Naming the American Civil War

Naming the American Civil War

The American Civil War has been known by a number of different names since it began in 1861. These names reflect the historical, political, and cultural sensitivities of different groups and regions.[1]

The most common name, particularly in modern American usage, is simply "the Civil War". Although used rarely during the war, the term "War Between the States" became widespread afterward in the Southern United States. During and immediately after the war, Northern forces often used the term "War of the Rebellion", while the Southern equivalent was "War for Southern Independence". The latter regained some currency in the late 20th century, but has again fallen out of use. Other terms often reflect a more explicitly partisan view of events, such as "War of Northern Aggression", used by some Southerners, or the "Freedom War", used by their black counterparts to reflect the celebratory nature of Juneteenth, which marked the end of the war.

A variety of names also exist for the forces on each side; the opposing forces named battles differently as well. The Union forces frequently named battles for bodies of water that were prominent on or near the battlefield; Confederates most often used the name of the nearest town. As a result, many battles have two or more names that have had varying use, although with some notable exceptions, one tends to take precedence over time.


Enduring names

Civil War

In the United States, "Civil War" is the most common term for the conflict; it has been used by the overwhelming majority of reference books, scholarly journals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, popular histories, and mass media in the United States since the early 20th century.[2] The National Park Service, the government organization entrusted by the United States Congress to preserve the battlefields of the war, uses this term.[3] It is also the oldest term for the war. Writings of prominent men such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, P.G.T. Beauregard, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Judah P. Benjamin used the term "Civil War" both before and during the conflict. Abraham Lincoln used it on multiple occasions.[4][5][6] In 1862, the United States Supreme Court used the terms "the present civil war between the United States and the so called Confederate States," as well as "the civil war such as that now waged between the Northern and Southern States."[7]

English-speaking historians outside the United States usually refer to the conflict as the "American Civil War," or less often, "U.S. Civil War."[citation needed] These variations are also used in the United States in cases in which the war might otherwise be confused with another historical event (such as the English Civil War, the Irish Civil War or the Spanish Civil War).

War Between the States

Georgia plaque using "War Between the States"

The term "War Between the States" was rarely used during the war but became prevalent afterward in the South, as part of an effort to perpetuate its interpretation of the war.

The Confederate government avoided the term "civil war" and referred in official documents to the "War between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America".[7] There are a handful of known references during the war to "the war between the states".[8] European diplomacy produced a similar formula for avoiding the phrase "civil war". Queen Victoria's proclamation of British neutrality referred to "hostilities ... between the Government of the United States of America and certain States styling themselves the Confederate States of America".[7]

After the war, the memoirs of former Confederate officials and veterans (Joseph E. Johnston, Raphael Semmes, and especially Alexander Stephens) commonly used the term "War Between the States". In 1898, the United Confederate Veterans formally endorsed the name. In the early twentieth century, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) led a campaign to promote the term "War Between the States" in the media and in public schools. UDC efforts to convince the United States Congress to adopt the term, beginning in 1913, were unsuccessful. Congress has never adopted an official name for the war. The name "War Between the States" is inscribed on the USMC War Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. This name was personally ordered by Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., the 20th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to the Civil War as "the four-year War Between the States".[9] References to the "War Between the States" appear occasionally in federal and state court documents.[10]

The names "Civil War" and "War Between the States" have been used jointly in some formal contexts. For example, to mark the war's centenary in the 1960s, the state of Georgia created the "Georgia Civil War Centennial Commission Commemorating the War Between the States". In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of commemorative stamps entitled "The Civil War / The War Between the States".

Other historical terms

War of the Rebellion

During and immediately after the war, U.S. officials and pro-Union writers often referred to Confederates as "Rebels". The earliest histories published in the northern states commonly refer to the Civil War as "the Great Rebellion" or "the War of the Rebellion,"[11] as do many war monuments.

The official war records of the United States refer to this war as "The War of the Rebellion", and are a chief source of historical documentation for those interested in Civil War research. They are compiled as a 127-volume collection published by the U.S. War Department under the title The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901, referred to as the Official Records.[12]

War of Secession

War of Secession is occasionally used by people in the South to refer to the Civil War. In most romance languages, the words used to refer to the war translate literally to "war of secession" (e.g. Guerre de Sécession in French, Guerra di secessione in Italian, Guerra de Secesión in Spanish´, Guerra de Secessão in Portuguese). This name is also used in Central and Eastern Europe, e.g. Sezessionskrieg is commonly used in Germany, and Wojna secesyjna is exclusively used in Poland (both literally translate as "war of secession").

