RICHMOND, Va. -- Forget everything you learned about President Abraham Lincoln. He was really a blood-thirsty despot guilty of killing innocent civilians and destroying the South.
At least that's what a few vocal Southerners say. And that's why -- 138 years after the end of the Civil War -- they are feverishly opposed to a bronze statue of Lincoln and his son, Tad, being placed at a national park in Richmond this spring, a stance that brings to mind novelist William Faulkner's maxim: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
The war of words has become so heated that some of the sculpture's foes have used rhetoric that many other Americans might find extreme. For example, a few have likened a Lincoln monument in Richmond to a statue of Adolf Hitler in Israel or an Osama bin Laden likeness at the site of the World Trade Center.
Statue bashers also have fired off accusations, like so many Civil War minie balls, that those behind the planned monument have unseemly financial motives and have violated state law in their efforts to raise money for the statue. Those supporting the new monument, which is to be dedicated April 5, estimate it will cost $250,000 to $275,000.
Such charges have led to a call for a National Park Service investigation. The park service is involved because the statue would be a gift to the federal government placed outside the visitors' center at the Richmond National Battlefield Park on the city's James River waterfront.
The sculpture, by New York artist David Frech, is meant to commemorate the visit to the Confederate capital by Lincoln, accompanied by his son, on April 4, 1865, shortly before Lincoln's assassination and mere days after Richmond's capture by Union troops.
The Richmond City Council recently passed a resolution supporting the Lincoln statue as a "historic symbol of unity and reconciliation" and agreed to contribute up to $45,000 toward the granite pad and wall that will surround the statue.
Robert Kline, a native of Dixon, Ill., a town with its own Lincoln statue, has toyed with the idea of a statue to Lincoln in the former Confederate capital for nearly 20 of his 50 years in Richmond.
"He came down here as a gesture of reconciliation," said Kline, chairman of the non-profit U.S. Historical Society in Richmond. "He came as a peacemaker."
Lincoln's Richmond trip came less than a week before Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to his Union counterpart, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865. Grant had invited the president to visit a captured area of Virginia and Lincoln took the opportunity to visit Richmond.
In Richmond, Lincoln, leading Tad by the hand and accompanied by a bodyguard of sailors, walked the streets while newly freed blacks cheered. He visited the Confederate White House abandoned by rebel President Jefferson Davis and the Virginia State House, which had served as the Confederate Congress.
The trip was extremely risky because angry Confederates were everywhere. "When you consider that he was walking around with his 12-year-old son in a captured capital still engulfed in flames, I mean, it's probably the most courageous thing that happened in the Civil War," said Edward Smith, director of American University's American studies department.
"Anybody who wanted to kill him could have killed him. And he knew that," said Smith, who avidly supports a Lincoln statue in Richmond and argues that the North has shown its desire to reconcile with the South in numerous ways. For instance, the Navy named a Polaris submarine for Lee, he said.
Knowing the way many Southerners regard Lincoln, Kline never expected his statue to be fully embraced by Richmond. But Kline, who helped raise $1 million for the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, also thought he would avoid much controversy by not proposing the statue be placed on Richmond's Monument Avenue, which has large statues of some of the South's most beloved generals. He wanted to avert the kind of controversy that surrounded the statue of Arthur Ashe, the late tennis superstar and Richmond native, when it was placed on that street in 1996. About 600 protesters appeared at the groundbreaking, some waving the Confederate battle flag.
"We've had more controversy [than anticipated] and it's been more vitriolic, attacking us and attacking Lincoln as a traitor and a vicious conquerer," Kline said. "That he started the war and that he was a villain all the way through, not a unifier. It's frightening that people don't know their history."
But Kline's critics assert it's he and all those who venerate Lincoln who could stand to learn some history. Brag Bowling, commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said many still detest Lincoln because his war policy included targeting civilians.
"There's a variety of major events in the Civil War where Union armies ransacked Southern cities, shot civilians and committed some real atrocities," Bowling said. "His legacy is really different than it is in other parts of the country."
Bowling said his group plans to support a Lincoln symposium in late March featuring scholars with decidedly negative views about the president. And on the day scheduled for the statue's unveiling, his group plans to hold a rally at Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery, where Davis and Confederate Gens. J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett are buried.
'A few cards to play'
"The statue isn't a done deal yet, believe me," Bowling said. "We still have a few cards to play."
Besides a frontal assault on the Lincoln statue, some of those who opposed it have tried a flanking maneuver, alleging that Kline is running a scam to make money for himself, a charge he denies. The allegations stem from Virginia officials' disclosure that Kline's company had failed to comply with state laws requiring it to be registered before collecting money for the statue. U.S. Historical Society is selling miniature replicas of the statue for $875 apiece to raise much of the statue's cost. An official for the state's consumer affairs office said Kline's company has since registered and added that such situations aren't uncommon.
Not all the displeasure with the planned statue is anti-Lincoln. Gabor Boritt, one of the nation's pre-eminent Lincoln scholars and a history professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, doesn't like the statue either.
But his is an esthetic criticism: He believes the proposed statue is too much like one in Newark, N.J., where Lincoln is also depicted on a bench. He would have preferred a statue of a scene he calls one of the most dramatic and symbolic of Lincoln's Richmond visit.
An old black man, a freed slave, stopped before Lincoln and lifted his hat in deference to the president. Lincoln, wordlessly, doffed his stovepipe hat in deference to the old man. "That's the scene I would've liked to have seen," Boritt said.
Frank James is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.