of these Colorado volunteers? Using this logic, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. should be dismantled due to his shameful, unilateral executive order that forcefully placed thousands of Japanese Americans in internment camps such as Camp Amache. Likewise, the Colorado National Guard should be decommissioned for its role in killing innocent women and children at the Ludlow Massacre.
The Capitol Building Advisory Committee has decided to not return “On Guard” to its pedestal in front of the Capitol. Temporarily on display at the History Colorado building, the permanent placement is still undetermined. Instead, the committee has decided to replace it with a moving sculpture of a grieving American Indian mother symbolizing the brutal tragedy of the Sand Creek Massacre.
There is no doubt that the Sand Creek Massacre should be remembered with an appropriate memorial on the state Capitol grounds, and other prominent locations were proposed.
There are two overriding issues that should concern Colorado citizens if the Capitol Building Advisory Committee follows through with its decision.
“On Guard” was toppled and desecrated by rioting mobs this past summer when the Capitol and several other public buildings and businesses were badly damaged. Let there be no mistake, the peaceful protesters were not responsible for this behavior but unfortunately, anarchist elements ended up taking over the streets of downtown Denver with the intent of destroying as much public and private property as possible.
Not returning “On Guard” to the front of the Capitol allows anarchy to win. Gov. Jared Polis had earlier pledged that the statue would be repaired and presumably returned to its pedestal.
The location is of such prominence on the west front of the Capitol that what is placed there is much more significant than just another memorial or monument on Capitol grounds. It serves to help define what Colorado is all about. Does a despicable massacre define what Colorado has been for the past 159 years since the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861 and subsequent statehood in 1876?
One of the members of the Capitol Building Advisory Committee who voted against the proposal made this very point. Former state Historic Preservation Officer Georgianna Contiguglia said “For people who are visiting Denver for the first time, I’m not sure that the message that Colorado wants to give is that our primary important event is a massacre.”
“On Guard” was not a perfect symbol for our state given its misrepresentation of Sand Creek as a “battle,” but it reminded us that Colorado citizens played important roles in the preservation of the Union which is significant.
If “On Guard” is not returned to its place, the Capitol Building Advisory Committee and the full state legislature should step back and engage all of Colorado in a full discussion of what should be there as a symbol of our proud history and aspirational future.
Anyone who has visited the United States Capitol knows that each state is entitled to two statues to reside in its hallways. For several decades, Colorado only had one statue, that of Dr. Florence Rena Sabin who did landmark research into tuberculosis and reformed Colorado’s public health laws.
During the late 1980’s, Colorado’s congressional delegation decided to create a process to determine which Coloradan would be honored with the other statue. After a lively debate across the state, the late astronaut Jack Swigert, who was on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission to the moon, was selected. Swigert was a Colorado native who was elected to Congress but died of cancer before he could be sworn in.
Amid the sea of state statues in the U.S. Capitol, a smiling Swigert certainly stands out in his white astronaut suit with his helmet cradled in his arms. Swigert conveys something much different than the other statues. Rather than commemorating the past, he exemplifies the future which our state has always personified.
Colorado certainly rose to the occasion with both of its statues in Washington: A brilliant Colorado woman who helped save millions of lives and a genuine American hero astronaut looking to the future.
This should be the challenge to the Capitol Building Advisory Committee and the state legislature. Step back and let our state have a thoughtful discussion about what that site should convey about the State of Colorado. Let’s honor our past and project our future while not letting the anarchists win.
Dick Wadhams is a Republican political consultant and former Colorado Republican state chairman.