Confederate Heritage and Terrorism

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday Americans have again engaged in a discussion about terrorism, including a lively debate over the wisdom and the humanity of admitting refugee populations seeking sanctuary in the United States. It’s a revealing conversation, betraying barely-hidden assumptions about peoples and religious faiths.

At the same time, there is an ongoing debate on college campuses concerning whether the icons celebrated on those campuses deserve their place of honor and remembrance. Today media coverage focuses on whether Princeton University should continue to honor Woodrow Wilson, who served as president of that institution before he became first governor of New Jersey and the the 28th president of the United States. After all, Wilson promoted segregation and endorsed Birth of a Nation. “It is like writing history with lightning,” Wilson asserted after viewing the film, “and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” That the movie freely quoted from Wilson’s own scholarship must have pleased the president greatly.

These are troubling times for advocates of Confederate heritage, because a discussion of the horrors and evil of terrorism reminds us that such terrorist activity was an essential element of how white southerners defeated Reconstruction. Moreover, it stands to reason that many of these white supremacist terrorists were Confederate veterans. If we accept estimates that the Confederacy mobilized some 80% of its white male adult population to serve in the Confederate military, and that a healthy percentage of those who were not mobilized actively opposed the Confederacy, it stand to reason that white supremacist terrorist organizations drew a significant proportion of its membership from the ranks of Confederate veterans. Indeed, it was logical for such people to view their service in such organizations as an extension of their service in the ranks of the Confederate military, because both Confederate independence and the overthrow of Republican regimes and the suppression of black freedom shared the same goals of preserving white supremacy and protecting one’s way of life by making sure that white southerners would be in control of their own lives as well as of the lives of black southerners. One may be able to distinguish between the fight for Confederate independence and the redemption of white supremacist rule, but one is hard-pressed to separate them altogether.

One need not remind Americans that some defenders of Confederate heritage imitate white supremacist terrorists in their behavior. Indeed, some, such as the League of the South‘s Pat Hines, advocate terrorist acts. Other defenders of Confederate heritage honor Confederate leaders who after the war were associated with terrorist organizations, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, Wade Hampton, and John B. Gordon. Indeed, some defenders of Confederate heritage have no problem with their work appearing in antisemitic white supremacist newslettersbut you already knew that.

So, how do we address the call to honor Confederate leaders and soldiers, given these circumstances? Do we ignore what these leaders and soldiers did after the war? Do we recognize that their actions after the war were of a piece with their actions during the war? And what do we make of the warm embrace of these people (including some outright justifications of post-Appomattox white supremacist terrorism) by individuals who sometimes look as if they wished to emulate those whom they celebrate?

You tell me.



22 thoughts on “Confederate Heritage and Terrorism

  1. iffits November 19, 2015 / 10:06 am

    Thank you for this excellent article. This is an important reminder to us all. Homegrown terrorism is intended to silence dissent through intimidation. It is sobering and important to remember the horror, murders and lynchings of Reconstruction and beyond, and call it by its rightful names. Hatred. Terrorism. Cowardice. Evil. Thank you, Brooks Simpson

  2. Sandi Saunders November 19, 2015 / 10:26 am

    Excellent food for thought as always. I find it odd that the same people who called the poor and those in need of safety net help “leeches” and worse, are now screeching about “taking care of our own” before we let in any refugees we helped create. Interesting, but sad times in the chronicles of humanity.

  3. OhioGuy November 19, 2015 / 11:21 am

    The Confederate veterans most worthy of honor are those like Longstreet and Mosby who rejected the Lost Cause narrative (Longstreet was a traitor in that narrative).

    In terms of Wilson: It’s long overdue for the luster to be taken off this man, who too many academians have seen as some sort of visionary in large part because he was one of them. He was the most racist president from Andrew Johnson up to the present incumbent in both thought and deed. I’m not for tearing down statutes of him, but explanatory plagues, like the one at the Maryland Statehouse by the statue of Taney, would be appropriate.

