What Does ‘Antebellum’ Mean? — A Closer Look at the Controversial Word


Photo Credit: Ron Dauphin

The literal Latin definition of antebellum means ‘before the war,’ though its meaning in America goes far beyond that. In U.S. history, ‘antebellum’ is primarily used to refer to the period leading up to the American Civil War and has become a focal point for controversy.

The first use of the word  in America related to plantation architecture found in the Old South during the 1800s, and eventually assumed a broader reference to other cultural elements of the pre-Civil War South.

The word has taken on heightened importance this year, with Americans now focusing on its meaning and importance. Just recently, country group Lady Antebellum decided to change its name to ‘Lady A,’ based on the word’s negative connotations. But what does ‘Antebellum’ really mean and convey to Americans, and why is it so controversial?

Antebellum architecture is the plantation in the header image – a large house and trees draped in Spanish moss is a familiar design. Greek columned estates overlooking plantations and a stately manor is a stereotypical look associated with the antebellum South. It’s an aesthetic that began to define and romanticize this era of Southern history, especially in media like Gone With the Wind. But romanticizing the South’s antebellum period has drawn sharp rebuke for marginalizing an entire group’s struggle during the period.

Antebellum romanticization often portrays white plantation owners as noble landowners – effectively glorifying a painful period for black Americans. It marginalizes the enslavement of a people for more than 300 years, which was a cornerstone of the region’s economic strength during that period.

It’s especially controversial in the South, where the ‘Cult of the Lost Cause’ has been accused of attempting to rewrite history. According to historians, the Cult of the Lost Cause has its roots in the Southern search for justification and the need to find a substitute for victory in the Civil War.

The theory is that by attempting to deal with defeat, Southerners have created an image of the war as a great heroic epic. Fiction like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind further solidified this idea among many Southern whites. Glorifying the antebellum period in Southern history helped the defeated paint the Civil War as a clash between two civilizations — one honorable and one greedy.

It paints the North’s struggle as “materialistic, grasping for wealth and power.”  By contrast, the Southern position was one of the tragic heroes, “waging a noble but doomed struggle to preserve their superior civilization.” Effectively, the same people that fought to keep black Americans in chains and disguised it as a battle of state’s rights.

Lady Antebellum chose the name because it sounded Southern – but ended up changing it because it glorifies a painful period in our nation’s history.

The band chose the name after dressing in Civil War clothing as a nod to their Southern heritage. But now they feel that contributing to antebellum romanticization is problematic, to say the least.  Perhaps the difference in experience can be summed-up like this: while white women read Gone With the Wind and wonder what it would be like to be Scarlett O’Hara, black people read it and wonder how awful it would be to be Mammy.

Personally, I say all this as a person who grew up in the South and witnessed racism more often than not. It’s discouraging to hear so many Southerners say this ‘dishonors’ their heritage, to remove statues and flags of traitors to the United States. But it also dishonors our black American brothers and sisters to continue to honor the symbols of their oppression.

24 Responses

  1. Avatar
    Kehaulani Nelson

    Thank you for this column. I can’t find the words to say how that last sentence changed everything for me. Thank you!

    • Avatar
      Barry Patton

      Its American History you cannot change history you might not like it but its ours to own and learn from not destroy it like it never took place,

  2. Avatar
    Dude Mandinko

    I think the Democrat Party needs to change their name. After all it is a reminder that it was the Democrats that wanted to keep slavery, passed Jim Crow laws, formed the KKK, and continues to create race and class division. Quoting President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference…I’ll have them niggers voting Democratic for two hundred years.”

  3. Avatar
    Joe Friday

    95% of criminals shot by police were physically fighting with the officer. 70% of those shot by the police were armed with a gun.

    I say THANK YOU to all police officers. You put your lives on the line despite being treated like garbage by liberals.

      • Avatar
        Joe Friday

        FBI stats. Blacks are violent people, and all the asskissin in the world will not change that.

    • Avatar

      They get treated like garbage because they are garbage. This is coming from someone whose cousin was a police officer and he was suspended after an internal investigation revealed he and his cop buddies were on a text message chain being racists and arresting black people for fun.

      also, I put my life on the line everyday of my life everytime I walk through my door. Shootouts in walmart, movie theaters, universitys – everywhere.

  4. Avatar
    Joe Friday

    In the US, blacks commit 53% of murders of 54% of robberies (DOJ stats). 70% of black children have only one parent in their household, and a whopping 80% of black children are born out of wedlock.

    And the problem is the name of a country band? Good grief.

    • Avatar
      Retard E. Lee

      The stats you are citing prove systemic racism, you dumb Confederate cunt. How hard is it to understand when you lock up black men and tear their families apart, their communities become dysfunctional.

      • Avatar
        Robert Byrd

        Completely agree! We have to stop systemic racism by the Democratic Party. Democratic policies and Democratic run cities are the proof. We need school choice for inner city youth, stop replacing fathers with welfare checks, replace democratic policies for jailing “predators” as they call them. The systemic racism of the party of slavery and the KKK must be stopped!

      • Avatar
        Joe Friday

        Systemic racism (which does not exist) causes blacks to gangbang? Ha!

        You have drunk the Koolaid.

        • Avatar
          Robert Byrd

          Yes systemic Democratic racist policies contribute to the problem. That’s why most of the problems are in Democratic strongholds like Chicago and other inner-cities.

          • Avatar

            Yeah, no Conservative racist policies exist. Nothing to see there. Jeez

  5. Avatar

    Geronimo, Angelito, Al Jolson and whatever other names you use:
    You’re a sad, little person whose comments are consistently revealing about your weak character. You’re not worth anyone’s time. Enjoy chatting with your other online names. Bye, loser.

  6. Avatar

    Well, dang — I’m a little surprised at where the comments went on this article, so I’ll try to add something constructive.

    I think it’s entirely possible to look at a historic antebellum home or even a street full of them, magnolia trees and all, and think “wow, this is really beautiful” without marginalizing an entire people’s struggle.

    • Avatar
      Robert Byrd

      Sorry not anymore. It should be the way you describe, but now the left has taken over the conversation and even Rice Krispies and Coco Puffs are racist. Nobody ever thought this shit before, now everything is racist. People are sick. I wish we could go back to beautiful magnolia trees.

  7. Avatar

    Great article. Very informative overall and your last paragraph hit it on the nail.