War for Southern Independence

The "War for Southern Independence" is a name used by many Southerners in reference to the war.[13] While popular on the Confederate side during the war, the term's popularity fell in the immediate aftermath of the South's failure to gain independence. The term resurfaced in the late 20th century. This terminology aims to parallel usage of the term "American War for Independence." A popular poem published in the early stages of hostilities was "South Carolina". Its prologue referred to the war as the "Third War for Independence" (it named the War of 1812 as the second such war.)[14] On November 8, 1860, the Charleston Mercury, a contemporary southern newspaper, stated that "The tea has been thrown overboard. The Revolution of 1860 has been initiated."[15]

War for the Union

Some northerners used "The War for the Union", the title of both a December 1861 lecture by the abolitionist leader Wendell Phillips, and a major four-volume history by Allan Nevins published in the middle of the 20th century.

Second American Revolution

In the 1920s historian Charles Beard used the term the "Second American Revolution" to emphasize the changes brought on by the Northern victory. This is still used by the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization, though with the intent to demonstrate the depth of the South's cause.[16]

War of Northern Aggression/War of Southern Aggression

The "War of Northern Aggression" has been used by those who maintain that the Union side was the belligerent party in the war.[17] The "War of Southern Aggression," conversely, has been used by those who maintain that the South was the belligerent party.[18][19][20]

Naming the battles and armies

Civil War Battle Names[citation needed]
Date Southern name Northern name
July 21, 1861 First Manassas First Bull Run
August 10, 1861 Oak Hills Wilson's Creek
October 21, 1861 Leesburg Ball's Bluff
January 19, 1862 Mill Springs Logan's Cross Roads
March 7–8, 1862 Elkhorn Tavern Pea Ridge
April 6–7, 1862 Shiloh Pittsburg Landing
May 31 – June 1, 1862 Seven Pines Fair Oaks
June 26, 1862 Mechanicsville Beaver Dam Creek
June 27, 1862 Gaines's Mill Chickahominy River
August 29–30, 1862 Second Manassas Second Bull Run
September 1, 1862 Ox Hill Chantilly
September 14, 1862 Boonsboro South Mountain
September 14, 1862 Burkittsville Crampton's Gap
September 17, 1862 Sharpsburg Antietam
October 8, 1862 Perryville Chaplin Hills
December 31, 1862 –
January 2, 1863
Murfreesboro Stones River
April 8, 1864 Mansfield Sabine Cross Roads
September 19, 1864 Winchester Opequon

There is a disparity between the sides in naming some of the battles of the war. The Union forces frequently named battles for bodies of water or other natural features that were prominent on or near the battlefield; Confederates most often used the name of the nearest town or man-made landmark. Because of this, many battles actually have two widely used names. However, not all of the disparities are based on these naming conventions. Many modern accounts of Civil War battles use the names established by the North. However, for some battles, the Southern name has become the standard. The National Park Service occasionally uses the Southern names for their battlefield parks located in the South, such as Manassas and Shiloh. In general, naming conventions were determined by the victor of the battle.[21] Examples of battles with dual names are shown in the table.

Historian Shelby Foote explains that many Northerners were urban and regarded bodies of water as noteworthy; many Southerners were rural and regarded towns as noteworthy.[22]

Civil War armies were also named in a manner reminiscent of the battlefields: Northern armies were frequently named for major rivers (Army of the Potomac, Army of the Tennessee, Army of the Mississippi), Southern armies for states or geographic regions (Army of Northern Virginia, Army of Tennessee, Army of Mississippi).

Units smaller than armies were named differently in many cases. Corps were usually written out (First Army Corps or more simply, First Corps), although a post-war convention developed to designate Union corps using Roman numerals (XI Corps). Often, particularly with Southern armies, corps were more commonly known by the name of the leader (Hardee's Corps, Polk's Corps).

Union brigades were given numeric designations (1st, 2nd, ...), whereas Confederate brigades were frequently named after their commanding general (Hood's Brigade, Gordon's Brigade, ...). Confederate brigades so-named retained the name of the original commander even when commanded temporarily by another man; for example, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Hoke's Brigade was commanded by Isaac Avery and Nicholl's Brigade by Jesse Williams. Nicknames were common in both armies, such as the Iron Brigade and the Stonewall Brigade.

Union artillery batteries were generally named numerically; Confederate batteries by the name of the town or county in which they were recruited (Fluvanna Artillery). Again, they were often simply referred to by their commander's name (Moody's Battery, Parker's Battery).


