In his new book, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, historian Steven Hahn dispenses with the popular reference to the “Civil War” in favor of “War of the Rebellion.” Here is why:

I term this bloody episode, as many supporters of the Union did at the time, the “War of the Rebellion” (not the “Civil War”) and treat the “Confederacy” as a rogue rather than a legitimate state, in good part because no other state power in the world ever recognized it (the terms “Confederate” and “Confederacy” are used sparingly; more frequently, I refer to the “rebellious states”).

But the War of the Rebellion was only the largest of many rebellions that either called into question the sovereign authority of the federal government or insisted upon their own claims to sovereignty. These included the resistance of Native Americans to settler colonialism and dispossession, especially in the Second Seminole War of the 1830s and 1840s…the embrace of nullification by reactionary slaveholders in South Carolina in the early 1830s; the efforts of Mormons to limit federal power in the Utah Territory…; privately financed and directed filibustering operations against Cuba, Mexico, and Central America in the 1840s and 1850s…; and the percolation of secessionist sentiment in California, the Midwest, and the City of New York as the Lincoln administration moved to deal with the Confederate rebellion…These would be followed during the War of the Rebellion itself by Native American uprisings in the upper plains, copperheadism…, violent opposition to the draft and the recruitment of African Americans to fight in the Union Army, and resistance to the expansion of federal power more generally. We may, indeed, think of “wars of the rebellions” during the first seven decades of the nineteenth century. (p. 4)

What do you think?

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28 comments add yours

    • Given that the Vatican itself wasn’t fully recognized internationally as a nation state at the time, I think that’s an extremely tenuous claim on behalf of the Confederacy.

      • I assumed that the Vatican was fully recognized at the time as a nation state, thus my comment. Thanks for correcting my assumption.

        • It’s fuzzy. It spent centuries functioning as one of the Italian city-states, but I think it wasn’t until the early 20th century that its international status was finally established. According to Wiki, the U.S. had consular-level relations with the Vatican until 1867, and then no formal recognition until 1984, when it received full (i.e., ambassadorial-level) recognition.

      • THe Pope’s temporal power wasn’t just over the Vatican. He ruled the Papal States which were initially quite a large part of Italy. By the time of the ACW the extent of the Papal States was much reduced but the PS still existed with the trappings of a nation-state.
        I read somewhere that during what must have been a pretty trying visit to Europe by Bishop John Hughes of New York, the Pope told him to come out in support of the Confederacy. Hughes, a Constitutional Unionist, of course ignored this idiotic order. Unfortunately I can’t remember where I read it: it may have been The Great Shame by Thomas Kenneally.

  1. Just finished Don Doyle’s The Cause of All Nations, which is an excellent book along similar lines: The American Civil War as an international event. I think Hahn is perhaps unnecessarily splitting hairs here. While it is true that no other power recognized the Confederacy, this is also true of many other “civil wars” as we term them, which have come to describe such prolonged conflicts between citizens of a state within the bounds of that state. A rebellion it certainly was, but of such duration and with so many formal elements of a government, that most citizens in the South recognized it as their new government and overwhelmingly obeyed its laws and leaders. I am fine with “Civil War” as the most accurate description and mostly free of present-day sectional bias that clouds our understanding of the event.

    • I totally agree with you, David T. Dixon. The phrase “American Civil War” is accurate, universally understood, nearly-universally accepted, and politically neutral. We don’t need a new term.

      • I am not sure that Hahn is suggesting that we need a new reference generally for the Civil War, but that “War of the Rebellion” helps to frame the conflict within his broader interpretation.

  2. Since the supreme court didn’t rule secession unconstitutional until 1868, I don’t know if the Confederacy was truly a rogue state. According to the Civil War trust, secession “was a complex question at the time, with able legal minds to be found arguing both sides.”

    To me, “War of the Rebellion” seems like a Yankee version of “War of Northern Aggression” … an inflammatory, partisan label that will lead to debate rather than discussion.

