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

Brooks D. Simpson, a leading Civil War historian, debunks many of the myths of the old South being circulated by neo-Confederate ideologues.

Brooks D. Simpson, a professor at Arizona State University, is a leading historian of 19th-century American political and military history whose work concentrates on the Civil War and Reconstruction era. The author or co-author of nine books, including studies of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman and Reconstruction policy and politics, Simpson serves as co-editor of the University of Nebraska's "Great Campaigns of the Civil War" series and the same institution's Civil War battlefield series.

In recent years, he has followed the development of an increasingly shrill neo-Confederate movement and particularly the use of misleading or plainly false information by many of its ideologues.

The Intelligence Report interviewed Simpson about neo-Confederate myths of the Civil War period, including the notions that that the war had almost nothing to do with slavery; that Lincoln supported the "peculiar institution"; that many thousands of blacks fought voluntarily for the Confederacy; that Confederate general Robert E. Lee opposed human bondage; and that the South's population and culture are fundamentally "Anglo-Celtic."

Intelligence Report: Let's talk about some of the unorthodox views of modern neo-Confederate ideologues. One of their key contentions is that the Civil War wasn't about slavery at all, that it was fundamentally a clash of two differing economic systems. Is there anything to that?

Simpson: First of all, without slavery there's no Civil War in the first place, there's no irreconcilable conflict, so that's a sine qua non.

Second, when people talk about conflicting economic systems, obviously the root of the conflict was that the South's economic system was based upon plantation slavery.

So one can't talk about different economic systems without once again coming back to the issue of slavery. That was fundamental to what the South was about.

There is a strange paradox here. These people deride what they call political correctness, and yet one of their first missions is to whitewash the Confederacy of any connection with slavery. They actually seem sensitive to any possibility that the Confederacy is linked with race, and want to absolve the Confederacy of any charges of racism at all.

You can see that in the fight over the Confederate flag, where the neo-Confederates say, "This is heritage, not hate. It has nothing to do with race at all." At the same time they're essentially defending white supremacy, they deny race has anything to do with it.

IR: So you see these neo-Confederates, the leaders and thinkers of groups like the League of the South (LOS), as basically white supremacist?

Simpson: They certainly want the revival of the principles of the Confederacy, and one those principles would in fact be white supremacy, unquestioned and explicit. The racism that's woven into their comments is often quite astonishing.

IR: What actually was the Confederate view of slavery?

Simpson: Confederates during the Civil War had no problem whatsoever in associating their cause with the protection of slavery and a system of white supremacy which they thought was inherent in the Confederate world order. The Confederates of 1861-65 were much more honest about the importance of slavery than are the neo-Confederates of today.

In a famous address [known to historians as the "Cornerstone Speech"], the vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, said in 1861 that "slavery is the cornerstone of the Confederacy." And as late as 1865, Robert E. Lee, who's often cited by neo-Confederates as an opponent of slavery, claimed that while blacks and whites were together in the South, their best relationship would be that of master and slave.

A great many Southerners were directly or indirectly involved in slavery — they were either slaveholders, members of slaveholding families, or involved in business enterprises that depended upon slavery for their prosperity.

Some neo-Confederates talk about differing federal policies toward the North and the South, but again those federal policies — especially if they concern the South — have to do with the support of slavery, the acquisition of new territory which would be open to slaveholders, a tariff policy which favored the North.

IR: What about that tariff policy?

Simpson: Neo-Confederates often say the North and South fought over tariffs passed to protect Northern manufacturing that came at the expense of the South. Now first of all, there's no record that in any Civil War battle, a colonel or a general roused his troops to the attack with the cry for lower tariffs.

That does not seem to have been a concern for the average Confederate soldier. Those Southerners who were interested in lower tariffs were interested because they were involved in the growing of plantation cotton, an export crop.

When Southerners were growing crops that faced foreign competition, such as sugar, they could be as in favor of a protective tariff as anybody else. For example, Louisiana sugar-growers were pro-protective tariff.

So that's again a reflection of economic interest, which in turn is a reflection, in part, of the plantation economy that was the foundation of Southern society.

IR: Another key neo-Confederate argument is that the war was really about states' rights and Southern opposition to growing federal power.

Simpson: The states' rights argument is even more specious.

White Southerners had no problem using the federal government's powers when it came to protecting and promoting the interests of slavery. They only invoked states' rights rhetoric in trying to restrict federal power against slavery.

Divisions over the interpretation of the Constitution were directly related to the issue of slavery.

IR: Is there anything to the Confederate interpretation of the Constitution, with regard to both states' rights and the supposed right of secession?

Simpson: As soon as the Constitution was drafted and put into place, the very people who helped draft it began to disagree over its meaning. Both [Alexander] Hamilton and [James] Madison were on the drafting committee, and these two guys were at loggerheads for years over what exactly the document meant.

Certainly, there is nothing in the Constitution that in any way explicitly sanctifies secession. I call secession a constructed right. You have to interpret the Constitution in very specific ways to come up with that. In fact, you have to engage in the very sort of Constitutional activism that neo-Confederates would otherwise abhor in interpreting the Constitution.

It's not really much of an argument. It's flatly asserted and opinions to the contrary are simply dismissed.

The notion of the Constitution as a contract between states, which has to be the basis of the secessionist argument, falls apart because it only covers the initial 13 signers.

After the original 13, the only thing that came close to an independent contracting agent was Texas, which was a republic before it became a state. But Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi were not states until they joined the United States. They were territories. So how does this argument apply to states that joined the Union after ratification of the original document?

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.

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.