How Can a War Be “Civil”?

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Reader Dottie remarks:

I’ve never understood the term “Civil War.”

It does sound like something of an oxymoron, doesn’t it?

Considering that one meaning of “civil” is “courteous,” calling a war “civil” does not compute. Blowing out one’s neighbor’s brains is not very polite.

In fact, the apparently contradictory meanings of the word civil already existed together in the Latin word from which it derives.

Our word civil comes from Latin L. civilis “of or proper to a citizen.” In ancient Roman culture it was a word often contrasted with militaris, “of or proper to a soldier.”

Citizens were considered to be more refined than soldiers, ergo, the adjective could mean either “of the city” or “courteous,” or both at the same time.

A “civil” war is a war between citizens of the same country.

The English Civil War (1642-1651) was a struggle between fellow citizens who disagreed regarding the power of the monarch. The English people took sides as either Royalists or Parliamentarians.

The American Civil War is one of several names for the internal conflict that took place in the United States from 1861 to 1865.

While the war was going on, Northern writers and speakers referred to it as a “civil war” because of their belief that individual states had no right to secede from the Union.

Southern speakers and writers styled it “the War between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America.” Some called it simply “the war between the states.”

Queen Victoria’s official pronouncements referred to it as

hostilities … between the Government of the United States of America and certain States styling themselves the Confederate States of America.”

According to information in a Wikipedia article, the 1861-1865 American conflict is called the War of Secession in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Polish and Portuguese.

In the U.S. most people call it the “Civil War,” but some prefer the term “War Between the States.” The latter name for it is inscribed on the USMC (United States Marine Corps) War Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Another adjective for an internal struggle between citizens or members of a group is internecine.

internecine – 1. Deadly, destructive, characterized by great slaughter. internecine war: war for the sake of slaughter, war of extermination, war to the death. 2. esp. (In modern use.) Mutually destructive, aiming at the slaughter or destruction of each other. –OED

Here are two examples of its use:

So long as the majority of Canadians have two countries, one here and one in Europe, national unity will remain a myth and a constant source of internecine quarrels.–Henri Bourassa (1862-1952)

It is not the enemy in front that I fear, but the division which too often makes itself manifest in progressive ranks–it is that division, the dispersion of forces, that internecine struggle in the moments of great emergency, in the moments when the issue hangs in the balance–it is that which, I fear, may weaken our efforts and may perhaps deprive us of success otherwise within our grasp.– Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

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16 thoughts on “How Can a War Be “Civil”?”

  1. “Civil War” for the Lincoln conflict is a misnomer: the Confederates were not fighting for control of the US government.

  2. As a native Texan, I’m accustomed both “civil war” and “war between the states,” although I’ve also heard “war of secession” as well.

  3. My grandmother called it the “War of Northern Aggression,” and also, simply: “The War.” All other wars were further defined—the Korean War, World War Two, World War One, the Revolutionary War, but when she said “The War,” she meant the war between the states.

    I had an American History teacher in high school (in Texas) who routinely called it the War between the States.

  4. Charlsie, I think any day would be appropriate to fly the American flag.

    On Confederate Memorial Day, the feeling would not to celebrate any victory, but to acknowledge today’s participation of all the states, and the participation of all Americans, in today’s nation.

    Remember – the flag we fly today is not the same flag that flew in 1865 – there have been several states added, and other fundamental changes to our nation since then.

    Peter, I think the point is that civil war was a northern term, embodying Lincoln’s position that states, even while acting to secede from the Union, were still American states. To the Southern states, of course, the rebellion against tyranny and the abuse of federal authority over rights granted the states in the Constitution earned Southern soldiers the name of “Rebels” and “Johnny Reb”. Many of the terms and points of view about the Civil War (as named in American – Northern states – history books) are of the “Smile when you say that!” kind. The same words and names spoken with respect could offer insult if spoken tauntingly or with derision.

    It is interesting that terms like secede, tyranny, abuse of power/constitution, and states rights have come up so often since the last Presidential election.

  5. Isn’t a civil war simply a war between civilians, as opposed to the military, in the same way that civil engineering is engineering carried out by civilians.

  6. My personal favorite for name of the war between the states is the War of Northern Agression. It is such a descriptive phrase that conveys a lot of feeling.

    This post is very timely because yesterday was Confederate Memorial Day Observed (the actual date is April 26), which is a state holiday in most Southern states. I just bought an american flag for my new house and I was reading last night on the package all the dates you are suppose to fly the american flag, and after listing all the federal holidays it said, “All State Holiday”, and somehow, Confederate Memorial Day did not seem an appropriate time to fly the American Flag.

    Although the Confederate States were on the wrong side of history and I think Lincoln was right about most everything, it still seems appropriate to respect and remember the hundreds of thousands of Southern men who gave their life trying to protect the land that they loved.

  7. this article seems to suggest there were only two castes or classes in Roman society. This simply wrong there were at least 3 the being the people or pleps hence where we get the word from originally, theses pleps generally just farmed or fished all of their lives.
    the military class need to be fairly wealthy to pay for arms thus had capital to gain poitical power in the city.

  8. Although the Confederate States were on the wrong side of history and I think Lincoln was right about most everything

    I don’t know about that. The Confederacy were obviously on the wrong side of one issue (slavery, i.e.), but that wasn’t what the war was about anyway…as possibly with WWI, the wrong side won. And Lincoln was wrong on just about everything (read Thomas Woods’s book, The Real Lincoln).

    Cassie Tuttle: and also, of course, entirely different meanings for non-Americans, whose Civil Wars are not the American one.

  9. It seems that the expression “Civil War,” like many other terms and expressions in U.S. English, is interpreted differently depending on what part of the U.S. we’re from. Interesting.

    I have never thought of the meaning of “civil,” as used in “Civil War,” to mean proper or polite. I think that’s because when I first learned about the Civil War, it was taught as a War between CIVILians of the same country.

    In fact, believe it or not, this is the first time the possibility of any other interpretation occurred to me.

  10. I’m really not sure about why they named it the civil war. Its probably because they extended the war in the 1800’s

  11. civil war is a term used to refer a lot many other wars across the world, not just the American war (not being American, i was completely unaware of this origin).
    Can you put some light on that usage?

  12. In a time when a call for civility in public discussion is simply a thinly veiled attempt to any silence political opposition, I smiled every time I heard a call in the 2011 State of the Union speech for civil behavior. I’m from Jersey, and most decidedly a Yankee, but in spirit I channeled the old Confederate Corrector from Jay Ward’s old Rocky and Bullwinkle Cartoon series-
    “Ah simply can’t abide that word “Civil!”
    Can anyone recall that character’s name or what episode he appeared in?

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