Home / General / I Prefer “War of Southern Treason to Defend Slavery”

I Prefer “War of Southern Treason to Defend Slavery”


The fact that Jefferson Davis played a role in giving the Civil War its name and that the name is a product of the losers writing the history of a war they started to defend the enslavement of black people makes me want to banish the term.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Scott P.

    The link doesn’t work, but I always thought the preferred Neo-Confederate phrasing was “The War Between the States”. “Civil War” seems harmless to me. “War of the Rebellion” works, too.

    • Lee Rudolph

      I’ve read “The War of Northern Aggression”, definitely not used ironically.

      • Bruce Vail

        Indeed, it’s my understanding that the state of Mississippi mandated this usage in public school textbooks for many years.

        • toberdog

          In town squares throughout the South, one can still see monuments with “War of Northern Agression” etched in stone.

    • TribalistMeathead

      The neo-Confederates don’t want to call it a “Civil War” because it wasn’t “civil.” In other words, they think looking up terms in dictionaries is for fags.

      I, too, have heard both “War Between The States” and “War of Northern Aggression,” though the latter seems to be used ironically much more frequently than the former.

    • Link is working for me.

    • LittlePig

      Please gentlemen! It is referred to as ‘The Recent Unpleasantness’. Old times here are not forgotten.

      Hell, Vicksburg didn’t celebrate July 4th until WWII.

  • MAJeff

    A Union parody of Dixie lilted:

    Away down South in the land of Treason,
    Where coward souls our forts are seizing—
    Look away, look away, look away to the Traitors’ Land.

    I rather like that.

  • oldster

    Hey, I would be quite happy to cease using the term “The Civil War”, and if your blog wants to start rolling back that bit of Confederate propaganda, it has my blessing.

    • wavethatflag

      That good ol’ boy
      is waving the stars and bars
      It’s a red white and blue flag
      but it ain’t ours.

  • rea

    The term “civil war” is to some extent neutral (nobody thinks it implies that Pompeius Magnus was right rather than Caesar, or Oliver Cromwell rather than Charles I) and was endorsed by Lincoln (“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and dedicated, can long endure.”)

    • oldster

      The linked Opinionator discussion makes the point about Lincoln’s reference in the G.A., but points out that he was using it as a common noun phrase, not as a name. He did not endorse it as a name for the conflict.

      And what is non-neutral about the name is not that it takes sides as between the two parties, but that it recognizes some equality of standing between the two parties. There is none. One party was a great country, dedicated to freedom. The other was a small cabal of rich slave-owners, dedicated to racism, who were happy to destroy the country in order to keep their slaves.

      We don’t talk of “Shay’s Civil War”.

      • rea

        To the extent that the name “Civil War” is neutral it is because it is bland. However, what it implies is that the war was between two factions of the same country, and of course in the context of the 1861-1865 war that is decidedly not neutral (hey, I’ve changed my mind a bit between two comments). Note that people like Davis did not use the term until they had lost and at least officially were reconciled somewhat to the result–Davis did not call it a “civil war” as president of the Confederacy, he used the term in a book he wrote in 1881.

        And it’s called “Shay’s Rebellion” rather than “Shay’s Civil War” not because it wasn’t civil, but because it wasn’t a war.

        • ploeg

          Precisely so. And keeping the name “War of the Rebellion” would have brought up questions about why Jefferson Davis wasn’t hanging from a sour apple tree, which the governments of the time would have wanted to avoid. Of course, now that executions are no longer an issue, I have no problem with reverting to the previous name.

          • Warren Terra

            More to the point, as a nation we’re proud of The American Revolution, and its rebel Patriots and Sons of Liberty. Calling the establishment of the Confederacy the “rebellion” would be dangerously close to calling it the “revolution” – a term Tea Party idiots still use in their propaganda.

            Though, given by druthers, The Slaveholders’ Secession might work …

        • Shays’ Rebellion. It was named after Daniel Shays.

          • oldster

            Right. Yeah, I knew that.

            That’s the other reason we don’t talk of “Shay’s Civil War”–because he wasn’t named “Shay,” was he?

            I think I’ve made my point here.

