What’s In A Name?

What comes to mind when you hear someone refer to a “civil war”? By definition, a civil war is a war between two or more factions of a country over control of that country. Yet the fighting between the Union and the Confederacy from 1861 to 1865 was not over control of the United States government. This is setting us all up to misconstrue the motivations behind the war.

The question was not whether the Confederacy wished to take control of the United States’ federal government – that has clearly never been an issue. The question was whether the individual states had a legal right to secede from the United States. The Union maintained that they did not, for reasons best left to other posts, and the matter was settled in blood.

However, if we are going to accept the outcome of the war as a legitimate answer to whether or not the Confederacy was within their rights to secede, then we must also accept that the American Revolution was a civil war too and that the colonies were in the wrong for declaring their independence. After all, the foundation of the Confederacy’s belief that they held this right was from a number of sources around the time of the Revolution including our Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Now, I know there will be some people reading this who wish to point out that slaves did not consent to their slavery. That is absolutely correct, and you may enjoy reading my post On Slavery to get a better idea of where I’m coming from. However, since there were additional issues as far as taxation and federal control that went beyond disagreements regarding slavery, and since at the onset of the war Lincoln had absolutely no intention of abolishing slavery, that doesn’t really play into this. Even if we cannot agree on this point, we should be able to agree to use the most appropriate terms in reference to the war.

So what’s in a name? Let’s look at some of the names commonly used for the war between the Union and Confederacy and what is implied by each:

American Civil War … implies the Union and Confederacy fought over who would control the United States’ federal government.
War Between the States … implies a general sense that states were at war but gives no indication of how many sides there were or what was being fought over.
War of Southern Secession … implies the war was fought over whether the South could secede.
War of Northern Aggression … implies a vague sense of wrongdoing on the part of the Union.
War of the Rebellion … implies the Confederacy was simply rebelling and conveys a sense of wrongdoing.


The way in which we refer to previous events matters. Most of the above terms are either inaccurate, vague, or extremely biased. I use the first two at times because that is how the war is best known, but honestly I prefer War of Southern Secession because I feel it is the most factually accurate with the least bias. During the war many of these were used, including the term Civil War, but even acknowledging that I feel that it is not the best for us to use in the modern day nor do I believe they would have expected the war to be interpreted quite as it has been. The words we choose to use mean a great deal.

Do I expect my words here to have a significant impact in what terms are used by the majority of this country? Of course not. I certainly intend to begin embracing my preferred terms on this site though now that I have had a chance to briefly explain why I favor them and I hope this is further food for thought on the debate in general.