The Magazine

When Lincoln Returned to Richmond

Dispatches from an unlikely culture war.

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Tricks Up Their Sleeves

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.

Richmond rests on a group of hills above a bend in the James River. Along the riverbank at the east end of town, where Lincoln began his tour that day, is a long rank of tobacco warehouses, abandoned now, and from behind them the land rises steeply through the commercial district for perhaps half a mile. The Capitol, built from a design by Thomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century, sits on the crest of the hill, and back of it, seven blocks away, is a Georgian mansion that served as the White House of the Confederacy, official residence of President Jefferson Davis. Walk due west from there, past the parking lots, through the plaza surrounding the new glass-and-concrete convention center, and then head south, and before too long you're back at the riverbank, at the ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works, where the cannon and shot were forged that sustained the South through four years of rebellion.

No one knows for sure whether Lincoln and Tad visited Tredegar, 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."