Making Sense of Santa Fe’s Soldiers’ Monument: Part Six

Part Six: What now?

What then should be done with the monument? Should it be restored, or should it be removed altogether, once and for all?

Arguing in favor of restoration is the monument’s historical status. The Soldiers’ Monument has occupied a prominent place on the Santa Fe Plaza for over 150 years. It marks the very center of the city of Santa Fe as granted by the United States Congress in 1900. It features in innumerable photographs, paintings, events, songs, and commemorations spanning Santa Fe’s history from the territorial period through the present. It is the centerpiece of the plaza that was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1960.

Also in favor of restoration is the historical reality that the monument was originally conceived to honor those who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Unlike the Confederate monuments that were toppled in 2020, the Soldiers’ Monument is not a memorial to the Confederacy but in fact the opposite: the original intention was to honor the soldiers and volunteers who died fighting the Confederacy. It honors those who were on the right side of our history, many of whom were native New Mexicans. Honoring this legacy is especially important in these times when the spirit of the Confederacy has become a significant threat to our continuation as a democracy.

On the other hand, for the entire time the monument has stood on the Plaza, it has displayed a message that valorizes as heroes those who waged a violent war to conquer the native inhabitants of New Mexico. That “savage” may have been at one time a term of art to refer to Navajos, Apaches, Comanches and Utes, and not Pueblos, in no way softens this objectively racist language. Moreover, few if any would understand the word “savage” to be so limited. When John Gaw Meem said of the monument, “Crude as it is, it is a reminder of our history, just as the Indians have reminders of theirs,”[1]  he  inadvertently expressed the unavoidable truth that the monument embodies a conception of some undefined “us” who is separate and apart from “the Indians.” It is indisputable that it would be a violation of our democratic principles to erect such a message in the very heart of the city – literally the public square – if such a monument were to be proposed today.

Of course, there is always the option of restoring the monument with an explanation of the offending text, or even complete removal of the tablet. Unfortunately, simply adding explanatory language in an attempt to place this racist language in historical perspective fails to neutralize the harm, as made clear by the previous ill-fated attempt made in 1974. Removal of the offending tablet is more defensible, and what would be left would be something close to the original intent of the monument: a memorial to the Union soldiers who died fighting the Confederate army in the territory of New Mexico. However, that original intent was superseded even before the monument was completed. As a historical artifact, the Soldiers’ Monument has always been a memorial to those soldiers who died in the Indian wars just as much as in the Civil War; moreover, as we have seen, the soldiers of the Union Army as well as New Mexico volunteers were simultaneously engaged in all sides of this “three-cornered” war. It is difficult at best to disentangle the memorialization of the Union dead from the war to divest Native peoples of the Southwest from their homelands, destroy their economies, and forcibly remove them to distant reservations.

The alternative to restoration is to complete the demolition and remove the vestiges of the Soldiers’ Monument altogether, perhaps placing the remains in a museum or other place of public education. Would the monument’s historic significance prevent demolition and removal? Not necessarily. Under the City of Santa Fe’s historic ordinance, a request for demolition would require consideration of: (1) whether the structure is of historical importance; (2) whether the structure is an essential part of a street section or block front; and (3) the state of repair and structural stability of the structure.[2]  As noted, the Soldiers’ Monument is undoubtedly of historical importance.  It is less clear that it is an “essential” part of the street section or block. To make this determination, all the factors that have been raised with respect to the controversial nature of the monument become relevant. In addition, the ordinance does not state that the enumerated considerations are exclusive, thus leaving open the ability to address additional considerations such as the impact on the community of the continued maintenance of what many perceive as a divisive symbol of conquest and racial oppression in this civic space.

The National Trust for Historical Preservation, the leading national organization dedicated to the preservation of America’s historic places, supports the removal of historic monuments from public spaces “when they continue to serve the purposes for which many were built – to glorify, promote, and reinforce white supremacy, overtly or implicitly.”[3]  To the extent that the community concludes that the Soldiers’ Monument implicitly glorifies and reinforces white supremacy, removal could potentially be justified under this preservation standard. And under federal law, the fact that the Santa Fe Plaza is listed on the National Register of Historic Places does not prohibit removal of the monument (or any other alteration of the plaza) if the City of Santa Fe makes that decision.

Removal of the monument, however, does not necessarily require that no vestige remain behind. In ancient Rome, monuments to disgraced public figures were removed and destroyed in a practice called “damnatio memoriae” or “condemnation of memory.”[4] These acts of destruction were not simply cathartic, but “created a void which ‘call[ed] attention to itself;’ these manufactured absences became monuments to both the removed statue and the events that led to its removal.” The purpose was to “reset the political landscape, not by drowning the people’s consciousness in Lethe’s stream, but instead by reshaping the narrative of the past.”[5] 

In the event that the Soldiers’ Monument is removed, such a “manufactured absence” could be established by marking the location of the base on the ground with an inscription noting that this was the location of the Soldiers’ Monument from 1867 to the year of removal. Resetting the political landscape in this manner would accomplish the multiple purposes of removing a monument perceived to no longer reflect community values, reclaiming the center of the plaza for public activities and temporary installations, creating a site for historical memory, and retaining an official marker for locating the geographical center of the city.

Whatever decision is ultimately made will tell us who we are and who we want to be. We express who we are as a community through what we preserve, what we destroy, and what we create. This we cannot escape. As Gavin Stevens says in Faulkner’s Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


[1] Oliver La Farge, “Meaning of monument often overlooked,” Santa Fe New Mexican, July 27, 1973.

[2] Santa Fe City Code, Section 14-3.14(G)(1). A slightly different set of considerations governs the demolition of “landmark structures,” which are historically significant structures located outside the historic districts, and thus not applicable to the Soldiers’ Monument.

[3] “National Trust for Historic Preservation Statement on Confederate Monuments,” June 18, 2020, https://savingplaces.org/press-center/media-resources/national-trust-statement-on-confederate-memorials#.Ydsbv1llC70.

[4] Verity Platt, “Why People Are Toppling Monuments to Racism,” Scientific American (July 3, 2020), https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-people-are-toppling-monuments-to-racism.

[5] Mati Davis and Sara Chopra, “Damnatio Memoriae: On Facing, Not Forgetting, Our Past,” posted on August 21, 2020, https://web.sas.upenn.edu/discentes/2020/08/21/damnatio-memoriae-on-facing-not-forgetting-our-past/.


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