Prologue Magazine

Civil War Records: A War by Any Other Name

Summer 1995, Vol. 27, No. 2

By Michael P. Musick

Frech File Document
Documents in the "Frech File" record the debate about the official title of the Civil War. Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's-1917, RG 94.

Call it what you will, the conflict in North America of 1861-1865 represented intense partisanship, a staking out of claims that even (or perhaps especially) extended to what name it would have.

During the war, the Confederate government carefully avoided styling itself a rebellion and saw itself as perpetuating the original, unsullied constitution of the Founding Fathers. Later, the formulation of sometime Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens of a "War Between the States" (WBTS) became popular below the Mason-Dixon line. The United Confederate Veterans, United Daughters of the Confederacy, and other like-minded groups eventually declared that the WBTS was the correct term.

Among Union veterans, the expression "Great Rebellion," or simply "the rebellion," held sway into the twentieth century. Moderates and conciliators favored "the Civil War." Records of the U.S. War Department in the National Archives shed some light on the development of the name controversy.

Entry 51-4, the Administrative Precedent File (or "Frech File," after the clerk who created it) of Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, under "#58-Civil War," brings together various newspaper clippings, opinions, and pronouncements, official and otherwise, on the topic. From these sources it appears that a discussion in the U.S. Senate in January 1907 was a watershed. Introduction of Senator Porter James McCumber's (Republican-N.D.) service-pension bill included in the title the words "the war of the rebellion."

Many senators aired their views until Senator Nathan Bay Scott (Republican-W.V.), a Union veteran, recounted how the son of a Confederate soldier who had been killed in West Virginia was killed in the War with Spain and buried beside his father, and in the words of an anonymous journalist, "it seemed as if the Senate would have a good, old-fashioned cry." Hands were shaken, smiles were bestowed, and the understanding reached that thereafter, in that chamber, it would be "the civil war" evermore.

An investigation in the War Department several months later, in response to an inquiry from the superintendent of schools of Kingsbury County, South Dakota, disclosed that the department "has no knowledge of any official designation or title for the war of 1861-5," but that in practice it preferred "civil war" to "war between the states." 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." As is the way with such things, that did not forever settle the matter in all quarters, and to this day the nomenclature can and does provoke impassioned dispute.

Civil War Records: An Introduction and Invitation

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.