06 January 2014

Is There Something Wrong With The Term, "The War Between The States"?

Calling The "Civil War" Speech Police

*Update: I got Kevin Levin's attention, but I'm confused. If Kevin didn't think the issue of "Civil War" vs. "War Between the States" was, as he states, "a big issue", then why did he bring it up in the first place? I didn't make an issue out of it, he did. So now he projects that on me:

Kevin was surprised that a "scholarly book . . . referred to the war as the War Between the States" and he's also surprised by what I "uncovered" related to the widespread use of that term. What I uncovered was the fact that lots of scholars, scholarly websites and publications use the term, "War Between the States." I was surprised that Kevin was surprised, but maybe I shouldn't have been. Sounds like Kevin needs to broaden his horizons a bit. ☺ In doing so, he'll find a lot more surprises lurking in Civil War, War Between the States War For Southern Independence historiography. Kevin's surprise reminded me of a Bill Buckley quote. Just substitute "academics" or "professional historians" for "liberals":

Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views. ~ William F. Buckley Jr.
But there's more. In regards to this post, Kevin further claims that "The only problem is that Professor Sinisi is neither a War for Southern Independence historian . . ." Kevin makes this claim despite the fact that Sinisi authored a Civil War (sorry) related book which was published by a university press. Moreover, he co-edited another work related to the War Between the States (oops) War For Southern Independence which was also published by a university press. Kevin then opines that "I hope Richard gets the full story from Prof. Sinisi at the upcoming conference at Liberty University."

Actually, I don't think I'm the one missing the full story - whether it's the issue of the "War Between the States" or Professor Sinisi.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go straighten my bent shape.
End  of update.

That rather curious comment came from a recent post by Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory. Why would the use of the term "War Between the States" particularly catch one's attention when reading about that topic, also known as the Civil War? Is Levin suggesting or insinuating that the term "War Between the States" is somehow outside the mainstream of Civil War historiography? His post seems to invite others (via the Salon linked piece) to climb aboard for the ride to ridicule the term. There haven't been many takers at last read. Frankly, this seems like an emotional reaction rather than an intellectual one to me.

Though I've occasionally seen criticisms of use of the term on sites like Levin's before, I believe its a rather silly point. It's just as silly as those at the other end of the spectrum who refuse to use the term "Civil War." I use both terms interchangeably and, as we will see, many others do as well - including respected Civil War authors, publishers, and educational institutions. It would seem Levin is so surprised and shocked by the use of the widely accepted (outside a small academic bubble) term in a "university press book", that he believes the term's use needs to be, in some way, defended or excused. Seriously?

One spokesman for the Civil War Trust even seems to agree and apologize (or at least offer an excuse) for using the term in this video: The Civil War In 4 Minutes - The War Between the States 

Ah yes, let's all roll our collective eyes at such an embarrassing term that drips with provincialism and used only by uneducated hayseeds and neo-Confederates.  

Maybe Levin just hasn't been exposed to diverse sources outside of the narrow scope of books and publications he reads:

Perhaps I can help.

I hastily used a few Google search terms related to "the War Between the States" and, in the space of about 5 minutes, came across the following:
  • Next, we have a book published by the Indiana University Press titled, Civil War Railroads A Pictorial Story of the War between the States, 1861-1865 (Shame - how could an academic press let such a thing happen?!)
  • And here, we have a book authored by a professor of history titled, The Civil War Bookshelf: 50 Must-Read Books about the War Between the States (He must have missed the memo.)
  •  And the shame continues here where we have a lecture titled Localizing the War Between the States. And at a UNIVERSITY no less!
  • The madness continues here at another university press: Rutgers, where the following is used to describe a book: "Many books have been written about the War between the States, but until now, none has chronicled—in their own words—the many important roles played by people from New Jersey." That's right, Kevin's home state of New Jersey and "War Between the States" used in the same sentence.
  •  Next offender up is The Citadel. Well, of course, what else would you expect from the very bosom of secesh sentiment? - "There were 224 living Citadel graduates when South Carolina announced it was seceding from the Union and 209 served in the confederate armed forces during the period referred to as The War Between the States (1861-1865)."
  • And that bastion on neo-Confederate sentiment, the Civil War Trust, also refers to "the late unpleasantness" as the WBTS. Oh, the shame of it all!
There are, no doubt, hundreds more. So should we all be "surprised" at such an array of folks using the term, "War Between the States?" Hardly.