    “War of the Rebellion” is a phrase I’ve only encountered in nineteenth century documents (around 1866 and thereafter), and only from Northern writers. “Civil War” is neutral, and therefore preferable (in my opinion). Personally, I also liked “war between the states” ….. but certain folks have ruined the phrase.

    • Forester:

      How about naming the conflict The War of Southern Aggression?

      Rebel troops, after all, captured numerous federal forts and armories by force weeks before Fort Sumter was fired upon.

  3. Semantics. As long as we don’t use War Between the States (which it most certainly was not) the War of the Rebellion is appropriate. In fact, look at the full title of the Official Records. However, in its truest sense it was a civil war. I like the term American Civil War. 🙂

    • Am I misunderstanding the ‘War Between the States’ meaning? It was a bunch of US states fighting other states … or at least that’s what I thought it meant.

      • I think it is a total distortion. One could say the Union (i.e. United States) was fighting against rebellious states, or the Union was fighting against rebellious states formed into what they called a Confederacy. But it was not New York fighting against Mississippi, for example.

        • I’m not sure why the term is endorsed by the Lost Cause crowd. If you call it the war was between states, then aren’t you acknowledging that the South was never really an independent nation?

          • The Lost Cause ideology embraced the monikers “The War of Northern Aggression” and “The War Between the States” because each represents different tenants of the rebels’ perspective about the war.

            “The War of Northern Aggression” makes the rebellion look like a victim or martyr to Northern power.

            “The War Between the States” makes the conflict appear to be between the States themselves rather than what it was; the Federal government calling on the people of the North to quell a rebellion against Federal authority and freedom and equality within the Union.

            Both monikers mask the real reasons and driving forces within the war which is what the Lost Cause’s main purpose has been for over 150 years. Namely avoid, at all costs, admitting what the Civil War, or “War of the Rebellion”, was truly about.

  4. If Hahn wants to change the paradigm on use of the phrase “Civil War” so badly, then why did he use a variation of the term in the book’s title?

    • Book titles often reflect a negotiation between the author and publisher, trying to balance the writer’s intent versus what will catch potential readers’ attention.

  5. Before anyone gets too riled up, I think it might be useful to present what Hahn writes immediately afterward in defense of his use of the term:

    “But the War of the Rebellion was only the largest of many rebellions that either called into question the sovereign authority of the federal government or insisted upon their own claims to sovereignty. These included the resistance of Native Americans to settler colonialism and dispossession, especially in the Second Seminole War of the 1830s and 1840s…the embrace of nullification by reactionary slaveholders in South Carolina in the early 1830s; the efforts of Mormons to limit federal power in the Utah Territory…; privately financed and directed filibustering operations against Cuba, Mexico, and Central America in the 1840s and 1850s…; and the percolation of secessionist sentiment in California, the Midwest, and the City of New York as the Lincoln administration moved to deal with the Confederate rebellion…These would be followed during the War of the Rebellion itself by Native American uprisings in the upper plains, copperheadism…, violent opposition to the draft and the recruitment of African Americans to fight in the Union Army, and resistance to the expansion of federal power more generally. We may, indeed, think of “wars of the rebellions” during the first seven decades of the nineteenth century.” [p.4]

    As you can see, the choice is motivated predominately by a bid to draw a connecting thread between many events of the long American nineteenth-century related to resistance to the growth expansion of the American state and Federal government. Granted, I don’t believe that Hahn was somehow trying to equate a slaveholders’ rebellion with the efforts of Native peoples to avoid societal extinction (not morally, at least), but his avowed effort to fundamentally re-periodize the era is inevitably going to create some waves.

    Personally, I’m enjoying the book. It raises endless questions, as all the best books do.

    • Hi Eric,

      Thanks for adding the following paragraph. I realized as I continued to read that it should have been included. I only just finished the preface. Glad to hear you are enjoying it. Hahn’s last book was fabulous.

