Confederates abound in the capital of Old Dixie. Stone ones peer from atop columns. Bronze ones sit atop sculpted horses. Make-believe ones march nearly every weekend in remembrance of what's known here as the Lost Cause.

But latter-day rebels have a real battle on their hands as they seek to restore Robert E. Lee, regarded by his admirers as best and most benevolent of Confederate heroes, to a place of honor along Richmond's riverfront this weekend.

Lee's portrait, among nearly 30 planned for a historical display, was taken down from a flood wall after protests by African American leaders. They equate the Confederacy with slavery and say those who seek to glorify its soldiers and symbols are nostalgic for the rigid racial boundaries of Richmond's not-too-distant past.

Confederate symbolism is especially sensitive in Richmond. Lee, Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis are among those honored on Monument Avenue, Richmond's most prestigious boulevard. Whites and blacks here still mutter about the fight in 1995 over adding a statue of black tennis star and humanitarian Arthur Ashe, a Richmond native. It now stands at the far end of the stretch of memorials.

Nearby Hollywood Cemetery has 18,000 Confederate dead and a three-story stone pyramid honoring them. Other Confederate monuments, frequently adorned with battle flags, sit in parks throughout the city. Another statue of Lee stands in the State Capitol, not far from George Washington and other luminaries of Virginia's past.

Despite Lee's prominence, images of the general rarely have been drawn into the long struggle over Confederate symbols in the South, where the stars-and-bars fly over state capitols, decorate pickups and wave at college football games. Lee once criticized slavery, freed several slaves and urged reconciliation after the war.

"It's a clear ratcheting up of the warfare over Confederate symbols and images," said Tony Horwitz, author of "Confederates in the Attic," an exploration of the tension over Civil War nostalgia in the South. "When you attack Lee, to many white southerners, you're attacking God. . . . You're really hitting the rawest nerve possible in the reverence of the Confederacy."

Problems began this week when Lee's visage appeared on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which has run several articles and photos about the opening of the city's Canal Walk, a recreational and commercial project intended to revitalize its long-neglected riverfront.

Portraits of other historical figures with ties to the city, such as poet Edgar Allan Poe, dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Gabriel Prosser, leader of a slave revolt, also appeared on the downtown flood wall along the James River.

But when City Council member Sa'ad El-Amin saw the picture of Lee, he immediately protested. He compared Lee to Nazi leaders and threatened to organize a boycott of the Canal Walk. He also contended that Richmond's abundance of Confederate memorials offended many in this majority-black city.

Project developers took down the picture.

Lee was the Confederacy's leading general, and his campaigns with the Army of Northern Virginia won him renown beyond the South. Here, many regard Lee as the consummate southern gentleman, a reputation only burnished in the years after the war when he became president of what is now called Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans, many of whom already planned to spend the day in Richmond to honor the birthday of Jefferson Davis, gathered at the Lee memorial on Monument Avenue and announced their own boycott of the Canal Walk if his portrait is not restored.

"The Sons of Confederate Veterans will not let this desecration go forward," said Robert W. Barbour, commander of the Virginia chapter. "He is not simply our hero. He is also a hero of all Virginians."

Many here regard the Confederacy fondly and argue that Northerners like to say the Civil War was about slavery to give their invasion of the southern states moral weight. The Confederate battle flag in particular has emerged as a catch-all icon for inspiring regional pride, honoring ancestors and resisting big government.

"History is written by the victors," said Virginia Windley of the Daughters of the Confederacy. She stood in a long, white dress and bonnet in midday heat today to evoke the spirit of the 1860s as she protested the removal of Lee's portrait from the flood wall.

"We're not celebrating racism," Windley said. "We're not celebrating slavery. We're celebrating our ancestors who fought for a cause they believed in."

But Rita Murray, a 49-year-old retired nurse, grew up in the shadow of a Confederate memorial while living in the segregated Church Hill section of Richmond. She said such memorials have always signified racism to her.

"I am so tired of this Confederacy stuff," she said while standing across the street from the Lee memorial. "You do find people still in the Dark Ages about things."

Both sides do agree on one point: In Richmond, the Civil War often doesn't seem so long ago.

"It's only been 130 years," said Brag Bowling, of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "In the grand scheme of things, that's not a lot of time."

CAPTION: Admirers of Robert E. Lee want the Confederate general's portrait restored to a display for the opening of the new Canal Walk in Richmond. The picture was removed this week.

CAPTION: City Council member Sa'ad El-Amin compared Lee to Nazi leaders.