What’s in a Name?For well over a century individuals and organizations with strongly held convictions have rejected use of the term “Civil War” to designate the American conflict of 1861-1865. Most commonly offered as an alternative has been “War Between the States.” Lesser support has been voiced for the “Confederate War,” the “War for Southern Independence,” and the “War of the Rebellion.” Usually put forward by southerners with tongue in cheek have been the “War of [or Against] Northern Aggression” and “The Late Unpleasantness.” During the course of the conflict no consensus developed around terminology. Yet, evidence can be found, even before Fort Sumter, for the use of the term “civil war.” Staunton, Virginia, newspapers in 1860 warned that the prevailing crisis “would lead directly and inevitably to disunion and civil war.” Raphael Semmes tendered his resignation from the U.S. Navy with the caution that “civil war is a terrible crucible.” Jefferson Davis, soon to be Confederate president, resigned his post in the U.S. Senate, warning that Abraham Lincoln’s policies would “inaugurate a civil war.” (After the war Davis did endorse use of “War Between the States.”) Gen. Robert E. Lee in a January 1861 letter home wrote, “I see no cause of disunion, strife & civil war & I pray it may be averted.” Two years later, on the death of his daughter Annie, General Lee wrote, “I have always counted, if God should spare me a few days after this Civil War was ended, that I should have her with me.” Examples can be offered for use of the term during the war by other Confederate officers, among them P. G. T. Beauregard and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Notwithstanding the fact that Lincoln at Gettysburg intoned, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” the term favored by many in the North during and for decades after the conflict was the “War of the Rebellion” or simply “The Rebellion.” Publication of the multivolume series of war documents under the title The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies conferred federal sanction on the usage. Among the first to use “War Between the States” (a term virtually unknown during the conflict) was Confederate vice-president Alexander H. Stephens, whose book by that title appeared in 1866. For the remainder of the nineteenth century, veterans of the conflict divided over usage. Confederate general Joseph E. Johnston used “War Between the States” in the title of his 1874 memoir. Zebulon B. Vance, North Carolina’s wartime governor and champion, in public addresses in 1886 and 1889 referred to the “late civil war.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy moved the argument to center stage at the close of the nineteenth century. Rejecting “Civil War Between the States,” a term favored by the United Confederate Veterans, the women of the UDC moved foursquare behind “War Between the States” and enacted a public campaign for its wide adoption. Mrs. L. E. Williams in 1917 succinctly expressed the rationale, writing that use of “Civil War” constituted a “complete surrender of the basic principle upon which the war was waged, the right of self-government.” The UDC membership was zealous in protecting southerners against what they viewed as northern propaganda, targeting particularly schoolrooms and textbooks. Objection to the use of “Civil War” peaked in the second decade of the twentieth century. In 1913, at the behest of the UDC, a Georgia congressman introduced a resolution officially renaming the conflict the “War Between the States.” Referred to a committee, it never made it to the House floor. In 1914, proponents placed on the ballot in North Carolina a constitutional amendment to strike references to “insurrection or rebellion” in the 1868 constitution and substitute “War Between the States.” The proposal failed by a vote of 61,031 to 57,816.
Harper's Weekly, June 15, 1861, using the term "civil war."