19 March 2010

"Civil War?"

I've never had a problem with the term "Civil War." Though I concede it's not technically accurate when describing the conflict in the United States that occurred from 1861-1865. I use the terms, "War Between the States" (more common in the South) and "Civil War" (more widely accepted in the general population) interchangeably and often within the same paragraph. Of course, WBTS is not accurate either. Not all the states were at war with each other. New York was not fighting Maine and Virginia was not at war with Tennessee. But General Lee referred to the conflict as the "Civil War", so it's ok with me. (So did Jeff Davis & Nathan Bedford Forrest.)

However, Merriam-Webster defines Civil War as: "a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country." Since the Southern states had seceded and proclaimed themselves no longer part of the Union, their inhabitants were no longer "citizens of the same country." The South was attempting to leave the Union peacefully and form a new Nation, thus the term "Civil War" is not accurate.

I believe that the most accurate term (though I rarely us it), and one put forth most notably by *Douglas Southall Freeman, is the term "War for Southern Independence." Most who make an issue of the numerous terms are doing so for various reasons:
  1. They honestly believe their preferred term is the more accurate one.
  2. There are sectional reasons for their preference.
  3. There are political motivations.
And all sides of the debate are included within the 3 groups noted above.

*I realize the term pre-dated Freeman.


Michael Aubrecht said...

Great post Richard. In strictly a writing sense, I tend to alternate between “Civil War” and “War Between the States” for two reasons. First, mechanically, it doesn’t make the cadence of my narrative sound redundant. Second, it reads more inclusive to me and appeals to readers who may favor one side or another. I find both terms accurate and appropriate.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Michael. I try to avoid the term used by one of my ancestors:

"I was fightin' them damn invaders!"

"War of the damn invaders" does have a nice ring to it though.


Scott Manning said...

This got me thinking. Disputes over the names of wars exist in other arenas too. In the ancient world, Victor Davis Hanson believes the popular name for the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) is misleading since virtually every Greek fought in the conflict, not just those on the Peloponnese. He has proposed an alternative with "the Great Ancient Greek Civil War."

As for a more recent war, there are historians who want to lump the world wars together and refer to them as something along the lines of "The Thirty Years Civil War of the West." This title of course excludes combatants like Japan, who fought in each war.

Yet, in both of those instances, the proposed change is to add the term "civil war." In addition, the discussions are not nearly as heated as those about the American Civil War.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Scott for the comment. That's way outside of my area of knowledge, though it does raise some interesting points. I would only add that the WBTS is more heated due to the sectional and cultural issues that drive part of the debate.

Chaps said...

On March 2nd 1928 the United States Senate issued the following joint
Resolution #41

"A war was waged between 1861-1865 between TWO organized governments. The
United States of America and the Confederate States of America. These were
the official titles of the contending parties.

It was NOT a Civil War as it was not fought between two parties within the
same government. It was NOT a war of secession, for the Southern States
seceded without a thought of war. The right of a state to secede had never
been questioned. It was not a War of Rebellion, for sovereign, independent
states, co-equal, CANNOT REBEL against each other. It was the War Between
the States, because 22 nonseceding states made war on 11 seceding states to
force them back into the United States.

It was not until after the surrender of 1865 that secession was decided to
be unconstitutional."

Source: www.longstreet.org

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thanks Chaps!

Bob Pollock said...


Thought you might like to know
the above mentioned resolution appears to be bogus.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...


Coski doesn't say in the link you provided that the resolution was bogus. He just says its not valid to suggest it meant that it was an official recognition of the term "War Between the States." In fact, Coski seems to be admitting that the resolution did, in fact, happen, but that suggesting that it was some official recognition is incorrect.

At least that's my read and I would agree with him.

Thanks for the comment.

Bob Pollock said...

You may be correct, but I went to the source cited above (the Longstreet Society website) and it is merely a message board where someone asks if the resolution is real. The comments that follow suggest that the resolution may be the text the UDC wanted but did not get. I suppose we'd have to contact someone in Congressional Archives to get a definitive answer.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Bob - here's something I came across that is on topic and interesting:

"We cannot overlook the serious dissensions and the lack of unity in our war of the Revolution, in our War of 1812, or in our War Between the States, when the survival of the Union itself was at stake." ~ FDR
State of the Union address, 11 January 1944.