You are here

Antebellum – The Fortnightly Word

I enjoy discovering and understanding words almost as much as I enjoy history. Every couple of weeks or so, we’ll pause to explore a particular word or phrase. Sometimes it’ll be one we come across on a daily basis, other times it might be something rarely spoken whose meaning is nearly lost to us.

The Word This Week is: “Antebellum”

Sure, we all know the word, but where did it come from? How was it first used? And did it always describe the era prior to the American Civil War? In this piece, we’ll take a look at “Antebellum,” from his humble beginnings, through its ascension and usurpation by American History, and finally to its possible waning.

Antebellum plantation. Greene County, Georgia. Photographed by Dorothea Lange, July 1937.
Antebellum plantation. Greene County, Georgia. Photographed by Dorothea Lange, July 1937.


The word “antebellum” is actually a phrase. Originally two words, they came from Latin. “Ante bellum” literally means “before the war.”

Ante, the prefix, meaning “before,” can be seen in other modern English words such as “Antennae,” “Antepenultimate,” and “Antecedent.” Even the word “Ancient” is derived from “Ante,” for obvious reasons. 1Here‘s a lovely little page all about Ante.

As for Bellum, meaning “war,” it’s actually a touch older. Bellum descended from the Ancient Greek Dúē (δύη), meaning “pain” or “misery,” from Duellona, the goddess of war. The Ancient Greeks referred to war as duellum, which slid into bellum the same way the word duonos slowly became bonus around the same time. Latin picked up on the bellum, and fully incorporated it.

We can still see bellum in modern English. Words like “belligerant” and “belliger,” are obvious in their parentage. The star Bellatrix, in Orion’s left shoulder is Latin for female warrior. This shouldn’t be confused with other words, such as “Belledonna” or “Belle” (as in Southern Belle), meaning beautiful. That particular “bella” comes from Medieval Latin’s “Bladona” (or possibly Proto-Celtic’s “Blatus,” meaning flower). 2Though I used several online dictionaries and sources, Wiktionary is probably the most thorough. Here.

Descendants of former slaves on the Pettway Plantation. Gees Bend, Alabama. Photographed by Arthur Rothstein, April 1937.
Descendants of former slaves on the Pettway Plantation. Gees Bend, Alabama. Photographed by Arthur Rothstein, April 1937.

Antebelum Uses of “Antebellum”

In modern times, antebellum has but one meaning – the era prior to our Civil War. However, looking through old books and newspapers, we can find uses of the term “ante-bellum” all throughout the era it was seemingly describing.

Since it was impossible to know that you were living in the Antebellum Period during the Antebellum Period (as nobody knew of the bellum to come), what were they talking about?

“Ante-bellum” was almost always tied in with the longer Latin phrase status quo ante bellum. Typically this was used to describe that things returned to normal following a war.

From Bayreuther Zeitung, published in Germany in 1795.
From Bayreuther Zeitung, published in Germany in 1795.

The earliest American use that I can find is from a Maryland newspaper printed in September 1795. It told of the hopes that the ongoing war between England and France would soon be settled. “We are momentarily in expectation of intelligence of a peace being concluded between the empire and the French republic,” read the copy. “The treaty is said to be founded on the basis of the status quo ante bellum.” 3The Maryland Gazette; Annapolis, Maryland; Thu, Sep 10, 1795 – Page 1. Here. This particular war in particular wouldn’t fizzle out until 1802. It was not settled status quo ante bellum.

In America’s own history, there are some writings from 1814 and 1815 desribing the desire to return to the “status ante bellum” with the Treaty of Ghent following the War of 1812. 4See The Raleigh Minerva; Raleigh, North Carolina; Fri, Dec 16, 1814 – Page 1 (here) and The Wilmington Gazette; Wilmington, North Carolina; Thu, Feb 16, 1815 – Page 3 (here).

The same cannot be said for the Mexican-American War – at least officially. Some anti-war protesters demanded that the war be halted and for things to go back to how they were. “For the present,” wrote one pamphleteer, “nothing more is strictly required than to adopt the principle of status ante bellum, or, in other words, to evacuate the Mexican territory….” 5As quoted in State Indiana Sentinel; Indianapolis, Indiana; Thu, Dec 23, 1847 – Page 1. Here.

Bellum Uses of “Ante Bellum”

The use of “ante bellum” during the Civil War was sparse. In the early days of the war, the United States demanded that the states in rebellion return to the fold.

The New York Tribune urged the South to do just that in a summer 1861 issue. “The rebellion having been commenced under false pretences, no truce or treaty can in honor be proposed by the Government to the insurgents, until they restore the status quote ante bellum.” 6As quoted in The Liberator; Boston, Massachusetts; Fri, Aug 30, 1861 – Page 4. Here. I cannot find the exact issue or the Tribune, as the collection seems to be held by the New York Public Library and is unavailable to me.

