What the Name “Civil War” Tells Us–and Why It Matters

What the Name “Civil War” Tells Us–and Why It Matters

What do Americans call the conflict that tore their nation apart from 1861 to 1865? And what difference does it make what name they use? Today most call it the Civil War, but as I discuss in my recent article in the September issue of the journal, Americans have not always agreed on that name.[1] It became the common usage in the early twentieth century as part of sectional reunion and reconciliation. But by obscuring the meaning of the war, the choice of Civil War played a role in perpetuating a division over the war’s meaning and thereby contributed to today’s debates over Confederate symbols.

A few avid defenders of those symbols talk of the War of Northern Aggression, and at least some people assume it is the South’s name for that war. And if not that, they think, white southerners surely call it the War between the States. Yet in a 1994 Southern Focus Poll, still the most extensive poll on attitudes toward the Civil War, when asked the war’s name only 6.5 percent of southerners answered War Between the States, and fewer than 1 percent offered War of Northern Aggression.

That name came into use only in the second half of the twentieth century. Before the 1950s, almost no southerners used War of Northern Aggression. It emerged out of white southern resentment of federal intervention in race relations during the civil rights era, and its use grew after that, encouraged by the neo-Confederate movement. As the Southern Focus Poll showed, however, even then relatively few southerners adopted it.[2]

War between the States has had a wider acceptance and a much longer history; the Focus Poll’s results reflected a decline in its usage. Surveys in the South Atlantic and Gulf South states, conducted by the Linguistic Atlas of the United States in the mid-twentieth century, found more southerners called it the War between the States, although still fewer than 25 percent. The polls also showed the upper-class and well-educated were the most likely to use it, which probably reflected the strength of the Lost Cause among the white South’s elite at that time.[3]

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the major champion of the Lost Cause, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, campaigned for War between the States to be the name of the war.   They believed it testified to the legality of secession and therefore the existence of a Confederate nation. Indeed, the UDC argued that the “States” in the name referred not to the individual states but to the “United States” and the “Confederate States”—two independent nations. The Daughters’ crusade contributed to its increasing use in the twentieth century, but as shown in the South Atlantic survey, War between the States really took hold between 1940 and 1965 when whites mobilized to fight all challenges to white racial control. As with the use of the War of Northern Aggression and the flying of the Confederate flag, white southerners’ contemporary embrace of Confederate memory owes as much to the confrontations of the 1960s as to that of the 1860s.[4]

The survey in the South Atlantic States also showed a surprising result; in those states the name Confederate War was slightly more common than War Between the States. Its use declined as that of War Between the States rose, and it had all but disappeared in the later Gulf South survey and the 1994 Southern Focus Poll. Nevertheless, its persistence in the years before 1940 points to the fact that despite efforts by the leaders of the Lost Cause, white southerners in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had used a variety of names for the war. The Confederate War sometimes included the additional phrase “for Independence,” and both it and War for Secession, another name that had adherents, highlighted the white South’s view of the war’s cause.

Usage of Civil War/Rebellion in U.S. Newspapers, 1860-1920. This graph includes only references to Civil War and Rebellion/War of the Rebellion. Courtesy of America’s Historic Newspapers. For more information, see the “Note on Statistical Methods” below.

As the surveys suggest, and other measures including usage in newspapers and book titles also demonstrate, the most common name for the war in the South was always Civil War. Even in the Southern Historical Society Papers, which began publication shortly after the war and which scholars consider the voice of the most intractable former Confederates, Civil War appeared twice as often as War Between the States.[5]

In the twentieth century, northerners, too, most often used Civil War, as surveys in New England and the upper Midwest showed. They had not always favored that name, however. President Abraham Lincoln most often used Rebellion. During and immediately after the war, most northerners also referred to the Rebellion rather than to the Civil War. That usage persisted into the late nineteenth century, illustrated in the title on the volumes of the government’s official history, The War of the Rebellion. Beginning in the late 1880s, many northerners abandoned Rebellion for Civil War. After 1900 in newspapers, book titles, and government documents Civil War became the war’s most common and all but official name; on three occasions between 1905 and 1911, Congress ratified the use of Civil War.[6]

Usage of Civil War/Rebellion in Sample of Book Titles, 1861-1920. This data comes from an online search of the Library of Congress catalog, using the keyword terms “War of the Rebellion” and “Civil War.” As with newspapers, the graph here includes only the two dominant names for the war. For more information, see the “Note on Statistical Methods” below.

Northerners supported the use of Civil War in part to accommodate their former foes, who maintained secession was legal and therefore they had not been rebels. White southerners considered Rebellion not just inaccurate, but insulting, particularly after the term became associated with labor and anarchist violence in the 1880s. The northern shift in usage, therefore, reflected a commitment to reunion and to at least a degree of sectional reconciliation. During the Spanish American War, many thought, the South had proved its loyalty and nationalism. Intensifying racism, North as well as South, no doubt also played an important role. The North’s concessions to the white South’s feelings, however, had limits. Overwhelmingly, northerners refused to accept War Between the States, which they rightly viewed as acknowledging the justness of secession.[7]

Some white southerners still insisted on War between the States. And some African Americans still chose names that emphasized the centrality of slavery and emancipation to the war, as Frederick Douglass and other African Americans had during the Civil War, when they promoted names such as Abolition War or The Slaveholder’s Rebellion. For most people in the North and South, though, Civil War was the war’s name.[8]

The choice reflected and facilitated reunion and reconciliation, but at the cost of obscuring the causes and consequences of the war. Civil War also made it all too easy for both sides to continue to believe their actions has been noble and justified, their behavior honorable. Neither side wrestled, as Lincoln’s second inaugural address had urged Americans to do, with their own and the nation’s failings.   Reconciliation proved a positive development for the country but came at that high price. It rested on a sense of mutual innocence and contributed to the nation’s failure to understand the meaning and implications of the war.

