A Reflection on Historians and Word Choice

Another note on nomenclature’s importance even during the war is the use of the term “contraband” to refer to those who sought freedom and fled their enslavers by travelling to the U.S. Army. The wartime policy of not returning them to those who held them in bondage was justified as withholding “property” from those in rebellion against the U.S. government. Also note the use of “The War For the Union” as the title of the image series. LOC.

Words have meaning. Historical interpreters, whether guiding battlefield tours, designing museums, or writing articles or books, must carefully choose words that both convey a point and do justice to the topic. Poorly chosen words can impact the effect of a description or even lead to harmful misconceptions or assumptions. Debates about words and nomenclature used to refer to the Civil War are not new, but some changes have become more common in recent historiography. Words like “slave,” “enslaver,” “Rebel,” “United States,” and others have meaning in usage and to readers, and Civil War historians should reflect upon which terms they are using and why.

One recent work, Claudio Saunt’s Bancroft Prize winning Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory clearly outlines  thoughts behind the words he chose to use.[1] The book (which is excellent) tracks the 1830 expulsion and removal of Native Americans across the Mississippi River by exploring indigenous peoples, government officials, land speculators from the north, and southern planters. His introduction, titled “Words Are Delusive,” states his various nomenclature decisions. Tracking the historiography of the term, Saunt writes that “Indian Removal” is “unfitting for a story about the state-sponsored expulsion of eighty thousand people,” preferring to use other terms such as “expulsion” or “deportation,” explaining that they better reflect the bureaucracy and violence during the process.[2] He quotes Edward Everett’s 1830 statement that “removal” is “a soft word… and words are delusive.”[3] Throughout the book Saunt makes other decisions about names, referring the native peoples by their specific tribal affiliations rather than as a homogenous bloc, referring to “plantations” as “slave labor camps,” and working to avoid historic stereotypes.

Often, “soft words” have been used throughout the historiography to brush over some of the harsher realities of the past and make it more digestible. Perhaps the widest spread change in literature has been the shift from the word “slave” to “enslaved.” Dipping back to my days as an English instructor, the way the word functions in a sentence is meaningful. “Slave” tends to function as a noun; it is a term for the person. “Enslaved” functions more often as an adjective; rather than being the defining feature of the person, it is a descriptor of the state they were forced into by those who held them in bondage. The use “enslaver” or “person who held others in bondage” rather than “owner,” “slaveholder,” or “master” serves a similar purpose.

The key concepts page for the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library’s “Telling the Story: Enslavement of African People in the United States” exhibit sums the choice up well: “Using the terms enslaved and enslaver are subtle but powerful ways of affirming that slavery was forced upon that person, rather than an inherent condition.”[4] It is yet another small step towards referring to marginalized people with dignity while the field of history increasingly seeks to tell their stories. There is some criticism of the shift, as “slave” was by far the predominant term during the war. I don’t necessarily have an answer to that, but I am generally on the side of using “enslaved” or “enslaved people” rather than “slave.” Though “slave” should certainly remain when used in a primary source account, I tend to find the argument of using “enslaved” to be more humanizing. Slavery was a state imposed on them through force and was not the whole of their identity as human beings.

The importance of nomenclature is also seen in the debate around the name of the conflict. Modern and historical titles include the Civil War, War Between the States, or War of the Rebellion as well as the more politically charged War of Northern Aggression or Slavers’ Rebellion, each with a specific meaning.

In April 2021, a press release by the Army University Press outlined their clarified editorial policy on Civil War terminology.[5] They note that broad referential terms such as “North” or “South” often negate the fact that the residents of both regions were politically diverse and not a wholly uniform community. After all, there were advocates for peace in northern states as well as United States loyalists and enslaved people in southern states and both those groups had very different perspectives than those who led the opposing forces. What caught the most attention was not that section, but their statement that most usages of the word “Union” will be replaced by “U.S. Army” or “Federals.” They explain that historically the word “Union” referred to all states together, which was obviously not the case during the war. This makes sense to me – these soldiers served the United States government, while those who fought for the Confederacy had to leave the U.S. Army to do so. The Press closes their note with discussion of the Lost Cause and how it “legitimates and excuses the secessionist agenda,” adding that Abraham Lincoln and other U.S. officials were careful about not recognizing the states in rebellion as a legitimate government. Army University Press acknowledges the political alliance of those states through the use of “Confederate” or “Confederacy” as well as variations of “rebel.” Often, the use of other “soft words” can serve to obfuscate the truth – that soldiers serving the Confederacy, a political and social alliance in rebellion against the nation, fought against and killed United States soldiers.

