The War of the Rebellion and the Naming of the American Civil War

The history of what to call 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 side 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.

In the wee hours this morning, BetsyRoss tweeted “Today in 1866: President Andrew Johnson formally declared the Civil War over, months after fighting had stopped.”  My retort: “He was wrong.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Todd says:

    Would it be too far fetched to say that in many ways today’s Conservatives are heirs to the Confederacy? The ‘civil war’ is alive and well, still somewhat along regional lines, but more so ideological; in that for those who are most committed to their views, the ‘enemy’ could very well live just next door. 🙂

  2. JohnMcC says:

    Grew up in Montgomery AL. Well remember the distainful way that one of my aunts said, ‘There was nothing CIVIL about that war!’ For me it’s alway been The War Between the States.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    Lincoln’s First Inaugural address:

    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. You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect, and defend it.”

    I would say Lincoln used Civil War, not rebellion, in his major speeches (Both Inaugurals & Gettysburg), but would not have had had a problem with rebellion, as it was illegal act — he had a problem with secession:

    It might seem at first thought to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called “secession” or “rebellion.” The movers, however, well understand the difference. At the beginning they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude by any name which implies violation of law. They knew their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in and reverence for the history and Government of their common country as any other civilized and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly, they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism, which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps through all the incidents to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is that any State of the Union may consistently with the National Constitution, and therefore lawfully and peacefully, withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other State. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judge of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.

    (July 4, 1861 Address to Congress)

    He would have had a problem with recognizing the South as a “separate state” as James does here.

  4. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Todd: Would it be too far fetched to say that in many ways today’s Conservatives are heirs to the Confederacy?

    Yes, it would. Next question?

    But that doesn’t stop a lot of idiots from pushing it. I think it’s part of their way of burying the fact that the Democratic Party was the party of the Rebellion, as well as the party that spawned the Ku Klux Klan and fought so hard against the Civil Rights movement.

    Which would be little worthy of mention if it wasn’t for their constant attempt to — if you’ll pardon the expression — “whitewash” their party’s history.

    While there is a certain charm in colloquialisms as “the war of Yankee aggression” and “the late unpleasantness,” the most accurate term has to be “the Civil War.” Besides, if we rename it, we lose some of the benefits of the term, such as this one…

  5. C. Clavin says:

    “…it’s part of their way of burying the fact that the Democratic Party was the party of the Rebellion…”

    Yes…of course…which is your way of burying the subsequent 150 years of history and the Republicans becoming the party of the South…and rank bigotry.

  6. Moosebreath says:

    “”War Between the States” is also commonplace and accurate.”

    I would disagree on the accuracy. While individual regiments were formed and served under the names of the states, at any larger level, they were controlled and coordinated by the two central governments. The states had no power to dictate military tactics or strategy, to decide whether to accept peace, or any other relevant way of defining war.

  7. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @C. Clavin: Yes…of course…which is your way of burying the subsequent 150 years of history and the Republicans becoming the party of the South…and rank bigotry.

    Cliffy, what a surprise. You also suck at math.

    2013 – 150 = 1863.

    Are you arguing that the Democratic Party wasn’t still the party of the Confederacy through at least the first hundred years of that time period?

  8. Todd says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    … fact that the Democratic Party was the party of the Rebellion, as well as the party that spawned the Ku Klux Klan and fought so hard against the Civil Rights movement.

    That’s just silly.

    Many who called themselves Republicans in the past (especially in the Northeast), are now Democrats, while those you refer to above are now Conservative Republicans and would be insulted if anybody dared suggest they might be Democrats.

    It’s only in the past 40 years or so that the two major parties have become so relativley ideologically homogeneous.

  9. C. Clavin says:

    It ought to be named:

    The War for Human Chattel

    I know there is much revisionist history about States rights and 10th Amendment hoo-haw…but that’s just trying to put lipstick on the pig…to quote a modern-day secessionist (refer to: the AIP).
    The war was about preserving the ignoble economic system and sordid lifestyle of the South. Just follow the money.
    Today’s Republicans are playing from the same play-book…but — being the party of stupid and of Confederate Flags…they fail to recognize that the South both began and lost the war. Perry, Palin, Paul, et al should take note.

