The American Civil War Was Not a Civil War

Recently, I spoke with a family member about the American Civil War. While agreeing with the aim of the Union Army, he wondered how William Tecumseh Sherman could be viewed as anything other than a war criminal. However, he deemed Dwight Eisenhower’s treatment of German soldiers during the Second World War as completely acceptable. I argued that the Confederates were no different than the Germans of the Second World War because they did consider themselves to be Americans; they were in conflict with the American state and the American government. Eventually, I realized that the American Civil War was not a civil war, but a war between two nations. The title of “civil war” implies that Confederates were actual Americans. They were not.

The title of “civil war” implies that Confederates were actual Americans. They were not.

The definition of a civil war is quite clear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a civil war as “a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country,” while the Oxford English Dictionary refers to a civil war as a “war between the citizens or inhabitants of a single country, state, or community.” What a civil war entails is two or more forces fighting over the control and/or structure of the government of a nation. The English Civil War of the 1640s involved Parliamentarians fighting against the Royalists under King Charles I over whether the king could treat Parliament as a rubber stamp. The Mexican Civil War of the 1910s involved various factions under various military and civilian leaders competing for control over Mexico. There were no separatist groups or claims to independence for a specific region in these conflicts. The governments changed because of the civil wars, but the territorial borders never once transformed.

The territorial borders did change as a result of the American Civil War. Beginning in 1860, Southern states seceded from the Union and formed a Confederacy by 1861. However, according to the Confederate government’s view, President Lincoln and President Davis might coexist. Lincoln would have none of it, of course. He was completely content to allow the Southern states to keep slavery in exchange for rejoining the Union. By the war’s end, he simply wanted the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment while assuring Southerners that the American government would act “with malice toward none.” Lincoln and the reconciliatory legislators were not alone in their quest to redeem the South to its past glory. In 1863, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Prize Cases, which concerned Lincoln’s authority to enforce a blockade on the Confederacy with legislative permission. Justice Robert Grier referred to the war as a “civil war.” Even while aiding Lincoln’s conduct against the Confederacy, Grier did not accept that the Confederacy was an actual government. He still considered the Southerners to be a part of the states that were not “civilized,” and therefore still Americans.

The reconciliation effort by the United States government reached its apotheosis in 1913. In that year, Confederate and Union veterans gathered for photographs and feasts at the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg on the very site of the gruesome struggle. It is hard to imagine a reunion of the Americans and the British at Bunker Hill in 1825 or with Mexican veterans at Chapultepec Castle in 1897. Perhaps American veterans became more willing to hold reunions with former enemies as by 1995, Americans met with former Japanese
combatants at Iwo Jima. However, it is much more likely that with former Confederates in the legislature (with Senator Charles Thomas of Colorado) and in the judicial branch (with Chief Justice Edward Douglass White), there was no need to fear mockery or shame. They felt like Americans because of the actions and official comprising of the United States government. There was no enforced, massive shift of government from authoritarian rule by a privileged ethnic group into a more inclusive society; that is, the states of the Union also enforced segregation. White supremacists therefore maintained considerable power over the states of the former Confederacy after Reconstruction ended in 1877.

The Union politicians’ downplaying of the Confederate threat to the United States initiated the equation of Confederate military figures with American military figures, a role they would have denied from 1861 to 1865.

The American Civil War affects the American consciousness because the politicians of the Union did not put a premium on stressing the Southerners’ break from the United States. As a result, congressmen and justices asserted that nothing had truly changed other than slavery and that everything could go back to normal. However, many people and officials within the South never let go of their vision of a Confederacy fighting well against a tyrannical Union. The Union politicians’ downplaying of the Confederate threat to the United States initiated the equation of Confederate military figures with American military figures, a role they would have denied from 1861 to 1865. Confederates did not want to be honored as such, and we should not continue to honor them.

Luke Voyles ’18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at lrvoyles@wustl.edu.

Luke Voyles

Luke Voyles '18 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at lrvoyles@wustl.edu.

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