    • Derek November 19, 2015 / 8:46 pm

      You can’t take all the luster off of Wilson. Yes, he was what he came from — a southern racist. He was also more progressive than TR and Taft (and got it done with Congress) and a visionary for world peace (albeit the white European world).

      • OhioGuy November 19, 2015 / 11:05 pm

        Wilson systematically removed as many African Americans as he could from the ranks of government employment, including from the Civil Service. He removed them not because they were Republicans, as most were, but because they were black. In some places you will see this incorrectly referred to as “re-segregation” of the Federal government; it was more accurately viewed as “Negro removal.” Also, IMHO, the effects of his “visionary” foreign policy are still felt in negative ways in Eastern Europen, but that’s another issue for another day.

        • Derek November 20, 2015 / 10:36 pm

          Actually I believe all of the black were removed from the Federal Government but this was the Democratic Party we are talking about. I do not believe there was any attempt by the next Republican administrations to rectify this injustice either. Nevertheless, Wilson’s administration implement the most progressive legislation in American history until FDR, help the Allies win WW I, try and moderate the French at Versailles, and set up the first international tribunal for peace which may have worked if the US had participated. These cannot be whitewashed away because he was a southern Democrat of his time. When it came to African-Americans, there was no political courage with Republicans either.

          • OhioGuy November 21, 2015 / 6:10 am

            “I do not believe there was any attempt by the next Republican administrations to rectify this injustice either.”. Some tried, especially Calvin Coolidge.

  4. Andy Hall November 19, 2015 / 11:58 am

    One of the things that’s been interesting to watch over the last few months is the way that the heritage crowd has largely ceded the field to various white nationalist groups, from the League of the South to the Klan itself, to take a leading role in promoting the “pro-Confederate” message, from Montgomery to Oxford to Stone Mountain.

    The heritage folks have always insisted that there’s a wide and distinct gulf between themselves and various “hate groups” who have sullied the honorable symbols of the Confederacy, etc., etc. It’s nonsense, and always has been. While much digital ink has been spilled lately on the published lists of purported Klan members that include names of Confederate heritage activists, that’s actually a distraction from hard, observable reality, which is that plenty of the heritage folks publicly embrace views and beliefs that are indistinguishable from those of the cross-burning crowd. For years they’ve ignored this rancid undercurrent of the heritage movement or, when confronted with it explicitly, found rhetorically-tortured ways to deny or rationalize it.

    They’re fooling no one but themselves.

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 19, 2015 / 12:27 pm

      Actually, over the last several months I’ve pondered whether white nationalist and white supremacist groups who openly espouse their agenda and sentiments use these faux heritage groups as cover … as a humorous and ridiculous distraction from what these other groups do and say. That Hathaway, for example, does absolutely nothing to distance herself from these groups is revealing.

      • Andy Hall November 19, 2015 / 12:40 pm

        Actually, over the last several months I’ve pondered whether white nationalist and white supremacist groups who openly espouse their agenda and sentiments use these faux heritage groups as cover. . . .

        Of course they do. A year ago, the League of the South was explicitly prohibiting Confederate Battle Flags at its rallies, and derisively mocking “rainbow Confederates.” Since last summer, though, they’ve found it convenient to align themselves with the heritage folks as a means of recruiting more members. Look up the video of LoS officer William Flowers’ comments at the rally in Montgomery — he’s very careful not to invoke Michael Hill’s repeated, explicit, and public statements about that organization’s views on “blacks, Hispanics, Jews, etc.”

        If the Confederate heritage crowd wants to make common cause with people like that — or let those people take a prominent role on “pro-Confederate” advocacy, fine. But they cannot then complain that they’re being unfairly associated with those peoples’ long-held and explicitly-stated beliefs.

        • OhioGuy November 19, 2015 / 1:18 pm

          Good points, as usual, Andy.

        • Rblee22468 November 19, 2015 / 2:01 pm

          You are both correct. This is a mutually beneficial relationship for both groups.

