What’s in a Name?

For well over a century individuals and organizations with strongly held convictions have rejected use of the term “Civil War” to designate the American conflict of 1861-1865. Most commonly offered as an alternative has been “War Between the States.” Lesser support has been voiced for the “Confederate War,” the “War for Southern Independence,” and the “War of the Rebellion.” Usually put forward by southerners with tongue in cheek have been the “War of [or Against] Northern Aggression” and “The Late Unpleasantness.”

During the course of the conflict no consensus developed around terminology. Yet, evidence can be found, even before Fort Sumter, for the use of the term “civil war.” Staunton, Virginia, newspapers in 1860 warned that the prevailing crisis “would lead directly and inevitably to disunion and civil war.” Raphael Semmes tendered his resignation from the U.S. Navy with the caution that “civil war is a terrible crucible.” Jefferson Davis, soon to be Confederate president, resigned his post in the U.S. Senate, warning that Abraham Lincoln’s policies would “inaugurate a civil war.” (After the war Davis did endorse use of “War Between the States.”)

Gen. Robert E. Lee in a January 1861 letter home wrote, “I see no cause of disunion, strife & civil war & I pray it may be averted.” Two years later, on the death of his daughter Annie, General Lee wrote, “I have always counted, if God should spare me a few days after this Civil War was ended, that I should have her with me.” Examples can be offered for use of the term during the war by other Confederate officers, among them P. G. T. Beauregard and Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Notwithstanding the fact that Lincoln at Gettysburg intoned, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” the term favored by many in the North during and for decades after the conflict was the “War of the Rebellion” or simply “The Rebellion.” Publication of the multivolume series of war documents under the title The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies conferred federal sanction on the usage. Among the first to use “War Between the States” (a term virtually unknown during the conflict) was Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens, whose book by that title appeared in 1866. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, veterans of the conflict divided over usage. Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston used “War Between the States” in the title of his 1874 memoir. Zebulon B. Vance, North Carolina’s wartime governor and champion, in public addresses in 1886 and 1889 referred to the “late civil war.”

The United Daughters of the Confederacy moved the argument to center stage at the close of the nineteenth century. Rejecting “Civil War Between the States,” a term favored by the United Confederate Veterans, the women of the UDC moved foursquare behind “War Between the States” and enacted a public campaign for its wide adoption. Mrs. L. E. Williams in 1917 succinctly expressed the rationale, writing that use of “Civil War” constituted a “complete surrender of the basic principle upon which the war was waged, the right of self-government.” The UDC membership was zealous in protecting southerners against what they viewed as northern propaganda, targeting particularly schoolrooms and textbooks.

Objection to the use of “Civil War” peaked in the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1913, at the behest of the UDC, a Georgia congressman introduced a resolution officially renaming the conflict the “War Between the States.” Referred to a committee, it never made it to the House floor. In 1914, proponents placed on the ballot in North Carolina a constitutional amendment to strike references to “insurrection or rebellion” in the 1868 constitution and substitute “War Between the States.” The proposal failed by a vote of 61,031 to 57,816.

Harper's Weekly - June 15, 1861
Harper's Weekly, June 15, 1861, using the term "civil war."
The appeal for southern orthodoxy encouraged by the UDC had results, though sometimes unintended. Sympathetic southern newspaper editors, eager to be compliant and to avoid a letter-writing campaign, instructed staff to alter wire service copy. The New Orleans Times-Picayune identified an aviator who flew against Franco as having participated in the Spanish War Between the States!

By 1961, and the observance of the war’s centennial, as Louisiana State University historian Gaines Foster has observed, “the memory of the conflict no longer touched southern lives in the way it once had.” Still, many former Confederate states chose to use “War Between the States” in naming their commemorative boards. In North Carolina, officials avoided that appellation by creating the Confederate Centennial Commission.

With the passage of time, the debate over terminology, once freighted with enormous ideological implications, has subsided and today Southerners generally accept the use of the term “Civil War.” Among modern-day professional historians there is no debate over whether to use the phrase. John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy examined the history of the “war between the names” in the January 2006 issue of North & South, writing that “students of the war also need a name that they can use not to provoke discussion, but merely to designate the subject of their study—a name that is a common currency.” He concluded, “That common currency is Civil War.”

Recognizing that the Tar Heel State demographically is much changed since 1961, organizers of the North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial—staff members of the Office of Archives and History and a panel of academic advisors—have endorsed a range of programs to appeal to diverse audiences. The themes of freedom, sacrifice, and memory are intended to encompass a wide scope of topics and points of view. We invite all with an interest in the Civil War to take part.

Harper's Weekly

Harper's Weekly - May 18, 1861

Harper's Weekly — May 18, 1861