Civil War or War Between the States?

RiverS37I recently came across a microfilm reel that included a reprint of a Senate debate from 1907 on just this question. The pamphlet was put together by Edmund S. Meaning of the University of Washington for the purposes of clarifying the official name of the war. Meaning had heard Senator Benjamin Tillman present a speech in which he described the war as “The War Between the States” as the official name adopted by the federal government. Meaning contacted Tillman and asked for documents related to the Senate debate and discovered that in fact the name adopted was “Civil War.” Here is an excerpt from that Senate debate for your consideration. The debate took place on January 11, 1907 and can be found in the Congressional Record of that date, pages 929 to 933. 

Mr. Teller (Colorado): “So it can be said to have been a war between the states.

Then, in addition to that, those warring States, if they were warring States, entered into a confederacy and established a new government. It may possibly be stated that it was a war of the Confederacy against the United States.

Mr. President, it is not very material whether you use the term “rebellion” or whether you do not. I insist that the term “rebellion” is a proper term. It describes the condition which existed from 1861 to 1865. It may be an offensive term; and yet it was a rebellion against the Government of the United States. We have called it a civil war. At first there was a disposition to feel that those people were not entitled to be treated as warriors under the rules of national war. But it was found to be so great a war that they must be so treated. They were so treated by foreign governments, as well as by our own.

When the war closed there was no treaty between the States and the General Government. There was no recognition of State lines at all. In every respect the war was treated as a war of citizens of the United States against the General Government. It will go down in history of the world as a rebellion of States, in the first instance, because the States did act. Then it became in the highest sense of the term, a civil war, a conflict between individual citizens of the United States, and upon that theory when the war was over the Republican party declared that each of those States had practically abandoned its organization.

Upon that question I do not care to take much time. I was disposed myself, although an ardent supporter of the war, to believe that we ought to have recognized the existence of the States, upon the theory that the States had not gone out of the Union at all, and that the difficulty had arisen by the action of the individual citizenship of the States and not be the States.

However, the party in power at that time did not so recognize the condition and the States were finally brought back into the Union, as it was said, which, according to my theory, they had never been out of.

I do not think it very important whether we call it the war of the rebellion or the civil war. I do not believe that now or at any other time will we be inclined, or the people of the United States will be inclined, to change the character of the war by declaring it to have been a war between the States. It was a war against the general Government by citizens of the United States who were in rebellion against the authority of the General Government at that time.”

Mr. Money (Mississippi): I do not consider, having been a rebel from start to finish, that there is any particular odium in that phrase. George Washington was a rebel.

Mr. Teller: Certainly

Mr. Money: And so were all the heroes and patriots who established this Government. Some of them were slaveholders, including George Washington. There is nothing oprobrious in the term “war of the rebellion.” If it suits the fancy of Senators to call it by that name, it does not hurt me. I am quite accustomed to it, and I do not mind. But I was simply suggesting phraseology to meet the history of the case better. If Senators want to call it the civil war, they can do so. We contend it was not a civil war. It is quite true that men in Tennessee to the number of 32,000 went into the Federal Army, and I believe every single Southern State, except the State of Mississippi, furnished a regiment to the Federal Army. Mississippi furnished one, which was called the “Tigers” It was not composed of Mississippians, but of the fragments of regiments–the sick and wounded Federal soldiers at Vicksburg. But Mississippi was a wholly rebel, to use a common phrase, as any State could possibly be.

Kentucky and Maryland and Missouri sent the very flower of the Confederate army into the field. The best fighting men I ever saw came from those States, for the reason that they were not compelled to go to the front by local opinion, but went to the front contrary to that opinion, as many of them had to run the lines to get there, and they made all kinds of sacrifices.

I admit that if I had been in Massachusets I would have been in the Federal Army, and I guess if the Senator from Colorado [Mr. Teller] had been living in my town he would have been a member of my company; and I am not at all blaming anybody for the attitude he took at that time.

Mr. President, I do not want to take up time, but I happened to be at the door of the lobby of the Senate one day not long ago. It was the last session, near the close. There was ex-Senator Blair, of New Hampshire, as gallant a soldier as ever went to the field, now on crutches as the result of wounds inflicted by Confederate soldiers. He was shot three or four times. He called to me. I did not recognize him on account of my bad sight. We shook hands. I said: “What are you doing on these sticks, Blair?” He said: “You fellows hit me pretty hard three or four times, and it is beginning to tell on me since I have been getting old.” He said: “Did we get you?” I said: “Once; not much.” He said: “Are you not glad you got it?” I said: “I do not know. I have not regretted it.” He said: “I am glad I was hit.” We shook hands. He said: “Any man who was worth being hit ought to have been there either on one side or the other. If you had been in New Hampshire you would probably have been in my regiment.” I agreed that it was a great deal a matter of environment.

I make these remarks to show that I do not care anything abou the criticism. I make them merely in the interest of historical accuracy.

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24 thoughts on “Civil War or War Between the States?

    1. Kevin Levin

      Thanks for the link. It provides a concise overview of the issue. Most people refer to it as the Civil War without any hesitancy or even awareness that there are alternatives. Have a nice Thanksgiving.

      Reply
    2. Ken Noe

      I've been referring to the Coski article since it came out, but that link indeed provides a handy summary. I'll use it, thanks Chris.

      Interesting that some of the debate concerns “War of the Rebellion,” a name that has completely disappeared from popular Civil War memory since 1907, the OR aside.

      Reply
  1. donshaffer

    An interesting post, Kevin. I keep seeing the Civil War referred to in many federal documents in the decades following the war as the “War of the Rebellion.” I guess the adoption of “Civil War” was a compromise between these folks and the Southerners who wanted “The War Between the States.”

