Civil War or War of the Rebellion

Now that that New York Times Civil War blog Disunion is discussing terms “Civil War” and “War of the Rebellion,” I thought perhaps I could be timely for once and drag out this old, unpublished post on the transition of name from “War of the Rebellion” to “Civil War,” which I suggest has at least something to do with the early 20th century scholarly consensus that the Civil War was not fought over slavery.

During Reconstruction, the accepted name from the federal government’s perspective was the “War of the Rebellion.” Two massive federal government publications put their imprimatur on this phrasing. The Congressional series usually shortened to the Official Record is actually entitled The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Issued from 1880 to 1901 in four series, the War of the Rebellion‘s 69 volumes (excluding indexes and counting volumes issued in multiple parts as single volumes) feature the words “WAR OF THE REBELLION” and the descriptors trailing the colon in the largest type on the title page (at least in the 30 or so copies I’ve checked). Likewise, the two-volume, 6-part official medical history of the war, published from 1870-1880, is entitled The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion (1861-1865). From a book perspective, the designation “two-volume” is a misnomer. Each of the six parts exceeds a thousand pages. But again, the expense of print was not wasted–until the victor’s ideological efforts demanded revision. When historians today in their citation remove phrase War of the Rebellion and shorten the title to Medical and Surgical History, they accept the 20th century revision that changed the predominant federal designation War of the Rebellion into the Civil War.

As these mountains of paper began to molder (most are printed on acidic paper), the term Civil War was rising in prominence, as New York Times notes about well-known Century series. But the government branches took a while longer to come around. The Senate appears to have settled the issue in January of 1907, at least according to two reports about a debate on the term according to a Pension Bill. On the Chronicling America site from the Library of Congress, see Pension Bill on this page and Capitol Gossip: “It was the ‘Civil War’ “ in the Washington Herald.

The group hug on Capitol Hill did not settle the issue for the executive branch. According to Michael P. Musick, the War Department developed an official policy only in 1912, after a school superintendent in Kingsbury County, South Dakota inquired. The bureaucrats issued a sensible policy: “An official memorandum of December 5, 1912, distributed to the clerks of the department, stipulated that when any choice was allowed, ‘Civil War’ would be used in preference to ‘War of the Rebellion.’ ” In some situations “any choice” may not be appropriate. See “Civil War Records: A War by Any Other Name,” Prologue 27: 2 (1995), which is posted at the National Archives.

Two decades after the bureaucrats reached consensus, scholars in learned journals began sniping at each other with viciousness. Robert Hughes in ” ‘Civil War’ and/or ‘War Between the States’ ” (The William and Mary Quarterly 15 [1935], 41-44, JSTOR link) sets up as his straw woman, an un-named Virginia historian from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She—and her gender is treated as important—argues that “Civil War” is a misnomer because the states were separate legal entities at the start of the war. Hughes responds to her objections against “Civil War”: “Now let us see how far feminine fancies comport with the fact” (41). Ouch. According to Hughes, the UDC historian mis-quotes an opinion of Supreme Justice Robert Grier by omitting the word “civil” before the word “war.” Hughes, who claims that he is not dogmatic, asserts that individual’s “primary allegiance” was to the state before the passage of the 14th amendment.

That is, Hughes (according to Robert Winston) accepts the claim of Southern apologist Alexander M. Stephens’s A Constitutional View of the Late War between the States; its Causes, Character, Conduct and Results (1868-1870). See “Was the American Conflict a War between States?” Social Forces 13 (1935) at JSTOR link, 379-82. According to Winston, “until Stephens’s discovery all southerners called the war a civil conflict” (382). Because war-making power in the Constitutional system devolved to the federal government and because “No state, as a state, declared war on any other state”–it is a Civil War. Winston objects to the term “War Between the States” as post-facto assertion that derives from Stephens’s emphasis on states’ rights. Winston notes the use of “Civil War” in Poole’s Abridged Index to Periodical Literature and the National Biographical Dictionary to bolster his case.

“War of the Rebellion” is now more or less forgotten except among historians and Civil War afficionados, but I do think it’s worth considering that Hughes and Winston are silent on the revival of state prerogatives. All three (Stephens, Winston, Hughes) participate in the early 20th century’s scholarly ideological fixation that the Civil War was fought not over slavery but over states’ rights.

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