MHQ Reader Comments: Origin of the Word “Deadline”

MHQ Comments
Autumn 2009

Please send comments, which may be edited for length and clarity, with name and address to MHQeditor@weiderhistory.com.

First off, I want to say how much I enjoy the “Fighting Words” column in your magazine. Knowing the origins of words and phrases is fascinating and does provide much insight, understanding, and even humor when reading period works.

In the Summer 2009 issue’s “Fighting Words,” author Christine Ammer wrote that the “first written record of the word [deadline] appeared in an 1864 report by Col. D. T. Chandler.” While Col. Chandler did describe the deadline in his August 5, 1864, inspection report concerning the Andersonville prison, an earlier inspection report by Confederate captain Walter Bowie to Brig. Gen. R. H. Chilton, inspector general, dated May 10, 1864, also used the term to describe the line over which prisoners were forbidden to go. In it, Bowie wrote: “On the inside of the stockade and twenty feet from it there is a dead-line established, over which no prisoner is allowed to go, day or night, under penalty of being shot.” (The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series 2, Volume 7, page 137.) This would predate Chandler’s re­port by a few months.

As an aside, it may be very well true that the term “deadline” was coined at Andersonville, but I think there is sufficient proof that the term “deadline” was perhaps more universal. The term “deadline” was used at the Union prison at Rock Island, Ill., by at least October 1864. (Official Re­cords, Series 2, Vol. 7, page 1039). There is also evidence that Camp Oglethorpe, a Confederate prison camp in Macon, Georgia, may have used the term as early as June 1864 when Col. George C. Gibbs commanded the camp, before being assigned to Andersonville that October. (Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 8, page 765). I think there is no doubt, however, that the term “deadline” became a more known one because of its association with Andersonville.

—David A. Kelly Jr., Associate Professor, Naval War College

3 Responses

  1. Origin of the “Deadline” | Steph's Random Facts

    […] David A. Kelly Jr., an associate professor at the Naval War College, points to an even earlier writing of the term in an inspection report on Andersonville from Confederate Captain Walter Bowie on May 10, 1864: On the inside of the stockade and twenty feet from it there is a dead-line established, over which no prisoner is allowed to go, day or night, under penalty of being shot. […]

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