Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“War of Northern Aggression,” Cont.

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 27, 2011

Recently I looked at the appearance of the phrase “War of Northern Aggression” in digitally-archived newspapers over the last 150 years, and noted that it seems to be clearly a modern term, one that first starts appearing in newspapers in the mid-1950s, often in conjunction with the Civil War Centennial or, more disturbingly, as part of the rhetoric wielded by segregationists against the federal courts:

So what happens when you search for “War of Northern Aggression” in books, as opposed to newspapers? You get exactly the same phenomenon:

Now obviously this doesn’t measure what people say, and opposed to what people write, but it’s pretty telling nonetheless — if the term had, in fact, been common parlance, it should have shown up in written accounts of one sort or another. But before the mid-1950s, it just doesn’t.

So how does that use of the term compare to its more familiar counterpart, the “War Between the States?” Like this:

Compared to “War Between the States,” the “War of Northern Aggression” barely registers at all. And note when “War Between the States” peaked — in the 1940s and 1950s, before leveling off since about 1970.

So what happens if we toss in two other terms, “American Civil War” and “Lincoln’s War,” how do they stack up?

By comparison, “Lincoln’s War” and “War of Northern Aggression” barely move the needle. In 2008, the last year for which data are available, the “American Civil War” showed up something like seven times more often than “War Between the States.” WBTS nets only a fraction of mentions now, than it did in the 1940s and 1950s. More interesting still, “War Between the States” barely registers, compared to “American Civil War,” until around the turn of the 20th century, as the old generation of veterans was passing on, and the next generation took on writing about the conflict. And “War Between the States” didn’t peak until virtually all the old soldiers were gone. You can run these summaries yourself here.

It’s quite fascinating to see how terminology has changed over time. We choose our words based on our perceptions, but then those words, in turn, change the perception of others and reshape our own views. What do you think these changes over time say about how we view the war, and present it to others? (Vague complaints about “political correctness” and “winners write the history” need not apply.)
H/t to Kevin for prompting the idea for this.

12 Responses

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  1. Vicki Betts said, on June 27, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Very interesting! I tried y’all, you’ens, and you guys. The results made me wonder whether the fact that most publishing houses are in the north makes any difference.

    But I’ve also not seen “War of Northern Aggression” in any period Southern source.

    Vicki Betts

    • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2011 at 6:44 pm

      “The results made me wonder whether the fact that most publishing houses are in the north makes any difference.”

      That could be a factor, although I would guess that the anticipated audience might be more critical than the location of the publisher. Yankees are blue and Confederates are gray, but money is green. 😉

      One thing I’d suggest is that the term “War Between the States” is a linguistic phenomenon that goes along with the Lost Cause orthodoxy, and that took a long time to gradually take hold. Need to think about it some more.

  2. Karl Gottschalk said, on June 28, 2011 at 6:21 am

    What do you make of the fact that according to these graphs none of these terms appeared to be used very much in the 1870s — not nearly as much as they were used later. Do you think that folks just didn’t talk as much about the civil war then as they did later? I find that unlikely. Or did they call it something else? Enquiring minds want to know.

  3. charlie Persinger said, on June 28, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    This is what the “United Daughters of the Confederacy” website had to say about the issue: but i guess thats to be expected.

    “Therefore, since the war was between two groups of states, the United States and the Confederate States — two separate nations — the most exact name for that great conflict of the 1860’s is “War Between the States.”

    “………….having its roots in such complex political, economic, social and psychological elements that it is difficult for historians to agree on all its basic causes. “

    • Andy Hall said, on June 28, 2011 at 2:21 pm

      The UDC did as much to reframe the conflict in the decades after the war as did the veteran’s organization, the United Confederate Veterans, and their follow-on group, the SCV. Arguably the UDC did more, as they got involved in public school textbooks and curriculum in a big, big way — exerting their chosen narrative in very much the same ways that “politically correct” historians are accused of by heritage groups today. Cou’n Katie, as she’s known in the family, probably did more to promote and preserve the Lost Cause in Texas than any other person, male or female, veteran or civilian:

      She served five terms as president of the Texas Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was third vice president general of the UDC, and was a life member of its executive board. In addition, she served as president of the Texas Woman’s Press Association (1908–09), state historian of the Daughters of the American Revolution (1909–10), state secretary to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (1909), and first vice president of the Texas State Historical Association (1912, 1913, 1914); she was a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, a charter member of Houston Pen Women, a board member of the Houston Public Library (1904–29) and of the Houston Board of Recreation (1922–29), and first president of the Houston Storyteller’s Club (1922–29).

