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What Is the War of Northern Aggression?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

The War of Northern Aggression is one of the alternate names for the military conflict that took place in the United States between 1861-1865. The generally accepted term for this conflict is the Civil War, and this is the term that is most commonly found in textbooks and other references. Some people continue to refer to this conflict as the War of Northern Aggression, however, and the disputes over naming the Civil War reveal lingering resentments and a variety of cultural attitudes.

The conflict began when several Southern states seceded from the United States, known as the Union, and formed the Confederate States, known as the Confederacy. The secession was provoked by the election of President Abraham Lincoln, a known opponent of slavery, although a number of other factors were involved as well. Rather than allowing the Southern states to separate peacefully, the Union fought to force the Confederacy to rejoin the Union, and was eventually successful.

In war, the victors tend to name the conflict, as well as telling most of the stories. In the immediate wake of the war, many Northerners referred to the conflict with names referencing slavery and the union, such as the "War of Insurrection" and the "Slaveholder's War." Southerners, embittered by what they felt was interference, used terms like the "War of Secession" and "Mr. Lincoln's War." Some people stuck with more neutral phrasing such as the "War of 1861 to 1865." Eventually, people settled on "the Civil War" as a term for the conflict.

Terms like the "War of Northern Aggression" and the "War Between the States" are in use by some residents of the South. They reflect a certain amount of Southern pride, as well as beliefs about why the war was fought, placing the blame for the events on the North and its refusal to allow the Confederacy to secede and form its own government. Some critics have suggested that people who use terms like the "War of Northern Aggression" are romanticizing the events of the Civil War and the antebellum South.

Since the North's version of events tends to dominate textbooks and references about the Civil War, the insistence on referring to the conflict as the War of Northern Aggression could be considered a subtle form of rebellion on the part of some Southerners. Historians have written extensively about the conflict from a number of perspectives, using a variety of terms to refer to it. The diverse stories that have emerged illustrate that it can be difficult to report with neutrality on a conflict.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By amypollick — On Jul 05, 2015

@anon991615: It passed through both houses of Congress, true, but was never fully ratified by the required number of states. In fact, it was submitted for ratification as late as 1963 (yes, 1963).

In any event, many Constitutional scholars are of the opinion that the 13th-15th amendments would not have been permissible had the Corwin amendment been fully ratified.

As with any amendment, had the Corwin amendment actually been ratified, it could have been repealed at any time by Congress without fighting. I refer you to the 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition in the U.S. in 1920, and the 21st Amendment, which repealed the amendment in 1920. No war necessary.

Had slavery been outlawed at the same time as indentured servitude, it could indeed have been eliminated without a war.

By anon991615 — On Jul 04, 2015

The Corwin amendment passed in 1861 and in the process of ratification protected the institution of slavery by Constitutional amendment.

The only thing at that time that could destroy slavery in the South was going to war.

By Wisedly33 — On Mar 27, 2014

I always thought the term "The War of Northern Aggression" was amusing, more than anything. I'm a Southerner, so I can speak with some authority on the subject.

Like it or not, scream States' Rights or not, the crux of the conflict always comes back to slavery. The problem was that those in Congress were the principal slaveholders. The average Southerner sired children to work the land; they were cheaper than slaves. Fewer than 5 percent of all Southerners owned slaves, and fewer than 2 percent lived on plantations. That's verifiable. Look it up. None of my ancestors that I can find ever owned slaves. They were all dirt farmers, coal miners and itinerant preachers. They couldn't have afforded to buy a slave if they had wanted one.

The average Southerner was fighting for their land, which was the one thing they could be said to own outright. The planters were fighting for slavery, though, and they were the ones who pushed for the fight.

Slavery was a heinous institution and a terrible page in American history. But lest the Northern folks grow too proud, let them remember the first slave ships flew the American flag. Let them also remember the extreme prejudice against the Irish and the Jews, the tenement slums and the factories where children were chained to machines. Child labor laws were passed because of the working conditions in the North, not in the South. We all bear a portion of blame in ugly things done in this country. No one's hands are clean.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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