Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“The War of Northern Aggression” as Modern, Segregationist Revisionism

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 21, 2011

On the Diane Rehm show I mentioned earlier, I was struck by an observation made by Chandra Manning, that the term she first learned in elementary school in Florida, “the War of Northern Aggression,” is itself a modern term, one that was not used in the 19th century:

I grew up all over the country on naval bases and the first place that I learned about the Civil War in a classroom was Jacksonville, Fla. And we said the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag each morning, but we then sang “Dixie” to the pictures of Lee and Stonewall Jackson on either side. And so my introduction to the study of the Civil War has an interesting cast to it.

You can’t pigeonhole me North or South and so I was taken by his noticing of that phrase, “War of Northern Aggression,” because when I was six, that’s how it was introduced to me. So imagine my surprise to learn that that’s a 20th century invention, that nobody called it that during the war itself. Northerners called it “The Rebellion,” Southerners, if they called it anything other than “this awful war,” called it the “Civil War.”

Is that true, that the phrase “War of Northern Aggression” is a modern term? It is:

Google News can be used to track the appearance of words and phrases in its archive of hundreds of thousands of pages of historic newspapers, going back through the 19th century and beyond. Not only is “the War of Northern Aggression” a term that was not widely used at the time of the war, it didn’t come into wide use for nearly a century after, from the mid-1950s on. In Google’s indexing, it appears exactly once during the conflict, describing the war, not as a proper name as it is commonly seen today. (The single example in the 19th century comes from an 1862 speech by Union General John Alexander McClernand, who cautioned Tennesseans that “you have been told, gentlemen, that this is a war of Northern aggression. I deny it. It is no war of aggression. It is a war of defence, of defence of our common Constitution and Union.”)

As a proper noun, “the War of Northern Aggression” doesn’t even date back to what may be termed the “golden years” of the Lost Cause, around the turn of the 20th century.

Other large newspaper databases return similar results. GenalogyBank (a subscription service), turns up the earliest reference to “the War of Northern Aggression” in a May 12, 1956 article (above) in the Augusta, Georgia, Chronicle (“S.C. Governor Suggests Negroes Evacuate South”), in which the phrase is set off in quotes, and the governor warns about Northerners “stirring racial strife in the South.”

The subscription service NewspaperArchive similarly dates the phrase “War of Northern Aggression” to no earlier than 1957:

Apart from the 1862 example mentioned earlier, the term “War of Northern Aggression” didn’t appear in the New York Times again until 1972.

While there may be other, scattered examples that predate the mid-1950s, it’s clear that the phrase “War of Northern Aggression,” used as a proper noun for the Civil War, only came into regular use in the last 50 years or so. It is not a term that was used during that conflict, or for nearly a century after.

So what, exactly, was happening in the United States at about that time? What was going on the mid-to-late 1950s and early 1960s that caused it to become a popular rhetorical device? Part of it seems to be the Civil War Centennial, but there was also Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Mansfield, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, lunch counter sit-ins, the Citizen’s Councils, the Freedom Riders and so on. There was lots going on, and even a quick perusal of early examples of its usage make clear that “the War of Northern Aggression,” as a proper noun, was routinely employed by Southern segregationists to draw parallels between the civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century and the conflict of a hundred years before, to enlist the memory of Confederate ancestors in opposition to federal court-mandated processes like the desegregation of public schools and integration of public facilities. The phrase “War of Northern Aggression” does not trace its origins to the cause of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis; it finds its champions with the likes of Orval Faubus and George Wallace.

The Southron Heritage™ movement rails continually about “revisionist” history and “presentism,” usually in reference to “politically correct” authors who put the issue of slavery at the center of the conflict. But they should keep in mind that revisionism cuts both ways. Most of the orthodoxy held as The Truth by such folks (secession was about states’ rights,  slavery would have gone away on its own, slavery was a benign institution, etc.) aren’t based on original, primary sources from the 1860s so much as they are from the voluminous Lost Cause literature from the 1890s onward, and (to a lesser degree) the Dunning School of historiography that followed it. The tenets of the Lost Cause itself are revisionist, departing from the words and deeds of Southerners during the war, to reshape and redefine the Confederacy and its legacy as something wholly pure and noble, and to deflect moral accountability onto others. It’s old revisionism, but revisionism nonetheless.