Those who wished to frame the Civil War as a war to return to the status quote ante bellum often did so to cast it in terms more palatable to the prejudices of the times. For instance, when General John Fremont issued an emancipation proclamation in Missouri, September of 1861, he confirmed the worst fears of many Southern Unionists. Rev. Olmstead, a Baptist minister from Booneville, Missouri, wrote that because of Fremont’s proclamation, hordes would flock to the Confederate ranks. “Such are the first fruits in Missouri of the false step of Fremont towards making the war one of emancipation,” wrote Rev. Olmstead, “instead of a war to restore status quote ante bellum – the same condition as existed before hostilities broke out.” 7Fayetteville Semi-Weekly Observer; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Thu, Oct 17, 1861 – Page 3. Here.

As the war went on, any hope that the states would return to the status ante bellum was extinguished. This was spelled out explicitly in a letter to the New York Times in August of 1863. Writing under the nom de plume of “Union,” the author was adamant. “In regard to the reestablishment in these states… of the precise social and political conditions which existed ante bellum, – it can’t be done. … The whole social and political organism that existed before the war… has been changed.” 8The New York Times; New York, New York; Tue, Aug 25, 1863 – Page 4. Here.

Ex-slave and wife on steps of plantation house now in decay. Greene County, Georgia.  Photographed by Dorothea Lange, July 1937.
Ex-slave and wife on steps of plantation house now in decay. Greene County, Georgia. Photographed by Dorothea Lange, July 1937.

Post-Bellum uses of “Antebellum”

The post-war use of the term “ante bellum” to refer to the period of time before the war happened almost immediately. In fact, hardly a fortnight after Lee surrendered, writers had already coined the phrase “the old ante bellum days.” 9The Times-Democrat; New Orleans, Louisiana; Thu, Apr 27, 1865 – Page 3. Here. The summer of that same year saw a return of “many who had lived in New Orleans in good old ante-bellum times….” 10The Times-Democrat; New Orleans, Louisiana; Wed, Jul 26, 1865 – Page 4. Here.

In 1868, the term was cemented by novelist Mary Louise Cook. Writing as Mary Lennox, she penned Ante Bellum: Southern Life As It Was. This book was one of the earliest post-war works of fiction to propagate the Lost Cause mythology. Through the eyes of a plantation mistress, Cook told the story of daily life, writing vignets to support her notion. It was the plantation mistress, she claimed, who had to “civilize these barbarians,” leaving herself “little time for literary pursuits.” Without the Southern planter’s wife, “the whole establishment will be in constant turmoil and confusion.” 11Mary Lennox, Ante Bellum: Southern Life As It Was (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1868) 307. The entire novel can be read here.

“Southern life as it was” became the de facto definition for “ante bellum.” From this point onward, almost all references to the term concerned the pre-Civil War period.

Ante Bellum to Antebellum

Today, we use the single word “antebellum” when referring to the pre-Civil War era. As has been shown, this was not always so. Prior to the Civil War, especially when referring to the status quo ante bellum, the words were always two separate words. Following the war, when it began to refer to a specific era, the words became hyphenated as “ante-bellum.” More often than not, it lost the italics given to foreign words. This noted that the phrase had fully entered the American English lexicon.

The first uses of the single word, “antebellum,” started to crop up in the early 1880s. It’s possible that it was a mistake in type setting or simply a misunderstanding by the author that it was supposed to be a hyphenated word.

The hyphen reigned in the majority through the early 1900s, with the single word becoming its equal in the 1920s. By that point, it seems that they could be used almost interchangeably. By the time of the centennial celebrations, 1961-1965, this was still the case. It really wasn’t until the late 1970s when the single word almost completely replaced the hyphenated word. 12This quick analysis was conducted by doing various searches in Google Books and I did the survey twice for both and generally came up with the same results. It might seem like a silly exercise, but it’s quite a bit of fun and easy to get sidetracked in various rabbit holes.

By the time other wars came about, its American definition had already been solidified. There is no Antebellum Period for the Spanish American War or World War II.

As language and our study of history evolves, it might even be that the Antebellum Period is renamed or fully divided up into smaller eras. Already, its use by historians seems to be waning. 13For example, Wikipedia has no listing at all for Antebellum United States, it redirects to “History of the United States (1789-1849). Link. Most of the books referencing the Antebellum Era published in the past decade or so are concerned more with literature than with straight up history. 14This was learned after a long search of Google Books, as well as Amazon. I sort of stumbled onto this unexpectedly.

Slave Market, artist unknown. c1850-1860.
Slave Market, artist unknown. c1850-1860.


The word “Antebellum,” is both old and new. Its Latin and Ancient Greek roots plant its origin a couple thousand years in the past. While the original, nonspecific, definition is still valid, its connotation is almost exclusive to American History. It’s likely because of this exclusivity that we first hyphenated the word and then simply smooshed the two words together into one: Antebellum.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.