Myths & Misunderstandings | The Name of the War

 

By John Coski
Historian

Misunderstanding- “Civil War” is not the proper term for the American War of 1861-1865

Even in our contentious times, Americans from opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon Line are capable of enjoying moments of levity over “the Late Unpleasantness,” “the War of Northern Aggression,” and other playful names for that war fought between 1861 and 1865.

In contrast, there is often a very serious tone to the contention that “War Between the States,” not “Civil War,” is the proper name for the War. According to WBTS partisans, “Civil War” is not accurate because it implies that the United States was a consolidated nation in 1861 (as opposed to a federation of sovereign states) and that the seceded states were fighting for control of that nation.

Those who insist that “Civil War” misrepresents the nature of the War and the Confederate cause confront the inconvenient truth that many Confederates used “civil war” (usually lower case) before, during, and after the War.

“I see no cause of disunion, strife, and civil war and pray it may be averted,” Robert E. Lee wrote to a friend on January 22, 1861. The following day he wrote to his family: “As far as I can judge by the papers, we are between a state of anarchy and civil war.” The day before he resigned his seat in the U.S. Senate in January 1861, Lee’s future commander-in-chief, Jefferson Davis, worried that Abraham Lincoln would pursue a policy that would “inaugurate a civil war….” Raphael Semmes, who, after the War, helped popularize “war between the states,” wrote in February 1861 as he prepared to resign from the U.S. Navy, that “Civil War is a terrible crucible through which to pass character.”

Two Southern men who believed passionately in the righteousness of the Confederate cause employed the term civil war as they offered advice about coping with Confederate defeat. “Civil war, such as you have just passed through, naturally engenders feelings of animosity, hatred, and revenge,” wrote Lt. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in his farewell address to his troops. “Civil wars, like private quarrels, are likely to repeat themselves, where the unsuccessful party has lost the contest only through accident or inadvertence,” concluded Richmond editor Edward A. Pollard in his 1866 book, The Lost Cause.

Those men seem to have had in mind an understanding of the term civil war like that found in the 1858 revised edition of Webster’s dictionary: “a war between the people of the same state or city; opposed to a foreign war.” In 1860-1861, except for constitutional theorists and ideologues, most Americans, even southern Americans, were accustomed to thinking of the United States as one country, at least in relation to the rest of the world. Civil War seemed an appropriate designation for a war fought within the borders of their country.

In contrast to the common use of civil war, the term War Between the States was virtually unknown during the war years. It appears only once in the Official Records, incidentally in a memorandum of a secret January 1865 meeting between Francis Blair and Jefferson Davis: “He [Blair] stated, in explanation of his position, that he, being a man of Southern blood, felt very desirous to see the war between the states terminated, and hoped by an interview with me [Jefferson Davis] to be able to effect something to that end.”

“War Between the States” was a postwar creation, used to put a favorable “spin” on the Confederate cause. In effect, the name sought to achieve after the fact what the Confederacy failed to win during the War: recognition as a separate nation.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy pursued a campaign to convince Confederate veterans (who were more cavalier in their usage), the press, and the U.S. Government to adopt “War Between the States” as the official name of the War. They succeeded largely among early-20th-century white southerners, but, contrary to a persistent urban legend, the U.S. Government did not adopt the name; it merely used “war between the states” incidentally in occasional resolutions. Even UDC leaders conceded that “[t]his action did not, of course, make the term official….”

“War Between the States” is, like “War of the Rebellion” (the name that appears on the Official Records) a name that offers a partisan judgment about the cause and course of the War. While such partisan names can be useful in discussing the War’s issues, we also need a simple handle to serve as a nonpartisan reference to the War. Even before 1861, that handle has been “civil war.”

Further Reading:

The “War Between the Names” article from which this is drawn is available as PDF via http://www.northsouthmag-sales.com/downloads/8-7/

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