  5. James F. Epperson November 19, 2015 / 4:16 pm

    I don’t think Wilson deserves a pass, but I do think that plaques, etc., honoring Presidents and governors, etc., should remain, if only to remind us that it is possible to elect (or appoint, in the case of Princeton) men who are not as sterling as later generations might wish them to be. The key is that the full story, warts and all, should be openly acknowledged.

  6. Mark Snell November 19, 2015 / 8:15 pm


    A. Scott Berg, Wilson’s most recent biographer, claims that the president never made such a remark about _Birth of a Nation_: “Wilson almost certainly never said it. The encomium does not even appear in the unpublished memoirs of the self-serving Thomas Dixon.” (p. 349). What are your thoughts concerning Berg’s take on this episode?

    • Brooks D. Simpson November 19, 2015 / 10:09 pm

      Berg’s not the first biographer to make that claim (see John M. Cooper, Woodrow Wilson: A Biography [2009]), 272-73), but Wilson did screen the movie at the White House, and it was only later (after Dixon and Griffith had suggested that the screening indicated approval) that Wilson distanced himself from the film. So Berg’s account follows Cooper’s (closely, it seems), but Cooper shows much more awareness of context. Dixon and Wilson were friends from their days at Johns Hopkins. I’ll note that Dixon had nine years to deny the 1937 report before he died, so I set aside the “unpublished memoirs” discussion. Also see this discussion.

      • Mark Snell November 20, 2015 / 12:38 pm

        Thanks for the link. Those folks carried on quite a detailed discussion, replete with historiography.

      • Rob Baker November 26, 2015 / 7:48 am

        I was going to chime in on the same topic but I got sidetracked. Wilson’s press secretary first retracted any White House endorsement of the film 1915, a few months after the the screening. Wilson’s papers leave little to no indication of him ever endorsing the film and the majority of the endorsement quotes come from the filmmakers themselves.

        However, we need to remember that “Birth of a Nation” was groundbreaking. In cinema history it is considered groundbreaking in film-making technique. So much so that those same techniques were rendered obsolete before the end of the decade as many studios emulated and improved on it. Wide open scenes in documentary form – it helped people trust the movie industry as entertainment with its imagery and became the highest grossing film until Gone With the Wind. As I often tell other, “The movie is truly groundbreaking and inspiring at a cinematic level, but its use of stereotypes reminiscent of 19th century minstrel shows makes it racist as hell.”

        The point is that the film’s overwhelming popularity makes the issue of what Wilson said or did not say about it very complicated. Why would the writer and filmmaker ever retract a statement about Wilson’s supposed intention when they’ve got a winner on their hands?

        • Brooks D. Simpson November 26, 2015 / 10:20 am

          All of that concerning Wilson and the filmmakers is covered in the sources mentioned in the post and the comments.

  7. Rblee22468 November 19, 2015 / 9:22 pm

    Everyone is going to want to go read this thread.

    Wesley Sitton was involved with the last rally at Stone Mountain. He has ties to the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He worked in conjunction with the Klansmen who organized the last rally at Stone Mountain. Now they are organizing another one at Stone Mountain for 2016. The only difference is this one is “openly White power”. Interestingly enough, Steven Monk and Alechia Daniell Nation both clicked “going”. Looks like Wesley is having a change of heart. Pay close attention to the fact that he says he is ok with “White Power”, his only qualm is how this is going to make Confederate Heritage look. White Power is completely intertwined with Confederate Heritage, and no one in Confederate Heritage has a cross thing to say about the Nazis and Klansmen.

    These are the people Connie Chastain is making excuses for. Swastikas and Burning Crosses. Disgusting.

  8. bob carey November 21, 2015 / 6:49 am

    Lest we not forget the second most destructive act of terrorism on US soil was carried out by Neo nazi types in Oklahoma City.
    Although the heritage/secessionist groups (I see no reason to separate the two) are a fringe element of our society they should be watched closely. If Paris and the other attacks teach us anything it is that it doesn’t take alot of sophistication to kill alot of people in a short period of time.

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