They had a name for their enemy: “Abolitionists”

I keep up on my current events, perhaps more than I should.  Somewhat a practice from my former and present avocations.  One item crossed my feed today, tagged “Civil War” and “Syria.”  The Christian Science Monitor ran a story earlier this week titled, “Syrian foreign minister: ‘There is no civil war’” with this quote:

“There is no civil war in Syria,” Mr. [Walid al-] Moallem said Monday. “But it is a war against terror that recognizes no values, nor justice, nor equality, and disregards any rights or laws.”

I’m not going to drag out (or entertain the dragging out) of a current event discussion here concerning Syria and Foreign Policy.  So let’s not go there.  Rather, lets go here –  consider the word choice.  Consider the phrasing and parsing of the topic.  Again, not the “rest of the story” who is who in Syria.  Rather who does the foreign minster want to frame the opposition as?


With all the baggage that word carries in the world audience.  Make no doubt, that word was chosen, with the elaboration phrase which followed, to pull on a certain set of strings.

Did we see similar framing during the Civil War?  Absolutely.  Look through the Official Records.  How many times to the Federals refer to “Confederates,” which I prefer as it sort of matches well in a neutral sense with “Federal.”   I’ve not done any exhaustive study, but figure “rebel” and “secessionist” are the most often seen alternatives.  “Rebel” references probably outnumber “Confederate.”  So what did that say about how the Federals wanted to frame the audience’s perception about the adversary?

On the other hand, Confederate references to “Federal” are there.  Some “northerner” or derivatives come through.  Though I suspect “Yankee” is not so common as we think, as even the Southerners realized not all from the north were Damn Yankees.  But one word stands out for study – “Abolitionists.”  Well “Abolitionists” or “Abolition” used to describe the military forces of the north.

Early war reports usually restricted the “A-word” to describing Abraham Lincoln or civilian leadership.  But by after the first year of the war, that term was applied to some leaders in the field.  For instance, Brigadier-General Thomas Jordon wrote on October 14, 1862: “There are indications that the Abolition commander at Port Royal may undertake some raid into the Third Military District.”  Where I guess Major-General David Hunter could be considered an “abolition commander” of sorts.

Of course, the use of “Abolition” increased with the Emancipation Proclamation.  A passage in a letter to South Carolina Governor M.L. Bonham, sent in January 1863, General P.G.T. Beauregard says, “Every fighting man in South Carolina and Georgia should be ready to spring to arms to encounter the invader, and these Abolition mercenaries should meet with such a reception as should make them rue forever the day the attempt was made.”  That’s laced with all the bromide of that current events citation above.

Also in January 1863, in report from an early action in the Vicksburg Campaign, Colonel William T. Withers, First Mississippi Light Artillery, notes “The Abolition general ([M. L.] Smith) was wounded in this skirmish and the enemy severely punished.”  Not a Yankee or Northern general, but an Abolition general!

How about Brigadier-General Fitzhugh Lee’s congratulatory order to his men after the Battle of Kelly’s Ford (March 17, 1863), proclaiming, “You have taught certain sneerers in our army that placing a Southern soldier on horseback does not convert him into a coward; and, last and not least, you have confirmed Abolition cavalry in their notions of running.”

Too numerous for me to count, Confederate reports mention “abolition fleets” off Charleston and other ports.  There are mention of “abolition batteries” along with “abolition hordes” and “abolition barbarians” with the occasional list of “abolition prisoners.”

So is it not apparent how the southern leaders wanted to frame their opposition?

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

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