Civil War Trivia

Was It A Civil War or A Rebellion? (Thinking Out Loud)

*I want to stress that this post is simply my opinions or half-baked thoughts that I wanted to share about something that warrants way more scrutiny and research*

My husband and I were having a discussion the other night that I thought was worth sharing. He said something to the effect that he had read somewhere on social media that the American Civil War was not actually a civil war, when put within context of what a civil war actually is. This made me pause for a bit, because I realized this might warrant some contemplation. Of course, this was on social media, so not everything can be considered true or even worth a few brain cells, but here’s my working assessment.

The definition of a “civil war” is “a war between citizens of the same country”, or if you break it down further, it’s an “intrastate war in polemology – a war between organized groups within the same state or country.” When consulting the Wikipedia list of civil wars since the beginning of recorded history, there are countless conflicts that were labeled as such, with the American Civil War being included. Almost every country has had one or more civil wars over the last few hundred years. England, Italy, France, Ireland, and other third world countries like Vietnam and Africa have all found themselves on opposite battle lines from their own countrymen.

But what does this mean for the American Civil War? In short, it was a conflict between the Northern Union/Federal government and the newly formed Southern Confederacy. The only way that we could label this conflict as a “civil war” would be to admit that the south never actually seceded from the Union and its citizens were still part of the United States of America. This then completely negates the idea that the Confederacy was ever truly its own separate entity. President Abraham Lincoln struggled with this concept through the first couple of years of the war, whether to acknowledge the Confederacy as a separate enemy country, or to treat them like rebellious citizens. In the end, he affirmed in numerous documents that he did not acknowledge the Confederacy as a separate country.

Proclamation of Amnesty

One example lies in the Emancipation Proclamation, as it declared “all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Lincoln, again, asserts that the conflict was an act of rebellion in his Proclamation of Amnesty issued December 8th, 1863, saying “I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, do proclaim, declare, and make known to all persons who have, directly or by implication, participated in the existing rebellion, except as hereinafter excepted, that a full pardon is hereby granted to them and each of them, with restoration of all rights of property, except as to slaves… upon the condition that every such person shall take and subscribe an oath…” Another Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction was issued by President Andrew Johnson that echoed much of Lincoln’s proclamation, but added further conditions and stated that those exempted must make a special application to the government to have their citizenship restored.

This pardon didn’t grant every Confederate their citizenship. Those who held any sort of office in the Confederate government was excluded. Robert E. Lee, general of the Army of Northern Virginia, didn’t receive his citizenship until 1975 due to negligence in filing his application after the war – a process required by the exempt – and his Allegiance Oath also misplaced. Former Confederate President Jefferson Davis didn’t have his citizenship restored until 1978 when Jimmy Carter signed the Senate joint resolution to posthumously reinstate Davis’ citizenship. Also, for any southern state to be readmitted into the Union, they had to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which gave rights of citizenship to black Americans. This implies that the southern states were not part of the Union to begin with and therefore not part of the United States.

Now, I could be getting too technical and I’ll be the first to admit that the history of the Reconstruction Era is not something I’m an expert on just yet, so I could be missing a few details that may change the nature of this argument. However, given what I’ve stated, this makes it sound as if the Confederates were treated as American citizens in some contexts, but not in others – especially after the war with the reinstation of citizenship. If they had to be granted back their American citizenship, does that mean they weren’t American citizens when they were fighting the war? And if that’s the case, then does the conflict even count as a “civil war”?

Whiskey Rebellion

Let’s look at the other word that’s been thrown around. The definition of a “rebellion” is “an act of violent or open resistance to an established government or ruler” or “the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention.” This definition makes it much easier to understand what was going on in America during the conflict. Yes, we could definitely label it as a rebellion. The people of the South were openly resisting the Federal government, opposing Abraham Lincoln as the president, and went as far as to secede from the Union to create their own government. This led to the violence between 1861 and 1865, costing the lives of thousands and redirecting the course of American history. When Googling how many rebellions took place in the world, there are FAR more listed than what is classified as a “civil war”. This is probably because rebellions can happen on small, short-term scales and therefore occur more often than straight declarations of war.

