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Abe statue unveiled in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. - Alice Harris wasn't sure at first that she wanted to participate in Saturday's dedication ceremony of a controversial statue of Abraham Lincoln in this former capital of the Confederacy.

Harris's grandmother and namesake, Alice Williams, was a 25-year-old slave when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862. The Civil War brought many conflicting emotions to the surface for Harris.

But her grandmother always placed a high value on education and that's ultimately what convinced her.

When she helped unveil the statue before hundreds of people here, she did so "to help this generation and future generations to live together," said Harris, who at 75 is a doctoral student.

The life-size bronze sculpture of Lincoln and his son, Tad, commemorates a historic, but little-known visit that the 16th president made to Richmond on April 4, 1865.

The statue depicts a contemplative Lincoln sitting on a bench with his arm around 12-year-old Tad. Behind the figures, the words "to bind up a nation's wounds" - a phrase from Lincoln's second Inaugural speech - are inscribed on a plain granite wall.

Lincoln historians and elected officials hope the statue will stand as a symbol of reconciliation and healing. But protesters in Civil War costumes outside the Richmond National Battlefield Park Civil War Visitor Center view Lincoln as a conqueror whose likeness is a reminder of death and destruction.

Lincoln visited Richmond just two days after Union soldiers forced Confederate troops to abandon the city. The city was still smoldering from the fires that Confederates set to keep enemy forces from using their supplies.

Lincoln arrived unannounced and, with his son, walked to the Confederate White House in what Lincoln scholars say was symbolic of his desire to unite the war-torn country. African-Americans rushed out to greet him, some kneeling or touching his coat. But most white residents greeted the president with stony silence, according to the National Park Service text accompanying the statue.

And, it was clear Saturday, the passage of more than a century has not softened some of those hard feelings.

“He was not here as a hero as the Park Service contends. He was here as a conqueror. And because he was here as a conqueror, that’s why it’s inappropriate,” said Brag Bowling, 54, commander of the Virginia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who lives in Richmond.

“They said it’s part of healing. But see how little healing it’s doing. It has caused a war here. The Park Service should understand this is the former capitol of the Confederacy,” Bowling said.

The statue is believed to be the first of Lincoln to be placed in any of the 11 former Confederate states, and it sparked Bowling to lead a protest at the nearby gravesite of Jefferson Davis, leader of the Confederacy.

A total of about 150 protesters demonstrated at two separate sites, many of them waving Confederate flags.

“It’s like putting a statue of (Gen. Robert E.) Lee in Illinois, for God’s sake,” said Claudette Waddell, 65, of Plant City, Fla., who came up for today’s parade in celebration of Confederate history.

But Lincoln scholars contend that the statue depicts a side of Lincoln that deserves commemoration.

“I’m convinced that he came to Richmond not as a divisive force, but as a healing force,” said Ronald C. White Jr., author of “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural.”

The unveiling of the statue Saturday was the culmination of a 20-year dream for Robert Kline, a native of Dixon, Ill., which has its own Lincoln statue. Kline, chairman of the U.S. Historical Society, said, “my roots told me we ought to have statue of Lincoln in Richmond.”

The sculptor, David Frech of New York, also has Illinois roots. Frech grew up in the northwest Chicago suburbs and said his grandfather had a strong admiration of Lincoln.

Both Kline and Frech said they were surprised by the furor that the statue has generated in some corners.

“I don’t think any of us had been prepared for the controversy,” Frech said. “I grew up in the Midwest. I had no idea these feelings still existed.”

The U.S. Historical Society is raising funds to pay for the $250,000 statue by selling miniature bronze copies at $875 apiece. But even that has generated objections from opponents alleging violations of state laws, which officials said later were disproven.

The statue is located at an old Civil War cannon factory.

Cynthia MacLeod, of the National Park Service, said, “Explaining history from a variety of angles makes it not only more interesting, but also more true.”

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