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.