War By Any Other Name

It’s April 12. In Civil War anniversary sequences, it’s the day that Fort Sumter was first fired upon (1861), and it’s the day when the divisions of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia formally stacked their weapons (1865). A beginning and an end all wrapped into one day across the years.

The major war in North America between 1861 and 1865 has been called many things. Even while it was being fought, combatants and civilians called it different names. Then, enter the era of memory, followed by historiography and the names continued to evolve, fall in and out of use, and sometimes acquire additional meanings. In each phase, different sides and different promoters of memory had their preferred name for the conflict.

The War Between The States. The War of Northern Aggression. The Slave Holders’ Rebellion. The War of the Rebellion. The Brothers’ War. The War for Southern Independence. The War for the Union. The War of Secession. Mr. Lincoln’s War. Mr. Davis’s War. This Late Unpleasantness. Etc. Etc.

More simply and best recognized…it’s known as the American Civil War. Or the Civil War. Or THE Civil War. 

Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines “civil war” as “a war between people of the same state or city; opposed to foreign war.” To the chagrin of the Confederacy in the 1860’s and the dislike of following generations who preferred the Southern view of the political debate, by definition “civil war” implies a single nation and not a collection of independent states. And civil war is not limited to U.S. History (as I once discovered to my great confusion when I was about 13.)

If the words are separated and defined, the oxymoron and juxtaposition of ideas appears. Again turning to the 1828 definitions: 


  • Relating to the community, or to the policy and government of the citizens and subjects of a state… It is distinguished from ecclesiastical, which respects the church; and from military, which respects the army and navy.
  • Relating to any man as a member of a community; as civil power, civil rights, the power or rights which a man enjoys as a citizen.
  • Reduced to order, rule and government; under a regular administration; implying some refinement of manners; not savage or wild; as civil life; civil society.
  • Civilized; courteous; complaisant; gentle and obliging; well-bred; affable; kind; having the manners of a city, as opposed to the rough, rude, coarse manners of a savage or clown.
  • Grave; sober; not [happy] or showy.
  • Compaisant; polite; a popular colloquial use of the word.


Noun – to perplex, embroil, disturb. The primary sense of the root is to strive, struggle, urge, drive, or to turn, to twist.

  • A contest between nations or states, carried on by force, either for defense, or for revenging insults and redressing wrongs, for the extension of commerce or acquisition of territory, or for obtaining and establishing the superiority and dominion of one over the other. These objects are accomplished by the slaughter or capture of troops, and the capture and destruction of ships, towns and property. Among rude nations, war is often waged and carried on for plunder. As war is the contest of nations or states, it always implies that such contest is authorized by the monarch or the sovereign power of the nation. When war is commenced by attacking a nation in peace, it is called an offensive war and such attack is aggressive. When war is undertaken to repel invasion or the attacks of an enemy, it is called defensive, and a defensive war is considered as justifiable. Very few of the wars that have desolated nations and deluged the earth with blood, have been justifiable….
  • Hostility; state of opposition or contest; act of opposition.
  • Enmity; disposition to contention.

Sometimes I wonder if we want to think of the 1860’s war as a polite hostility. Or as a civilized enmity. Historically speaking, participants, war veterans, and historians have been fond of giving meaning to the war – many different meanings to justify the death and destruction. Given the veneer of propaganda both sides employed during the American Civil War and the veiled stories that rose in prominence after the war, it may be understandable and forgivable (to some extent) why the concept of war with limits has been frequently implied and taught. Certainly, the culture of the 19th century with emphasis on religion and, to some extent, an honor code did temper some aspects of the conflict. Still, the war was anything but polite, clean, and clear.

War is war. Civil implies the divisiveness of this particular conflict, not a politeness. Call it what you will, it’s still war with death, destruction, pain, and loss in every form.

I’ve been perhaps reading too much Shakespeare, but this name vs. reality challenge reminds me of the Juliet’s overheard soliloquy in Romeo & Juliet in Act 2, Scene 2. She proclaims that Romeo’s name should not matter and that she is willing to overlook it and all that it represents to the enemy families.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Leaving the romantic imagery and focusing on the concept…we can call something whatever we want, but it cannot erase the core facts. We can paint over with words (or lack of words) and make movies shining with romance, glory, and patriotism, but that does not cancel out the reality. We can try to re-adopt “civil” as an cover of politeness, but “war” will still be there – a reminder that our country went to battlefields to determine the future of power, government form, and freedom.

The conflict has acquired many names, but Civil War has become the most recognizable and enduring. Ultimately, that is the name I use most frequently, knowing its core political meaning and also refusing to let “civil” be a softening adjective for the reality of war. The choice of name does have implications for interpretation and memory. But war is war, and to some extent, the rest of the name does not matter.

10 Responses to War By Any Other Name

  1. While recognizing that to the winners go the spoils, even in naming a war, I use Civil War but it really wasn’t by the predominate political philosophy that had emerged from the founding. Secession had long been recognized in both the North and South as a genuinely American right, to enable every American to exercise their natural right to a gov’t of their own consent.

    Therefore the war was not a true “Civil” War. It was not a war between people of the same country, nation, state, etc… It was more properly a war to prevent a section of people from exercising their right to a government of their own consent. Neither side was fighting to gain control of the central gov’t of a common people. The Southern people simply wanted a separate confederation because they no longer felt the old Union to be to their benefit. The Northern people opposed disunion because the loss of union meant the loss of their majority political advantage over the Union and the ability that majority created in the form of economic dominion over every American.

