Was the American Civil War a "Civil War"?
This is a question that will always be debated. For listeners of Historical Controversies , I have already given my personal answer to this question in the introductory episode to the third season . But the prominence of this debate, insignificant as it sometimes seems, compels me to put my answer in article form for those who may prefer such a format.
Is it a misnomer to refer to the American Civil War as a “civil war”?
What is a “Civil War”?
Notice the distinction between the upper-case “Civil War,” referring to the proper noun title of the conflict between the United and Confederate States of America from 1861 until 1865, and the lower-case “civil war” referring to a general category of wars with no specific conflict referenced. A “civil war” in the general sense is a war that fits into a technically defined category, and this is where the question of whether or not the American Civil War is a misnomer always must begin.
The definition we find for the general term “civil war” can vary modestly. Dictionary.com offers the following definition: “a war between political factions or regions within the same country.” Merriam-webster.com offers a similar, but slightly distinct, definition: “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country.”
In the first definition, there is the additional qualifier of “regions,” rather than just “political factions” or “opposing groups of citizens.” But both dictionaries provide us the qualifying distinction of the war taking place “within [of] the same country.”
In the Historical Controversies episodes on the Filibusters in Nicaragua , I talk about the civil war in Nicaragua. During this conflict, there were two political factions – the Democraticos and the Legitimistas – fighting for control of the same government with jurisdiction over the same, unified territory. There was no contest about the territorial borders. There was no claim of independence in one region of Nicaragua to form a territorially distinct government in order to establish a different country. There was no secession.
The civil war in Nicaragua, like all technical civil wars, was fought between two factions vying for control of the same government to rule the same territory.
This was not the case for the American Civil War (I use the qualifier “American” rather than “United States” because calling it the “United States Civil War” tacitly assumes that it was a technical civil war fought over control of one country: The United States). The American Civil War was fought because one region of the country declared political independence. Rather than claiming to have legitimate authority over the territories of the entire United States, the Confederate government claimed only to have legitimate authority over the seceding states. It was an alternative, additional government, establishing itself as a completely separate country.
These are the simple and pedantic facts of history. It is true that the Lincoln administration refused to recognize the legitimacy of secession, and therefore they crafted legal arguments intended to treat the seceding states as still being submissive to the United States government, but even if one believes that this is the correct constitutional position, it doesn’t change the fact that the Confederate States did not make this claim. They were not fighting for political control over Ohio, for example, or California. The war waged between the centralized Union government and the centralized Confederate government was fought over the matter of independence versus unionism, and the matter of two alternative national boundaries.
What of Individual States and Territories?
There is an argument to be made that “Bleeding Kansas” – the territorial war over the legitimacy of the two competing governments during the 1850’s – was a true civil war. The dispute in Kansas certainly fits the definition of a “civil war.” Nobody was contesting the boundaries, vying for territorial division or independence, and each government claimed sole legitimacy. To the degree that Bleeding Kansas was a war at all, it was certainly a civil war.
But of course, even if this territorial dispute was a precursor to the American Civil War, it certainly cannot define the terms of the much larger conflict between the two central governments of the 1860’s. The same would hold true for the state-level disputes that were waged within the context of the American Civil War.
The guerrilla warfare in Missouri, for example, was in many ways an extension of Bleeding Kansas, but in this, factions vied for control of the state government. It did not, however, change the context of the national controversy.
The same could be said during the dispute in Maryland, when Baltimore citizens fought for control of the city that had, at one point, resorted to de facto secession in response to Union troops passing through Baltimore. Other border states saw skirmishes that could qualify as state-level civil wars, including Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. But at most, these disputes were campaigns within the larger context of the American Civil War, and it would be hard to find an historian who would argue that these wars would have been waged without the national war. All of this would apply in the same way to the disputes taking place in the western territories during the war.
But unless we are looking at the specific and isolated skirmishes taking place in these territories or states, it would be entirely incorrect to apply the local skirmish context to the national dispute. The American Civil War still stands as a misnomer on technical grounds.
What About the Alternative Names?
Even if we accept that the American Civil War is a misnomer, that does not immediately mean we should accept the proffered alternatives we commonly find. Each of these deserves at least some examination, as well.
The War Between the States – The most common alternative to the title “the Civil War” is the “War Between the States.” This is a popular alternative because it acknowledges the misnomer of “civil war” without being apparently biased in regards to one side or the other.
But unfortunately, it does not hold up, either. Calling the American Civil War a “War Between the States” fails on largely the same technical grounds – namely, that it neglects the important fact that this was a war between two distinct national governments. It was not a war waged between Ohio and Georgia and New York and Florida (and so on). It was a war waged between the United States and the Confederate States; it was a war between two central governments acting on behalf of its member states.
The War of Northern Aggression – This is another common alternative, usually offered by people who are less shy about their personal views on the guilty party. The War of Northern Aggression originated during the war itself (or even before, since “Northern Aggression” was the commonly touted specter among pre-war southerner politicians).
But for this term to be accurate, one must not just have an accurate command of the historical facts that are relevant to the question of war guil, but they must also subscribe to a specific ethical philosophy that defines aggression in a way that the North, according to the historical facts, would be guilty of “aggression.” The philosophical question of legitimate aggression is, I believe, an important one. But it isn’t historically important; it’s a philosophical question.