      Miss Katie was twice appointed sponsor for Texas to the General Confederate reunions and in May 1913 was appointed sponsor for the South to the General Confederate Reunion held in Chattanooga, Tennessee-the highest social honor conferred upon a woman of the South. The Katie Daffan Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy at Denton was named in her honor. She was also secretary for life of Hood’s Texas Brigade, in which her father had served.

      Kevin also got into this a while back:

  4. Tim from Alabama said, on June 30, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Very interesting thoughts. It needs to be kept in context with the original framers intentions. They deliberately and somewhat dishonestly allowed the Constitution to stand with obvious inconsistencies for the sake of a successful vote to unify into one nation.

    Although the (U S) Constitution is the greatest document written by man, it allowed for slavery due in part to the greatest document ever written. Many religious leaders used the Bible as an excuse to justify sin while it clearly teaches against it. Much of which still goes on today, by the way.

    The love of money trumps common sense of course and is the root of all evil. The Civil War or War Between the States was about money and the power to make it in a society able to do so more than ever before. The north had it’s own form of worker exploitation of course. They just did not like being out done by the south since free labor gives such a tremendous advantage. There were abolitionists of course but they were in the minority. Some were actually John 3:3 Christians maybe.

    The Civil War was between the states. States with common self interests. The question is still today the same as then. Does the law allow a state to withdraw from the union of states without a proper vote required by law? If so it is the War Between the States. If not it is the Civil War.

    I believe Lincoln had a legal right to defend Washington. Did he have a legal right to invade Virginia? Maybe. Maybe not.

  5. Marc Ferguson said, on June 30, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    The War for Southern Independence, which some like, also appears to be primarily a 20th c. phenomenon, more a matter of memory than a term used during the war or shortly after. Though it does appear to have at least been introduced shortly after the war, and has the virtue of accurately adhering to the Lost Cause interpretation:

    • Andy Hall said, on June 30, 2011 at 4:57 pm

      Look at that spike in the 1920s — what would cause that sudden surge?

      Was that a term popularized by Birth of a Nation, maybe?

  6. Marc Ferguson said, on June 30, 2011 at 5:47 pm

    “Look at that spike in the 1920s — what would cause that sudden surge?”

    Yes, that is impressive. There was a significant conservative cultural backlash in the 1920s: Billy Sunday’s revivalism, the Scopes trial, a revival of the Klan (though that had begun to wane in the late 20), a significant spike in Nativism, and of course Mildred Rutherford (d. 1928), and the UDC, were active during these years and her efforts were perhaps bearing fruit.

  7. Tim from Alabama said, on July 1, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    It is my understanding many troops went to war and died in light of history regarding former British colonies and the right of self determination, equal representation and taxation etc.

    Lost Cause theory or any other label designed to apply inference of any kind would not change applicable goals and ideals of the American Revolution.

    The War for Southern Independence was the American Civil War which is also sometimes called the War Between the States. Civil War is fine for me but it was definitely a war for southern independence. If not then somebody started a cottage industry by writing a lot of books with a lot of laughable errors in them.

  8. Stephen Bolin said, on March 21, 2019 at 10:18 pm

    It is interesting. I wonder how long the Great War, and the War to End All Wars took to become World War I. I mean obviously after World War II, but would be an interesting comparison to this study.

    • Andy Hall said, on March 22, 2019 at 9:54 pm

      Good question. That conflict became “World War I” or the “First World War” immediately when the 1939-45 war began. See:

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