Arizona State Professor Brooks D. Simpson Discusses Neo-Confederate Movement

IR: A popular neo-Confederate theme is that many thousands of blacks voluntarily fought for the Confederacy. What do you make of that?

Simpson: From a light-hearted point of view, if there were all these black Confederate soldiers, given that we don't see them show up [in historical records] as prisoners or killed or wounded, they must have been the best troops the Confederacy ever had, because they were never killed, wounded or captured. So an entire army of black Confederates would have been invincible.

If black Confederates were already there, one is at a loss to understand why white Southerners debated so ferociously over the introduction of blacks in the Confederate army late in the war. Certainly, there were blacks who accompanied the Confederate armies — servants of officers, wagon drivers, cooks, teamsters and the like. But they weren't there, by and large, of their own volition.

They were there because they were enslaved. In terms of blacks actually in the ranks of the Confederate army, we're talking about a handful of people at most.

You see a very selective use of the historical record by certain academics who are pushing an agenda. So where there has been some evidence of an African-American taking a weapon up in a Civil War battle and firing away in self-defense, that is transformed into regiment after regiment of African-Americans ready to fight.

There's a conscious effort among these people [neo-Confederates] to distort and exaggerate whatever they find in the historical record to serve their ends.

IR: Another neo-Confederate argument regarding slavery is that relatively few Southerners actually owned slaves. The theory seems to be that the vast majority of Southern combatants must have been fighting for something else.

Simpson: Many neo-Confederates argue that there was a rather small percentage of Southern whites who actually owned slaves. The problem is the misuse of statistics. The real question is how many white Southern families owned slaves.

The way they figure it, if you have a family of five whites and the father owns the slaves, then you only have 20 percent slaveholding in that family. Well, of course, the whole family directly benefited from slavery.

Not only that, but you have to count the number of people who think they're going to own slaves in the future but don't at present. That is a major class issue in Southern society of the late 1850s, and a major debate — a debate which, by the way, the neo-Confederates love to underplay. By the late 1850s, the price of an average black male adult field hand is over $1,000.

And many slaveholding Southerners begin to realize that that means that many whites cannot afford to gain entry into the slaveholding system any more. A book published in 1857 by a white South Carolinian, a deep racist named Hinton R. Helper, argued that non-slaveholding Southern whites ought to wake up to their economic exploitation by slaveholding whites.

That's the kind of message that many slaveholding whites took to heart, and so they spoke about reopening the international slave trade with the idea that if you increase the supply, you lower the price.

The people most vociferously opposed to this were the residents of Virginia. The reason was self-serving. As of 1860, the second most important export of the commonwealth of Virginia was human flesh.

Virginians wanted to make sure that if white Southerners were going to buy slaves, they were going to buy slaves that bore the phrase "made in Virginia."

IR: What do you make of the neo-Confederate emphasis on northern racism?

Simpson: Let's start by saying they have a point. Racism against African-Americans was a national problem, not a regional problem. The white South could never have gotten away with as much as it did in terms of white supremacy had there not been a large number of white Northerners who supported racist policies.

But now neo-Confederates say, "Well, you guys were racist, too, and in fact the real racism is in the North." And at the same time, they say, "There is no racism in the South." Well, you really can't have it both ways.

But again, the war is fought not over racial equality — at least among American whites — but over slavery, the political advantages that white Southerners had because of slavery. The war is about slavery and its political and economic impact on American society, not just Southern society.

Southerners are very much aware when they support secession in 1860-61 that they are seceding to protect slavery and white supremacy — and that that is something that should interest not only slaveholders but also non-slaveholding whites.

The neo-Confederates construct an "other" of mainstream academic scholarship that supposedly says that the North fought to end slavery and that the South was uniquely racist. But you don't find a lot of mainstream scholars who embrace any of that.

In fact, most mainstream academics embrace the idea that racism was an American problem, and that Union soldiers went to war in 1861 primarily to save the Union, not to destroy slavery. In other words, the historical stereotype that the neo-Confederates war against basically doesn't exist.

IR: An allied neo-Confederate argument is that Abraham Lincoln was a virulent racist, far worse than most Southerners.

Simpson: Oddly enough, neo-Confederates make common cause with blacks such as Lerone Bennett, who, in a recent book that is rather selective, recites the old Lincoln-is-a-racist notion.

There's no doubt Abraham Lincoln harbored racial prejudices, and there's also no doubt that he questioned them, sometimes publicly. After all, Lincoln was Southern-born, and had a lot of Southern influences in his early life.

What's important is not that Lincoln had racial prejudices, but that he struggled to overcome them, and that whatever his prejudices, he abhorred slavery. That's very clear.

He struggled to find ways to end slavery within the bounds of the Constitution; it was the war that empowered Lincoln to act in ways he never could have acted otherwise, by allowing him to strike against slavery using presidential war powers.

Lincoln is often derided as being some sort of dictator-tyrant in the White House, but I think he actually toed the Constitutional line a lot more carefully than people give him credit for. He respected [the legality of] slavery in states which had not seceded, and worked in other ways to secure emancipation there.

In Delaware, he went so far as to draft a constitutional amendment for the state constitution to end slavery with compensation for slaveholders, although that fell apart. Lincoln also worked behind the scenes to help emancipation in Maryland, and in 1864 Maryland did abolish slavery on its own.

So Lincoln did work to help emancipation in the border [slave] states that stayed in the union.