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

Frech's rendering of post-Civil War Lincoln and son was unveiled in 2003. (Jennifer Warburg Photos)

Time Marches On?
In the end, no amount of protests, petitions or pedagogy could prevent Lincoln's return to Richmond. On the overcast afternoon of Saturday, April 5, a gaggle of children and dignitaries pulled back a green cloth, unveiling David Frech's pensive rendering of the 16th U.S. president.

The sight of Lincoln was greeted with enthusiastic cheers from the audience of 850 inside the Civil War Visitor Center, and even more enthusiastic jeers from the estimated 100 protesters outside, most of them members of hate groups and Southern heritage organizations.

As state and local dignitaries hailed Richmond's modest tribute to Lincoln's "healing visit," the latter-day Confederates did their damndest to drown them out with wolf whistles, "Dixie" singalongs, and the drone of a small plane hired by the Heritage Preservation Association (see Hate and Heritage). For two hours, the plane kept circling over the festivities, its red banner proclaiming: "Sic Semper Tyrannis" ("Thus always to tyrants," the words spoken in Latin by Booth after he assassinated Lincoln).

On a hilltop nearby, in plain view of the spectators, a group of men in the back of a 4-by-4 pickup unfurled a huge Confederate Navy Jack, letting loose a blood-curdling rebel yell. For these folks, the most vexing words of the day were shouted over the din by Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who proclaimed on behalf of Virginia, "Abraham Lincoln is one of us."

"Time marches on," said former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, "and leaves many in its wake." But, Wilder added hopefully, "the wake lessens with the passing of the years. There are not many people who will continue to live in the past."

As if to prove him wrong, unreconstructed Southerners massed in force the next afternoon for a march honoring Confederate Heritage and History Month, hosted by the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Led off by a platoon of bikers with rebel flags fixed to their Harleys, an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 — many of them decked out in butternut Confederate uniforms and black hoop skirts of mourning — paraded past the Confederate tributes on Monument Avenue and wound their way toward an afternoon of festivities at Hollywood Cemetery.

"Kill the time machine," bellowed one unimpressed Richmonder. But the neo-Confederates marched on undaunted, with Abraham Lincoln now a primary target in their sights. The Richmond controversy appears to have only added fuel to the fire started by Lincoln's detractors. They lost the battle over the Lincoln statue. But can they win the war over Lincoln's image?

Like other historians, David Goldfield doubts it. In fact, considering the venom of the arguments against Lincoln — and considering who's making those arguments — "the contrary will probably happen," Goldfield suspects.

In the past, attempts to discredit Lincoln have only stirred mainstream historians to vigorously defend Lincoln's role as savior of the Union and emancipator of the slaves. These efforts, in turn, have further burnished his public image. "Lincoln's stature has only increased over the last decade," notes Goldfield.

That may be true. But during the "Lincoln Reconsidered" conference, Ron Holland served up a bit of anecdotal evidence that suggests the Lincoln-bashing effort is making an impression on at least some of the impressionable.

The future of the Confederate cause, said Holland, lies with folks like young Stacy Wade Harris, who signed the petition opposing the Lincoln statue and wrote a note that won ringing applause from his elders: "I'm only 10," Harris said, "but I feel like I've hated Lincoln for 110 years."