And there is hope for some real scholarship on the topic. Noted Civil War scholar and author, Dr. James I. Robertson, Jr. makes the following points about the competing terms:
During and after the conflict, the over whelmingly popular choice of a title was the “Civil War.” It could never become totally acceptable because the definition of a civil war changed from mid-19th Century usage to modern interpretation. In the early 1800s, a civil war was defined as people of the same country fighting each other. Later, “civil war” would be interpreted as people of the same country fighting each other for control of the nation. Certainly the Confederate States of America was not attempting to overthrow the United States. It sought to leave that governmental system and live by different standards of rule . . . Many Southerners were offended by the name. It implied rebellion: a resistance to lawful authority. The eleven states of the Confederacy were so strongly convinced of the constitutionality of their action that they willingly went to war to defend it. (Emphasis mine)
But Professor Robertson notes that there are also problems with the popular alternative:
Yet “War between the States” is misleading as well as incorrect. The title implies that all of the states were at war with each other. In addition, Southern proponents of the theory of state rights preached loudly that the Southern nation was in reality a loose confederation of eleven independent sovereignties. Much more was involved in the conflict than the issue of state power. (Source)
So neither term is perfectly correct but, both are acceptable due to their history and wide use among scholars and persons of varying perspectives. It's extremely petty and narrow-minded to quibble over either term. Lee used the term "Civil War", so what Virginian could possibly object? And, as noted above, "War Between the States" is still used extensively. And why not?

However if one truly wants to make such a big deal out of what we call the armed conflict which occurred in America from 1861 to 1865 , and if its historical accuracy and honesty that one truly seeks, then I think Douglas Southall Freeman is, perhaps, the truest to historical accuracy in coining the proper term. Author and fellow Virginian, David Johnson, discusses this topic in his wonderful biography of Freeman:
Freeman preferred the term "War Between the States" to "Civil War," although his preference was based on custom rather than logic. "I never had any objection to the term 'Civil War,'" he wrote, "nor, for that matter, after I got of age, did I have any complaint because the Federals called us 'rebels." If the name was a proper one, our fathers certainly dignified it." If pushed for a term, he believed "the War for Southern Independence" to be "the wisest and soundest name" because that was "precisely what the conflict was." (Page 305.)
Can Freeman's final point regarding accuracy honestly be argued against? No, it cannot - if honesty and accuracy is really what you're seeking. If not, then I suppose we should be on the lookout for the War Between the States Civil War speech police.


ropelight said...

RGW, thanks for addressing the topic, it's one that's irritated me off-and-on for years and you've covered it well.

Civil War is not only inaccurate, however common the usage, it rankles many Southerners for more than simple and straightforward reasons.

As Robertson points out, because the offensive term implies a conflict over control of the central government, the term conceals federal aggression behind the pretense of a Southern grab for power over Northern States, yet nothing could be further from the truth.

And, Robertson correctly details the shortcomings of War Between the States as well, although it remains preferable to CW.

Neither term fits the facts or fairly covers the complexities of the conflict accurately, yet both have been used almost interchangeably for over 150 years.

However, if Yankee ax grinders, like Levin, insist on kicking sleeping dogs, let them take a big bite out of Freeman's forthright construction, and then try to choke down War Against Southern Independence.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I seriously doubt there will be any takers to challenge Freeman's preferred term. He uses reason and common sense - many of the critics struggle with those concepts. ;-)

Thanks for commenting.

D. Hill said...

I do like ropelight's "War Against Southern Independence"; this being the first time I've heard the conflict titled such. I've always preferred the War of Northern Aggression (WoNA), putting the onus where it belongs, but ropelight's phrasing likewise could generate light in minds darkened by "official" history.

As for Freeman's acceptance of the label "rebel", his mindset was a continuation of 19th Century thought:

"Rebels before, our fathers of yore.
Rebel's the righteous name Washington bore.
Why, then, be ours the same, the name that he snatched from shame,
Making it first in fame, foremost in war.
Making it first in fame, foremost in war." --God Save The South, George Henry Miles


"Then call us rebels, if you will,
We glory in the name,
For bending under unjust laws,
And swearing faith to an unjust cause,
We count as greater shame."
--Richmond Daily Dispatch, May 12, 1862

I still have no problem being considered a rebel, considering that which I rebel against. I do prefer "rebel, refined" though.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hey Doug. Thanks. Yes, "Rebel"-in the proper context-is a compliment. As in Franklin's original design for the Great Seal: "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." Jefferson liked it so much that he used it in his own personal seal. Of course, there is also Acts 5:29:

"Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men."

In the Founders' writings, they often referred to "natural" or "God-given" rights in their justification for Independence. I'm getting off topic here, but I think you get the point.

D. Hill said...

Yup, I got your point, brother. Tyrants sought to and succeeded in virtually eradicating state sovereignty, and now seek to eradicate Constitutional supremacy, to be followed by national sovereignty. These forces just happen to be anit-Christ at the same time; who'da thunk?