  10. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @Todd: Many who called themselves Republicans in the past (especially in the Northeast), are now Democrats, while those you refer to above are now Conservative Republicans and would be insulted if anybody dared suggest they might be Democrats.

    Thank you, sir, for your honesty here. I’d say that the true spirit of the anti-civil rights movement didn’t change parties in the 1960s, though, but actually died. There are still a few lingering zombies twitching about, garnering far more attention than they deserve, but as a movement? It’s dead.

  11. C. Clavin says:

    Jenos…you’re grasping at straws to assuage your idiocy.

  12. The War for the Perpetuation and Expansion of Slavery?

  13. Surreal American says:

    TIDOS (Treason In Defense Of Slavery) works for me

  14. JKB says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Of course, Lincoln couldn’t recognize the right of a state to leave the Union without also damaging the rationale for the “Northern Aggression” and his suspension of habeas corpus.

    It seems “Civil War” had been adopted within 30 years of the war’s end. Robert Ingersoll used “then came secession and the Civil War” in a published lecture on Lincoln in 1894.

  15. James Pearce says:

    To a certain cohort of my generation, the Rebellion will always be something that Luke Skywalker joined.

  16. Andre Kenji says:

    The idea that a region trying to secede can´t be considered a Civil War because there is no dispute over the centralized power is painfully inaccurate.

  17. PD Shaw says:

    OK, I’ve now read the entire linked piece and its balderdash, particularly the conclusion:

    Today, as Americans commemorate the war, it is worth remembering that merely calling it the Civil War disguises the fact that in this case, the victors did not write the history, for the victors had called it rebellion.

    B.S. Language police NAZIs. The victors called it rebellion and Civil War. Pointing out that Lincoln expressly preferred “rebellion” to “secession,” doesn’t say anything about “Civil War,” in any more than it says anything about “soda” versus “pop.” Lincoln used “Civil War” and “rebellion,” at least as synonymous, but preferred “Civil War” in his major speeches:

    First Inaugural Adress, consider carefully “the momentous issue of civil war.”

    Gettysburg Address, we are “engaged in a great civil war,” and what does it mean?

    Second Inaugural Address, the last time we gathered in the face of “impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it.”

    Not once did Lincoln use “rebellion” in these key speeches, but apparently he was aligned with the rebels in his word choice.

  18. James Joyner says:

    @PD Shaw: The argument is that Lincoln and others called it a civil war not the Civil War.

  19. @JKB: Out of curiosity, you are aware the writ of habeas corpus was suspended for 18 months by the Confederacy and when it wasn’t suspended Confederate military commanders just pretended that it was, right?

  20. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @James Joyner: The argument is that Lincoln and others called it a civil war not the Civil War.

    I’d explain that by referring to how The Great War became World War I once World War II started. Likewise, the Gulf War became the First Gulf War after the second started.

    It’s The Civil War because we’ve only had one. Should we have another (God forbid), then it’ll probably be renamed “the First American Civil War.”

  21. ptfe says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: Your view of history reads like it was the favored target at a shooting range for a few dozen people with spare buckshot.

    Let’s name some major civil rights issues:

    – Freedom of access to private facilities.
    – Freedom of access to government programs and institutions.
    – Equality of access to private facilities.
    – Equality of access to government programs and institutions.
    – Equality under the law.

    Which of these do you think has actually been achieved in our massively polarized modern world? Which of these is nobody fighting for anymore? Do you honestly think the anti-civil rights movement no longer exists? Are you truly so blind that you fail to recognize that fighting voter access, same-sex marriage, and pay equality while parroting Libertarian lines about free markets taking care of private racism just perpetuate the lack of freedom and equality for minorities and women in this country?

    The “true spirit of the anti-civil rights movement” swung straight into the lap of the Republican Party, which embraced white supremacy during Nixon’s primary campaign in 1968 followed by fundamentalist Christian dogma in 1980 and hasn’t looked back. You obviously really, really, really want to feel like Republicans aren’t evil, which is why you always vomit up the same old canard of “Demmycrats were racists for a hundred years!” Then you spout off a bunch of policies ripped from modern-day Republican party talking points and the Republican party platform that perpetuate the racism, sexism, and homophobia of those long-dead Democrats. Still you fail to make the connection.