These few examples are far from the entirely of the discussions about word choice and nomenclature in Civil War history. Countless other terms, such as the title the conflict should be referred to as, are contested. Authors or presses have to consider those choices. They have to think about their own views (no author is truly unbiased), consider the publisher they are contracted with, and consider their audience. Though change does not happen overnight, I personally think that the research and effort that historians and publishers are putting into word choice goes to show just how much they care about the subject matter and how it should be represented.


[1] Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020).

[2] Saunt, xiii.

[3] Ibid,.

[4] “Vocab & Key Concepts,” Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. https://www.buffalolib.org/sites/default/files/exhibit/pdf/Vocab%20&%20Key%20Concepts%20-%20mc.pdf

[5] “Publisher’s Note on the use of Civil War Terms,” Army University Press. https://www.armyupress.army.mil/Portals/7/combat-studies-institute/publishers-note-on-use-of-civil-war-terms.pdf

35 Responses to A Reflection on Historians and Word Choice

  1. Yesterday, the President changed the Greenwood (Tulsa) Race “Riot” into “Massacre” which is a far more accurate word to describe what happened there 100 hears ago.

    1. Yes! Another excellent example of the importance of what something is called in the historiography. A long-needed change.

  2. I don’t know. The intention, it seems to me, of many current word choices is to present an anti-South attitude. “Enslaved person” may show greater consideration towards that person, but “enslaver” is too broad a term, and can’t be precisely applied.

    1. Sure it can be precisely applied. Did the individual enslave people? If yes, then they were an enslaver.

      1. It could also be called ‘indigenously enslaved’, referring to the original source of African American enslavement – other Africans. Of course there were also African Americans who enslaved African Americans, particularly in but not limited to, Louisiana. Using one umbrella term to convey a complex situation does not serve history well. And there seems to be no limit to the inflammatory nature of these remarks; calling a ‘plantation’ where African Americans lived and worked in generally benign physical conditions as a “slave labor camp” is designed to indict Southerners, since farms there were called plantations, but not in the North, where slavery existed for the first 140 years of colonial existence and, with ‘gradual emancipation’, well into the first decades of the United States. How easy it is to slant the story with clever word play that ignores basic facts.

      2. If a southern farm did not utilize the labor of enslaved people, it wouldn’t be considered a “slave labor camp.” Plantation, though, does not refer to all southern farms. The term itself has a connotation with large size, and with large size comes the reliance on enslaved labor.

        I don’t really have anything to say about your comment about “generally benign physical conditions” beyond the obvious comparison between the “big house” at plantations and the cabins laborers lived at. If the constant possibility of being sold away from your loved ones, little control over your life, and the threat of rape or beatings is not something you believe occurred, I would encourage you to spend more time with primary sources. I suggest the WPA narratives. (https://www.loc.gov/collections/slave-narratives-from-the-federal-writers-project-1936-to-1938/about-this-collection/)

      3. An enslaver is one who actively enslaves another. It is different from being a slaveholder.

      4. I don’t see a dividing line between “slaveholder” and “enslaver.” If one owns human beings and holds them in bondage, if you use their labor, and do not free them, that person is an enslaver. I don’t see how one would merely “hold” enslaved people while not enslaving them. If there is any possibility of selling them away from loved ones, any chance of physical violence, it is slavery. I think that trying to create a line between the two gets dangerously close to the myths of “happy slaves” and “benevolent masters.” Slavery was not a good institution, and modern commentators who often defend it or claim it wasn’t that bad would certainly not wish to be enslaved themselves in the same conditions.

      5. Hi Ryan! I would say you are correct. Enslaver can be precisely applied, as it is in fields that study the Ancient Mediterranean as well as more modern European Imperialism, and American History. The Civil War offers one glimpse into this frame of mind where we are trying to be conscious both of those enslaved as well as the active role taken in subjugating living humans.

        Time periods and the faces may change, but this power imbalance must not be ignored or understated. There are still enslaved people alive today across the world, as well as those choosing to continue enslaving them.

  3. Careful evaluation should be made of the relatively modern myth known as the “Lost Cause Myth.” The classification is itself a myth used by modern historians to discount and dismiss any defense of the Southern Cause. It is a disparagement based more on modern agenda than actual historical facts, promotes the acceptance of a PC narrative without critique. A truly deceptive and deceitful aspect of modern historiography.

    And “rebellion” is certainly a misnomer when applied to the Southern States. They were simply pursuing the thoroughly American principle of “government by consent of the governed,” and the Jeffersonian States Rights philosophy that had dominated American political sentiments for most of its first 70 years. If anyone led a “rebellion,” it was Lincoln against these two principle founding philosophies.

