The War of the Rebellion and the Naming of the American Civil War
More than 150 years after the shooting began, controversy remains over what to call the conflict between the United States of America and Confederate States of America. Georgetown history professors Chandra Manning and Adam Rothman shed some light on the contemporaneous literature:
In 1881 the United States government published the first of many volumes of the official records of its war with the Confederate States of America. That massive resource has been a first port of call for historians, amateur and professional, since the moment of its publication; today digitization has made it even more widely accessible. Its shorthand nickname is the O.R., for Official Records. It can come as a surprise, then, to see that its full title is The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. It was called that because the rebellion was what the people who actually fought the war, especially but not only on the Union side, were most likely to call it. Understanding why helps us to better understand how the war’s participants understood the conflict, and how they remembered it.
During the war, Northerners and Southerners sometimes used the uncapitalized phrase “civil war” as a declarative description of the mess in which they found themselves, but Civil War was not yet a proper noun. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” President Lincoln famously declared in the Gettysburg Address. Less famously, Lt. James Langhorne of the 4th Virginia Infantry lamented to his mother, “I think our country is doomed to a civil war of years duration.” Throughout the struggle Confederates likewise spoke of the “civil war,” or just “this war.”
But most often, Northerners referred to the war as a rebellion. They commonly used phrases like “this rebellion” and “the great rebellion.” Northerners followed the course of the war in Frank Moore’s popular Rebellion Record, which began to run in 1861, and Lincoln himself frequently used the word “rebellion” to describe the war in public and in private. Rebellion was simply what Union soldiers, and sometimes even Confederate ones, called the war.
I generally call it “the Civil War” because, well, that’s the generally accepted name. (It should probably be “American Civil War,” given that there have been many civil wars, but we’re America, damn it.) But one can argue that it wasn’t a civil war at all, in that the Confederacy existed as a separate state and its war aims were independence, not control of the United States government. ”War for Southern Independence” is arguably a more accurate name but only one said had that war aim and, well, it lost.
“War of the Rebellion” has fallen out of favor, but works. ”War Between the States” is also commonplace and accurate. Some Southerners like “War of Northern Aggression,” which is both not particularly descriptive but demonstrably untrue, in that the South fired the first shots.