Conflicts Arise over Lincoln Statue in Richmond, Va., Cemetery

RICHMOND, Va. -- If you somehow managed to skip 19th century history, a driving tour of this Old South city would leave you in little doubt about who won the Civil War. The rebels, right?

The erstwhile capital of the Confederacy overflows with plaques, statues, streets, museums and monuments honoring the Southern cause. At Hollywood Cemetery, a hilly boneyard containing 18,000 dead rebels, a bronze memorial to Confederate President Jefferson Davis presides over the roaring James River, guarded by an angel.

In the central city, along busy Monument Avenue, traffic islands feature massive tributes to Confederate luminaries, led off by Gen. Robert E. Lee. Sixty-one feet high, with the general sitting tall in the saddle of a noble steed, Lee's monument is the spitting image of heroic triumph.

Last December, the Richmond-based U.S. Historical Society announced that it was donating a small measure of historical balance to its home town: a statue of Abraham Lincoln. Next to the elaborate homages to Davis and Lee, this nod to Lincoln would be decidedly modest — and anything but triumphal.

Sculptor David Frech was creating a likeness of Lincoln during his "healing visit" to Richmond on April 4 and 5, 1865, right after the city fell to Union forces and right before he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. While Lee's huge image looks eternally ready for battle, Frech's lifesized Lincoln would be resting on a bench, looking sad and spent after four years of war, his arm draped around his 12-year-old son Tad. The base of the statue would be inscribed with a conciliatory fragment of Lincoln's second inaugural address: "to bind up the nation's wounds."

But the notion of memorializing Lincoln in Richmond only succeeded in picking open old, festering scabs. As soon as the announcement was made, a clamor of rebel yells rose up, loud as Pickett's charge at Gettysburg. Outraged letters streamed into local newspapers, likening Lincoln to Hitler, Saddam and Osama. Protesters from the white supremacist hate group European-American Unity and Rights Organization (EURO) took to Richmond's streets, handing out pamphlets ironically accusing the "Great Emancipator" of being the "Great Segregationist."

More than 3,000 signed an online petition started by Ron Holland, a prominent member of the white supremacist League of the South hate group. Many petition-signers took the opportunity to vent their splenetic feelings about the man who consistently tops polls as the nation's most widely admired president.

"Just say NO to America's greatest WAR CRIMINAL — the murderer of 600,000!!" exclaimed Robert G. Patrick.

"Not even with a rope around his neck," declared Dewey Lee Martin.

"Why not put up a statue of Osama Bin Laden at Ground Zero?" wondered Mary Looney. "It is the equivalent, to Southerners, of what's proposed for Richmond."

"Build a John Wilkes Booth statue instead," suggested Ken E. Neff.

Complaining that the Lincoln statue would be "a not-so-subtle reminder of who won the war," Brag Bowling, hard-line commander of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, led the charge. To Bowling, Lincoln's visit to Richmond constituted an unsportsmanlike victory lap, a way for the "tyrant" to rub salt in rebel wounds. According to Bowling, Lincoln even "sat at Jefferson Davis' desk and propped his feet up" when he stopped at the White House of the Confederacy.

"They're protesting because there's a misunderstanding of history," counters Edward C. Smith, an American University professor who proposed the statue two years ago during a Heritage Day speech in Virginia. Like most historians who've written about the little-known event, Smith sees Lincoln's visit to Richmond, which was still on fire after retreating rebel forces torched the business district, as a brave act of reconciliation.

"Lincoln didn't come down to do an end-zone dance," Smith says. "He came down and risked his life and his son's life to say that what he said in the second inaugural — 'with malice toward none, with charity for all' — was true."

Like U.S. Historical Society president Robert Kline, who raised million to build Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy, Smith came to the controversy with serious bona fides among Southern "heritage" groups. In addition to sitting on the board of the Jefferson Davis Presidential Library, Smith is an honorary member of the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — "probably the only African-American with that honor," he says.

Even so, he didn't expect his support would make the statue an easy sell. "I was not so naïve as to presume this would be greeted with joy," Smith says. "That's sort of like going to Iraq and hoping it'll be over in a weekend."

'Hitler Was a Lincolnite'
The statue skirmish came at an auspicious time for Lincoln's detractors. Since the late '90s, neo-Confederate historians, "heritage" advocates and hate groups have declared total war on what they call the "Lincoln myth." Firing away in books and articles and Web sites, they've been battling to transform Lincoln into a figure few history students would recognize: a racist dictator who trashed the Constitution and turned the U.S.A. into an imperialist welfare state.

"They've decided to make him into a kind of Stalin or Hitler," says historian George Ewert, who directs Alabama's Museum of Mobile. For proof, check out the bulging "King Lincoln" archive on the libertarian Web site LewRockwell.com (see also Ludwig von Mises Institute), where the headlines tell the story: "Heil, Abe," "Lincoln vs. Liberty," "Hitler Was a Lincolnite," "Lincoln: Slavery A-OK," and, for Lincoln's birthday, "Happy Dictator Day."

Or take a spin through Lincoln, the Man, a widely discredited 1931 screed by Edgar Lee Masters that was reprinted in 1997 by the far-right Foundation for American Education. Full-page ads for the book ran in Southern Partisan magazine, proclaiming: "If You Think Bill Clinton Has a Character Problem, Take a Look At ... Lincoln, the Man."

 

Lincoln's detractors, protesting in Richmond, blame him for a whole host of ills. (Jennifer Warburg Photos)

The appeal of demonizing Lincoln is simple, Ewert says. "A scapegoat makes it easier to revive the old argument that the war was about states' rights, not slavery. Now, rather than having to deal with the case for preserving the Union, they can view everything through the lens of one personality, one person's character and political record. And Lincoln did have a rather spotty record."

The issue is larger than Lincoln. David Goldfield, author of the prize-winning Still Fighting the Civil War, says that Lincoln-bashing has the same roots as other white supremacist campaigns in the post-Civil Rights era. "Some people who have wrapped up their identity in white history feel challenged, if not disregarded and neglected," Goldfield says. "They realize the tide of history is rolling very heavily."

A recent headline on WorldNetDaily, a far-right Web site, showed what neo-Confederate and white supremacist groups believe is at stake: "'Taking America Back' Starts with Taking Lincoln Down." The anti-Lincoln campaign is not simply another series of shopworn arguments about the past. Instead, Lincoln is blamed for everything far right-wingers believe is amiss in the America of 2003: big centralized government, welfare giveaways, rampant capitalist greed, shrinking civil liberties and reckless imperialism.

The most popular expression of this revisionist view is Thomas J. DiLorenzo's 2002 book, The Real Lincoln. "It was not to end slavery that Lincoln initiated an invasion of the South," writes DiLorenzo, an economics professor at Loyola College in Maryland. "A war was not necessary to free the slaves, but it was necessary to destroy the most significant check on the powers of the central government: the right of secession."

Lincoln didn't care about freeing blacks, argues DiLorenzo, a frequent contributor to the "King Lincoln" section of LewRockwell.com. Instead, once Lincoln had destroyed states' rights, he was free to pursue his "real agenda": the "much more centralized governmental system" that "Americans labor under today."