    Secession of eleven States based on the votes of their majorities in referendums and conventions, did not necessitate war. They were merely voluntarily leaving the Union in the same manner in which they voluntarily joined. There was no “Berlin Wall” around the Union until Lincoln erected it by force of arms.

    1. Actually, modern historians did not invent the term “Lost Cause” … that term was first used by E.P. Pollard, wartime editor of the Richmond Examiner … in 1867 he authored “The Lost Cause: The Standard Southern History of the War of the Confederates” … this began the ex-Confederate effort to rationalize secession and the war in an effort to salvage some measure of honor from such a catastrophic defeat.

      1. In my research I have seen the term “Lost Cause” used by both former Confederates and their critics from 1867 onward. The term caught on early and stuck.

  4. Nice essay … great point about the use of North and South — wrong on many fronts … two quick questions:

    i get the distinction between the use of “slave” and “enslaved” … enslaved is clearly the more descriptive lingo, describing the state of forced bondage … but is slave really a “soft” word … what part of being a slave was soft?

    what is your sense about the using the terminology of the day … i am thinking specifically of the use of “colored” in United States Colored Troops … i’ve heard historians — black and white — use United States Colored Troops … they simply stated this was how they were identified and how those troops identified themselves … sort of like the legacy use of “colored” in NAACP.


    1. Mark, thanks for your comment and questions.

      My use of “soft” in reference to Edward Everett’s quote was certainly not to hint that “slave” diminished the experiences of the enslaved. However, like you mentioned the use of “enslaved” is more descriptive, and especially as an adjective can help readers to stop and think a little more about what the word means. Sometimes words like “slave” can be heard so many times as to be common and sometimes skimmed over, while “enslaved” often encourages deeper thought.

      Regarding the use of “colored” in USCT or NAACP, my sense for that is the same as maintaining original language when quoting from primary sources. It was, after all, a key word in the official designation and title of the organization.

  5. Jon, this isn’t a “reflection”, it is merely an articulate rationalization for utilizing words of more usefulness in advancing your position. But there can be contradictions in your analysis, as ideologically driven language often has. Thus, the word slave is one you are uncomfortable with because you perceive it removes agency from the enslaved. You prefer enslaved, ironically, because it emphasizes the immoral coerced nature of their state. In effect, it also has the stylistic effect of minimizing the extraordinary negotiated agency they did exert even in their enslaved condition. Similarly, the word Massacre to describe the complex events in Tulsa in 1921 is perhaps a convenient modern political device. I would suggest that upon mature reflection, the word Battle is more appropriate, and historically more accurate. Many young African American veterans of the First World War had armed themselves against what they perceived to be a threat from a potential lynch mob.

    1. John, thanks for the comment. Apologies if my wording seemed to minimize their agency. I am well aware that those within bondage exercised agency, and there’s a lot of really impressive scholarship on that. Two that come to mind immediately are Amy Murrell Taylor’s Embattled Freedom or especially the first few chapters of Thaviola Glymph’s Out of the House of Bondage.

      As to your second comment, I do still lean towards massacre. That term does not necessarily minimize acts of resistance – many other termed massacres include resistance. Though massacre may not be the best word and I am open to debate, I think it is better than riot, or battle. “Battle” often has the connotation of two relatively equal sides.

    2. Battle? It is estimated that up to 300 African-Americans were murdered. I believe one or two White citizens were killed. Over a thousand Black homes and businesses were looted and burned as White mobs hunted down Black citizens. I am aware of none owned by White citizens that received reciprocal treatment. Thousand of Black citizens were displaced and many forced to leave Tulsa; I am not aware of any White citizens receiving the same treatment. If the death of 300 African-American citizens by White mobs does not fit the definition of a massacre, I don’t know what does. I would urge you to read one of the books on what happened. What happened in Tulsa was pretty one-sided.

    3. The Detroit riot in 1943 could definitely be described as a battle. I don’t think it should be described as a massacre which it is on a poster I’ve seen passed around by historians on twitter (e.g. Brooks Simpson and Kevin Levin). White Detroit, citizens and government, got the best of black Detroit, but it was a running fight where 30 something blacks were murdered and 16 or so whites were murdered. A recent history book that mentions it describes it as a race riot, which it was literally… a full on riot of white versus black in 1943 Detroit, Michigan.

      New Orleans also has an event called the Battle of Liberty place, in which both sides had tens of people killed. James Longstreet got the better of the White League folks that day.

  6. One can argue that “enslaver” and “slaveholder” are not synonymous without holding the opinion that slavery was a benign institution. By 1860, the majority of slaveholders were inheritors of the peculiar institution. Enslavers did exist, as described by Pauli Murray in her book Proud Shoes. They abducted free blacks in border states and sold them into slavery.

