Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The War of Northern Aggression. . .?

The American Civil War is known by many different names to many different people. From the War Between the States, to the War of the Rebellion, to the War for Southern Independence, the four year-long contest sure spurred a lot of monikers. . .I've always just held to the most common by simply referring to it as The American Civil War. Not only is this the most common and the most widely-accepted, but it seems to me that it is also the least offensive. However, on more than one occassion, I have been approached by visitors to the Antietam Battlefield--and by no means were they all southerners--who suggested that I should instead refer to the conflict as The War of Northern Aggression. This, they tell me, is a more accurate title. Of course, most of the time this is suggested to me in a light-hearted manner, but sometimes I can tell that some folks are indeed being quite serious. In response to this, I typically just reply with the standard. . ."Well, the war is still causing a lot of disagreement 145 years later," or "Well, it seems like they couldn't agree on anything now, could they?" But to me, of all the names given to the war, The War of Northern Aggression is by far the least accurate since the war was, after all, triggered by the secession of the southern states, and since it was the southern states that fired the first shots. Plus, I've long held that the only true War of Northern Aggression took place in 1846-1848 in Mexico. . .There is little debate, however, on how it is we should label the Mexican War.


mannie said...

dang yankee!

lt. col d.b. youknowwho

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I believe it was Douglas Southall Freeman who opined that the most accurate name for the war would be "The War for Southern Independence."

For simplicity's sake, I also usually refer to the war as the "Civil War", as did General Lee. While "Civil War" may be the least offensive (Though I'm not quite sure what that has to do with anything), it is really not accurate, for all the reasons I'm sure you already know. I also frequently use the term favored by many Southerners: "The War Between the States," though that is also not the most accurate. I would tend to agree with Dr. Freeman.

Cory said...


An interesting post with several interesting subtexts.

First, I'm not sure that we, as students of history (some quite capable and others, such as myself, barely qualified to speak in mixed company), should be concerned about what is or is not "least offensive." Accuracy certainly should be the goal of any discussion.

That said, it must be stipulated that the first shots of the war were fired by Confederate arms. However, in their minds the action was action justified based on the supposition that secession was legal under the Constitution. If you recognize the veracity of that supposition, it could be held that an independent state was exercising its sovereign right to expel armed forces of a foreign power from a fortified position within a critical port. The action resulted in no combat deaths and the vanquished Northern troops were allowed to salute and lower their flag before evacuating Sumter with dignity. This was followed by a call from the President of the United States for volunteers to take up arms against the Southern states, clumsily resulting in the loss of four more members of the Union. What followed was an invasion of one sovereign nation by another which we know was temporarily rebuffed at Manassas.

Life is an exercise of consciousness from a single point of view. As one whose occupation and passions surround the celebration of the valor and bravery of men from Pennsylvania, it is not surprising to discover your perplexity at others' use of the term "War of Northern Aggression." Consider, in brief that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus to suppress all voices of dissent across regions with Southern sympathies. The Baltimore city council, mayor and other city leaders were imprisoned at Ft. McHenry in an attempt to hold Maryland hostage within the Union. How is it possible to be bewildered as to why northern aggression might have a place in the lexicon of some American historians?

From my own point of view, the most capable historians are those which dedicate themselves to attempting (alas, that is all that they may do) to assume the point of view of another; to see with different eyes and think with what we know otherwise to be the values and information others possessed at the time. I believe that Lincoln felt strongly in his duty to preserve the Union. He exercised powers afforded him by the Constitution (and alas, some that were not) to fight the war and preserve the Union. I believe many Southerners of this and previous generations would agree and to see the veracity of Lincoln’s actions. What I find astounding is that very often, the same willingness to observe the causes of the war from the Confederate perspective is not often evident. Even more troubling is a subtle condescension when trying to “understand” the Southern perspective (historical and modern).

Remember that the ties of fraternity, respect and reverence you feel for the 48th PA are matched in strength and sincerity by others' ties to the 1st NC or 6th NC, for example. As human beings, we are naturally pre-disposed to one side or the other of any contest. But as students of history, we must strive to understand the merits and baseless suppositions of both sides, lest the maxim be proven true, "History is written by the victors." Ironically, it often seems that the Northern population that fought and lived through the war were better at recognizing the merits and valor of their opponents than their descendants. If you doubt this, consider the case of the Confederate Monument in Arlington. Could one see it being debated, approved and built today?

Thanks for your post.

Cory Newby