150 years after Lincoln saw the fall of Richmond

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One hundred fifty years ago, on April 2, 1865, Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the Confederacy fled Richmond just ahead of Union forces that seized the Rebel capital. Two days later, on April 4, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln entered the city to witness the defeat.

On April 5, 2003, with America divided by another war, a ceremony marked Lincoln’s historic trip to Richmond. But the unveiling of a bronze statue of Lincoln that day stirred up deep-rooted resentment and hatred among some white Southerners forever trapped in a siege mentality. The following is my account of that ceremony.

On a day when the first American armor rolled into Baghdad during the Iraq War, drama from a previous war – long gone but not forgotten – was playing out in another old foreign capital that once smoldered in anticipation of a U.S. invasion force.

Abraham Lincoln was returning to the old capital of the Confederate States of America 138 years after making his first and only visit. On April 4, 1865, a weary Lincoln grasped his young son Tad’s hand and stepped ashore from a small boat on the James River. Lincoln walked the streets of a fallen Richmond, Virginia, eager to witness grim proof that the Civil War was finally coming to an end. He toured the abandoned Confederate White House, sinking into Jefferson Davis’s chair and politely asking for a drink of water. This was no conqueror’s victory lap, not for the man who thought the best way to keep the defeated rebels from a prolonged embitterment was to “Let ‘em up easy.” 

Lincoln the compassionate wartime leader and dotting father is depicted in the life-size statue unveiled Saturday, April 5, 2003, at Richmond National Battlefield Park. Sculptor and New York Academy of Art instructor David Frech designed Lincoln sitting on a bench, an arm draped around the shoulder of Tad, who turned 12 on the day of the Richmond tour. Behind father and son, engraved in granite, are Lincoln’s words: “To Bind Up the Nation’s Wounds.”

Lincoln Killed my AncestorsIt’s a modest bronze far removed from the bustle of this historic city of 200,000. Still for some, Lincoln’s presence stuck in the craw. It conjured up a siege mentality among the most distant relatives of the sons and daughters of the Confederacy. Scores of Lincoln haters showed up for the unveiling, forcing viewers and dignitaries to endure a gauntlet of Rebel yells and Confederate battle flags. Bagpipes blew and strains of “Dixie” pierced the sweet spring air. Some protestors praised John Wilkes Booth. Others proclaimed Lincoln a tyrant and war criminal. And others waved placards comparing the 16th president to Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

For the most part it was bluster – theater staged by a few on the fringe clinging to symbols of a mythical Southern heritage long ago sullied by racial hatred and terrorism. Yet the protests served as a reminder that war wounds heal slowly, if ever at all. And perhaps it also was a warning for Lincoln’s present-day successor as he contemplates post-war reconstruction in an ethnically fractured Iraq. The Bush Administration may manage to avoid the trappings of hubris and restore order and governance in Iraq. But some people will always harbor rage against America, zealously embracing martyrdom and longing for the glorious past.

Richmond might well forever attract Southern whites longing for their glorious past. But Lincoln’s image in the city also is proof of progress toward a more rounded view of local Civil War history, said Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who was joined at the unveiling ceremony by other current and former Virginia leaders. The list included L. Douglas Wilder, Virginia’s – and the nation’s – only African American to be elected governor in modern times.

Richmond’s latest example of New South progress, though, did not come easy. Critics attacked the City Council for proclaiming the Lincoln statue a symbol of “unity and reconciliation.” The U.S. Historical Society donated the statue, but the city agreed to put up $40,000 for stonework, further riling some.

Washington, D.C., may have a massive neoclassical temple to Lincoln on the Potomac. But 110 miles south on the banks of the James, Lincoln gets no such deification. In Richmond, god-like status is reserved for Old South heroes – Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, J.E.B. Stuart, Robert E. Lee – whose towering images remain forever enshrined in noble defiance along the city’s stately, tree-lined Monument Avenue.

In contrast, the Frech statue sits at the old Tredegar Iron Works site, up a hill and hidden from most spots in the city. Historically, at least, it’s a fitting spot. Lincoln stopped there on his Richmond tour. During the Civil War, the foundry was a sprawling industrial center where whites and blacks – freemen and slaves – pumped out much of the Confederate’s cannons, artillery and ammunition. Today, the redbrick Tredegar Iron Works building serves as a visitor center for a modest battlefield park that last year drew only 58,000 people. Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Mark Holmberg compared the annual trickle to “one Friday-night, Busch-race crowd at Richmond International Speedway.”

It was no speedway-size crowd in attendance at the Saturday afternoon unveiling of the Lincoln statue at the old iron works. The National Park Service estimated about 850 people attended. Some traveled from Pennsylvania; others from as far away as Florida. Most viewed it as a celebration. But not all. A yellow plane circled overhead towing a banner that read “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (Thus Ever to Tyrants), John Wilkes Booth’s parting line at Ford’s Theatre.

Even today the assassin has his fanatics. As the heavy green tarp was pulled away from the Lincoln statue at the old Richmond foundry, the revelation became too much for one man wearing a Booth T-shirt framed by the words “America Hero.”

“This sucks!” he shouted. “Tyrant! Traitor! Murderer of innocent Americans!”

In silent protest of the outburst, one father cupped his hands over his small son’s ears.

Washington, D.C., may have a massive neoclassical temple to Lincoln on the Potomac. But 110 miles south on the banks of the James, Lincoln gets no such deification.

Overall, reaction to the Lincoln bashers also was muted in genteel Richmond. Politicians dismissed their significance, noting that most were outsiders attending Confederate history and heritage events also planned throughout the city the same weekend. The events drew people from all over the Mid-Atlantic. Tar Heels from North Carolina joined Virginians and Southern sympathizers from Maryland and Pennsylvania. They rallied at the Jefferson Davis gravesite and paraded along Monument Avenue. On the route, women wore black hoop dresses and covered their faces with black mourning veils, while men and boys wore course gray woolen pants and toted muskets. They marched in small formations, past Stonewall Jackson, past Jeff Davis. In a sea of Confederate flags, the procession marched around the 60-foot statue of Robert E. Lee, head facing south, atop Traveller, his famous horse. Some chanted, “Lee. Lee. Lee. …” Others passed in silence, chins raised and right hands covering their hearts.

One woman following the paraders approached a young African American man who was conspicuously sitting at the base of the Lee statue and soaking it all in. She wanted to argue that the life of Alex Haley’s celebrated Kunta Kinte had been dispelled as fiction. It was as if perceived errors in a story about one slave was proof enough that the institution never really existed in America.

“Slavery did exist here,” the man politely responded. Then he sighed and said, “I wish you could be black for just one day. Then you would understand. You don’t even know.”

Richmond’s African-Americans, who make up more than half of the city’s population, always have held a different view of the Old South and Lincoln’s legacy. When Lincoln came to Richmond at the end of the Civil War, white residents shunned him. But although his appearance was unannounced, word quickly spread among the city’s African Americans. A jubilant mob of newly freed slaves spilled out in the streets to gaze at the Great Emancipator.

Would today’s wartime president, George W. Bush, be as warmly received in any quarter of a fallen Baghdad? American troops marching in were greeted with cheers by Baghdad residents eager to rid themselves of all things Saddam Hussein, including posters and statues bearing his likeness. Those scenes were encouraging for anyone worried that invading Iraq would widen anti-American sentiment in the region and spark more terrorist attacks. But it is too early to know for sure.

In Richmond, it was encouraging that Lincoln finally could return and take his rightful place in the city’s history. It was a journey that only took 138 years.