    1. Even if they had inherited “property” from their parents, many tended to purchase additional enslaved people, or encourage them to have children who would be born into bondage. Additionally, every day that they chose not to free those they held in bondage, they were making the decision to continue to enslave them. This, even if they did not take a free person and enslave them, as in the case of abductors, they were enslaving those they held in bondage.

      1. So if “every day that they chose not to free those they held in bondage, they were making the decision to continue to enslave them.” What about their free neighbors, who didn’t claim to own anyone, yet still didn’t choose for freedom for all? Were they part of the decision to enslave them, since they didn’t use all their efforts to free them? Were they enslavers as well?

      2. Joshua, the conversation about how those who did not directly “own” others may benefit from slavery through practicing “hiring out” or other ways is a separate conversation.

        Though I can see what you’re thinking, I think there is a clear line between those who did not claim ownership not pursuing freedom and those who did claim ownership. If one claims ownership over another human being, they are enslaving them.

    2. One could argue that on the margins — they are in fact different words with slightly different meanings … in this context, however, it is a distinction without a difference and not a very good argument. Slaveholders who inherited property were perpetuating the institution of slavery, period.

  7. As an NPS volunteer, I am
    All too aware of opaque Civil War era terms can be. I noticed the black looks I was getting when I repeated the word contraband during the answer to a question. I now substitute self-liberated except where contraband is appropriate. It is also accurate. There is something dehumanizing about contraband.

    1. By not using the term, particularly as it applied to Ben Butler’s legal dancing with terminology, you utterly emasculate it’s significance. If we fail to use the language then in fashion, it loses context. You have an obligation to inform your audience that this was the term then current. We don’t use it..they did.

      1. “Contraband” is a nasty words to refer to people as, but as people have discussed it is indeed the way they were referred to. John has a good point about how the term itself was a legal dance to justify the practice within existing legal frameworks. I agree that the word should not be used casually, but I think the term has use in interpretation in order to explain the origin and use of the term.

  8. A useful essay — thanks. Gives me a lot to think about. I’m currently writing about the use of impressed Black laborers on fortifications during the war here in North Carolina. Some of these workers were free; most were enslaved. It’s true that it matters how we use words.

    Some specific questions that come up for me:

    1. “Plantation” versus “slave labor camp.” “Slave labor camp” seems like too broad a term to describe the plantations around here; most used enslaved workers, but I’m not sure that all did; and many continued to be called plantations after emancipation. I guess one possibility might be “slave-labor plantation.”

    2. “Enslaver.” That might work — I’ll have to think about it. One sticking point is that (to my ear) to enslave someone implies the original act of bringing that person into an enslaved condition. I guess the argument could be that claiming ownership of another person at their birth or through a financial transaction is in itself an act of enslavement.


    1. ARB, I am not sure I agree with the argument that the term “enslaver” can only be used for someone who commits “the original act of bringing that person into an enslaved condition.” In New York we refer to prison staff as “jailers” even though a police officer arrests a person and a judge or jury sends him/her to jail.

      1. Good point; you bring up a useful parallel. I think a lot about the words I use when I write, and I’m just raising a question here, based on how “enslaver” sounds to my ear.


      2. Jailer: “a person in charge of a jail or of the prisoners in it.”
        Enslaver: “to make a slave of; reduce to slavery; subjugate.”

        Etymology can be dangerous, but jail comes from words meaning “cage.” So a jailer is someone whose occupation is associated with a jail, rather than coming from the verb “to jail.” The verb form of jail seems to be derived from jail the place.

    2. ARB, that sounds like a very interesting project you are working on! Your point on “slave labor camp” is interesting. Personally I am not fully decided on that nomenclature, but agree that the use of enslaved labor should be at the forefront of the terminology and explanation – and your possibility would indeed make that distinction. I would also agree with your point that continuing to claim ownership, even through inheritance rather than purchase, would be an act of enslavement.

      1. Jon — Thanks for your response. This project started as a study of the Civil War fortifications around Raleigh. But over time, I’ve come to realize that perhaps the most important task of the project is to tell the stories of the workers who were impressed to build these entrenchments. To build the Raleigh works, the state conscripted somewhere between 200 and 300 laborers during a period of about three months, Aug-Oct 1863. Writing this intense story is forcing me to think deeply about the language I use, which drew me to your piece about word choice.


  9. Sure, but taking this thought to its logical conclusion, Sherman would no longer be simply a general, he would be a “war criminal” or “arsonist.” The Union/Federal troops would more accurately be described as the “invaders.” And, sure the so-called rebellion could just as accurately be described as the “war for southern independence.” ummmm….. oh wait, that is the Lost Cause myth. Suddenly these terms become very circular and meaningless.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!

%d bloggers like this: