Naming the American Civil War and the Battle over Interpretation

Naming the American Civil War

I don’t get to use neat tools as much as I’d like, but I was recently told about Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows you to search and graph words and phrases mentioned in tons of books Google has scanned.  I got to thinking about the battles historians wage over civil war memory.  Whenever neo-Confederates, Sons of Confederate Veterans, or other “heritage” groups make the news, I am reminded of our endless battle over interpretation.  Some of us descend from Confederates and have a hard time grasping the real meaning behind the war.  Others have ultra-liberal agendas that swing interpretations the other way.

One of the areas people, historians and civilians alike, usually end up quibbling over is the name of the American Civil War.  What name most accurately refers to the causes and events of the war?  The War of Northern Aggression?  The War Between the States? The Second (or third?) American Revolution?  Was it really a civil war at all?

Instead of a traditional historiography of the Civil War, let’s take a look at Google Ngram Viewer and measure the usage of some of these phrases over time.  Maybe what we find will help us understand how different generations thought of the war.  Our choice of words and phrases can sometimes subconsciously reveal the way we think about issues in ways we often can’t explain through complex arguments.

So, without further ado, here’s the graph:

Google ngraph viewer graph of Civil War terms

Google ngraph viewer graph of Civil War terms


I used the following terms to describe the war:

  • War for the Union
  • American Civil War
  • War of Northern Aggression
  • War Between the States
  • Emancipation War

Those are all terms I’ve heard used to describe the war.  What we find is that during the war authors referred to it most frequently as the “War for the Union” and this usage peaked in 1865.  Almost immediately after the war it began to slip out of favor.  The American Civil War, while less popular, also grew during the war, and continued to grow after the war.  The steady increase over a greater length of time would suggest to me that more people were comfortable with this term than the others in the decades after the war.

Interestingly, the “War Between the States” didn’t seem all that popular until 1876, the year Reconstruction ended and the year white Americans tried to pretend the war was just a spat between friends and that everything should go back to normal (except without slavery as a legal institution).  While still the least popular of the top three choices, it rose along with them.  A similar moment of reconciliation occurred in 1898, when Northerners and Southerners united for the first time to fight a foreign enemy (the Spanish).  The year following, “War Between the States” replaced “War for the Union” while the latter declined into obscurity.

Things went along like this for a few more decades.  “American Civil War” and “War Between the States” had a direct relationship for the most part, both rising in usage.  Until, oddly enough, “War Between the States” actually replaced “American Civil War” in 1935.  And it didn’t just eke out a small increase, it skyrocketed.  “American Civil War” didn’t necessarily fall out of favor.  I imagine that the sudden popularity of “War Between the States” had something to do with the Civil War generation dying off in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.  We could call this the third major reconciliation event of Civil War Memory.  With their fathers and grandparents dying off, Southerners must have looked for a way to remember them while whitewashing the whole treason thing, and Northerners were happy to go along.

This was also the height of pro-Southern historiography, especially the Dunning School of Reconstruction history which postulated that Reconstruction was a horribly failed experiment in racial equality.  The Dunning School also put the Union and the Confederacy on equal moral terms when it came to war motivations, and solidified the already strong Lost Cause mythology many Southerners held close to their hearts.

The popularity of “War Between the States” peaked in 1941 and then plummeted.  By 1956, “American Civil War” was once again the most popular phrase for describing the war.  This went hand in hand with the rejection of the Dunning School historiography and a new, more balanced review of war aims and motivations.  This was also the time when historians were trying to place slavery and black military service back into a central role in the war.

By 1957 and interesting thing happened.  A new phrase emerged that Google Ngram Viewer hadn’t found in existence before: “War of Northern Aggression.”  I imagine this term was adopted by die-hard neo-Confederates who saw the recent popularity of the Southern cause slipping in scholarly and popular conception.  It never gained any sort of popularity and barely registers on the Ngram, but it is there.  It did continue to gain popularity right up until 2000, the last year of the graph.  Lest we forget that the 1990s were the height of right wing paramilitary threats, which often coincide with neo-Confederate mentality among non-historians.

Finally, “Emancipation War” barely registers at all, although the phrase existed since the war was new.  I imagine its usage was restricted to abolitionists hoping for an emancipation war, and Southern plantation owners fearing one.

