ATLANTA - Choruses of Dixie rang through the third-floor hallways of the Georgia Capitol on Thursday as Gov. Roy Barnes unveiled a restored portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Members of Confederate heritage groups - some clad in Rebel gray and butternut - burst into song as the governor, state Sen. George Hooks and Atlanta businessman Virgil Williams, who put up the money for the project, revealed the larger-than-life depiction of the Southern commander.
Organizations such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Heritage Preservation Association spearheaded the opposition to Mr. Barnes' successful bid last January to shrink the Rebel battle emblem on the Georgia flag.
During the weeklong emotional debate that led up to the General Assembly's narrow approval of the new flag, the governor announced his plan to bring back the Lee portrait, which had hung in the Capitol during the early 1900s. Some lawmakers reluctant to vote for the flag change - including Mr. Hooks - said at the time that Mr. Barnes' promise made it easier for them to side with him on the divisive issue.
While they're not happy with the political backdrop that led to the portrait project, loyalists of the old flag were delighted with Thursday's ceremony, said Omar Walden of Kennesaw, an Augusta native and member of the Heritage Preservation Association.
"It's a great day that Robert E. Lee's portrait is back up there," he said. "(But) it's a shame that it's up there because the governor is trying to appease a group of people."
Mr. Barnes' message Thursday was one of reconciliation. He said Georgia should honor Lee as much for the way he carried himself at the end of the Civil War as for his great military victories against numerically superior Union forces during the conflict.
After Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia in April 1865, some of his staff urged him to take the remnants of his troops underground and continue a guerrilla war, the governor said. But the general rejected that advice and, instead, took the oath of allegiance to the United States.
"He continued to urge the reunification of our people," Mr. Barnes said. "Lee taught us to respect the past but to live in the future."
Lee's behavior made a lasting impression.
"He was just the epitome of what a gentleman was," added Rep. Alan Powell, D-Hartwell. "It's very fitting for his portrait to be refurbished and put back in this place. I'm very proud to see it."
Mr. Powell, who voted against changing the flag, said he prefers to look at the flag debate and the return of the Lee portrait as separate subjects.
"Lee is a hero by virtue of his character for all Americans," added Mr. Hooks, D-Americus. "The fact that he ended his career in education (as a college president in Virginia) is just a wonderful example."
Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.