Then, you can get into the semantics of whether the American Civil War could be classified as a “revolution” over a “rebellion”. A revolution may be defined as “a sudden, radical, or complete change in a fundamental change in political organization.” The French Revolution and American Revolution are examples. But these were complete overhauls of the current government, which does not fit with what happened during this American Civil War. It wasn’t a complete change in the government, but a departure from it altogether, hence the declarations of secession given by each of the states that made up the Confederacy.

But what did the people of the era say? We know Lincoln’s struggled with recognizing the Confederacy’s efforts to completely separate from the Federal government and see his stance clearly mapped out in his proclamations and correspondences. He stated in his Gettysburg Address, “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” Lincoln himself stated that this was a “civil war”, which affirms his stance that the citizens of the Confederacy were still citizens of America and were simply in rebellion against its own self.  

Many Unionists were eager to claim that the South was in rebellion to the government and dubbed their actions as treason. The definition of treason is “the crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill the sovereign or overthrow the government.” From the outside, the Confederacy may not look like it was trying to directly overthrow or jeopardize the Federal government by seceding, but in the eyes of many, they did. The Southern states broke apart the Union, proving that this VERY new government was not strong or unified. The legalities of secession have been debated over the last 150 years, so I won’t reiterate this argument. I’ll only state that in the opinions of the Northern states, the south was in direct rebellion and were considered traitors to the American government. This, then revokes their rights to citizenship within that government, just as it would today. However, the South didn’t see it that way. They believed they were within their constitutional rights to secede and held firm to that belief until the last (many still hold to it today). They didn’t mind being called traitors or “Johnny Rebs”, because that’s what their ancestors were called as they broke away from the British “tyrants”. They saw the North as the new tyrant, invading their home and newly formed nation.

Again, official documents trace back to the notion that this was a rebellion against the United States and that the Confederacy was acting in treason. I refer to the title of the most commonly and frequently cited reference “The War of the Rebellion: a Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies”, which is an invaluable primary source for all Civil War historians. It comprises the official battle reports and correspondences between officers during the war within 127 volumes (and I want it so freakin’ bad). Published by the war department between 1881 and 1901, this great work even calls the American Civil War a “rebellion”. Other authors and those writing about the conflict called it the “war between the states”, but may not have gone so far to say it was a “civil war”.

It’s probably impossible to track down every use of the word “rebellion” and “civil war” within primary source documents like letters, diaries, and official statements. It may be equally impossible to decide the exact moment when the general populace decided to call it a “civil war” and not a “rebellion”, but I have one theory as to why this shift occurred.

New studies are coming to surface about the country’s futile efforts toward total reconciliation between the North and South (or Union and Confederate). The iconic picture of soldiers shaking hands over the stone wall at Gettysburg gives us all the warm and fuzzy feelings that the American Civil War ended on a good note, with soldiers in blue and gray accepting that the past is the past and they must move on to a brighter future. We can all laugh at this now, given that the war never really ended (thanks to social media for bringing that to light). But if we look back to the definition of a “civil war”, which states that the citizens of the same country are at war with one another, this can be linked to this false image of reconciliation. It affirms that the Confederate soldiers were Americans all along and supports the cliché of “brother fighting brother”. It invalidates the efforts of the Confederacy to form its own government (for better or for worse) and makes the statement that the Southern states never left (when they actually did). Calling the conflict a “civil war” may be another facet of this reconciliation myth that many have fallen for over the last century.

So, if it was a rebellion and they committed treason, they would have lost their citizenship, which jives with the efforts to reinstate citizenship. But, then it wouldn’t be a “civil war”. If it was a “civil war”, then they’re still in rebellion, but they wouldn’t have been classified as “traitors”, so they could keep their citizenship. Does that mean rebelling isn’t the same as treason? Or that civil war isn’t treason but a constitutional right? Or that a civil war isn’t a rebellion?

It’s enough to make one’s head spin to decide which was which. Maybe there isn’t a straight forward answer after all.

These, of course, are just my musings on the subject and probably something I’ll analyze deeper when coming across certain primary sources, or once I delve into some Reconstruction Era studies.

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