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

IR: The flip side of their take on Lincoln is that two key Confederate military leaders, Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest, were essentially non-racist.

In the case of Forrest, neo-Confederates virtually never mention the fact that after the war, he became the first imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The LOS, in fact, recently helped to erect a statue of Forrest, who is seen as a great hero.

Simpson: The Lee myth — Lee being above slavery, Lee being in fact anti-slavery — is essential to the neo-Confederate argument that it's not about race, it's not about slavery. They've done a very good job of covering up Robert E. Lee's actual positions on this.

Well, in 1864, black Union troops were involved in operations against Lee's army outside Richmond and Petersburg, and some of them are taken prisoner. Lee puts them to work on Confederate entrenchments that are in Union free-fire zones.

When Grant gets wind of this, he threatens to put Confederate prisoners to work on Union entrenchments under Confederate fire unless Lee pulls out. So Grant was willing to embrace an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth retaliation policy based upon Confederate treatment of black prisoners.

For Grant, it was the color of the uniform, not the skin, that mattered.

In pre-War correspondence, Lee castigated the abolitionists for their political activity, and he never showed any qualms about the social order that he would later defend with arms.

He also had a few slaves that he inherited as part of a will agreement, with provisions to emancipate those slaves. But in fact, he dragged his heels in complying with the terms of that will. And he never gave a second thought to the fact that his beloved Arlington [Va.] mansion was run by slave labor.

IR: And what about Forrest?

Simpson: There is no doubt that neo-Confederates are particularly enamored of Nathan Bedford Forrest, and that Forrest was squarely in support of the "peculiar institution." He linked his defense of the Confederacy to an embrace of pro-slavery positions in ways Lee never quite did.

These folks downplay Forrest's Klan ties — and his actions commanding the April 12, 1864, attack on Ft. Pillow in Tennessee, which was garrisoned by white and black troops. Forrest's soldiers ran amok and killed blacks attempting to surrender, essentially engaging in a massacre.

White Southerners are fond of blaming William T. Sherman for his troops' actions during the March to the Sea and March of the Carolinas. If you're going to hold Sherman responsible for the behavior of those troops, then you have to hold Forrest responsible for the atrocities committed by his men.

I mean, the double standard there is striking. The same white Southerners who indict Sherman as a war criminal for what his men did in the destruction of property earnestly exculpate Forrest from any responsibility for the destruction of black human life — which is an interesting commentary on the white neo-Confederate value system: White property is more important than black lives.

IR: A related argument is that Forrest's Klan was a justified response to the cruel Yankee repression of Southern whites during the Reconstruction period.

Simpson: The Ku Klux Klan was just an organized form of political terrorism against black aspirations. The roots of the Klan are to be found before any action is taken by the federal government looking toward black equality in the South. The Klan is founded in December 1865, and there's no such thing as radical Republican Reconstruction at the time.

In fact, the president of the United States for the first four years of Reconstruction was a Southerner, a dyed-in-the-wool racist named Andrew Johnson. And white Southerners rejected even his lenient plan of Reconstruction, which didn't look at all for black suffrage.

So it's simply a myth that the Klan emerged to protect Southern society from those venal radical Republicans. The cause and effect was exactly, 100 percent the opposite.

IR: A key neo-Confederate ideologue, LOS leader Michael Hill, has made much of the idea that the South is fundamentally "Anglo-Celtic," both racially and culturally. He describes the American North as essentially English and the South as Scottish, or Celtic.

Is there anything to Hill's claim? And why is this idea so central to modern neo-Confederates?

Simpson: I have never quite understood this. There are key parts of the South which were not settled by Anglo-Celts or anyone who saw themselves that way. This isn't a very sustained, sophisticated study whatsoever of ethnic origins as such.

Rather, it's a superficial cultural explanation of those origins and, by and large, a false one. It doesn't have any meaning in terms of biology, and not an awful lot in terms of culture. It certainly wasn't the sort of thing that distinguished white Northerners from white Southerners.

Again, I am at a loss to figure out what truly is the origin of this idea. There's nothing terribly distinguished about being Anglo-Celtic. But I think that this concept reflects the notion of a sort of ethnic purity, a unified ethnic group which has claims to a separatist nationalism based on ethnic homogeneity.

The assumption, of course, is that "Southerners" equals "white Southerners." But the truth is that Southern culture is fundamentally defined by the interaction of different racial groups, primarily blacks and whites, and, to a lesser extent, Native Americans.

You would have to exclude major portions of the South to come up with an Anglo-Celtic definition of Southern nationhood — New Orleans, for example, with its Creole influences; or Texas, which has a significant Hispanic strain in its culture; or Charleston [S.C.], which again has a clear mix of influences from the Caribbean.

And this explanation of Southern nationalism doesn't account for the large pockets of white Southern unionists in East Tennessee, western North Carolina and northern Alabama. So it's a theory of white Southern nationalism made to order for white supremacist points of view.

IR: We've talked about a long list of neo-Confederate myths. Overall, what do you think that these myths, and the men behind them, are really about?

Simpson: This is an active attempt to reshape historical memory, an effort by white Southerners to find historical justifications for present-day actions. The neo-Confederate movement's ideologues have grasped that if they control how people remember the past, they'll control how people approach the present and the future.

Ultimately, this is a very conscious war for memory and heritage. It's a quest for legitimacy, the eternal quest for justification.