  6. Grant always referred to it as the War of the Rebellion because that is how it is referred to in the government records:

    The official war records of the United States refer to this war as the War of the Rebellion. The records were compiled by the U.S. War Department in a 127-volume collection under the title The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, published from 1881 to 1901. Historians commonly refer to the collection as the Official Records.[16]

  7. It was a War Between The States. My wife and I married thirty years ago. Our marriage was arranged by our great great grandfathers who participated in the occupation of the state of Arkansas by the state of Wisconsin. Without the internet and the sesquicentennial we’d have never realized what brought us and kept us together.

  8. War of the Rebellion or what? It always amazes me when I see folk renaming Civil War reprints.

    H-Bar is the worse. Their website, http://www.hbar.com/CWTitles.htm offers “The Official Record of the War Between the States. The 128-Volume Army Official Record (also known as Official Record of the War of Rebellion)…” for sale. H-Bar’s sins went much further than this: on their faux title page for each volume of the OR they put the correct full title of the series, followed by the sub-title: “or, in truth, the War of Northern Aggression”

    Broadfoot is guilty of name changing, to a lesser degree. While their hardback reprints have the correct spine name, they use to offer the CDs titled as “Army Official Records.” And the spine and title page of their wonderful “Supplement” is labeled “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.” When they reprinted the “Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion,” they retitled it as the “Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War.”

    However, even the government did similar things. The Atlas, when published in the 1890s became the “Atlas to Accompany the Official Records of the Civil War” and the sea going version, published from 1894 to 1927, is the “Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies.”

    Historians have continued this mis-naming tradition. When footnotes started appearing in the 1880s, the set was referred to as “WR” – originally the correct title (i.e., “War of the Rebellion”), but then, along in the 1890s, changed to mean “War Records.” In the 20th Century even “War Records” disappeared, and references were to the subtitle, as OR.

    I do not know of another book(s) which is routinely misnamed in footnotes, let alone reprints. Never underestimate the power of the Lost Cause!

  9. Some of this reminds me of a scene in the movie “Stagecoach”. I’m surprised that some scholars don’t seem to distinguish between a name and a description. The American Civil War is a proper name; it’s not invalidated by not capturing the particular feature of the war that the secessionists used existing State structures.
    Similarly, the English Civil War could be described as the English Revolution, but ECW is its accepted name.

  10. One way also of thinking of this is also to extend comparison to other insurrections and challenges to established state sovereignty in the Americas in the 19th century. Not only in Latin America, but in British/French Canada. Government was challenged in Canada in 1837-1838, 1869, 1885 and on other occasions, taking to arms with a greater or lesser degree of success against a central government fell within a construction of political normalcy that was understood by voters and citizens certainly in the first 3/4’s of the 19th century, but increasingly alien to political thought in the era of the New Imperialism and the United States rise to have a global impact from the 1890s onwards. In 1885 in Canada there were executions for treason, unlike after the Civil War

    Governments in the earlier part of the 19th century were far more fragile and contingent than we think of them today (although such paradigms may have plated shifted just now)

    Regarding the recognition of the Confederate States, were not some of the arguments around the US claims against Britain around the treatment of the CSS Shenandoah when it was given access to facilities and supplies in Melbourne in January 1865, rather than being impounded as a pirate ship – as requested by the US Consul in that city. This was not formal recognition, but certainly pursued by the US as being an improper allyship to the Confederate States, which sought compensation for the damage that Britain aided and abetted

    • There was a tricky concept short of recognition called “belligerent rights”. The British government argued that the US blockade of the Southern ports was an act of war, which foreign shipping was obliged to comply with only in wartime; therefore the US must be at war with someone; and therefore the other side must be a belligerent, with belligerent rights. I don’t know if this stuff has any validity.

      • I think that the CSS Shenandoah fell under the “belligerent rights” concept and thus could be treated not as a pirate ship but as a visiting warship

  11. I like War of the Rebellion, actually; it’s what the USG referred to the conflict as, and should have remained as such. Makes it clear what the conflict was…

    Best,

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