Even so, I’m surprised at how new the term “the War of Northern Aggression” actually is. Knowing its genesis, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to invoke it, or expect to be taken seriously when they do.


23 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Robert Cheeks said, on June 21, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    At the risk of not being taken seriously, which is always a choice, I’ve particularly appreciated the phrase simply because it is the best, most accurate, and shortest in which to address the ‘late unpleasantness.’
    Please keep in mind that it was invading Northern armies that so offended the gentle dispositions of our Southern neighbors. Had Pres. Lincoln not ordered the invasion of the legally seceding states there would not have been the slaughter of 600,000, the murder, rape, and pillage of civilians by Yankee bummers and so forth.
    There’s no way around it, “The War of Northern Aggression” works rather well, don’t you think?

    • Margaret Blough said, on June 21, 2011 at 8:48 pm

      No. In the first place, your argument starts with a false premise: that there was a legal right of secession. That argument had been rejected even before the Civil War by James Madison, both as President when New England federalists talked of secession and later during the Nullification Crisis. President Andrew Jackson also rejected the idea that there was such a right. Both presidents were prepared to use armed force to suppress any attempt at secession. Further, the Confederate government and rebel states initiated violent acts against federal property. Finally, Lincoln’s call for troops was pursuant to the Militia Act of 1795. The term Civil War which was used during the war and by the US Supreme Court in the Prize Cases (1862) upholding President Lincoln’s declaration of a blockade of ports in rebel hands.

  2. focusoninfinity said, on June 21, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    I believe much, or most, possibly all the legal and moral correctness; of the Southern states collectively, or just one individual state, seceding from the Union hinges on the legality of it? Within-the-four-corners of the founding documents; the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights (what other founding documents should be included?); is there a preferably explicit; or alternatively, a clearly implicit; provision for a state individually, or several states collectively, to succeed from the Union? That’s a question: can any one site such wording? What if a lone state seceding was land-locked, in the middle of the U.S.?

    Distant kinsman, Adm. (and Gen.) Raphael Semmes, CSN; if I remember correctly, wrote extensively why secession was correct legally. The Union spy on board the CSS Alabama, Asst. Paymaster Clarence Randolph Yonge was kin too. His brother, P. H. Bragg Yonge, served honorably as an engineer aboard the CSS Florida. I suspect post war, Clarence may have been in U.S. civil service under a different name in Canada. But I doubt for long, due to his impulsiveness?

    I have not been able to arrive at a clear legal decision, “Yea or Nay”, within-the-four-corners of the founding documents. Moral correctness is a different matter. Here perhaps I should recuse myself as I am a Yankee born, on Long Island. On the other hand, I have no Union ancestors, and do have seven Confederate service ancestors. I feel like an, “Illegitimate Son of the South”.

    Though simply deist now; more complicatedly I was reared Episcopalian, where the Bible passage about slaves should obey. and be loyal to their masters was quoted in church. That, and other pro-slavery sentiments, are external to me morally; in contrast, the clearly conflicting morality that flows-up from within me, SHOUTS,:”Slavery by a Man of another Man (or Woman), is simply wrong!”

    Thus the pro-slavery stance of the confederated South, to me; makes that confederation morally wrong. As before the confederation much of the South and some of the North maintained slavery LEGALLY; that aspect of the United States pre-secession, was just as wrong. Had the South’s declaration of freedom not been exclusive of slaves, and inclusive of all men; it would have more progressive than the North, then still chained to it’s loosening vestiges of slavery. General Robert Edward Lee, Sr., was our secular leader; had our free forefathers morally done as Lee had morally done (manumitted his slaves). Had our South stood against slavery, rather than by example for it; the South would not had that moral aspect of the war to fight. With no slaves; the South could have turned to the North and said truthfully: “Hypocrites!”

    “The War of Norther Aggression”, “The War of Southern Transgressions”, “The War of the Rebellion”, “The War Between the States”, or simply said: “The Civil War” (or “Un-Civil War”, for those that love that little ditty); they all speak to some partial truth. I think Carl Sanburg summed it up factually, accurately: Before the Civil War, it was the United States of America ARE. After the Civil War, the United States of America IS!

    However; when our free colonial forefathers declared their right to independence, and their right to unite; I don’t remember them quoting some specific clause in the Magma Charter. Their right to unite in a new form of confederated independence; they simply inherently possessed that right; even as that right took possession of them–in their heads, in their hearts; maybe even their souls. And in time, in their enslave, as well.

