In South, a statue dispute larger than life

The former Confederate capital unveils Lincoln's statue Saturday, to applause, cringes, and scholarly fury.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When a statue of Abraham Lincoln and his son, Tad, is unveiled this weekend by the river in Richmond, it will set an ignominious precedent for some in the South: the first statue of the "Great Emancipator" to grace the grounds of the 13 former Confederate states.

While many Americans see Lincoln's April 4, 1865 visit to the smoldering Confederate capital as a liberation, some Virginians still consider the wartime president a tyrant who scorched the South for an unjust - even unconstitutional - cause. The most irate among them liken their newest bronze resident to installing Adolf Hitler's semblance in Tel Aviv.

But behind the vitriol, the return of Lincoln's likeness poses questions not just about the decorum of displaying a Confederate enemy where the Stars and Bars once flew, but about Lincoln's sanctity in the American pantheon. And within the controversy's prism lies an enduring split over the display of Confederate symbols - and clashing views of American history.

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"The [statue controversy] is heavily tied up in modern political and social viewpoints that manifest themselves in attitudes toward the past," says William C. Davis, a Civil War historian at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

Some facts are uncontended: After Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet fled town under a canon barrage on April 2, 1865, Lincoln arrived in a city known for its blueblood Southern society - and its wartime councils. Confederate sympathizers surely lingered. But that didn't keep Mr. Lincoln from sauntering through the city with Tad at his side.

What happened next remains a historians' debate. And it bears directly on an argument over whether Lincoln came to try to heal the wounds of the smoldering Civil War - or take a callous victory lap.

When Lincoln finally arrived at the Confederate White House in downtown Richmond, he sat back in Jefferson Davis's chair and surveyed the scene. But did he simply ask for a glass of water? Or did he put his feet up on the desk, order the band to play Dixie, and announce, "This is our property now"?

Now, 138 years later, many here cling to the second version, especially with Confederate symbols under attack throughout the South: Last year, for instance, Virginia scrapped April as Confederate Heritage and History Month.

"Just think about it: Lincoln invaded us, he killed our people, he took our right to a free government," says Robert Hayes, state director of the prosecession League of the South in Abbeville, S.C.. "This statue is basically a second occupation."

But it's not just dyed-in-the-wool sons of Confederate vets who have a beef with Lincoln. The statue's arrival coincides with growing academic debate over the lanky president's legacy.

While most see Lincoln as a saint, others see a tyrant who cast off the Constitution in favor of the North's economic interest in the South. Indeed, most Confederate soldiers fought in a "Second American Revolution" against an oppressive federal regime, according to the Museum of the Confederacy here.

Just last week, a handful of "Lincoln dissidents" held a conference in Richmond to discuss just how honest Abe - and his legacy - was. Instead of upholding the constitution, they argue, Lincoln silenced opposition newspapers, imprisoned nearly 13,000 Northern dissidents, launched the US on a course of "big government," and became, in effect, a "benevolent dictator" - while leading an army that killed thousands of civilians. Critics point out that other Western nations abolished slavery with little bloodshed, raising the question of whether the conflict was an "unnecessary war."

Lincoln "saved the union geographically, but destroyed it philosophically," says Thomas DiLorenzo, an economics professor at Loyola College in Baltimore, and author of "The Real Lincoln."

In contrast, proponents of the statue say theirs is a humble charge. They point out that plans for a statue of Lincoln and Davis together were quickly scrapped - in favor of a quiet scene of a father and son talking amid the ruins. At the very least, they say, it's simply high time that the South accepts Lincoln's visage.

"If it's inappropriate for Lincoln to be in Richmond, how much more inappropriate is it to have [statues of] Alexander Stevens, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis in Washington?" wonders Mr. Davis at Virginia Tech. "Lee commanded troops that attacked Washington, yet these guys are in the national pantheon."

Proponents say the statue recalls Lincoln's postwar mission: to heal. The statue's sponsor says his aim is also to counter an enduring Southern "revisionist" view of Lincoln. "I hope that it causes people to read their history carefully and get their facts straight about Lincoln's life," says Robert Kline, the Illinois native who commissioned the statue through the US Historical Society in Richmond.

Mark, an African-American student sitting below a statue of a young cannoneer from the "Richmond Howitzers" battalion, says that many here still guard the city's Confederate soul. But Lincoln can hardly offend: He points up to the statue between bites of a sandwich: "I'm sure they didn't put that up to offend me."

"It'll be good to have Lincoln here again," says James Shuler, a member of Virginia's House of Delegates, watering his "guard pug," Shelly, outside the Capitol. "He came last to reconcile with the South - and he hasn't been back since."

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