The unveiling of an Abraham Lincoln statue today in downtown Richmond, a city his armies once conquered, was heralded as part of an effort to heal old wounds. But the ceremony was carried out amid catcalls and protests by promoters of Confederate heritage.
The life-size bronze sculpture of Lincoln and his son Tad sitting on a bench was unveiled in front of several hundred members of the public, three former governors and a host of local politicians at the Civil War Visitor Center at Tredegar Iron Works, where the Confederate Army forged its weapons.
Robert Klein, chairman of the U.S. Historical Society, which commissioned the statue and donated it to the National Park Service, said the work symbolizes Lincoln's only visit to the state capital, hours after Confederate armies.
"He came here as a visit of reconciliation after the surrender," Klein said. Years from now, the statue will bring people together, he predicted. "They will find it's reassuring that we have Lincoln here," he said. "We are not a red-neck city of the Confederate. We are part of the United States of America."
But just as previous efforts at racial healing have been difficult and painful here, today's event highlighted the deep divisions that remain.
Outside the park gates, about 40 people -- some in period costume -- waved Confederate battle flags and signs disparaging Lincoln, a man several said they consider to be no better than any of this century's worst war criminals.
"Hitler/Paris 1940. Lincoln/Richmond 1865. Any questions?" one sign read. Another, held by a young boy, read: "Lincoln wasn't worth a cent -- then or now." And a wanted poster with Lincoln's face read: "WANTED: For War Crimes."
Several hours before the afternoon dedication, about 100 members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and their families gathered at the nearby grave of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, to protest the Lincoln statue.
"As long as I'm commander in chief, we will never accept it," vowed Ron Wilson, national commander of the group. "We are going to fight these people everywhere they raise their head."
Those opposed to the statue said they consider its placement at a Confederate landmark a gratuitous measure of disrespect to people of Southern heritage.
Several also said they are skeptical of what they call the "Lincoln mythology" and his record of achievements, adding that to the terrified city residents at the time, Lincoln behaved as a conquering boor.
Supporters of the statue dismissed the opposition as a small group of divisive people, many of whom have also been at the center of other racially tinged debates over the appropriate civic symbols for the former Confederate capital.
"These people are largely not from Richmond," Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a former mayor of Richmond, said of the opponents. "They feel they have a right to tell us in Richmond how to do our business. They are wrong. We claim Abraham Lincoln as a brother. We claim Abraham Lincoln as a Virginian."