  1. ^ Political scientists use two criteria to define a civil war: (1) The warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. (2) At least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side. See Wong, Edward (November 26, 2006). "A Matter of Definition: What Makes a Civil War, and Who Declares It So?" The New York Times.
  2. ^ See titles listed in Oscar Handlin et al., Harvard Guide to American History (1954) pp 385-98.
  3. ^ The Civil War
  4. ^ Proclamation, August 12, 1861.
  5. ^ Message to the Senate, May 26, 1862
  6. ^ Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.
  7. ^ a b c The Brig Amy Warwick, et al., 67 U.S. 635, *636, 673 (1862)
  8. ^ Jefferson Davis' Memorandum
  9. ^ Michael Waldman, My Fellow Americans, p. 111; also, Disc 1 Track 19
  10. ^ For example: Dairyland Greyhound Park, Inc. v. Doyle, 719 N.W.2d 408, *449 (Wis., 2006), "Prior to the War Between the States all but three states had barred lotteries."
  11. ^ See for example Henry S. Foote, War of the Rebellion; Or, Scylla and Charybdis, New York: Harper & Bros., 1866; Horace Greeley, The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860-'64, 2 vols., Hartford, Conn.: O.D. Case & Co., 1864, 1866; Henry Wilson, The History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, 3 vols, Boston: J.R. Osgood & Co., 1872-1877.
  12. ^ [1] -Cornell University- Accessed 2010-11-28
  13. ^ "Davis, Burke, The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts, New York: The Fairfax Press, 1982. ISBN 0-517-37151-0, pp. 79-80.
  14. ^ War Songs and Poems of the Southern Confederacy 1861-1865, H. M. Wharton, compiler and editor, Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2000, ISBN 0-7858-1273-3, p. 69.
  15. ^ The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns. Dir. Ken Burns, Narr. David McCullough, Writ. and prod. Ken Burns. PBS DVD Gold edition, Warner Home Video, 2002, ISBN 0-7806-3887-5.
  16. ^ SCV website.
  17. ^ Benen, Steve (February 11, 2009). "War of Northern Aggression". The Washington Monthly. Retrieved November 18, 2009. 
  18. ^ McPherson, James M. (January 19, 1989). "The War of Southern Aggression". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved July 5, 2011. 
  19. ^ McPherson, James M. (April 18, 1996). Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War. Oxford University Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-19-511796-7. 
  20. ^ McAfee, Ward M. (December 30, 2004). Citizen Lincoln. Nova Science Pub Inc. p. 144. ISBN 978-1-59-454112-4. "Lincoln knew that by simply remaining calm and steady in the face of Confederate demands, hotheaded Confederates themselves would fire the first shots, making the conflict that followed a war of southern aggression. ... As Fort Sumter was reduced to rubble, the closing words of Lincoln's inaugural were recalled: 'In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.'" 
  21. ^ Salmon, John S. (2001). The Official Virginia Civil War Battlefield Guide. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books. p. 1. ISBN 978-0811728683. Retrieved December 14, 2010. 
  22. ^ The Civil War, Geoffrey Ward, with Ric Burns and Ken Burns.1990. "Interview with Shelby Foote."

Further reading

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Outline of the American Civil War — The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the American Civil War: American Civil War – civil war in the United States of America that lasted from 1861 to 1865. Eleven Southern slave states declared their secession… …   Wikipedia

  • Issues of the American Civil War — include questions about the name of the war, the tariff, states rights and the nature of Lincoln s war goals. The name of the war is a result of popular use, even though the term United States Civil War would be more precise. Nevertheless, the… …   Wikipedia

  • Conclusion of the American Civil War — The McLean house where Lee surrendered to Grant on April 9, 1865. This is a timeline of the conclusion of the American Civil War which includes important battles, skirmishes, raids and other events of 1865. These led to additional Confederate… …   Wikipedia

  • Virginia in the American Civil War — The Commonwealth of Virginia was a prominent part of the Confederate States of America during the American Civil War. It sponsored a convention about secession on February 13, 1861, after six states seceded to form the Confederacy on February 4.… …   Wikipedia

  • Louisville in the American Civil War — was a major stronghold of Union forces, which kept Kentucky firmly in the Union. It was the center of planning, supplies, recruiting and transportation for numerous campaigns, especially in the Western Theater. By the end of the war, Louisville… …   Wikipedia

  • Origins of the American Civil War — For events following South Carolina s declaration of secession from the Union, see Battle of Fort Sumter and American Civil War. The Battle of Fort Sumter was the first stage in a conflict that had been brewing for decades. The main explanation… …   Wikipedia

  • Ohio in the American Civil War — Union States in the American Civil War California Connecticut Illinois Indiana Iowa …   Wikipedia

  • Kentucky in the American Civil War — Confederate States in the American Civil War South Carolina Mississippi Florida Alabama …   Wikipedia

  • Massachusetts in the American Civil War — Union States in the American Civil War California Connecticut Illinois Indiana Iowa …   Wikipedia

  • Military history of African Americans in the American Civil War — African American topics History  Atlantic slave trade · Maafa Slavery in the United States Reconstruction …   Wikipedia