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The Civil War – A Conflict By Any Other Name

The American Civil War, like many of its battles, has a multitude of names. Were these all simply different ways to say the same thing? Or were there ideologies behind them? Was the difference between “War of the Rebellion” and “War Between the States” basically the same as the difference between “Bull Run” and “Manassas”? Let’s take a look at three of the most popular names, as well as the history and purports behind them, who they offended and why.


The American Civil War
We’ll start with the Civil War itself. Civil wars were hardly new ideas. Prior to the 1860s, when someone mentioned a civil war, it’s likely that they were speaking about the English Civil War, which took place during the 1600s, fought to determine which form of government England would have – parliamentary or royal. Essentially, there were two parties, each wanting to rule one state.

This was not the case in the American Civil War. Some, such as neo-Confederate authors James and Walter Kennedy, use this definition to prove that “Yankee myth-makers” call it the Civil War “to create and to maintain a guilt-ridden Southern people and to justify Northern aggression, conquest, and oppression of the Southern people.” In their book The South Was Right! they argue that the “truth is that the war was not a civil war because there were not two factions attempting to gain control of the government.” Calling it such “relieves the aggressor [the United States] of the necessity for explaining why he used cruel and barbaric measures in his invasion and conquest of a free people.” 1James Ronald Kennedy, Walter Donald Kennedy The South Was Right! (Pelican Press, 1991) 43-44.

The English civil war fits neatly within their definition. But was their definition complete and universal? When it came to all things of international legalistics, from the mid-1700s to the outbreak of the war, those who studied political theory looked to The Law of Nations for guidance. Whether they were writing constitutions, drafting treaties or trying to suss out the spoils of war, Swiss political philosopher, Emer de Vattel’s masterpiece was where they would turn. 2For more information about The Law of Nations and how it pertained to the Civil War, try this post.

Emer de Vattel!
Emer de Vattel!

De Vattel defined a civil war in two ways:
“When a party is formed in a state, who no longer obey the sovereign, and are possessed of sufficient strength to oppose him, – or when, in a republic, the nation is divided into two opposite factions, and both sides take up arms, – this is called a civil war. […]

“Custom appropriates the term of ‘civil war’ to every war between the members of one and the same political society. If it be between part of the citizens on the one side, and the sovereign with those who continue in obedience to him on the other, – provided the malcontents have any reason for taking up arms, nothing more is required to entitle such disturbance to the name of civil war, and not that of rebellion.” 3Emer de Vattle The Law of Nations (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1797) 424. This is from the second edition. The first was written in 1758.

By de Vattel’s definition, the war was certainly a civil war. While Kennedy brothers’ definition of two sides fighting for the same head is within the Law of Nations, they are mistaken in believing that they held the only definition.

For it to be a civil war, the desired outcome seems not to matter. Whether the citizens (in this case, the South) wish to form their own nation or take over the existing one, has no bearing on the matter. The mere fact that they no longer view of original state as their authority and make war against it is all that it takes for it to fall under the definition of civil war.

In an interesting early use in the United States, when Congress was debating the abolition of slavery in 1790, Thomas Tucker of South Carolina had this to say: “Do these men expect a general emancipation of slaves by law? This would never be submitted to by the Southern States without a civil war.” 4Friday, February 12 [1790], Slave Trade in Annals of the Congress of the United States, Volume 1 (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1834) 1239. Clearly Thomas was under the impression that such a conflict would indeed be a civil war.

During the build up toward the war, the term “civil war” was again used now and then to denote the coming strife. In John Beauchamp Jones’ strange cautionary 1859 novel Border War: A Tale of Disunion, he devotes an entire chapter to “The Horrors of Civil War,” where “in the North, the Republicans demanded the utter subjugation of the Southern people, and an unconditional entranchisement of the slaves.” 5John Beauchamp Jones Border War: A Tale of Disunion (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1859) 44.


The next year, President James Buchanan spoke of Kansas and how he had to “exert the whole constitutional power of the Executive to prevent the flames of civil war from again raging in Kansas.” He mentioned how he “removed the danger of civil war” and how the the Union could “never be cemented by the blood of its citizens shed in civil war.” 6James Buchanan Message from the President of the United States… (Washington: George W. Bowman, 1860) 12, 21, 22.

