When Lincoln Returned to Richmond
Dispatches from an unlikely culture war.
Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
HE'S A TALL MAN with a scholarly air, due largely to an unruly shock of white hair and the wire spectacles that are always slipping down his nose. I met him in the stripped-down living room of one of the rental properties he owns, in a working class suburb north of town. He had to repaint the place and it was covered in tarps. "Sometimes you end up renting to people who simply do not know how to keep house," he said. He turned a paint tub upside down and sat on it, and gestured for me to sit on a butt-sprung couch across from him.
Bowling said he was a native of Virginia--but Northern Virginia, which many native Virginians consider less a part of the commonwealth than a satellite of Washington, D.C., or worse, Maryland, with all its inevitable corruptions.
"It's a zoo now, but it wasn't so bad then," he said of his hometown of Arlington, across the river from Washington. "I got a good education. See, you could still do that in those days. I got taught the usual liberal history, but my teachers were smart people who had high standards. They taught me to think for myself, and that's what I've done.
"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."
What Bowling learned inspired him to join the Sons. He rose through the ranks, and it was in his present capacity, as division commander, that he received a phone call last December from a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
"This reporter says he wants a comment on the statue of Lincoln they're going to put up in Richmond.
"I said, 'Huh?'
"He said, 'Yeah, a fellow named Bob Kline has donated a statue of Lincoln and they're going to put it up down at the visitor center at Tredegar. You got a comment?'
"Well, I knew right away what was going on here. And I told him so. This is the latest move in a scheme to demonize the Confederate soldier. The Park Service, the politicians, the politically correct historians, they've been doing this all across the country, and now they're doing it right here in Richmond."
I said a statue of Lincoln didn't sound to me like it was demonizing anybody.
"To worship Lincoln, right here, is an insult to the Confederate soldier," he said. "There are 40,000 graves of Confederate soldiers in this city, and I will defend their honor. You see, unlike the politicians and these others, I'm a student of history. I know what this man Lincoln did to this country. I know what the army under his command did to the South. You ever wonder why there are no statues of Abraham Lincoln in the entire southern half of the United States? It's pretty simple: People here remember what he did. Used to be, everybody here remembered. Now only some of us do."