A War Of Words About The Civil War

Roundup: Talking About History

unknown author, The Washington Post, 11 Nov. 2004

I always thought it rather quaint that some Southerners insist on calling the Civil War the War Between the States. I live in the Shenandoah Valley, where the war isn't really over and Gen. Thomas"Stonewall" Jackson and the Confederate States of America are still a presence. So I have been careful to use both names so as not to appear biased because I grew up in Massachusetts.

But, curious about the alternative name, I decided to do some checking.

What I found was more than 40 other names by which the war was known, including Mr. Lincoln's War, the Yankee Invasion, the Second War for Independence, the War of Northern Aggression, the War for Southern Freedom, the War for States Rights, the War Against Slavery, the War for the Union and, my favorite, the Recent Unpleasantness.

The federal government most often used the War of the Rebellion in its official papers, publishing the war's records as the"War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Records," known among historians as simply the"OR."

By the mid-1950s, when a centennial commemoration of the war was being planned, the terminology in Washington had changed to the Civil War.

Older members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy still prefer the War Between the States, a reflection of an effort begun a century ago by that organization to give the war a name that better reflected its view of the event as"sectional combat" that developed into a war between two nations made up of the states.

The League of the South's Web site (www.dixienet.org) says there never has been a civil war in this country because the term isn't applicable to the military events between 1861 and 1865. It also declares that the conflict became known as the War Between the States in the 1920s through congressional action, a statement my research showed to be untrue.

I see and hear Civil War as the almost universal designation for the momentous events of more than 140 years ago.

What's a Northerner permanently settled in the South to do?

I turned to the historian and librarian of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond for an answer.

"I prefer Civil War," John Coski said."It's a generic term that has much currency and is easily understood."

He said the War Between the States was an accepted term in Southern education circles until about the 1960s.

"For people over 50, that was just the name used," he said."There was no other. That was what they were taught."

However, there are others who also favor the term and often use it to denote a political stand, he said.

"As a courtesy, I try not to attribute a motive to somebody who says 'War Between the States,'" he said."And I ask them to give me the same courtesy and let me explain what I mean by 'Civil War.'"

Back when men were firing at each other in the 1860s, there wasn't much thought given to what to call the war they were fighting. Troops on both sides called it"the war," as did most newspapers. Sometimes it was"the civil war," but in lowercase letters.

University of Georgia professor E. Merton Coulter, editor of the Georgia Historical Quarterly, wrote in a piece for that publication in 1952 that Gen. Robert E. Lee did not seem to prefer one name over another. He didn't live long after the fighting ceased in 1865, and he never wrote a memoir about his experiences, but in his correspondence he simply used"the war" or"the late war."

Two of his lieutenants, James Longstreet and John B. Gordon, used the name Civil War in the titles of their memoirs.

In the late 1800s in the South, it was the War of the Rebellion that was the most unacceptable. Kate Mason Rowland of Virginia introduced a resolution at a United Daughters of the Confederacy meeting in November 1899 to"use every influence, as a body and individually, to expel from the literature of the country and from the daily press, the phrase, 'war of the rebellion,' and to have substituted for it the phrase, 'War Between the States.'"

The resolution also instructed members to induce the federal government to use its preferred term.

This is probably where the belief came that Congress, in the last century, not only switched to the preferred wording but made it official for all government documents.

Not so, Coski and Coulter say.

The Daughters did succeed in having a resolution for the name change introduced in Congress in 1914 by Sen. Ollie James (D-Ky.). But, Coulter wrote,"without objection or debate, this petition was referred to the Committee on Military Affairs, where it slept the long sleep."

The term War Between the States does appear on some pieces of legislation, but only in reference to matters such as settling old war debts with the various states.

The Daughters had a real impact, though, on contemporary school textbooks, newspapers in the South and the important United Confederate Veterans Association's publication Confederate Veteran. Eventually, War of the Rebellion faded from use everywhere and was replaced by Civil War, and that didn't please the Daughters. As recently as the 1950s, members were encouraged not to say or write Civil War.

Coulter concluded that the term that worked best for him was War Against the States, because the outcome of the war was to greatly increase the power in Washington and decrease that of the states.

For me, the solution is to continue to use both Civil War and War Between the States. I do live in the South, and I like my neighbors.

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