Civil War veterans and dignitaries drew near the bronze statue in Alexandria almost 100 years ago, cheering as Virginia Gov. Fitzhugh Lee promised it would forever "honor the city's Confederate dead."

What Lee, himself a Confederate cavalryman, could not foresee was that the statue would not only perpetually honor the dead, but persistently rile the living.

Almost since the 20-foot bronze Confederate soldier was placed smack in the middle of the intersection of two of Old Town's busiest streets, S. Washington and Prince, it has divided the city -- like the Civil War -- into two camps.

"Put it in the middle of the Potomac, I don't care. Just get it out of sight," said former City Council member Nelson Greene Sr.

As far as Greene, a well-known community black leader, is concerned, the 96-year-old statue has been publicly displayed 96 years too long. "It's more or less something that praises those soldiers who left here to keep people in slavery," he said.

That places Green on what some decry as the Yankee side, residents who say the memorial is an affront to blacks and a dangerous obstacle for heavy traffic. They say it should be removed.

On the other, or southern, side are those who resist budging it an inch. The statue, which bears the names of 97 of Alexandria's Confederate dead, is an authentic part of the city's history, they say. To move it from the spot where hundreds of gray-suited rebels mustered as they joined Gen. Robert E. Lee's forces would be to deny the city's past.

The supporters say the green-patina soldier, his bronze hands folded and bold eyes staring south, for many is like a cherished heirloom.

"It makes up part of the charm that makes Alexandira quaint," said Frederick Hart, the sculptor who designed the soldiers statue that was recently added to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Hart, a member of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, also dismissed arguments for removing the statue: "Traffic at times must defer to tradition and history . . . . It's silly to try to eradicate southern heritage. It's clearly not antiblack or proslavery."

"This whole fuss is a foolish and asinine attempt to change history," said retired Army Col. William M. Glasgow, a member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans. "Eight hundred fifteen Alexandrians marched out of here from that spot on May 24, 1861, to fight in the War of Damn Yankee oppression. It should not be moved."

It would take a change in Virginia law to alter the site. An act of the state legislature requires that the "handsome and expensive monument" at S. Washington and Prince "shall perpetually remain" there.

Though Mayor James P. Moran Jr. said he believes the statue poses a severe traffic hazard, he will not bring up this "no-win situation" unless citizens raise it.

In fact, no city politician since Greene, who during the 1979-80 council session unsuccessfully attempted to uproot the statue, has dared address the issue.

Even so, the debate continues to enliven cocktail parties and dinner table talk, perhaps telling much about some Alexandrians and their determination to keep the city visibly southern.

William Hurd, the former chairman of the Alexandria Civil War Centennial Committee, says that his committee meet for four years after the last centennial celebration in 1965 for the purpose of trying to relocate the statue.

"My own feeling was that it should be removed out of interest for the statue," said Hurd. "If it's hit solidly, the base will shatter."

Hurd said he still thinks it should be relocated to a safer quarters, but said the odds are against it.

City transportation director Dayton Cook agreed with Hurd that moving the streets below the statue might be easier at this point than relocating the Confederate soldier.

Cook said since the city put a median strip on S. Washington Street, automobiles no longer line up directly with the statue. In recent years he said there has not been a serious accident, such as those in the 1970s that killed at least one person and critically hurt others.

There are ways to work and drive around the statue, Cook said. "It's been there for a hundred years; it's too much a part of the city."