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Confusion about the conflict

Originally broadcast on September 09, 1994 - No other war in American history goes by as many different names as does the Civil War.  In part 2 of our Civil War series, Virginia Tech history professor James Robertson explains why there is so much confusion about the conflict between North and South.


#2 – A Name for the War

No war in history had more titles attached to it than the American conflict of the 1860s. Today the seemingly endless procession of names only adds to the confusion in understanding that savage and sad bloodshed between North and South. Therefore, and at this early stage in our broadcasts, let’s examine some of the better-known titles as we search for the appropriate one to use hereafter.

The “War between the States” has long been a Southern favorite. Its highest popularity came in the Spanish-American War, when North and South joined together in a common cause. A large group of Virginians sought to get the term in widespread use as an act of conciliation. Southern congressmen made an aborted move to have “War between the States” designated as the official title.

Objections to the term are that it is too long; it is misleading on its implication that state rights was the major issue of the war; it is also inaccurate because two organized governments – not 34 independent states – were involved in the conflict of the 1860s.

The Northern counterpart to “War between the States” is “War of the Rebellion”. Many in the North considered the South’s actions in 1861 to be a rebellion. At the same time, large numbers of Southerners took a measure of pride in being termed “rebels”. (After all George Washington once wore that label.)

The term “War of the Rebellion” received permanence at the turn of the century by becoming the title of the most basic research tool on the war: 128 thick volumes issued by the War Department and with large lettering on the spine stating: War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

Historians strongly oppose the term. “War of the Rebellion” is not merely too long; it denigrates the struggle by calling it a rebellion rather than what it was: a full-blown contest between two distinct and organized factions.

A number of other names for the war have enjoyed brief periods of popularity.

The terms “War for Southern Independence” and “Second American Revolution” both came into being when Southerners beheld a parallel between their fight for freedom and that of the American colonists in the 1770s. “War of Secession” was the creation of a Maryland historian. That term, however, suggested secession as the principal cause of the war – and thus put the blame for hostilities solely on the South. The terms “War of Sections” and War of Separation” were but weak spinoffs of the short-lived “War of Secession”.

In some sections of the South today, the struggle of 130 years ago is known as “The War”. Sometimes it is simply called “It”. The oft-heard phrase, “Southern Defense against Northern Aggression”, has no more validity as a title than the equally nonsensical “Northern Attempt to Preserve the Constitution”.

A turn-of-the-century name, perhaps the most diplomatic and delightful, was the catchy phrase, “The Late Unpleasantness”.

And that brings us to the term “Civil War”. It is the most common name. Both sides used it during and after the war. Two objections can be made to it.

First, it implies rebellion, or resentment to legal authority. In fact, the Southern states were attempting to leave the Union, not destroy it. Second, the term “Civil War” usually gives the impression of a class struggle. The American war was far more than that.

On the other hand, and in its behalf, the term “Civil War” has the greatest preponderance of weight behind it. It is a term both sides accepted and used at the time. The war of the 1860s came within the definition of a civil war as expounded by the philosophers of that age. The struggle between North and South was truly a civil war in the areas of the upper south, notably Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri. Today, in view of the magnitude of that conflict and its impact on American life and government, it seems quibbling to argue over name terminology.

So this program will call it the “Civil War”. General Robert E. Lee would like that. “Civil War” was the term he always used.

Dr. James I. "Bud" Robertson, Jr., is a noted scholar on the American Civil War and Alumni Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Virginia Tech.