Civil War Wiki

The American Civil War has been known by a number of different names since it ended in 1865. These names reflect the historical, political, and cultural sensitivities of different groups and regions.[1]

The most common name, particularly in modern American usage, is simply "the Civil War". Although not used during the war, the term "War Between the States" became widespread in the Southern United States as historians searched for an ideologically acceptable name. During and immediately after the war, Northern forces often used the term "War of the Rebellion", while the Southern equivalent was "War for Southern Independence". The latter regained some currency in the late 20th century, but has again fallen out of use. Other terms often reflect a more explicitly partisan view of events, such as "War of Northern Aggression", used by some white Southerners, or the "Freedom War", used by their black counterparts to reflect the celebratory nature of Juneteenth celebrations.

A variety of names also exist for the forces on each side, and differences have even arisen with respect to the names given to individual battles. The Union forces frequently named battles for bodies of water that were prominent on or near the battlefield; Confederates most often used the name of the nearest town. As a result, many battles have two or more names that have seen varying use, although with some notable exceptions one tends to take precedence over time.

Enduring names[]

Civil War[]

In the United States, "Civil War" is the most common term for the conflict; it has been used by the overwhelming majority of reference books, scholarly journals, dictionaries, encyclopedias, popular histories, and mass media in the United States since the early 20th century.[2] The National Park Service, the government organization entrusted by the United States Congress to preserve the battlefields of the war, uses this term.[3] It is also the oldest term for the war. Writings of prominent men such as Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, William Tecumseh Sherman, P.G.T. Beauregard, Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Judah P. Benjamin used the term "Civil War" both before and during the conflict. Abraham Lincoln used it on multiple occasions.[4][5][6] In 1862, the United States Supreme Court used the terms "the present civil war between the United States and the so called Confederate States," as well as "the civil war such as that now waged between the Northern and Southern States."[7]

English-speaking historians outside the United States usually refer to the conflict as the "American Civil War," or less often, "U.S. Civil War."[citation needed] These variations are also used in the United States in cases in which the war might otherwise be confused with another historical event (such as the English Civil War or the Spanish Civil War).

War Between the States[]

The term "War Between the States" was rarely used during the war but became prevalent afterwards in the South.

The Confederate government avoided the term "civil war" and referred in official documents to the "War between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America."[7] There are a handful of known references during the war to "the war between the states."[8] European diplomacy produced a similar formula for avoiding the phrase "civil war." Queen Victoria's proclamation of British neutrality referred to "hostilities ... between the Government of the United States of America and certain States styling themselves the Confederate States of America".[7]

After the war, the memoirs of former Confederate officials and veterans (Joseph E. Johnston, Raphael Semmes, and especially Alexander Stephens) commonly used the term "War Between the States". In 1898, the United Confederate Veterans formally endorsed the name. In the early twentieth century, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) led a campaign to promote the term "War Between the States" in the media and in public schools. UDC efforts to convince the United States Congress to adopt the term, beginning in 1913, were unsuccessful. Congress has never adopted an official name for the war. The name "War Between the States" is inscribed on the USMC War Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. This name was personally ordered by Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., the 20th Commandant of the Marine Corps.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to the Civil War as "the four-year War Between the States."[9] References to the "War Between the States" appear occasionally in federal and state court documents.[10]

The names "Civil War" and "War Between the States" have been used jointly in some formal contexts. For example, to mark the war's centenary in the 1960s, the state of Georgia created the "Georgia Civil War Centennial Commission Commemorating the War Between the States". In 1994, the U.S. Postal Service issued a series of commemorative stamps entitled "The Civil War / The War Between the States".

Other historical terms[]

War of the Rebellion[]

During and immediately after the war, U.S. officials and pro-Union writers often referred to Confederates as "Rebels". The earliest histories published in the northern states commonly refer to the Civil War as "the Great Rebellion" or "the War of the Rebellion,"[11] as do many war monuments.