    Maybe you should look in the mirror before you declare that “the anti-civil rights movement … [i]s dead.”

  22. JohnMcC says:

    @JKB: “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety shall require it.”

    Article I, Section 9, Clause 2

  23. Tyrell says:

    @Todd: A side story told to our history class long ago. The teacher told of moving to a small town in Louisiana, late ’50’s. He went to register to vote and asked to register Republican. The lady looked at him, evidently in shock, and told him that they did not even have a Republican registration book! They had to do a special form for him – the only Republican in the whole county (parish) evidently.
    Contrary to popular opinion, a lot of Democrats did not switch to the Republicans in the last several decades. They may vote Republican, but still remain members of the Democratic party.

  24. @JohnMcC: The funniest thing about RWNJs that complain about the suspension of habeas corpus during the American Civil War is that they are the same RWNJs that complain about prisoners at Gitmo being granted the right.

    This is especially true when you had the RWNJs in Congress and President constantly complain but refused to follow the Constitution and properly suspend it.

  25. PD Shaw says:

    @James Joyner: That might be your argument (“a” or “the”), but the linked piece is arguing that the use of the term “civil war” instead of “rebellion” is to “write the history” for the losers. The motive is probably because former leaders of whatever-you-wanna-call-it, didn’t like the term “rebellion” and argued it against its use after the war. I have no problem sticking it in the eye of people like Jeff Davis and Alex Stephens, but rewriting history to make it appear that a commonly used term at the time like “civil war” denotes some from of political sympathy to the defeated is wrong.

  26. PD Shaw says:

    P.S. Lincoln used the phrase “the Civil War” as well. The December 1, 1862 equivalent of the State of the Union message to Congress:

    The civil war, which has so radically changed for the moment the occupations and habits of the American people, has necessarily disturbed the social condition and affected very deeply the prosperity of the nations with which we have carried on a commerce that has been steadily increasing throughout a period of half a century.

    . . .

    The Territories of the United States, with unimportant exceptions have remained undisturbed by the civil war; and they are exhibiting such evidence of prosperity as justifies an expectation that some of them will soon be in a condition to be organized as States and be constitutionally admitted into the Federal Union.

    I can google all day; well no, actually, I can’t.

  27. C. Clavin says:

    “…They may vote Republican be card-carrying bigots, war mongers, science deniers, and bible-toting fundamentalists…but still remain members of the Democratic party…”
    Fixed that up for you…

  28. gVOR08 says:


    While individual regiments were formed and served under the names of the states, at any larger level, they were controlled and coordinated by the two central governments.

    There were many loyalists in the South or from the South caught up in a secession they did not support. IIRC, there were Union Army regiments formed under the names of all the states of the Confederacy except SC, e.g. the First Texas Cavalry, USA, formed in New Orleans after it was occupied by the Union Army. Or more correctly, following Robert Bateman’s example, occupied by the United States Army.

  29. Tyrell says:

    @ptfe: “long dead Democrats”? There are many of us still around that are loyal members of the southern Democrat party. We are not racists, segregationist, or some sort of extremists. I voted Republican once – for Nixon. I thought he had some good ideas: environment, foreign policy, ending the draft, Vietnamization, and some other things.
    “hot town summer in the city …back of my neck gettin dirty and gritty”

  30. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    Jenos–I actually agree with you that comparing conservatives to the Confederacy is, in many ways silly. Although, I’m sure you are aware Todd was kidding. You’ve never used polemics as a jibe, right?

    Where your idiocy starts, however, is thinking that screeching “Democrats were the racist ones in the 1950s!” let’s conservatives off the hook for the cascade of racism that has come from the conservative movement since the 1970s and well into today. Yes, Democrats were the party of the Klu Klux Klan. Then ol’ Nixon and Reagan came along, implemented the southern strategy, and hordes or racists ran to the Republican party.

    So, thank you, for taking those scumbags off our hands. But now they are yours. Deal with them.

  31. C. Clavin says:

    “…comparing conservatives to the Confederacy is, in many ways silly….”

