Why The Erection of a Statue to Lincoln in Richmond Caused Such a Storm

Roundup: Talking About History

Andrew Ferguson, writing in the Weekly Standard (Dec. 29-Jan. 5, 2003):

Abraham Lincoln, with his son Tad in tow, walked around Richmond, Virginia, one day 138 years ago, and if you try to retrace their steps today you won't see much that they saw, which shouldn't be a surprise, of course. The street grid is the same, though, and if you're in the right mood and know what to look for, the lineaments of the earlier city begin to surface, like the outline of a scuttled old scow rising through the shallows of a pond. Among the tangle of freeway interchanges and office buildings you'll come across an overgrown park or a line of red-brick townhouses, an unlikely old belltower or a few churches scattered from block to block, dating to the decades before the Civil War and still giving off vibrations from long ago....

No one knows for sure whether Lincoln and Tad visited Tredegar [Iron Works], or whether they passed by the Works during a carriage ride they took later the same day, but they're there now--so a romantic would say--in the form of a bronze statue. The statue was installed last spring, at the headquarters of the National Park Service's Richmond Civil War battlefield park, which is housed in Tredegar's surviving buildings. In the months leading to its unveiling, the statue created a controversy that reached far beyond Richmond, beyond the United States even, to become an object of international interest--improbably enough, during that season when the world's attention was diverted by another war looming in Iraq. One Richmond official, traveling through Barbados last winter, happened to pick up a newspaper on an excursion plane."Lincoln Comes to Confederate Capital," read the headline on the back page.

What made the controversy newsworthy was that there should be a controversy at all. To many people, including members of the Richmond establishment--the businessmen, journalists, politicians, rich people, and other well-wired doers of public good, who unanimously supported the statue as both a tourist attraction and a statement of civic resolve--it came as a surprise that anyone should find a tribute to the sixteenth president objectionable. Who could object to Lincoln? As a national symbol he is unavoidable; the piece of real estate he occupies in the American imagination is immeasurably vast. He seems too big even to have an opinion about. It would be like objecting to the moon.

But many people do object, it turns out, and they are almost always well-spoken and well-read and, in percentage terms, not very often crazier than the general population that tends to accept Lincoln's greatness as a fact of life. When I first visited Richmond last March, three months after plans for the statue had been announced and one month before its unveiling, I went to see Bragdon Bowling, who had been stoking the controversy like a steam engine. He gathered petitions, promoted websites, pestered politicians with mail and phone calls and encouraged others to do the same. He enlisted Thomas DiLorenzo, author of a new anti-Lincoln book called"The Real Lincoln," to help him organize a scholarly conference, with the title"Lincoln Reconsidered," to lay out his case as soberly and comprehensively as possible.

This was his duty, he felt. Bowling is division commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and at those moments when he decides that the heritage of the South is being abused, as it was with the placement of a Lincoln statue in the former capital of the Confederacy, he becomes an agitator ex officio."It's a responsibility you have," he said."You've got to try to stop it."

"Ten years ago I started to learn about my family. I read intensively, everything I could--not just politically correct history but also other history that's been suppressed. That's the way this learning process often starts. My great grandfather served in the Army of Northern Virginia as private under General Robert E. Lee. He was at Sharpsburg--Yankees call it Antietam--at Chancellorsville, other places. And like 90 percent of the soldiers who fought for and served the South, he never owned a slave.

"So--just to show you how the thought process works, for people who are still capable of thinking for themselves--so I thought, well, why is that? If the war is all about slavery, why's he fighting so hard? It didn't fit, you see, with everything I'd been taught about the Civil War. Like all his comrades, my great-grandfather gave everything he had. Why? He did it for his country. The South had bad everything--bad munitions, bad clothing, bad food. But they had the best men. They gave everything they had. And they did not do that to defend slavery."

The war wasn't about slavery for Lincoln, either, Bowling explained. He ticked off the particulars of his indictment of Lincoln. With his generals he invented the concept of Total War, and waged campaigns of unprecedented savagery against noncombatants and private property in the Shenandoah Valley, the March through Georgia, and elsewhere. He was the father of Big Government, vastly expanding the reach of Imperial Washington in ways unthinkable to the country's founders. The Northern victory was a triumph for a commercial culture, controlled by Big Business, over a Southern culture of farms and small towns that asked only to be let alone.

"It was all about power," he said."Six hundred thousand dead. All so Lincoln and his friends could consolidate their power to tell other people how to live their lives."

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