What to call The War that killed 750,000 Americans

 

Jacket with blood stains and bullet hole
The War was a failure of good men on both sides to do their best to solve their problems.

 

I read the comments on blogs about The War. Some of them are insulting, combative, and offensive.

I’m talking about The War that happened in the United States when Americans fought each other between 1861 and 1865. There even are volatile feelings triggered by which name is used for The War, never mind the particulars, such as what caused it.

Not familiar with the debate over the name? Here are your options:

  • The War of the Rebellion. Used by the US government. Irritating to Southerners.
  • The Civil War. Implies a war between citizens of the same country. Southerners object to this name as inaccurate because individual Southern states seceded from the United States and joined together to create the Confederate States of America, which was a separate country. Some Southerners use this name so they can converse with Northerners.
  • The War for Southern Independence. The War was considered by Southerners as analogous to the Revolutionary War, in which the American colonists disagreed with English policies and decided to break with the mother country. It’s not hard to see the similarities. I would like to have asked some learned Northerner from the 1860s how the Revolutionary War was honorable and patriotic, whereas the Southern effort was traitorous and dishonorable.
  • The War for the Union. Used by Northerners, especially in the early years. This name defined the reason Union soldiers answered Lincoln’s call to coerce the Southern states back into the fold. They didn’t call it the War to Free the Slaves because that’s not what they were fighting for — at least not until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which was an effort to re-inspire Northerners who were losing interest in The War.
  • The War of Northern Aggression. Seceding states said all they wanted was to leave in peace. They didn’t want to fight anybody. Lincoln refused to let them go and provoked a fight by sending a ship to resupply Fort Sumter, held by Federal troops but claimed by South Carolina because it was in Charleston Harbor. (This simplistic explanation will drive you academics crazy, but please understand that it is not the purpose of this blog to explain every detail.) Then, Lincoln sent Federal troops into the South to force the states to return to the Union.  Hence, the famous reply of the captured Southern soldier: Federal soldiers asked the Confederate why he was fighting when he owned no slaves. “Because y’all are down here,” he said. You’ve probably also heard the saying, “Yankee, go home.” It also comes from their being “down here.”
  • The Late Unpleasantness. What else would you call it if you were a Southerner determined to maintain your gentility and minimize the devastating impact of The War and Reconstruction (the period after The War during which Southern states were required to meet certain conditions in order to be allowed to “rejoin” the Union that the Union declared they had never left anyway).
  • The War Between the States. My personal preference because that’s what my grandmother called it. I recall being about six years old, standing in her kitchen. She was telling me that her family moved from Louisiana to Texas “after The War.” “What war?” “The War Between the States.” “What’s the War Between the States?” I asked. “It was when the Northern states and the Southern states fought each other. It was a long time ago,” she said. Lots of people besides my granny call it the War Between the States. They are Southerners and feel that this is the most accurate name for the conflict. I don’t know if Northerners are offended by this name, although I imagine some are offended by the idea that, perhaps, the persons preferring the War Between the States are not reconstructed Southerners.
  • The War. In the South, that is enough. Events are “before The War” or “after The War.” Everybody knows which war you’re talking about. Of course, there are other wars, but there is only one The War.

My choice for this blog is the Civil War. It doesn’t flow easily from my fingertips to my keyboard and I don’t think it is historically accurate. But we all know which war I’m writing about and it is a compromise I am willing to make for the sake of communication.

What I call it among friends may be different, but I’m not re-fighting The War for anybody. And I’m certainly not going to fight other Southerners!

I think it’s pointless to offend people on either side. Maybe if our ancestors had felt that way, there wouldn’t have been a war and what a blessing that would’ve been!

Let’s find some common ground. Can we all agree to call The War a failure of good men on both sides to do their best to solve problems they faced? That’s what I call it, a failure by good people. And I’m not going to fight about that, either.

NOTE: New calculations have raised the death toll of The War to 750,000, as reported by Guy Gugliotta in The New York Times, “New Estimate Raises Civil War Death Toll,” April 2, 2012. The formerly accepted number was 620,000, 20 percent less than the new total calculated by J. David Hacker, a Binghamton University (New York) demographic historian.

 

© Copyright 2016 Jan Nichols Batts

 

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