Removing statues can’t change history

The Soldier’s Monument, Santa Fe Plaza, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Photo: Wikipedia)


Inscription that used the word "savage," subsequently chiseled off by a vandal.
Inscription that used the word “savage,” subsequently chiseled off by a vandal.

The Soldier’s Monument, or Obelisk, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was dedicated in 1867 to Union troops who died in that state during the Civil War and to New Mexicans who died fighting Indians, represented by two different inscriptions on the monument’s base.

Since then the monument has been the subject of several disputes. In 1909 Southerners demanded that the word “rebels” be changed to “Confederates.” In the 1950s there were calls to remove the monument altogether. And in 1973, members of AIM, the American Indian Movement, declared that the phrase “to those who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians” was racist and should be removed. The City Council first sided with AIM but withdrew when the Santa Fe Historical Society threatened a lawsuit. The following year an unidentified young man jumped the surrounding fence and chiseled off the offensive word “savage.”

Inscription that uses the word "rebels" instead of "Confederates."
Inscription that uses the word “rebels” instead of “Confederates.”

The dispute emerged again in 2000. At the time, with the offending word already gone, a wise Native American, Nathan Youngblood wrote in a letter to the editor: “I have never been attacked by this monument and hold it no malice.” Subsequently, in an effort to both acknowledge and ease the controversy, an additional freestanding plaque was added to the monument:

Monument texts reflect the character of the times in which they are written and the temper of those who wrote them. This monument was dedicated in 1868 near the close of a period of intense strife which pitted northerner against southerner, Indian against white, Indian against Indian. Thus we see on this monument, as in other records, the use of such terms as ‘savage’ and ‘rebel.’ Attitudes change and prejudices hopefully dissolve.

Throughout this year I’ve thought often of the Santa Fe monument and the example it sets for a nation now seemingly determined to erase or somehow change history by removing and/or destroying Civil War statues. Yet those statues, whether you love them or hate them, represent that history and are themselves a part of our history, just like the obelisk in Santa Fe.

I agree that such statues, if they stand on government property with government buildings, should be moved lest it appear that government endorses them. But such statues are part of history; they should be treated with respect and moved to appropriate locations in public parks or other neutral areas. Statues not currently on government property should be left as they are. As in New Mexico, signs can be added that explain the times and circumstances when they were erected. If some people hate them and others love them, so be it. You’ll never be able to please everyone. It’s a compromise, where no one leaves completely satisfied but everybody wins something. The statues are history, every bit as much as the monuments in Washington or the structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places.*

We can’t change history; we can and should learn from it.

The plaque at the Santa Fe Soldier's Monument.
The plaque at the Santa Fe Soldier’s Monument.


*Note: The controversial statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va., subject of last weekend’s violence, has been listed on the National Registry of Historic Places since May 16, 1997.

For a detailed account of the events in Santa Fe in 1973, see Slouching Towards Santa Fe: “1973 – On the Santa Fe Plaza”

For more Pied Type discussion about the Confederate statues, see “On the destruction of statues.”

Oct. 13, 2020: Yesterday, celebrated as Indigenous Peoples Day in Santa Fe, protesters pulled down and destroyed the Soldier’s Monument. Such is the mindless violence afflicting the US in 2020.

22 thoughts on “Removing statues can’t change history

  1. Well said my friend. We should all remember that we laugh when some says, “let’s pretend that didn’t happen” for a very good reason. History should be a tool we use to better our selves individually and as a people, rather than a weapon to defend our ignorance.

    1. Well, what can I say. It’s my opinion, period. I’m not a media outlet. Speaking of which, the media shouldn’t be championing anything. They should just give us unbiased news and … man, those were the days, weren’t they? Back when we could get straight unbiased news. What a concept!

  2. Your opinion carries more weight with me than our opinion promoting, opinion laced, opinion driven outlets of what used to be unbiased news reading TV news anchors. Turn back the clock… I wish.

  3. I think a lot of people feel this way. Good post.
    It’s so eerily like what happened in the Middle East, China – so many places – all those ancient structures, temples, monuments – people wailed about that…but here? Crickets.

    1. I’ve thought often about the destruction in the Middle East of ancient monuments, temples, and other world treasures. Civil War monuments are by no means ancient, nor are they world treasures, but I can’t help seeing certain parallels. Glad I’m not the only one.

          1. Between August super heat index and the solar eclipse and new solar flare, maybe it’s just too much…after all, animals react weirdly with eclipses – and we are mammals…I’d like to think there’s some explanation

          2. Summer heat is a definite candidate, with more people getting outside, getting irritable, or both. Doubt this would be happening in freezing weather with snow on the ground.

  4. Living just outside of the City of Charlottesville, I’m not sure if this will be the final outcome for the statue of Robert E. Lee in the downtown park. Right now there’s the decision to shroud the statue in mourning of both the death of Heather Heyer and also of the ugliness and intimidation that visited our area. I’m not sure if the people will want that statue looming over downtown as a reminder of that ugliness. We’ll see. At this point, I see Lee as a general who fought against the country that our founding father’s envisioned and wonder why we’d want him on a pedestal in the park. Thanks for sharing this sad history too.

    1. Paraphrasing Nathan Youngblood, above, I have never been attacked by Confederate monuments and hold them no malice. I’ve no sympathy whatsoever for minority groups who use them as excuses for hate and violence or as excuses to tear down something venerated by someone else. The problem lies in the hearts of people, not in the statues.

      1. Our history is filled with paradoxes and human beings are complex. I’d like to see a resolution such as Nathan Youngblood suggests. Non of this was about statues. It’s all in the eye of the beholder. I’ve visited the local battlefields and Gettysburgh. The horror and loss of life is overwhelming. We all need these reminders of brother against brother.

        1. Couldn’t agree more. It’s all in the eye and heart of the beholder. I’ve been to Gettysburg, and no history book can impart the understanding you gain from walking the very ground those soldiers fought and died for. I will never forget it.

          I’ve lived in the Northeast and seen what the North fought for. I’ve lived in Atlanta and seen what the South fought for. I can’t fault either side for defending what they had. I can only mourn the loss of life, and hope we never forget it.

  5. I believe that historical statues should be left where they are. They once had creedence in why they were constructed. Be it good or bad, our history must be preserved, if nothing else, to make sure it does not repeat. We all have seen what removing wisdom and history does to a society…Dark Ages ring a bell?
    If you want to remove the true aggressors against the original Americans, remove the Churches not statues.
    If you object to certain celebrations of dubious heroes, don’t attend.

    1. I agree. If we take down every statue and monument that someone doesn’t like, there won’t be a single one left. We need reminders of the past if we are to remember it. And we should remember it and learn from it.

... and that's my two cents