The most common name for the American Civil War in modern American usage is simply "the Civil War." Although used rarely during the war, the term "War Between the States" became widespread afterward in the Southern United States. During and immediately after the war, historians often used the term "War of the Rebellion" or "Great Rebellion," while the Confederate term was "War for Southern Independence". The latter regained some currency in the 20th century, but has again fallen out of use. Also in the 20th century, the term "War of Northern Aggression" developed under the Lost Cause of the Confederacy movement by Southern history revisionists, with attempts to negatively re-imagine the American Civil War narrative and preserve Confederate legacy. "Freedom War" is used to celebrate the effect the war had on ending slavery. In several European languages, the war is called "War of Secession". In most East Asian languages, the war is called "Battle between North and South side of the United States" or more commonly as "American (U.S.) North–South War," depending on the individual language.
A variety of names also exist for the forces on each side; the opposing forces named battles differently as well. The Union forces frequently named battles for bodies of water that were prominent on or near the battlefield, while Confederates most often used the name of the nearest town. As a result, many battles have two or more names that have had varying use, although with some notable exceptions, one has tended to take precedence over time.
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. The National Park Service, the government organization entrusted by the United States Congress to preserve the battlefields of the war, uses this term. 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" during the conflict. Abraham Lincoln used it on multiple occasions. 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".
English-speaking historians outside the United States usually refer to the conflict as the "American Civil War". 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, the Irish Civil War or the Spanish Civil War).
The Confederate government avoided the term "civil war", because it assumes both combatants to be part of a single country, and referred in official documents to the "War between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America". 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".
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 20th 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 D. Roosevelt referred to the Civil War as "the four-year War Between the States". References to the "War Between the States" appear occasionally in federal and state court documents, including in Justice Harry Blackmun's landmark opinion in Roe v. Wade. Their usage demonstrates the generality of the term's use—Roosevelt was born and raised in New York State, and Blackmun was born in southern Illinois but grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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".
During and immediately after the war, U.S. officials, Southern Unionists, and pro-Union writers often referred to Confederates as "Rebels". The earliest histories published in northern U.S. states commonly refer to the American Civil War as "the Great Rebellion" or "the War of the Rebellion", as do many war monuments. Hence the nicknames Johnny Reb (and Billy Yank) for the participants.
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.
"War of Separation" was occasionally used by people in the Confederacy during the war. In most Romance languages, the words used to refer to the war translate literally to "War of Secession" (French: Guerre de Sécession, Italian: Guerra di secessione, Spanish: Guerra de Secesión, Portuguese: Guerra de Secessão, Romanian: Războiul de Secesiune). This name is also used in Central and Eastern Europe, e.g. Sezessionskrieg is commonly used in Germany, Wojna secesyjna is exclusively used in Poland and Setsessioonisõda is used in Estonia (all literally translate as "war of secession").
The "War for Southern Independence" or the "Second American Revolution", and variations thereof is a name used by some Southerners in reference to the war. This terminology aims to parallel usage of the American Revolutionary War. While popular on the Confederate side during the war – Stonewall Jackson regularly referred to the war as the "second war for independence", the term's popularity fell in the immediate aftermath of the Confederacy's defeat and failure to gain independence. The term resurfaced slightly in the late 20th century.
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). 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."
In the 1920s historian Charles A. Beard used the term "Second American Revolution" to emphasize the changes brought on by the Union's victory. This term is still used by the Sons of Confederate Veterans organization, though with the intent to represent the Confederacy's cause in a positive light.
Ordeal of the Union a major eight-volume history published 1947–1971 by historian and journalist (Joseph) Allan Nevins emphasizes the Union in the first volume title, which also came to name the series. Because Nevins earned Bancroft, Scribner, and National Book Award prizes for books in his Ordeal of the Union series, his title may have been influential. However, V.4 is titled Prologue to Civil War, 1859-1861, and the following four volumes use "War" in their titles. Volume 6, War Becomes Revolution, 1862–1863, picks up on that earlier thread in naming the conflict; but Nevins does not view Southern secession as revolutionary nor would he support Southern apologist attempts to link the war with the American Revolution of 1775–83. If anything, his choice of the term in regard to the Civil War has more to do with the Industrial Revolution and its profound effects.
