Jason Hanson pulls his phone from his jacket pocket to show off his favorite view of History Colorado’s newest exhibit. Taken from several floors up, through the descending spiral of a staircase, you can barely make out the top of the Union soldier’s cap. “I wanted to treat it as an artifact, not a monument,” says Hanson, the museum’s chief creative officer and director of interpretation and research, “so people can look down at it.”
The monument in question is John Howland’s On Guard, a bronze Civil War cavalry soldier that was installed on the west side of the Colorado State Capitol in 1909. It stood there until this past June, when it was toppled during protests over racial injustice. Within a week, Hanson had called his contact at the Colorado Capitol Advisory Committee and volunteered the museum to display the piece until the state decides where to put it.
On Guard finally arrived at History Colorado Center on Tuesday; a day later the museum unveiled its exhibit—kick-starting what it hopes will become a community-wide conversation about the purpose of monuments and this one in particular.
Experts at History Colorado know plenty about what the statue commemorates (Colorado soldiers who served in the Union army, especially those who turned back a Confederate invasion at Glorietta Pass in New Mexico) and why it was created (in the early 1900s, as Civil War veterans began to pass away, veteran groups in both Northern and Southern states erected many such tributes). They also understand why many find On Guard controversial: Its original plaque hails the Sand Creek Massacre, during which the U.S. cavalry killed more than 200 Native Americans from the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in eastern Colorado in 1864, as a “battle.” The state legislature added an additional plaque to the monument in 2002 denouncing that characterization.
What the museum hopes to gain through the display of On Guard is a better idea of what the piece means today, when there is a greater awareness of racial injustice. As an icebreaker, so to speak, History Colorado asked community leaders for their perspective on the statue. Their statements are displayed on placards surrounding the monument.
For example, Fred Mosqueda, Arapaho coordinator for the Southern Arapaho and Cheyenne Tribe, wrote: “When the statue fell, I said a little, ‘Yea! It’s gone.’ … I’m not saying that Colorado wasn’t in the Civil War and they should not commemorate that victory at Glorieta. 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.”
Flint Whitlock, a member of the board of directors of the Broomfield Veterans Museum and author of Distant Bugles, Distant Drums: The Union Response to the Confederate Invasion of New Mexico, countered: “The statue represents and honors all those brave Colorado soldiers who sacrificed, fought, and died to preserve the Union, end slavery, and defeat the invading Confederate forces. The vandals who tore down the statue had no idea of its true meaning and demonstrated their own ignorance and intolerance. As a veteran myself, and a military historian, I believe that defacing history equals erasing history.”
Curators are also asking museum visitors whether monuments are necessary and to jot their answers down on Post-It notes that will then be collected for posterity. (The early returns don’t harken a bright future: “Monuments are just a vanity project for fragile egos,” read one Post-It.)
On Guard will remain at History Colorado for a year, according to state Rep. Susan Lontine, chair of the Capitol Building Advisory Committee and state representative for House District 1. She is unsure where the monument will go then, though there has been discussion about installing it in Lincoln Park and renaming the green space Colorado Veterans Park.
The state is also in conversations about filling On Guard’s vacant spot on the western side of the Capitol with a memorial for the Sand Creek Massacre. Lontine said that creating a monument to the tragedy had been on the committee’s to-do list even before protestors toppled the Civil War statue. Once the soldier fell, Lontine said, “it seemed like a sign to offer that to the tribes.”
Treating On Guard as an artifact is a continuation of History Colorado’s recent mission to preserve history in real time, Hanson says. That includes its current traveling exhibit, American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith, which opened in September and runs through January 3, 2021, as well as the recent practice of sending museum researchers to protests to collect artifacts, including a Black Lives Matter banner, protest signs, and spent gas canisters. The museum is also offering free admission on weekends from now until the election (tickets must be reserved in advance).
“Our goal is to be an honest broker, not an advocate” Hanson says. “We’d rather not speak for these people. So we asked them to speak in their own words.”