Charlottesville, Va.’s mayor said a torchlit rally held by white nationalists Saturday night “was either profoundly ignorant or was designed to instill fear in our minority populations in a way that hearkens back to the days of the KKK.”

In a statement posted to Facebook, Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer suggested the rally was meant to intimidate supporters of the planned removal of Confederate statues in the city in central Virginia, home to the University of Virginia and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historic home. “We are a Welcoming City, but such intolerance is not welcome here,” Signer wrote.

Signer’s statement was a reaction to a small nighttime rally at the city’s Lee Park led by white nationalist Richard Spencer and others. Participants chanted, “We will not be replaced," “Russia is our friend” and “Blood and soil,” a historic Nazi chant, ABC News reported.

The protest came in response to a Nov. 28 city council vote to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at the park. A court injunction has halted the removal for six months.

Signer called the protest “horrific," noting that it coincided with the park’s Festival of Cultures event, which celebrates the city’s cultural and linguistic diversity. He said it wasn’t immediately clear whether the timing was intentional.

Saturday night’s rally was actually the second event protesting removal of the Lee statue, local news reported. An earlier rally brought clashes between supporters of “white heritage” and detractors of the monument, WVIR-TV reported. Spencer said the afternoon demonstration, which was at the city's Jackson Park, was peaceful, but police responded to a scuffle that broke out between sides.

Spencer, known for popularizing the phrase "alt right," spoke at the afternoon event, telling onlookers, “I'm here to take part in this great celebration of our heritage and to say 'no' to the city of Charlottesville. You're not going to tear down our statue and you're not going to replace us."

"We're not white supremacists,” said protester Orry Von Dize. “We are simply just white people that love our heritage, our culture, our European identity.”

Defense of the statue has become a rallying cry for Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart, a one-time chairman of Donald Trump’s Virginia campaign.

There was no indication that Stewart attended either rally, The Washington Post reported, but in the past he has defended the Confederate battle flag and Civil War-era monuments, saying he is not promoting symbols of hate but battling political correctness and “historical vandalism.”

Cries for removal of Confederate imagery nationwide began shortly after the 2015 shooting deaths of nine people at historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., and the subsequent removal of the battle flag from the grounds of the South Carolina Statehouse. Last week, a statue of Jefferson Davis was taken down in New Orleans, one of four monuments in that city scheduled for removal.

Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo