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Tuesday, April 08, 2003  
Lincoln returns to Richmond

"He came as a man of the people among the people, not as a conqueror but as a friend," said historian Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, quoting an eyewitness to the visit on April 5, 1865.

The occasion was the return of President Abraham Lincoln to Richmond in symbolic form. A statue was dedicated Sunday in a day of speeches and festivities. It was installed at the former Tredegar Ironworks.

The life-size bronze statue by sculptor David Frech depicts Lincoln and his son, Tad, sitting on a bench. Carved in a stone wall behind the statue are the words: "To bind up the nation's wounds," taken from Lincoln's second inaugural address.

The installation occurred after a long and sometimes bitter battle for Robert H. Kline, president of the U.S. Historical Society, which initiated the idea of the Lincoln statue and raised funds to purchase and support it. For months, Kline was targeted by members of the neo-Confederate movement. His organization was falsely reported as engaging in fraudulent fundraising activities, leading to an investigation by the Virginia attorney general. Republican state and federal legislators from the state attempted to pressure the U.S. Park Service into preventing the statue from being sited. Protesters demonstrated outside his office and sometimes entered it, forcing Kline to call the police.

The rancor of the neo-Confederates continued the day of Lincoln's return to Richmond.

About two dozen of the protesters some dressed in Confederate uniforms and carrying Confederate flags later made their way to the Park Service site, where they stood outside and chanted and whistled in an unsuccessful effort to disrupt the statue dedication.

Overhead, a small airplane circled towing a banner that read: "Sic semper tyrannis." The Latin phrase, meaning "Thus always to tyrants," is Virginia's state motto and was shouted by John Wilkes Booth immediately after he fatally wounded Lincoln just 10 days after the president's visit to Richmond.

Neo-Confederates, most prominently the Sons of Confederate Veterans, claim raising a statue to Lincoln tarnishes the 'honor' of the Confederacy. Says the president of the Virginia chapter of the SCV, "we feel that Abraham Lincoln came to Richmond as a conqueror, not a healer. . . You don't build monuments to conquerors."

Most historians and those who attended the ceremonies vehemently disagree.

"I'm delighted that it's finally happening, that Lincoln is in Richmond again," Mr. Kline said. "He came on a mission of peace and reconciliation and I think the statue will serve that purpose for a very long time.

Lincoln visited here just after the fall of Richmond to see what had happened to it and to try to start the reconciliation. It was a peaceful visit, not a fearful one."

Some prominent Virginians, including former Govs. Douglas Wilder and A. Linwood Holton, supported the siting of the statue and spoke at its unveiling.

However, it is possible attempts to harm the statue will occur. Based on my reading at neo-Confederate forums, I think attacks using acid or explosives are likely. The neo-Confederates hate being reminded that, despite the fast growth of their movement, it is not as powerful as they perceive it to be. Their inability to prevent the installation of the Lincoln statue rankles. The U.S. Park Service has said it plans special security for the 2,800-square-foot plaza, but will not divulge details.

Photo: The Lincoln statue. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Historical Society.

Note: I covered the Lincoln statue controversy comprehensively at Zizka's blog.

1:20 AM