North Carolina congressman, Lawrence O’Bryan Branch, called it such in his 1860 “Minority Report” given to Congress. “The Union cannot be preserved by civil war,” he wrote, and referred to “the barbarities and monstrous horrors of civil war.” 7“Reports of the Select Committee of Five” (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1861) 5, 12. Northern preachers, both in favor of secession and against it, referred to the conflict as a “civil war.” 8See Fast Day Sermons on the State of the Country (New York: Rudd & Carleton, 1861), especially pages 169, 173, 246, 303. Even Englishmen such as Sir William Howard Russell and John Lothrop Motley referred to the coming conflict as a “civil war.” 9Sir William Howard Russell The Civil War in America (London: Trubner & Co, 1861). John Lothrop Motley The Causes of the American Civil War: A Letter to the London Times (New York: James G. Gregory, 1861).

That this term was adopted just makes sense. Not only did it describe the type of conflict it was, but it had been in use years before. This was not, as the Kennedy brothers insist, part of a greater conspiracy, the “Yankee Myth of History.”


The War Between the States
While the term “civil war” seems to have been more or less accepted by both North and South prior to the war, it was the South that embraced the title of “War Between the States.” This mouthful was actually coined (or at least made popular) by the Confederacy’s own Vice President Alexander Stephens, who used the term as part of the title for his 1868 book A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States. He argues that it was “neither rebellion nor civil war, but war between the states.” The war, he stressed “was a war between States regularly organized into two separate Federal Republics.10Alexander Stephens A Constitutional View of the Late War Between the States, Vol. 2 (National Publishing Company, 1868) 425-426, also 361-362 if you want to read Stephens’ opinion about whether or not the United States was a Federal Republic. That Stephens took this stance is understandable – he placed states rights far above the Federal. Seeing all parties involved as being states first and nations second reinforces his position.

This term and philosophy were taken up by Confederate Navy legend Raphael Semmes, and nearly a decade later by Confederate General Joe Johnston. 11Raphael Semmes My Adventures Afloat (London: Richard Bentley, 1869) Curiously, Semmes discusses The Law of Nations on page 376, arguing that it was, in fact, a civil war and not a rebellion. 12Joseph Eggleston Johnston Narrative of Military Operations, Directed, During the Late War Between the States (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1874. It’s used by Walter Taylor in 1878’s Four Years with General Lee as well as by Alfred Roman in his 1884 biography of General P.G.T. Beauregard. 13Walter Herron Taylor Four Years with General Lee: Being a summary of the More Important Events Touching the Career of General Robert E. Lee, in the War Between the States (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1878). 14Alfred Roman The Military Operations of General Beauregard in the War Between the States (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1884). He too uses the Law of Nations to argue that it was actually a civil war on part 485 of Volume II.

Alexander Stephens and his utter frustration with everything ever.
Alexander Stephens displays his utter frustration with everything ever.

Additionally, the term is used in Southern text books from the 1880s as well as Southern memorial volumes. 15See John Wheeler Moore School History of North Carolina: From 1584 to the Present Time (Alfred Williams & Co, 1882). A chapter is entitled “The War Between the States,” but the term “civil war” is used as well. 16Charles D. Walker Memorial, Virginia Military Institute; Biographical Sketches of the Graduates and Eleves of the Virginia Military Institute Who Fell During the War Between the States (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co, 1875. In histories of the Southern regiments, it was used, as well as books focusing on Southern religion. 17Thomas A. Head Campaigns and Battles of the Sixteenth Regiment, Tennessee Volunteers, in the War Between the States (Nashville: Cumberland Presbyterian Publishing House, 1885). The term “civil war” is again used throughout. 18John William Jones Christ in Camp: Or Religion in Lee’s Army (Richmond: B.F. Johnson & Co., 1887) 20, 121. Jones makes no mention of “civil war.”

It is clear that the title “The War Between the States” was exclusively Southern, and used in the decades following the war. Curiously, like the term “civil war,” it has an even earlier origin. The notion might have first been used by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist No. 6: Concerning Dangers from War Between the States, and also in discussing such a war as this “in case of disunion.”

“War between the states,” he wrote, “in the first periods of their separate existence, would be accompanied with much greater distresses than it commonly is in those countries where regular military establishments have long obtained.” 19Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 6: “Concerning Dangers from War Between the States,” in The Federalist (Philadelphia: Benjamin Warner, 1817) 27, 39. The latter page as well as the quote is from Federalist No. 8.