      • Dave

        But there is no ‘civil war’ that doesn’t start with revolution or rebellion, so what’s your point? We should call the English CW the ‘Parliamentary Revolt’, the Russian CW the ‘White Counter-revolutionary Rebellion’?

        • rea

          Who were the rebels–Charles I’s supporters or parliament’s supporters? Well, that depended on who had the right to control the government, which was exactly what they were fighting about. Civil wars, including our own, tend to be about which authority is legitimate. It’s only rebellion by one side or the other in hindsight. Union supporters in the south were hanged as rebels by the Confederates.

  • Ghost of Ted Stevens

    Since the Opionator blog appears to be down, here is a link to the Wikipedia naming issue:

    It seems in many foreign languages it is known as the War of Seccession.

  • theLastMenshevik

    Back home in Lancaster PA the Soldiers and Sailors monument calls it the War of the Rebellion. Ive always preferred that term.

    • Jean-Michel

      I don’t think it serves the purpose Loomis is looking for here, given the way the word “rebel” is embraced by neo-Confederates. Personally I don’t think the words “rebellion” and “rebel” carry a built-in stigma anymore, regardless of how they were used historically—if anything they sound rather heroic to me.

      • TT

        Thanks to George Lucas, growing up I definitely associated the word “rebellion” with “heroic”. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

        • rea

          Thanks to George Lucas

          Not to mention David Bowie . . .

          • John (not McCain)

            I love you so.

            • I remember after the 1992 civil unrest in Los Angeles, conservatives stuck with riots, most liberals used unrest, and the far left, which embraced the violent reaction to the King verdicts, called it a “rebellion”. So yeah, that term can have a positive valence.

          • Halloween Jack


        • Halloween Jack

          There’s a ton of prior art, really. Edgar Rice Burroughs (born shortly after the War of Whatchamacallit, and probably served with veterans of The Recent Unpleasantness during his brief military career) gave us John Carter, a former Confederate captain, and career racist Asa Carter produced The Outlaw Josey Wales, which Joss Whedon presumably borrowed from for Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly.

      • PSP

        The desire to be seen as a rebel is the excuse for too many northern idiots with confederate flags on their pick-ups, motorcycle or dorm room walls. I don’t see any stigma at all.

        • sparks

          Yeah. Walk into someone’s living room and see a confederate flag and a menorah, and you begin to wonder what the hell is up.

          • Snarki, child of Loki

            It’s “The Asshole Rebellion”, and it’s still going on.

          • Just Dropping By

            On precisely how many occasions has that happened to you?

          • Colin Day

            You just walked into Judah Benjamin’s house?

            Judah Brnjamin

            • I just read a fascinating account of the southern confederate jewish war in the book I’m reading about the history of Scrapbooks. Writing With Scissors. One of the biggest scrapbooks the author gets her hands on is that belonging to an old Southern Jewish Family, one female member scrapbooks the Civil War as its happening, diligently clipping the good news and pasting it into book after book of older, disused, texts.

    • joe from Lowell

      The monuments in Lowell call it that, too.

  • LeeEsq

    Again why wasn’t Jefferson tried and hung for treason?

    • Todd

      An execution would have interfered with his wildly popular book tour several years later.

    • Bruce Vail

      A desire by most politicians for reconciliation, rather than punishment. As the article Erik cites points out, not a single Confederate, civil or military, was tried for treason after the war.

      By the way, I heartily recommend a visit to to the museum at Fortress Monroe, near Norfolk, Va. Preserved there is the jail cell where Davis was confined for several months after his capture by Union troops. It’s awesome to stand in the very cell where Davis did his brief time behind bars. It’s pretty neat as a cultural exhibit too, as the docent explained to us that US Army established the museum (in part) to dispell the myth that that USA had handled Davis cruelly, and that Fortress Monroe was some sort of dungeon.

      • joe from Lowell

        Fort Monroe is also the post at which General Benjamin Butler decided to declare that slaves who escaped across the lines would not be sent back, thus setting off the mass defection of southern slaves to the Union.

        Is this dealt with in any serious degree there, or is the narrative provided in this Virginia historical location all about the imprisonment of the Southern aristocrat?