    Republicanists…no…not so silly.
    I’m thinking the nut-job Governor from Virginia…who resurrected Confederacy Month without so much as a mention of slavery. I’m thinking Rand Paul who claims he would not vote for the CRA. I’m thinking CPAC re-welcoming the John Birch Society.
    Hyperbole? Perhaps.
    Maybe Republicans are something altogether new…A Confederacy of Dunces.

  32. Tyrell says:

    @C. Clavin: I remember our history class textbook mentioned major battles in New York City involving people there who were totally against fighting to free the slaves.

  33. Surreal American says:


    Major battles in NYC? That’s an odd way to refer to the Draft Riots:

  34. C. Clavin says:

    @ Tyrell…
    Frankly…I’m not much of a Civil War afficianado…so I differ to Wikipedia…

    “…No Civil War battles were fought within the Empire State, although Confederate agents did set several fires in New York City as an act intended to terrorize the community and build support for the peace movement…”

    As the Surreal American points out…there were Draft Riots…

  35. rudderpedals says:


    I went to NYC public schools Kindergarten-12 in the late 70s. The civil war was never called anything other than the Civil War as far as I can remember. US Grant was loved and remained strongly well regarded through my dad’s generation. Both Grants are as you know prominently entombed in NYC.

    @ school no love for the rebel side at all. We did sing This Land is Your Land and all sorts of good socialist songs so it wasn’t in the cards I suppose.

  36. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    Sheesh… you’d think that I, of all people, would recognize a trolling attempt and just let it pass. My apologies

    And yeah, until we have another, it can remain The American Civil War.

  37. PD Shaw says:

    @rudderpedals: Speaking of schools . . .

    There was a time, at least in the North, where every school child had to read, explicate by essay, and possibly recite from memory the Gettysburg Address. Many schools had a bronzed plaque of the Gettysburg address at one time, often paid for with the help of money raised by school children having read The Perfect Tribute, a book about the speech, later made into a silent movie.

    The linked authors are too dismissive of the role of that Address in forming the language and thinking about the Civil War in the North. That Address told Northerners for generations that the North was (by 1863) “engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation [conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal] . . . can long endure.” That’s what students learned, and one was liable to get one’s knuckles wrapped by a ruler for departing too farm from the script.

  38. stonetools says:

    As any true Southerner will tell you, the proper name for the 1861-65 conflict is the War of Northern Aggression. Didn’t you learn that growing up in Texas, James?

  39. C. Clavin says:

    I never had to recite the Gettysburg Address…but I did go to Abraham Lincoln Elementary School.

  40. rudderpedals says:

    @PD Shaw: Man did you hit a bullseye and triggered a flood of other memories. Lincoln drafted the address hurriedly on the train on the way to Gettysburg, apparently not true, I clearly remember that taught as a fact, along with it being written on the back of something used and not clean paper.

    How’d you remember that? Until a few minutes ago I thought the story was true

  41. Jim M says:

    @stonetools: I was born and raised in Alabama and studied the Civil War . I have heard that War of Northern Aggression term many times but I find it odd since it was the SOUTH who fired the first shots. So essentially it should be called the War of Southern Aggression if you follow that logic..My only pet peeve with the whole ordeal is that the SOUTH will not get over losing the war. It was around 150 yrs ago when it was fought and lost and no amount of statistics will make the South win that war. I personally equate the Rebel flag with the same distinction as the Nazi Flag as being obsolete icons of a lost cause not symbols of a great society that might have been,…

  42. Tillman says:

    Every time I hear “War of Northern Aggression” around here, it’s usually used facetiously. And I almost never hear it except from the older population. Everyone else just calls it the Civil War, and that’s what we were taught.

    I recall my elementary school had the Gettysburg Address framed in one of the main hallways. I don’t remember having to memorize it.

    It is a running joke in my family that any friend from the North is referred to as a “damn Yankee.” Again, facetiously.

  43. Andre Kenji says:

    At the time, most Europeans thought that the way that the United States was organized was unsustainable, and that sooner or later the Union would be destroyed by a war between the states. That´s why Napoleon III began his idiotic Mexican adventure precisely at that time, and that´s one of the reasons why it´s called “Civil War”.

  44. Davebo says:

    Personally I find the subject a bit idiotic, and I’m from the South. But Treason as mentioned above pretty much nails it.