    Reply
      1. Joseph Eros

        There's a good article on this subject: “The War Between the Names” by John M. Coski (of the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond) in _North & South_ magazine, vol. 8 no. 7 (January 2006). Coski presents a lot of evidence that the United Daughters of the Confederacy played a significant role in getting “war between the states” to be a widely-used term in the early 20th century. In 1898, before the UDC’s campaign got underway, the United Confederate Veterans began protesting use of the term “war of the rebellion.” Somewhat ironically, their suggested alternative was “the civil war between the states”, which the UCV’s magazine continued to use until 1913.

        Reply
  2. Craig

    Interesting you selected a marker in Arkansas to illustrate this point, and one produced in more recent times. One of the subtle differences I've noted with the Virginia highway marker system is what one might consider a “generational” tone to the text. Markers from the 1928-1940 time period read differently than those placed in the 1960s, or more recent ones. Having transcribed so many now, I bet I could guess the time period of the marker just from reading the text.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      That was a random photograph, but you make some interesting points about the generational aspect of roadside markers. I know that there is a book (UVA Press) on Virginia markers, but this would make for an interesting study of memory and public history. Thanks again for the traffic suggestions and have a nice Thanksgiving.

      Reply
      1. Craig

        Kevin, the UVA book (one of our primary guidebooks to marker hunting), published in 2007, is a good reference but only notes the text and location of current markers, as of writing. Older editions offer text of markers now replaced or missing. Those editions date to the 1980s, and of course detail the markers that existed at that time. We also have traced down text and photos of markers long since vanished through VDOT and local historical societies.

        Reply
    2. Leonard Lanier

      A historical marker about Dahlgren’s Raid in Goochland County illustrates your point. The original marker, erected in 1929, read as follows,

      Dahlgren’s Raid (SA-27)
      “Here Colonial Ulric Dahlgren, a Union cavalryman, raiding on Richmond, hanged a Negro on a tree beside the road, March 1, 1864. Dahlgren planned to cross the James River in this vicinity and enter Richmond from the south. A negro guided the raiders to a ford but the water was too high for crossing. Dahlgren thought the guide had deceived him.”

      In 2001, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources replaced that marker with another that read this way,

      Dahlgren’s Raid (SA-27)
      “In February 1864 a young Union officer, Col. Ulric Dahlgren, joined with Brig. Gen. H. Judson Kilpatrick to raid Richmond and free Federal prisoners of war. They planned for Kilpatrick's men to attack the city's northern defenses while Dahlgren would lead his men through Goochland County, cross the James River, and enter the city from the south. A local African American, Martin Robinson escorted the troopers to a nearby ford but the water was too high to cross. Suspecting trickery, Dahlgren hanged him near here on 1 March, and then attacked the city from the west. Defeated, he rode east in search of Kilpatrick and was killed the next day in King and Queen County.”

      Both texts, to one degree on another, misrepresent the past. The old marker only focused on the hanging of Martin Robinson, but did not provide his name. The new marker, by detailing the logistical details of the raid, tries to hide the fact that it marks the spot of the hanging. Another example of memory confounding historical explanation.

      Reply
  3. philleduc

    As a University of Washington alumnus, I can’t help but make a correction to this interesting (as usual) post.
    The UW professor in question is Edmond S. Meany, who became head of the UW History Dept. in 1897 and had a long and distinguished career there. Several buildings in the Seattle area and on campus are named after him, as is a mountain in the Olympic range of Washington – appropriate since he taught forestry as well as American and Pacific Northwest history.

    Reply
  4. woodrowfan

    “The Late Unpleasantness” ??

    On a side note, I had heard that very Confederate state except South Carolina provided at least one Union regiment. Is this incorrect??

    Reply
  5. tjward98

    Don is right in that the official records in the decades following the war usually refer to it as “the war of the Rebellion.” Lincoln, of course, referred to the war as “civil war” in both of his inaugural addresses. Perhaps the most fitting term is one that is still heard, which is the “War for Southern Independence,” although one of my favorites is from Williams Wells Brown, “The Slaveholders’ Rebellion.”

    Reply
  6. John_Walter

    Very timely, thank you for the background research. The State’s Commission uses The American Civil War, our local group is asking all partners to use the same on its advertising and marketing.

    Reply
  7. Larry Cebula

    And isn't there a scene in the film Stagecoach where the alcoholic northern doctor and the alcoholic southern gambler have a tense exchange of words over what to call the war?

    Reply
  8. Craig

    When soldiers in Wisconsin were recruited for service in 1862 newspaper accounts often referred to the conflict as the war of southern rebellion, while in the south, where most of the war was fought, it was often referred to as the war of northern aggression. Referring to it as 'the Civil War' seems fairly neutral, but I suspect it was largely after the fact. Lincoln referred to it as a “civil war” in his Gettysburg Address. Once the president calls it a civil war, it would seem to me that makes the term politically correct.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Is the American civil war really over?? - Page 9

  10. msimons

    My 96 year old Grandmother who is my living like to my Civil War Soldier her Grandfather Called it the War of Northern Agression. She said there was nothing Civil About it.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin

      I think we can all agree with your grandmother that there was nothing civil about it, but that is not how the word is being used in this context. I apologize if you meant to be funny.

      Reply
      1. msimons

        After rereading my post it should be taken a being funny. I vote for the WBS but I would not make it a issue during a dicussion over the Late Unpleasantness” .

        Reply
  11. msimons

    After rereading my post it should be taken a being funny. I vote for the WBS but I would not make it a issue during a dicussion over the Late Unpleasantness” .

    Reply
  12. Douglas

    Civil War, War Between the States, War of Northern Aggression? Try this longer but more accurate name: War of Southern Treason to Extend Slavery to the Territories.

    Reply

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