War Is Hell, Naming Them Ain't Too Easy Either

By Miller, Kathleen E. | Verbatim, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

War Is Hell, Naming Them Ain't Too Easy Either


Miller, Kathleen E., Verbatim


When historians sit down to write about a war, they must consider the political and economic causes of the conflict, but rarely what to call it. The major wars of the United States of America have come down to us already named. The name that stuck, however, was never the only option. Our seven major wars, fought between 1775 and 1975, fall somewhat neatly into three naming categories based on power, purpose, and politics.

"To the victor belong the spoils" (originally a statement about political good-ole'-boy favoritism) is a "philosophy" of power that gives us what I'll call the Winner's Pick category ("spoils system" is already taken.) In these cases history and revisionism give us the victor's view of the conflict--name and all. The second category is one of official designation based on purpose. This involves the wars on such a grand scale that the entire world seemed involved. The third is an example of political euphemism, where something that wasn't "officially" a war has one popular name reflecting what it was, and a government name reflecting what it wasn't.

The Winner's Pick

On April 19, 1775, shots rang out at the battles of Lexington and Concord, sparking what most of our history books call the Revolutionary War. But that depended on what side you were on. Fought between the British and the colonies of America for six years, it is usually portrayed as a righteous fight of an oppressed people against the errors of their king. It has also, however, rather irreverently been referred to as the Rebellion against the King by a "bunch of slave-owning aristocratic white males who didn't want to pay their taxes." Several colonies declared themselves to be in open rebellion. John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, worried about a civil war when he had Congress declare the "necessity of taking up arms" (7. 6. 1775). King George III continued the rebellion motif (8. 23. 1775), while the loyalists (mostly Canadians, and a surprisingly large contingent of the populations of New York and New Jersey), clung to the Civil War idea. Most of the arguing was over what it was, rather than what to call it, but as more and more colonists jumped on the kickout-the-king bandwagon, The Revolution and our Revolutionary War began to hold more sway. The colonials triumphed at the Battle of Yorktown, prompting Cornwallis's surrender on October 19, 1781. During the waning years of the war and the few years after, history books sported titles about the Present War, the American War, and the American Revolution.

The "United States" had been in existence since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776; and, now that the war was over, it was truly a free and independent country. Years after the last battle, however, another name for the conflict would appear--the War for Independence--a title that makes it clearly more an overthrow of an unwanted government than an insurrection or rebellion. Had the United States lost, our history books would have covered the Rebellion against the King or the American Insurrection, but victory and revisionism make it a glorious Revolution--loyalists be damned.

The next war that fits in the Winner's Pick category has no fewer than forty-six appellations. It was our bloodiest war (per capita), claiming the lives of more than 200,000 Americans as they fought one another from 1861 to 1865. Commonly referred to as the Civil War, the reasons behind it, and what to call it, are still a bone of contention to many. The official record calls it the War of the Rebellion. Contemporary headlines in northern papers read simply, The Rebellion. The victor, the Army of the United States of America (the North, the Union Army, the Yankees) fought for their commander in chief, Abraham Lincoln. It was his politics and election in 1860 that prompted many southerners to fear that their way of life was at risk. In December 1860 South Carolina left the union with its Ordinance of Succession. …

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