The official war records of the United States refer to this war as "The War of the Rebellion", and are a chief source of historical documentation for those interested in Civil War research. They are compiled as a 70-volume collection published by the U.S. War Department as The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1880–1901. Present-day historians usually refer to this collection as the Official Records.[citation needed]

War for Southern Independence[]

The "War for Southern Independence" is a name used by many Southerners in reference to the war.[12] While popular on the Confederate side during the war, the term's popularity fell in the immediate aftermath of the South's failure to gain independence. The term resurfaced in the late 20th century. To Southerners, the terminology parallels usage of the term "American War for Independence." A popular poem published in the early stages of hostilities was "South Carolina". Its prologue referred to the war as the "Third War for Independence" (it named the War of 1812 as the second such war.)[13] On November 8, 1860, the Charleston Mercury, a contemporary southern newspaper, stated that "The tea has been thrown overboard. The Revolution of 1860 has been initiated."[14]

Second American Revolution[]

In the 1920s historian Charles Beard used the term the "Second American Revolution" to emphasize the changes brought on by the Northern victory. This is still used by the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization, though with the intent to demonstrate the depth of the South's cause.[15]

War of Northern Aggression[]

The "War of Northern Aggression" has been used to express the position that the Union side was the belligerent party in the war.[16]

Other terms[]

Other terms for the war have seen even less frequent usage, particularly in modern times.

In the South: "War in Defense of Virginia", "Mr. Lincoln's War", and "War of Secession".

In the North: "War of the Insurrection", "Slaveholders' Rebellion", "Slaveholders' War", "Great Rebellion", "War to Save the Union", and "War of 1861 to 1865".

Later writers invented terms such as "War for Abolition", "War of Southern Reaction", and "Second War of Independence", which are rarely used in print.

Immediately after the war, the following expressions were common in the South: "The War", "The Late Unpleasantness", and "The Lost Cause".

Thomas DiLorenzo has called it the "War to Prevent Southern Independence", claiming a "Civil War" would be two belligerents fighting over control of the federal government. But in this case, the south was fighting to leave the federal government, and the north was fighting to keep them in the federal government. Using definitions of a civil war such as "a war between organized groups within a single nation state", or "a violent conflict within a country fought by organized groups that aim to take power at the center or in a region, or to change government policies", other writers disagree.

Naming the combatants[]

Template:Original research U.S. forces were popularly referred to as "the Union", "Federals", "the North," "the National Army (Armies)," "The Old Army," "Yanks," "Yankees" or "Blue Bellies". Confederate forces were commonly referred to as "the Confederacy," "the South," "Secesses," "Grays," "Rebels," "Rebs," or "Dixie."

Each side had a variety of nicknames for enemy soldiers as well. These included "Johnny Rebs" for Southerners and "Billy Yanks" for Northerners.

Naming the battles and armies[]

Civil War Battle Names
Date Southern name Northern name
July 21, 1861 First Manassas First Bull Run
August 10, 1861 Oak Hills Wilson's Creek
October 21, 1861 Leesburg Ball's Bluff
January 19, 1862 Mill Springs Logan's Cross Roads
March 7 – March 8, 1862 Elkhorn Tavern Pea Ridge
April 6 – April 7, 1862 Shiloh Pittsburg Landing
May 31 – June 1, 1862 Seven Pines Fair Oaks
June 27, 1862 Gaines's Mill Chickahominy River
August 29 –
August 30, 1862
Second Manassas Second Bull Run
September 1, 1862 Ox Hill Chantilly
September 14, 1862 Boonsboro South Mountain
September 17, 1862 Sharpsburg Antietam
October 8, 1862 Perryville Chaplin Hills
December 31, 1862 –
January 2, 1863
Murfreesboro Stones River
April 8, 1864 Mansfield Sabine Cross Roads
September 19, 1864 Winchester Opequon

There is a disparity between the sides in naming some of the battles of the war. The Union forces frequently named battles for bodies of water that were prominent on or near the battlefield; Confederates most often used the name of the nearest town. Because of this, many battles actually have two widely used names. However, not all of the disparities are based on this land-versus-water conflict. Many modern accounts of Civil War battles use the names established by the North. However, for some battles, the Southern name has become the standard. The National Park Service occasionally uses the Southern names for their battlefield parks located in the South, such as Manassas and Shiloh. Some examples of battles with dual names are shown in the table.

