By Wendy Swanson
Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Don’t look for it at its traditional Richmond home - outside the main entrance to the National Park Service’s leased visitor center at Tredegar’s Pattern Building and adjacent to the American Civil War Museum. The statue has moved and is now on loan to Richmond’s Valentine museum for a temporary outdoor exhibition.
Why the move? The owner of the Tredegar campus – the New Market Corporation – is preparing that site for a purposed riverside amphitheater, the construction of which required the relocation of the statue.
The work, of course, already has had quite a history. The bronze grouping depicts an important part of Richmond’s - and Lincoln’s - story. The sculpture shows Lincoln and son Tad, then 12, life-size, resting on a bench while touring Richmond, following the fall of the city in April 1865. The two visited Richmond, burned and Union-occupied, just days before the surrender of Robert E. Lee. The tragic assassination of Lincoln occurred just days later. The date of the dedication by the way coincided with the anniversary of Lincoln’s actual 1865 Richmond visit.
The David Frech statue shows Lincoln, not as a conqueror, but as a peacemaker. The theme of the work then is one of unification and reconciliation, not victory. Thus, the words shown on a wall behind the figures reflect this thought - “To bind up the nation’s wounds” - and are taken from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, given only one month before the Richmond visit.
However, despite this peaceful theme the atmosphere at the statue’s actual dedication, almost twenty years ago on April 5, 2003, was anything but serene. Protestors with pro-Confederate leanings did their best to disrupt the dedication ceremony. Garbed in clothing from the era as well as modern t-shirts containing themes derogatory to the Sixteenth President, the protestors’ presence at the dedication was quite evident. They greeted ceremony attendees with chants and anti-Lincoln signs and slogans. During the ceremony a small plane flew over the crowd, displaying a banner containing words made infamous by John Wilkes Booth at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, “Sic semper tyrannis.” There also was a second event held that day to counter the tribute to Lincoln. At Hollywood Cemetery there was a protest vigil at the grave of Jefferson Davis.
However, changes were in the wind. The U.S. Historical Society, a Richmond-based nonprofit, had commissioned the statue and donated it to the National Park Service (NPS) as a symbol of reconciliation and unity. The Richmond City Council backed the idea, donating funds to the project. At the time of the gifting, the chairman of the society, Robert H. Kline stated: “I’m delighted that it’s finally happening, that Lincoln is in Richmond again. He came on a mission of peace and reconciliation and I think the statue will serve that purpose for a very long time.”
Now visitors are able to find Abe and Tad (minus the usual surrounding stone elements) at The Valentine’s 10th Street Terrace between Clay and Marshall Streets. NPS official Doyle Sapp expressed gratitude to The Valentine "for ensuring that this significant work of art will remain accessible to the public. The loan will enable the statue and its story to continue to educate and inspire people while the NPS and its partners explore options for a new, permanent location.” The expectation is that the statue will remain at The Valentine for “a few years.”
The Valentine is dedicated to collecting, preserving and interpreting Richmond’s history, certainly a perfect spot to highlight Lincoln’s journey to the city. Founded in 1898 by Mann S. Valentine, the institution is the city’s oldest private museum. Valentine, by the way, made his fortune with the creation of Valentine’s Meat Juice, a health tonic made from pure beef juice. The juice not only provided he financial foundation for the museum but also nourishment for wounded soldiers during the Civil War and for regular citizens for years following that conflict.
Valentine had a brother, Edward Virginius, who served for a time as a president of the museum. He also was a noted sculptor – and here we find an interesting twist of sorts to this story. Edward Valentine created many of the images of Confederate leaders, images that have been in the news in recent times. The Valentine creations included the statue of Robert E. Lee, removed from Statutory Hall in the U.S. Capitol (now on view at Richmond’s Museum of History and Culture) and that of Jefferson Davis, removed from its pedestal on Monument Avenue. That statue of Davis, in fact, is now temporarily on display at The Valentine, shown in its current state, toppled from its pedestal and graffiti-covered, and as a sign of changing times.
The Valentine then continues to document Richmond’s evolving history including recent changes in fortune for historic figures. Now that symbol of reconciliation - Lincoln and Tad on their 1865 visit to Richmond – is on display at the museum as part of that story.
(Photo credit: National Park Service)