  3. Margaret Blough said, on June 22, 2011 at 12:04 am

    Thanks, Neil. You make excellent points yourself.

  4. Jeff Bell said, on June 22, 2011 at 12:33 am

    I think the term may have originated by people who were attempting to (correctly) explain the feelings of many of the common white folk who lived in the south during the Civil War and fought for the Confederacy. It was in the genes of these simple southern farmers to distrust the ruling class and they were easily persuaded to fight for what they saw as an intrusion by an un-feeling elite who had no right to tell them what to do – even if they didn’t do it. These were mainly descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants who came to colonial America in the 1700’s, settled the Appalachian Region and spread south and east in time. It was ingrained in their nature to distrust in a Governing ruling class (the British Monarchy) and instead trust strong tribal leaders that were concerned with their welfare. In the 1860’s they weren’t hard to convince that the U.S. Government was attempting to repeat the same cycle as the British had – and the Scots-Irish never bent a knee to the British or the Romans before them. The term may have been used at some point to heighten these beliefs – there is no history of it in the newspaper records but many of these people didn’t read it anyway. Many have confused the mindset of the Civil War southerner as being stupid or immoral when in fact it they were neither – they may have been the most stubborn people on the planet. And this term (War of Northern Agression) while (perhaps) being a modern invention, gives an insight to what motivated them.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 22, 2011 at 7:08 am

      I understand entirely why the term became popular. I just find it (1) amusing that the folks today who use it (at least in the online world) are continually carping about “revisionism” and “presentism,” while insisting themselves on using a term that’s of quite recent vintage, and (2) troublesome that it came into common use, in part, as a rhetorical/political device the defend Jim Crow laws across the South during the Civil Rights Movement.

      As with the Confederate Battle Flag, the phrase has a recent history and usage in modern times that is at least as problematic as its supposed representation of things 150 years ago.

    • corkingiron said, on June 22, 2011 at 9:00 am

      I’ve heard this explanation before in reference to the Scots and the Irish – but I don’t buy it. My country (Canada) has fairly accurately been described as a Scottish colony – and yet, from its Loyalist beginnings to Confederation, and continuing to the present day, one of Canada’s defining characteristics is a faith and a reliance on the central government. From health care to gun control, Canadians deliberately choose a strong central state. Our most significant internal uprising (Northwest Rebellion of 1885) doesn’t amount to a single day’s skirmishing during the Civil War.

      • jeff bell said, on June 22, 2011 at 12:35 pm

        You are talking about the “Scots” and “irish” in Canada which came from two different places – the Scots- Irish people to whom I am referring are a distinct ethnic group which evolved in the Scottish lowlands and then were relocated to the “Ulster Plantation” in Northern Ireland in the early 1600’s by the British. They are also referred to as “Border Scots”. While in Ireland they never assimilated with the Irish culture but stubbornly hung on to their own which was dominated by the ground-up approach of the presbyterian kirk. After the siege of Londonderry in 1689-90, many Scots-irish left en-mass for America and were relegated to the hinterlands and served as a buffer between the hostile tribes of Native-Americans and the established planter-class of the tidewater regions. They asked for no help from the established colonial government and surely recieved none – they trusted in strong local leaders (remember Braveheart?) and were extremely self-reliant. They also freely inter-mingled with other ethnic groups they encountered and were constantly migrating towards greener pastures and the personal freedom to do as they pleased. While many Scots and Irish migrated to Canada in later years, I doubt that very many of them were from this unique ethnic group.

  5. Ken Noe said, on June 22, 2011 at 8:58 am

    My earliest memories of this phrase involve Granny Clampett in “The Beverley Hillbillies.” Then other sitcoms picked it up when they wanted to show the Southerner as yokel. As a child in the Appalachian South I thought Granny was pretty funny, but now I think Hollywood was just making fun of us.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 22, 2011 at 9:04 am

      I probably first heard the term in a similar fashion. For the longest time, though, I assumed it was all tongue-in-cheek, good-natured, sort of self-deprecating humor. It wasn’t until much later that I realized lots of folks were entirely earnest about it, and what a loaded political term it was.

      • Ken Noe said, on June 22, 2011 at 10:02 am

        Your Google chart reinforces what I’ve always suspected. A few early outliers to the contrary, it was a Centennial-era joke played on the south by Hollywood. But humor often doesn’t translate over fifty years, and your “Southrons” certainly wouldn’t be the first group to adopt what was essentially a slur and make it their own.