The name "War of Northern Aggression" has been used to indicate the Union side as the belligerent party in the war. Though sometimes used only jokingly today, the name arose in the 1950s during the Jim Crow era, when it was coined by segregationists who tried to equate contemporary efforts to end segregation with 19th century efforts to abolish slavery. This name has been criticized by historians such as James M. McPherson, as the Confederacy "took the initiative by seceding in defiance of an election of a president by a constitutional majority", and as "the Confederacy started the war by firing on the American flag."
Given that in the free states, non-Yankee groups – Germans, Dutch-Americans, New York Irish and southern-leaning settlers in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois – showed majority opposition to waging the Civil War, other Confederate sympathizers have used the name "War of Yankee Aggression" or "Great War of Yankee Aggression" to indicate the Civil War as a Yankee war, not a Northern war per se.
Conversely, the "War of Southern Aggression" has been used by those who maintain that the Confederacy was the belligerent party. They maintain the assertion that the Confederacy started the war when they initiated combat at Fort Sumter.
Other names for the conflict include "The Confederate War", "Mr. Lincoln's War", and "Mr. Davis's War". In 1892, a D.C. society of war-era nurses took on the name National Association of Army Nurses of the Late War. More euphemistic terms are "The Late Unpleasantness", or "The Recent Unpleasantness". Other postwar names in the South included "The War of the Sections" and "The Brothers' War", these especially in the border states.
|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 7–8, 1862||Elkhorn Tavern||Pea Ridge|
|April 6–7, 1862||Shiloh||Pittsburg Landing|
|May 31 – June 1, 1862||Seven Pines||Fair Oaks|
|June 26, 1862||Mechanicsville||Battle of Beaver Dam Creek|
|June 27, 1862||Gaines's Mill||Chickahominy River|
|August 29–30, 1862||Second Manassas||Second Bull Run|
|September 1, 1862||Ox Hill||Chantilly|
|September 14, 1862||Boonsboro||South Mountain|
|September 14, 1862||Burkittsville||Crampton's Gap|
|September 17, 1862||Sharpsburg||Antietam|
|October 8, 1862||Perryville||Chaplin Hills|
|December 31, 1862 –
January 2, 1863
|February 20, 1864||Olustee||Ocean Pond|
|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 or other natural features that were prominent on or near the battlefield; Confederates most often used the name of the nearest town or man-made landmark. 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. Because of this, many battles have two widely used names.
However, not all of the disparities are based on these naming conventions. 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. In general, naming conventions were determined by the victor of the battle. Examples of battles with dual names are shown in the table.
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 (e.g. Hardee's Corps, Polk's Corps).
Union brigades were given numeric designations (1st, 2nd, etc.), whereas Confederate brigades were frequently named after their commanding general (e.g. 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 and Confederate batteries by the name of the town or county in which they were recruited (e.g. Fluvanna Artillery). Again, they were often simply referred to by their commander's name (e.g. Moody's Battery, Parker's Battery).
A fine euphemistic difference is still drawn about this war. Northerners say Civil War, but many Southerners say War Between the States or a tongue-in-cheek War of Northern Aggression.
[R]outinely employed by Southern segregationists to draw parallels between the civil rights struggles of the mid-20th century and the conflict of a hundred years before, to enlist the memory of Confederate ancestors in opposition to federal court-mandated processes like the desegregation of public schools and integration of public facilities.
[C]learly a modern term, one that first starts appearing in newspapers in the mid-1950s, often in conjunction with the Civil War Centennial or, more disturbingly, as part of the rhetoric wielded by segregationists against the federal courts.
[T]he South took the initiative by seceding in defiance of an election of a president by a constitutional majority. Never mind that the Confederacy started the war by firing on the American flag.
Lincoln knew that by simply remaining calm and steady in the face of Confederate demands, hotheaded Confederates themselves would fire the first shots, making the conflict that followed a war of southern aggression. ... As Fort Sumter was reduced to rubble, the closing words of Lincoln's inaugural were recalled: 'In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.'