    And I know folks who still fly the confederate flag, oddly next to the US flag on poles in their yard.

    They don’t seem to even understand the contradiction. But then they aren’t the sharpest of people.

  45. PD Shaw says:

    @rudderpedals: I read a few books on Lincoln each year, but I wouldn’t be to quick to assume that the story is entirely fictional.

    Lincoln likely began writing pieces of the Gettysburg Address long before the invitation. He wrote through the war, much as a lawyer might constantly think about a closing argument he may one day give a jury while he still prepares the evidence for his case. He appears to have been working on the Address through the morning that it was given. He may have even allowed the impression of a last-minute effort as a bit of self-effacing misdirection for a speech that was far too short for a long occasion.

    But the intent of the speech was to be read and re-read and discussed by citizens across the country that would not be at Gettysburg. It went beyond that and entered into the civic scripture of the nation. The era of rote learning is past, but for a long time people learned by reading and reciting from memory works from Shakespeare, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The linked piece seems oblivious to the impact of the speech on the general population for generations.

  46. JKB says:

    @Tillman: “War of Northern Aggression”

    That label really only works when coming from a genteel Southern lady. Scarlet O’Hara say. But it does have its uses in riling up Yankees.

  47. JKB says:

    This by Robert Ingersoll, who fought in the Civil War, frames the politics before the war:

    Both of the great political parties were controlled by greed and selfishness. Both were the defenders and protectors of slavery. For nearly three-quarters of a century these parties had control of the Republic. The principal object of both parties was the protection of the infamous institution. Both were eager to secure the Southern vote and both sacrificed principle and honor upon the altar of success.

    At last the Whig party died and the Republican was born. This party was opposed to the further extension of slavery. The Democratic party of the South wished to make the “divine institution” national while the Democrats of the North wanted the question decided by each territory for itself.

    Each of these parties had conservatives and extremists. The extremists of the Democratic party were in the rear and wished to go back ; the extremists of the Republican party were in the front, and wished to go forward. The extreme Democrat was willing to destroy the Union for the sake of slavery, and the extreme Republican was willing to destroy the Union for the sake of liberty.

    Neither party could succeed without the votes of its extremists.

    This was the condition in i858-60.

  48. rudderpedals says:

    @PD Shaw:

    The era of rote learning is past, but for a long time people learned by reading and reciting from memory works from Shakespeare, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The linked piece seems oblivious to the impact of the speech on the general population for generations.

    I agree with you. The linked piece kind of just stopped with the Century Magazine reference and gave it credit for the name.

    The wonderful City Times article regarding rote learning is compelling. How many of us learned the classics late? I know I did, but not nearly as thoroughly as multiplication tables and the new songs and poems. Too bad the classics weren’t drilled in in elementary school when the memory was malleable enough to retain them and build on them…. FWIW I think this would make a great OTB article

  49. al-Ameda says:

    Ha! Here we are, nearly 150 years after the fact, and it is clear to me that discussions of the Civil War will always cause consternation. We still live with the legacy of that war, we will never be over it.

    A few years ago I was at an extended family gathering with relatives in Huntsville (and some were in from Texas too) and the war came up, and as we discussed some of the general history and related subjects I said to them that in my opinion, in the absence of slavery there would have been no Civil War. Well, they hammered me on that and told me that the war was about State’s Rights and slavery was secondary to State’s Rights. Leave it to the token Northerner to cause hard feelings, right?

    That was 45 minutes of my life that would have been better spent watching “Charlie’s Angels” re-runs.

  50. An Interested Party says:

    But it does have its uses in riling up Yankees.

    About as much as reminding Southerners that their ancestors lost the Civil War and they have been weeping and gnashing their teeth about it ever since…

  51. dazedandconfused says:

    I’ll opine that a lot of it stems from the fact that the South didn’t begin to taste real defeat until the 1960’s. They certainly got their asses kicked in the 1860’s, but that’s a very different thing.

    Occupation (in several ways) had been far too expensive and was quickly abandoned. Within a few years the South was operating in very much as it had before. “In all but name”, as they say. However, less much prosperity. The worlds major textile industry had rushed to develop other sources when the South’s cotton production was interrupted.