The choice of the name Civil War, therefore, certainly reflected and may have contributed to the failure to construct a memory of the Civil War that encouraged Americans to address the centrality of slavery to the war and in American history and to ask whether the country had lived up to the war’s achievement of emancipation by promoting racial equality.

Today’s battles over the Confederate flag and monuments emerge, in part, out of that failure.   These disputes over Confederate symbols owe more to today’s divisions over the role and treatment of African Americans than they do to sectional divisions of the past or the memory of the Civil War. That the nation never agreed on or came to terms with what the war meant, facilitated by a sanitized memory of the war symbolized by the choice of the generic name Civil War, makes it easy for both sides to claim that history vindicates their position.


[1] Gaines M. Foster, “What’s Not in a Name: The Naming of the American Civil War,” The Journal of the Civil War Era 8, no. 3 (September 2018): 416-454. The article is available both through print subscription and on Project Muse.

[2] “Frequencies,” Q#44; “Crosstabs—Southern Sample,” #44; and “Open Answers,” from “Southern Focus Poll, Fall 1994,” Center for the Study of the American South, 1994, http://hdl.handle.net/1902.29/D-30614 Odum Institute [Distributor] V1 [Version]. On use of War of Northern Aggression, see also Andy Hall, “‘The War of Northern Aggression’ as Modern, Segregationist Revisionism,” Dead Confederates, June 21, 2011, http://deadconfederates.com/2011/06/21/the-war-of-northern-aggression-is-modern-segregationist-revisionism/.

[3] The journal has collected additional data into an online appendix on their website. See Appendix 3, https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/whats-in-a-name-appendices/.

[4] 63 Cong. Rec. 138 (December 12, 1914).

[5] Appendix 2, https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/whats-in-a-name-appendices/.

[6] Appendices 3 and 1, journalofthecivilwarera.org/whats-in-a-name-appendices/. 58 Cong. Rec. 3,733 (March 1, 1905); 59 Cong. Rec. 929-930 (January 11, 1907); 61 Cong. Rec. 1,787-88 (February 1, 1911).

[7] For differing views on reunion and reconciliation see David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 351-53; Caroline E. Janney, Remembering the Civil War: Reunion and the Limits of Reconciliation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013); and Nina Silber, “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reviewed and Reconsidered,” Journal of American History 103, no. 1 (June 2016): 59-83.

[8] Frederick Douglass, “Emancipation, Racism, and the Work Before Us: An Address Delivered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 4 December 1863,” in Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches Debates and Interviews, vol. 3, 1855-1863, ed. John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 3: 598-609, and Douglass, “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion,” 3: 521-43.

Note on Statistical Methods

The first graph, on usage in newspapers, comes from data collected using the online database, America’s Historic Newspapers. When I completed my searches in 2008, the website included over 300 newspapers from all states. I searched for the following names of the war: Civil War, the Rebellion, War of the Rebellion, Slaveholders’ Rebellion, War Between the States, Confederate War, War for Secession, the Late Unpleasantness, and the Lost Cause. I recorded the total number of “hits” for each name by year from 1860 to 1920. Since “hits” on War of the Rebellion also turned up in a search for Rebellion, only the total for Rebellion was included in subsequent computations. With the help of Katie Eskridge, a random 5 percent sample of stories that included either Civil War or Rebellion were read to determine if they actually referred to the American Civil War. For each year, the percentage of stories that did concern the American Civil War was then applied to the overall total, with the resulting number used in the computations. In order to measure comparative usage (rather than the number of stories about the war in any given year), the total number of mentions of each name were then converted to a percentage of usage for that year. That year’s percentages were then graphed. For clarity, the graph provided in the post includes only references to Civil War and Rebellion/War of the Rebellion. The other terms rarely exceed 3-5 percent of the total.

For the second graph, I compiled a database on books published on the Civil War between 1861 and 1920 that are in the Library of Congress through an online search of its catalog, using the key word terms “War of the Rebellion” and “Civil War”—which included most books on the war no matter the title. (For example, both Pollard’s Lost Cause and Alexander Stephens’ Constitutional View of the Late War were included). I then compiled a database of titles, by year published, author, name, general name, and where the book was published. Here, too, the raw numbers were converted into percentages of names used in each year. I then created a cross tab and graphs. As with newspapers, the graph here includes only the two dominant names for the war.

William Pencak, “The American Civil War Did Not Take Place,” Rethinking History 6, no. 2 (2002): 217-21, uses a different sample, of memoirs and general histories catalogued in Civil War Books, and he finds an emergence of Civil War as the common name in 1910, slightly later than the graph here.

Gaines M. Foster

Gaines M. Foster teaches history at Louisiana State University and is the author of Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South.

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