        And now I’m reminded, no study of the Centennial will be complete until someone looks at how TV depicted it. Coming from the mountains I now have lots of problems with the Clampetts, but at the same time the episodes that dealt with celebrating the Centennial are pretty brilliant satire.

    • corkingiron said, on June 22, 2011 at 9:58 am

      Funny how we see things. My memory of the show – since the Clampett’s with their rustic dignity, generally came out on top – was that Hollywood was making fun of the modern sophisticates – and they used a recurring American mythos – the simple, honest agrarian – to do it.

  6. BorderRuffian said, on June 22, 2011 at 9:22 am

    The phrase “Northern aggression” appears often enough in Southern newspapers between 1861-1865 and I suggest that there is little difference in meaning **if any** between the two phrases.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 22, 2011 at 9:31 am

      Perhaps. But I’d sure think twice before tossing off a phrase like that, that seems to have been popularized and brought into the common lexicon in defense of segregation Jim Crow laws in the South. That’s my biggest concern about the embrace of the Confederate Battle Flag today, as well — less how it was used in the 1860s, than how it was was used in the 1960s. You cannot simply say, “it’s only about this, and not at all about that.”

      • Mike Musick said, on June 22, 2011 at 1:21 pm

        Shelby Foote, very much alive during the years of the civil rights struggle, enjoyed using “the Civil War” as the name for the conflict of 1861-65. He delighted in pointing out that he could cite scripture for its being genuinely Southern: it was the term preferred by Gen. R.E. Lee.

        • Andy Hall said, on June 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm

          Thanks. I’ve only recently snapped to the fact that he wrote his mammoth trilogy right through some of the most turbulent years of modern American history, 1954 through 1974. Civil rights movement, assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, sexual revolution, Vatican II, counterculture, rock and roll — all sorts of political and cultural upheaval.

      • Matt Dial said, on July 14, 2015 at 2:21 am

        For sure, that is true, but Klansmen rallied with the American Flag as well, and put crosses in people’s yards at night, and gathered around them in fields at their meetings. Does that mean that we should not apply that same reasoning to those items as well? “It’s only about this, and not at all about that.”? Of course it can’t simply be said, because there are varied interpretations of the symbolism based on the person seeing it. Doesn’t that then put the problem on the person interpreting it, and not the person displaying it?

        To be clear, my stance on the Confederate Battle Flag is that I have no problem at all with it being flown at any civil war memorial or cemetery. It is in remembrance of the subject/subjects who fought and died under it, for better or worse, for whatever reasons they personally fought. Its inclusion in some state flags, I feel, serve as a reminder of the nation’s complicated history, including its reunification. I do not feel, however, that it should be flown at any government building due to its connection to rebellion against the government, except when a part of the state’s flag. “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” The flag should remain to remind us all of how far we’ve come, not be hidden away and forgotten. I’ll leave this with a simple observation I’ve only recently begun to contemplate: Why is it not nicknamed the Racist Flag instead of the Rebel Flag…?

        • Andy Hall said, on July 14, 2015 at 9:27 am

          A lot of horrible stuff happened under the aegis of the U.S. flag, but (for better or worse) it remains the flag of this country. The Confederate flag has (and should have) no similar, official status.

  7. KarlGottschalk said, on June 24, 2011 at 6:01 am

    When I heard the term “war of northern aggression” as a kid in Mississippi, I never assumed that this term was used in the nineteenth century. I assumed rather that it accurately and concisely expressed the sentiments of those who were using it when I was a kid.

    By the way, I find it interesting that the guest on the Diane Rehm show stated that the only classroom where she heard about the Civil War was in Dixie. The problem today, it seems to me, is not so much the folks who have politically incorrect opinions about the Civil War — at least they care about history!– but the folks who can’t even tell you what century it took place in — not so much the folks who believe that Grant was a drunk and a butcher, but those who don’t even know who Grant was. However possibly misguided, the SCV and the folks who dress up like Confederate soldiers and southern belles are, at least they are interested in history.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 25, 2011 at 9:15 am

      No question the term accurately reflects the views of those who used it. What I find most interesting is that many of those who use it today are sharply critical of others who are supposedly “revisionist” or guitly of “presentism,” happily use a modern term for the war that their ancestors likely never knew. That’s pretty funny.