    When the Southern States seceded, they exercised a most fundamental American right which their forefathers had exercised in seceding from the British empire. They created their own sovereign confederation designed to exercise what they believed contributed most to human flourishing. They never sought to overthrow Washington DC. They simply sought to go their own way, and were attacked for doing so.

    War isn’t a matter of who fired the first shot (which can be argued wasn’t even fired at Sumter), but rather a matter of who provoked and invaded a people who exercised their founding right and had created their own separate confederated government. They sought to do so peacefully. They were not allowed that most fundamental exercise of true liberty.

    So the so called “Civil War” was not a true civil war. It was a war instigated by one section of people called the United States od America invading the sovereign territory of another section of people called the Confederate States of America; for the purpose of economic benefit under the euphemism of “preserving the Union.”

    Secession was peaceful, and in no manner necessitated war. War was a choice made by Lincoln to deny a fundamental right of freedom and independence sought by the Southern people. It had nothing to do with slavery as Lincoln made clear in speeches and letters multiple times. Slavery was incidental to the motive for war. It was merely leveraged as a “war measure” to cripple the Southern infrastructure, and later eliminated to promote Republican political control of the South. Ending slavery in that manner directly contributed to the oppression of blacks for the next century and lends the war no moral merit.

    The war is therefore rightly named as the “War Against Southern Independence.” The South did not want war, nor did it start the war. That war was provoked and started by Lincoln at the bequest of his industrialist supporters.

    1. Not sure who these “Southern people” are. If you suggest that secession was uniformly supported by all humans present in southern geographic areas, then I would not agree with your assessment as to their desires. And really, all civil wars will find support for faction will be influenced by geography.

  2. Sarah, your usual mature, reflective piece, contrasted with the chest thumping that takes the place of analysis these days. The two previous respondents perfectly bookend my point.?

  3. I have always been fond of “The Late Unpleasantness.” Imagine “The Late Unpleasantness Illustrated,” “The Late Unpleasantness Monitor,” or even “Emerging Late Unpleasantness.”

  4. Leaving aside the politics in Rod’s comment, his definition is fundamentally correct. Most modern definitions of a “civil war” include the phrases, “between citizens of the same country”, and/or “for control of the central government.” The American conflict satisfies neither of those conditions. The Confederate States of America had declared itself a separate nation, much as has Ukraine today, and had no intent to control the United States Government. An irony of the war is that it quite possibly need never have happened. According to a friend who is a constitutional lawyer, the Supreme Court at the time comprised mainly Southern sympathizers, who might well have ruled in favor of secession had the South Carolina “fire eaters” simply held their fire a while.

  5. I respectfull disagree with Rod’s post. The ‘right’ to secession was not commonly recognized in the US. Indeed Andrew Jackson clearly stated that the federal government would oppose secession attempts with armed force. The actions of the secessionists: stealing everything they could get their hands on and trying to kill anyone who opposed them, were not the actions of people exercising a recognized right, it was the actions of people trying to start a revolution.

    rileydog makes the point: why didn’t the secessionists try the Supreme Court, if they were so confident that secession was a recognized right? Why wasn’t the supposed right of secession debated in Congress? And if the Supreme Court had ruled that, no, no right of secession exists, wouldn’t the fireeaters seceded anywhen?

    All this blah, blah about the Constitution tends to obscure, perhaps deliberately, the object of secession. An object so horrible that it can’t even be mentioned.

  6. There was never any American right to secession. If you read the US Constitution, there was a method to add states to the Union.And if you read the Articles of Confederation, it was the intention of the Founding fathers that the Union be perpetual. From a historical perspective however, warnings come down to us in the federalists papers that dissolution of the Union is among the worst things the founding fathers could envision. Hamilton (NY), Madison(VA) and Jay(NY- latter first Supreme Court Chief Justice) all agree that if the Union dissolved it would condemn the resulting parties to fight 1000 years of wars along competing religious, economic, and social values; just as European history demonstrated in the preceding centuries.

    Thus succession for unionists transcends hypothetical discussions and the logic of hidden default arguments found in the Constitution. Dissolution is a transformational action which threatens the welfare of all the member states of the republic. Thus every succession attempt, whether:

    Daniel Shay in 1786,
    The whiskey rebellion of 1791,
    South Carolina in 1832,
    The entire South in 1861
    Has been meet not by legal petitions or counter arguments but by force of arms.

    And the above comment about provoking a war is not true. The American involvement in World War II started when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and not when FDR put an embargo on oil shipments to Japan.

    The Civil War started when the rebels attacked an American military installation. It was American soil and the US Government had every right to supply the soldiers stationed there.

    The Civil War was instigated by the seceding section of the country , attacking the duly elected US Government. The choice of War was made by Jefferson Davis. In other words, the South started the War.

    If you read why the men enlisted, it was to preserve the Union.

  7. That that is, is. That that is not, is not. That that is is not that that is not and that that is not is not that that is. Now it isn’t is, it is was. it was a war and no matter which side had “the right” or “the wrong”, it was and several men lost their lives. People find the damndest things to argue about, but properly naming a war that has gbeen “over” more than 100 years seems be me to be a lesson in futility.

  8. Shakespeare had the War of the Roses. Wars are about as civil as they are sweet, right?

    Fyi, I’ve heard the English civil war of that time wasn’t called the War of the Roses until Shakespeare came along with the phrase 100 years later. Happy 4/12 everone, hope everyone of us together are one in this common interest of ours.

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