Relevant to the issue of war guilt in the American Civil War is the question of the legitimacy of the threat of aggression. Most people will agree that the threat of aggression does, ethically, qualify as aggression per se. However, this then begs the question, in light of the historical facts, of whether the Union government was guilty of legitimate threats or not. I do not intend to tackle this question in the present article. I only wish to point out that although most people agree that legitimate threats qualify as aggression, it requires more than just the subjective feeling of being threatened to qualify as “legitimate threat.” Thus, this is a complicated question that can only be settled by first establishing very strict (and difficult to define) criteria for a “legitimate threat” and only then can an examination of the relevant historical facts be brought into the debate.
In short, my rejection of this term is not based on the matter of historical accuracy, but on the recognition of the fact that there will almost certainly never be a general consensus on what constitutes a legitimate threat, and such a question can only be tackled on a case-by-case basis. This is a question for an adjudicator, not an historian, and such value-laden terms as “the War of Northern Aggression” – even if you personally agree with the value judgments implied within them – have no place in historical analysis.
The War for Southern Independence – This final common alternative to the “American Civil War” is, at first, glance, also taken as being a pro-Southern, biased title. But unlike “aggression,” it is possible to strictly define “independence” in a political sense. The relevant definition provided again by Merriam-webster.com defines independence as “the quality or state of not being under the control of, reliant on, or connected with someone or something else.” This definition unequivocally applies to the Confederate States of America.
The reason that people have a knee-jerk reaction to the term “War for Southern Independence” as being a biased pro-Southern term is because people, especially Americans, have a natural tendency to ascribe positive value to the idea of political independence. But the fact that people have this tendency does not detract from the fact that “independence” is a strictly definable term regardless of what value we place on the idea, and the definition most certainly applies to the American Civil War.
If you insist on an alternative term for the “civil war” misnomer, the “War for Southern Independence” is the one I recommend as being the most accurate.
Was “Civil War” a Propaganda Term?
One of the largest misconceptions about the misnomer “American Civil War” is that it was crafted as part of a propaganda narrative by Unionists. By calling it a “Civil War,” they were denying the legitimacy of secession and justifying northern military action. Regardless of whether or not the term had this effect, this does not seem to be the reason the title was adopted.
As I mentioned in the Historical Controversies episode on the Resistance at Christiana , the conflict that was anticipated to be the result of the controversy over slavery was being referred to as a “civil war” as early as 1851. Regardless of whether or not their perception was misguided, the fact remained that people in the 1850’s did anticipate a war, and they assumed that it would be a “civil” war. That they were ultimately incorrect (at least, according to technical semantics) is inconsequential. The point is that calling the war a “civil war” was already a part of the American lexicon by the time the first shots were fired in 1861.
However, there was a propaganda title that the Union peddled to curry support for its war effort. They called it the “War of Rebellion,” which was part of the legal argument that secession was unconstitutional and the Southern states were engaged in rebellion, which meant that Congress take actions that the Constitution allowed only in instances of rebellion, such as the suspension of habeas corpus (though even granting the “rebellion” argument, there is a constitutional argument that can be made against Lincoln’s executive decision to suspend habeas corpus since this is a power delegated to Congress).
Of course, the argument that southern secession was an act of rebellion is spurious, and even the Supreme Court ruling on Prize Cases regarding the legality of the Northern naval blockade contended, disingenuously, that the Confederate States were simultaneously a foreign power and a rebellious group of citizens (a blockade against states that were not a foreign power would have been unconstitutional).
Of course, southerners adopted the label of “rebel” as a point of pride, and their war cry became known as the “rebel yell.” But this response to the Union title of “War of Rebellion” is hardly enough to claim that secession was merely an act of rebellion. The more important point for the present article, though, is that the misnomer “Civil War” does not seem to have been a propaganda term.
Why Call it a Civil War?
The final point worth addressing is the matter of my personal decision to refer to the American Civil War by its common misnomer. I recognize that the term is incorrect, but for anybody familiar with my articles and podcast, you’ll know that I never refer to it as the more technically accurate “War for Southern Independence.”
My answer is simple: The Civil War is what the general population knows it as. The purpose of a proper-noun title for any given war is to designate which specific conflict in global history we are referring to. Prior to World War II, we called the First World War the “Great War.” The name change became a matter of clarity, not accuracy. One could argue that calling either war a “World War” would be inaccurate since the vast majority of countries in the world did not participate. But what would be the point of such semantic squabbling?
There is a pedagogical purpose in discussing the misnomer in calling the American Civil War a “civil war,” as a way of illustrating the particularities of the conflict itself. However, the fact remains that when we are communicating with any given person in the United States, we can feel confident that they will know what conflict we are referring to with the title “Civil War” even if they are aware of the technical inaccuracies of the label.
Further, even though I’m happy to defend the greater accuracy of the title “War for Southern Independence,” I’m also aware that using such a phrase is a very effective way to alienate a portion of the population so that they will have no interest in any historical explanation I may give. I might agree that this is their failing, not mine, but if my goal is effective communication of history, it would be a strange tactic for me to stubbornly use a term that I know will have this effect, even if I believe that it shouldn’t have such an effect.
While there is some purpose to addressing the misnomer of the “American Civil War” label, I would encourage everybody interested in this history to try to keep sight of the more important matter of the history itself, and the substantive lessons we can derive from learning history. Bickering about labels, no matter how right our objections might be, has a greater tendency to detract from the real lessons of history. Whether we like it or not, the proper-noun title that has been historically accepted and is universally ingrained in the minds of the American population isn’t going anywhere.