      I find it interesting that the guest on the Diane Rehm show stated that the only classroom where she heard about the Civil War was in Dixie.

      I believe you’re thinking of Chandra Manning, and what she said was that elementary school in Florida, when she was six, was the first place she heard of it (and with the “War of Northern Aggression” phrasing) — not the “only” place.

      I don’t buy the meme that Southerners are the only ones who care about their history. I *do* think it’s objectively true that some Southerners — almost invariably white Southerners — are resentful of any interpretation or perspective that is critical of the South of the Confederacy, and they tend to be loud about it. But that’s an ideology, not history.

      As for the general ignorance of kids and history, I agree — but that’s nothing new, nor is it the effect of some heavy-handed educational dogma from Northerners in the last fifty years. It’s been there since standardized test started a hundred years ago:

      Yet, according to recent papers by two researchers, it turns out Americans have been deeply ignorant of their history for a very long time, while still creating the strongest, if not the brightest, country in the world.

      A test administered in 1915 and 1916 to hundreds of high school and college students who were about to face World War I found that they did not know what happened in 1776 and confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis. A 1943 test showed that only a quarter of college students could name two contributions made by either Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln, leading historian Allan Nevins to fret that such a historically illiterate bunch might be a liability on the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

      And still, Americans won both wars, and many of the 1943 students who said the United States purchased Alaska from the Dutch and Hawaii from Norway were later lionized in books, movies and television as “the Greatest Generation.”

  8. KarlGottschalk said, on June 25, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Yes, some white southerners are resentful of views critical of the South and the Confederacy, just as some white northerners are resentful of views critical of the North and those who supported the Union I would say that that’s human nature. It seems to me that any interpretation (and even selection) of the facts of history can be seen as based on “ideology”. I am in favor of presenting the facts, presenting the different interpretations (ideologies) that have grown up around the facts, and then letting the student decide for herself what interpretation to embrace, based on her own values and upbringing.

    By the way, none of the kids I grew up with would have confused Thomas Jefferson with Jefferson Davis (whose retirement home, Beauvoir, was just a few towns down Highway 90 from us on the Mississippi Gulf Coast).

  9. focusoninfinity said, on June 25, 2011 at 1:36 pm

    My late great aunt Amoret (we both share James and Wootten blood), and more distant uncle of some sort, Willie (also of same James family but slightly different line; Amoret hated Willie); neither was married to the other; but both would SNAP the TV “OFF”, or at least change channels if a black appeared on it.* While my other branches of my other families did not display the overt hostility towards blacks; covertly most of them all seemed latently, to view blacks the same way. But with the younger generations, even though we were schooled before legal segregation ended; there was far less hostility, even mixed genuine receptiveness. So likely my seven Confederate ancestors ranged from hostile hatred to just distaste for the imposed new social and economic order. However from my readings, many of the Civil War era North, soldier and civilian; reflected similar attitudes towards blacks; even to the point of Northern race riots and lynchings in Baltimore and NYC. A big North/South difference I perceive via books; is that a black sympathizer in the North could more safely express it there; while that was a dangerous, perilous view in the South–even into the 1950’s. I’m simply astonished of how things are now. I’ve had some upper class blacks (physicians) tell me that while on the whole it is progress, desegregation has had retrogressive aspects too. One physician who filed civil rights suits in Wilmington, N.C., in the 1960’s; expressed to me that when the elite leadership class could leave the ghetto and did so, that left those in the ghetto without the examples intimately, daily amongst them in contact, as examples to follow. Both my parents (both born 1914) were neither ideologically liberals or conservatives; while they took no conspicuous public “stands”; I noticed quietly, they both treated blacks well (differently from their parents). I asked dad why was he that way; and he simply said (equal or not, did not matter), he believed in treating all people fairly.
    *Note: An odd irony just occurred to me; those black and white racial attitudes were in B&W TV days; with the advent of all “color” TV; such B&W minds, attitudes, had greatly diminished, if not ‘Gone With The Wind’, at least gone with those ‘B&W Airwaves’.

  10. Laqueesha said, on July 15, 2015 at 1:48 am

    Intersting. A lot of the Neo-Confeds and Lost Causer types these days seem to prefer “War of Confederate Independence” or the biggest knee-slapper, the “Second Revolution”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: