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. 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. He quotes Edward Everett’s 1830 statement that “removal” is “a soft word… and words are delusive.” 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.” 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.
In April 2021, a press release by the Army University Press outlined their clarified editorial policy on Civil War terminology. 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.
 Claudio Saunt, Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2020).
 Saunt, xiii.
 “Vocab & Key Concepts,” Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. https://www.buffalolib.org/sites/default/files/exhibit/pdf/Vocab%20&%20Key%20Concepts%20-%20mc.pdf
 “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