This idea, no doubt based upon reading Hamilton, was mentioned by French author Michael Chevalier in 1834. “The United States,” reasons Chevalier, “are organized on the principle, that war between the States is an impossibility, and that a foreign war is scarcely probable.” 20Michael Chevalier Society, Manners and Politics (Boston: Weeks, Jordan and Company, 1839) 335.


Curiously, the Kennedy brothers take issue with this term just as much as they did with “civil war,” calling it “a compromise term” where “we [the Southerners] surrender something of value, and the Yankee surrenders nothing in exchange.” 21James Ronald Kennedy, Walter Donald Kennedy The South Was Right! (Pelican Press, 1991) 44. They reference O. W. Blacknall’s 1915 Lincoln as the South Should Know Him, in which is written that the Civil War “was not war between the States. The States, as States, took no part in it, were not even known in it. It was a war between two thoroughly organized governments and for one great principle, that completely overshadowed all others – Southern Independence.”

The War For Southern Independence
Thus by 1915, the battle to lay claim to the naming of the war made another turn – to recognize the Southern Confederacy as a full nation, every bit as valid as the United States. Blackwell proposed that the war be called “The War for Southern Independence,” a named “hallowed by the lips of the men who died to make it a reality,” a name that to “every patriotic Southerner… should be a sacred name.” 22O.W. Blacknall Lincoln as the South Should Know Him (Raleigh: Manly’s Battery Chapter, Children of the Confederacy, 1915) 15.

But even this name has its earlier origins. It was first spoken by Jacob M. Howard, Senator from Michigan in 1866 when questioning John F. Lewis, a Virginia farmer, during the Reconstruction hearings. “Do the secessionists there entertain any desire or any purpose to renew the war for southern independence?” he asked. 23Report of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction at the First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1866) 69. Terms running close to “war for southern independence” are sprinkled throughout – all from the lips of Northern politicians. Just two years after the war, The Grayjackets, a compilation of personal accounts was published – perhaps the first of its kind – which used “The War for Southern Independence” on its title page. 24The Grayjackets and How They Lived, Fought and Died, For Dixie (Jones Brothers & Co., 1867) title page. The generic terms such as “war,” etc., were used throughout, though “civil war” made only a single appearance. Referring to the war as “The War for Southern Independence” did not catch on, even though it was used in Joseph Tyrone Derry’s 1895 work on Southern history. 25Joseph T. Derry Story of the Confederate States; Or, History of the War for Southern Independence (Richmond: B.F. Johnson, 1895) Derry uses the term “civil war” throughout the text.

Jacob M. Howard
Jacob M. Howard

Come the turn of the century, however, its use greatly expanded, including works officially published by South Carolina’s state historian of Confederate records. 26Reort of the Historian of the Confederate Records to the General Assembly of South Carolina (Columbia: The Bryan Printing Co., 1900) 4. This was also when O.W. Blacknall first began to publish his views in the Confederate Veteran. “From President to private it was known and spoken of only as the war for Southern independence,” he insisted. “This title was the very shibboleth of Southernism and patriotism.” 27O.W. Blacknall “The War For Southern Independence” in Confederate Veteran, Volume 8, p485-486. Originally published in the November 1900 issue. It was also mentioned without comment in the previous issue. William C. Chase’s Story of Stonewall Jackson uses the term almost exclusively, often putting “Civil War” in quotes to denote that it was not his chosen term. 28William C. Chase Story of Stonewall Jackson (Atlanta: D.E. Luther Publishing Company, 1901).

So popular did this name become that it was mentioned in a general History of the American People and a history of Wyoming, both published in 1901. 29Francis Newton Thorpe A History of the American People (Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1901) 445. 30Wyoming Historical and Geological Society Proceedings and Collections, Volume 6 (1901) 325. Over the next decade or so, its use would expand to the point where it became the de facto name for any serious work created to honor the Confederacy. By the time O.W. Blacknall got around to finally publishing his 1915 Lincoln as the South Should Know Him, the point was basically moot.

But that flame was quickly burned. Into the 1930s and 40s, its use declined, with the much more neutral “War Between the States” taking its place, though neither could come close to the incredibly accepted “Civil War.”

Other names have come and gone through the years – from the unwieldy “War for Southern Nationality” to the ridiculous “War of Northern Aggression” and “War to Suppress Yankee Arrogance.” But the most accurate from a historical point of view is simply the name we’ve always called it: The American Civil War.


Note: So what of “War of the Rebellion,” you ask? Basically nobody apart from the United States government used this term. It was official, but never really caught on. Kind of boring, eh?

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Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

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