Historian Shelby Foote explains that many Northerners were urban and regarded bodies of water as noteworthy; many Southerners were rural and regarded towns as noteworthy.[17]

Civil War armies were also named in a manner reminiscent of the battlefields: Northern armies were frequently named for major rivers (Army of the Potomac, Army of the Tennessee, Army of the Mississippi), Southern armies for states or geographic regions (Army of Northern Virginia, Army of Tennessee, Army of Mississippi).

Units smaller than armies were named differently in many cases. Corps were usually written out (First Army Corps or more simply, First Corps), although a post-war convention developed to designate Union corps using Roman numerals (XI Corps). Often, particularly with Southern armies, corps were more commonly known by the name of the leader (Hardee's Corps, Polk's Corps).

Union brigades were given numeric designations (1st, 2nd, ...), whereas Confederate brigades were frequently named after their commanding general (Hood's Brigade, Gordon's Brigade, ...). Confederate brigades so-named retained the name of the original commander even when commanded temporarily by another man; for example, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Hoke's Brigade was commanded by Isaac Avery and Nicholl's Brigade by Jesse Williams. Nicknames were common in both armies, such as the Iron Brigade and the Stonewall Brigade.

Union artillery batteries were generally named numerically; Confederate batteries by the name of the town or county in which they were recruited (Fluvanna Artillery). Again, they were often simply referred to by their commander's name (Moody's Battery, Parker's Battery).


  1. Political scientists use two criteria to define a civil war: (1) The warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. (2) At least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side. See Wong, Edward (November 26, 2006). "A Matter of Definition: What Makes a Civil War, and Who Declares It So?" The New York Times.
  2. See titles listed in Oscar Handlin et al., Harvard Guide to American History (1954) pp 385-98.
  3. The Civil War
  4. Proclamation, August 12, 1861.
  5. Message to the Senate, May 26, 1862
  6. Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 The Brig Amy Warwick, et al., 67 U.S. 635, *636, 673 (1862)
  8. Jefferson Davis’ Memorandum
  9. Michael Waldman, My Fellow Americans, p. 111; also, Disc 1 Track 19
  10. For example: Dairyland Greyhound Park, Inc. v. Doyle, 719 N.W.2d 408, *449 (Wis., 2006)(“Prior to the War Between the States all but three states had barred lotteries”).
  11. See for example Henry S. Foote, War of the Rebellion; Or, Scylla and Charybdis, New York: Harper & Bros., 1866; Horace Greeley, The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of America, 1860-'64, 2 vols., Hartford, Conn.: O.D. Case & Co., 1864, 1866; Henry Wilson, The History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, 3 vols, Boston: J.R. Osgood & Co., 1872-1877.
  12. "Davis, Burke, The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts, New York: The Fairfax Press, 1982. ISBN 0-517-37151-0, pp. 79-80.
  13. War Songs and Poems of the Southern Confederacy 1861-1865, H. M. Wharton, compiler and editor, Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2000, ISBN 0-7858-1273-3, p. 69.
  14. The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns. Dir. Ken Burns, Narr. David McCullough, Writ. and prod. Ken Burns. PBS DVD Gold edition, Warner Home Video, 2002, ISBN 0-7806-3887-5.
  15. SCV website.
  16. "US Washington Monthly article". Retrieved 2009-11-18. 
  17. The Civil War, Geoffrey Ward, with Ric Burns and Ken Burns.1990. "Interview with Shelby Foote."

Further reading[]

External links[]

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