In the end, “War Between the States” remains the second most popular term to describe the war in publications, but it has fallen a long way since its heyday.  “American Civil War,” admittedly a bit bland, reigns supreme these days, and by the looks of it will remain that way for the foreseeable future.




Book Review: The South vs The South by William W. Freehling



The South vs The South by William W. Freehling:  An Entertaining Disappointment


After discovering Kevin Levin’s “Civil War Memory” blog, and thanks to my own experiences with neo-Confederates and myth-building, I grabbed a couple of books on southern history during the American Civil War.  Two of them dealt specifically with internal divisions in the Civil War, Freehling’s The South vs The South and Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War by David Williams.

I first settled down with The South vs the South, which clocks in at 206 pages.  A really brief read in terms of historical works, the primary focus of the book is to draw attention to the importance of the border state whites and black runaways as the critical factor in Union victory in the Civil War.  He pushes back against the traditional narrative that Northern manpower and industry alone won the war, though doesn’t refute it entirely.  Freehling tries to take a more holistic approach to the war, which makes more sense to me than single-issue explanations.  I’ve never been a fan of ideologues, in politics or in history, so it never made sense to me to rely on single issues to explain a historical outcome.

Freehling wrote the book as a response to Gary Gallagher, a renowned Civil War historian, giving addresses promoting a unified South theory for the war.  While much has been made of Northern internal divisions (Copperheads, Peace Democrats and Knights of the Golden Circle, oh my!) less attention has been paid to Southern in-fighting.

That the North had an advantage in manpower and industry is not disputed here so much as expanded upon.  How did the North attain that numerical advantage? And how did they maintain such important railroad and industrial advantages?  As an invading army, the North would need far more soldiers than the Confederacy would need.  Plunging deep into hostile territory, the North would have to leave large occupying forces behind as it advanced, which would eat away at that numerical advantage.  So with the playing field thus leveled, how could that numerical advantage be so overwhelming?

The answer is Southern anti-Confederates.  White and black people of the South, especially the border South, opposed the Confederacy and flocked to Union ranks.  Freehling does a good job of explaining Lincoln’s deft handling of the border states–especially Kentucky and Maryland–in which he delayed turning the war into one for emancipation to continue receiving massive recruiting levels in those states.

Over 300,000 Southerners fought for Union, enough to offset most of their casualties from the war.  These anti-Confederates helped the Union in twofold ways.  First, by joining the Union they deprived the Confederacy of much-needed men.  Second, runaways fed valuable information and served as guides to Union armies that helped cut swathes through the Confederacy and also strengthened the Union cause numerically and morally. Despite internal divisions, Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware stayed loyal.  And even large chunks of Tennessee and the new state of West Virginia helped the Union cause.

Furthermore, Baltimore, Maryland was an all-important hub for rail travel and rail repair.  By staying in the Union, the Confederacy was deprived of an important industrial tool and a stronger geopolitical position.  Without an advantage in rails, the Confederacy couldn’t hope to stop all avenues of Union invasion.

Freehling’s book is an accurate and interesting summation of events, but it is only superficial analysis at best.  I was struck by the lack of primary sources.  Freehling made interesting arguments and is a talented writer, but I expected to learn much more about Southern divisions.

The first portion of the book is the strongest.  In it, Freehling discusses the importance of border state whites to Lincoln’s war effort.  They provided men, moral support and denied support to the Confederacy, and by staying in the Union those states enabled the Union to start the war much closer to goals like Vicksburg and Atlanta than otherwise would have been possible.  The modified Anaconda Plan that was followed by the Union in the war was made possible because of this geographic starting point. Has Kentucky, for example, rose up for the Confederacy the Union would have had to expend much blood and treasure just to reach Forts Donelson and Henry where Grant started his war.

The second half of the book is devoted to black runaways and soldiers.  Unfortunately, this is the weakest part.  Freehling breaks no new ground in this.  Here it reads like a very superficial essay.  The reader is also left feeling like those were the only two areas where dissension occurred in the Union.

I’ve started reading Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War and after just a few pages, it seems like it goes into much greater detail and depth than The South vs the South.  I expect that one to be more intellectually stimulating.