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.
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