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

Reconstructing Lincoln
Anti-Lincoln sentiment has not always been rampant among unreconstructed Southerners. Far from it, in fact. During Reconstruction, John Wilkes Booth was often considered as blamable as Lincoln, whom many Southerners believed would have treated the post-war South more mercifully than his successors.

"During the war Lincoln was the black Republican, the one whose very election justified immediate secession," says Harry Watson, director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. "Eventually, he became the kind, generous, 'malice-toward-none' guy who would never have allowed the Radical Republicans to fasten black suffrage and other such enormities on a prostrate South."

That sentiment emerges from the treacly pages of The Clansman, the baldly racist 1905 Thomas Dixon novel that helped ignite the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. While Dixon paints the Southern cause in absurdly rosy tones — and blacks as brutal and stupid savages — he also treats Lincoln as a God-like wise man interested only in saving the union.

Had Lincoln not been betrayed by wicked Reconstruction officials and ultimately assassinated, the book suggests, all would have been well and white supremacy would have been resuscitated.

Lincoln was certainly not beloved by all Southerners, but Lincoln revisionism did not take off until the 1950s and 1960s, when the civil rights movement launched a fresh assault on white supremacy. In the 1950s and 1960s, White Citizens Councils, formed to combat school desegregation, dredged up quotes designed to show that the "great emancipator" was a segregationist just like them.

In the late '60s, a very different voice chimed in. Lerone Bennett, a longtime editor for Ebony magazine, created a stir by labeling Lincoln a "white supremacist" — not only because he used the word "nigger" and showed a fondness for blackface minstrel shows, but also because he advocated "colonization," the voluntary return of black Americans to Africa.

Bennett elaborates his claims in a 2000 book, Forced Into Glory, where he argues that the Emancipation Proclamation, far from being a ringing cry for black freedom, was a "ploy" Lincoln used to further his "conservative plan to free Blacks gradually and ship them out of the country."

Bennett's book has been cited and championed by such partisan defenders of Dixie as syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran and Emory University Professor Donald Livingston, a former leader of the League of the South. Harry Watson sees a distinct irony in neo-Confederates like these agreeing so heartily with Bennett that Lincoln was not a champion of black people.

"This makes secessionists look pretty foolish when you think about it," Watson says. "Why secede if Lincoln was such a friend of slavery? But logic is not the controlling power here."

Power and History
"What irritates the hell out of me," says statue advocate Edward C. Smith, "is that the people who are opposed to Lincoln, Lee wouldn't have had anything to do with them." After all, it was the beloved Confederate general who famously commented, "I surrendered as much to Lincoln's goodness as I did to Grant's armies."

Lee's sentiments probably would have gotten him hooted out of the room when upwards of 300 Lost Cause devotees came to Richmond in March for a "Lincoln Reconsidered" conference. The brainchild of The Real Lincoln author Thomas J. DiLorenzo, the conference was sponsored by LewRockwell.com, which advertised the cost of attending as "just $49 in Yankee money."

The tone for the proceedings, held in an ornate ballroom of the old John Marshall Hotel just two weekends before the scheduled unveiling of the Lincoln statue, was set by the invocation given by Father Alister Anderson, who also serves as the Sons of Confederate Veterans' national chaplain. After giving thanks for "the last real Christian civilization on Earth," namely "the Southland," Anderson laid curses on "hypocrites and bigots" who have tried to dismiss "the righteous cause for which our ancestors fought."

Then he posed a question that is now at least 138 years old: "Are we, true Southerners, facing a cultural genocide?"

To David Goldfield, this notion of "cultural genocide" helps explain the resurgence of Lincoln-bashing. "History is really about power," Goldfield says. "Now that African-Americans have more economic and political power, a lot of American history is being rewritten — in textbooks, museums, historical markers, plantation tours, monuments."

But nothing rankles so much as seeing Lincoln's reputation soar while the Confederacy's sinks. "If you want to tilt at windmills," Goldfield says, "Lincoln's the biggest windmill around."

The 'Lincoln Fable'
Nobody tilts more fiercely than Clyde Wilson, professor of Southern history at the University of South Carolina and board member of the League of the South, a white-supremacist hate group that prominently publicized "Lincoln Reconsidered" on its DixieNet Web site.

Holding forth in the John Marshall ballroom, Wilson won the day's most raucous applause with a no-holds-barred assault on what he calls the "Lincoln fable."

Wilson scoffed at "the pathetic cabin that Lincoln was born in," saying it showed how "shiftless" Lincoln's father was. Lincoln spoiled his own children, Wilson charged. Far from a Christian hero, Lincoln was a "non-believer" and a "notorious retailer of dirty stories." Lincoln's management style resembled Hitler's in its "Machiavellian" quality. And what about Lincoln's reputation for brilliance? Forget it, Wilson said. Lincoln had "no intellectual curiosity." If the man could readily quote Shakespeare and the Bible, well, "So could everybody else in his day."

A statue of such a person in the capital of the Confederacy, Wilson declared, would constitute a "whole-hog capitulation to the Lincoln fable." Better to keep alive the spirit of the South just after Lincoln's assassination, he suggested, joking about what happened when the Union mandated only the most abbreviated church services honoring the slain president. "They consisted only of the doxology: 'Praise God from whom all blessings flow,'" Wilson said, drawing laughs and cheers.

At the same time that neo-Confederates have rallied around Gods & Generals, the critically panned Civil War epic that paints Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson as a Christian martyr (see Whitewashing the Confederacy), they remain furious at what Wilson called "the blasphemous association of Lincoln with Christ."

"Evil is habit-forming," Donald Livingston reminded the "Lincoln Reconsidered" audience, and no habit is so evil as worshipping the myth of a good Lincoln.

But while the speakers reveled in goring Lincoln's image, they returned often — though more soberly — to the lasting damage his presidency allegedly has done. Since the conference coincided with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the theory that Lincoln launched the "American empire" on its plundering path was a consistent theme.

"If there was no Lincoln then, there'd be no George W. Bush now," Clyde Wilson rasped, winning applause from a roomful of rather unlikely anti-war activists.

"Honest Abe" Lincoln was also recast as the personification of Yankee greed. When it came his turn to talk, DiLorenzo pointed out that Lincoln asked in 1861 for tariffs even higher than the ones that had supposedly been "bleeding the South dry" since 1824. Lincoln was a toady for railroad interests, DiLorenzo claimed, adding that Richmond was now seeing fresh evidence of his avaricious legacy.

"That statue is all about money," DiLorenzo said, referring to opponents' claims that the U.S. Historical Society was trying to fraudulently profit from sales of miniature statues that are supposed to pay for the bronze Lincoln. (Pressed to investigate, the National Park Service found no improprieties.)