        • Bruce Vail

          The museum itself is really a mish-mash and ought to be visited now, before its get’s re-modeled or closed entirely (The Army base Fort Monroe is being closed by DoD, and converted to civilian uses).

          A section of the museum is dedicated to commemorating Fortress Monroe as the earliest site where slaves could flee their masters and enjoy the protection of the United States. Butler, of course, was a well-known abolitionist and sheltered runaway slaves on the grounds of the Fort at the very beginning of the war (before the Emancipation Proclamation). A town of escaped/freed slaves grew up around the fort over the course of the war.

          Also part of the museum is an exhibit on history of the Army’s Coast Artillery, the HQ of which which was apparently based at the fort for many years. The artillery artifacts seem out-of-place in a site so closely associated with the Civil War (oops, I mean the War of Southern Treason), so my guess is that museum will be extensively re-modelled in the not-to-distant future.

          Originally a US Army museum, I believe it is now part of the Park Service. The entire surrounding area is in a state of transition as the Army pulls out and turns it over to non-military owners.

          • Bruce Vail

            Oh, and part of the museum of is dedicated to the pre-war history of the site. There is material about colonial Virginia. The famed war chief Black Hawk was an involuntary resident at one point. Also Edgar Allan Poe, whose breif military career was appropriately woeful.

      • Fort Monroe was recently included in the National Park System. A worthy inclusion to be sure.

      • LeeEsq

        I know that. I’d just thought that there would be a more active lobby for harsher punishment for Confederate leadership. Nobody seemed to even raise the idea and I’d think that the more Radical Republicans like Stevens would really be for it.

        • Bruce Vail

          Oh, there were calls for harsher punishment of Confederate civilian leaders.

          I guess history should credit/discredit Andrew Johnson for choosing not to to prosecute for treason. He was the only individual with the power to call a military commission for the prosecution (as done with the Lincoln assassins) or direct the Attorney General to bring the case. Grant, of course, theoritcally could have reversed Johnson if he had wanted (I wonder of Grant ever weighed in publicly on the issue?).

      • ralphdibny

        Also interesting to visit–the Jefferson Davis SHS, a mini-Washington Monument in the middle of nowhere, Kentucky (where Davis was born). It’s a pathetic attempt to mark Davis as the second first President by aping the monument of the first, and the most obvious phallic symbol in America–a dick for the nation’s biggest dick.

    • rea

      Jefferson Davis, you mean? Jefferson wasn’t tried and hanged because his side won. Jefferson Davis wasn’t tried and hanged largely out of fear that if they started hanging people, the war would never be over.

      • Its over faster if you hang everyone.

      • bill

        In hindsight . . .

    • People don’t have guts to stand up to people with constituencies. It’s the same reason we left Hirohito in power, and why we don’t prosecute torturers now.

      • No, we left Hirohito in power because we made an anthropologically informed decision that having the Emperor on our side/under our control would make the rebuilding of Japan and its re-integration easier. Other people were hung or imprisoned or executed but, of course, not for things that didn’t apply like treason. You can’t compare the failure to execute our own traitors to the inability to execute other people’s citizens for going to war at the orders of their own lawful government.

  • Bruce Vail

    My great high school history teacher explained it to us 16-year-olds many moons ago (paraphrased):

    ‘When you rebel against the government and you win, it’s called a revolution. When you lose, it’s called a civil war.’

    • Manny Kant

      That’s nonsense – the term “Civil War” usually describes a conflict in which both parties are trying to seize control of the central government, not independence struggles. Neither the English Civil War nor the Russian Civil War, the other two main conflicts that are *named* “Civil War”, fits this model at all.

      • Scott P.

        And yet the Russian Revolution was also an attempt to seize control of the central government.

      • rea

        Julius Caesar wrote a book about his war against the Optimates and Pompeians, called Commentarii de Bello Civili . I suspect that’s what popularized the term “Civil War”

      • There were a number of independence struggles within the Russian Civil War. These included Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Crimea, and Idel-Ural (Tatarstan and Bashkiriia). Poland, Finland, and the Baltic States maintained independence long after the end of the Civil War. The other states were all subjugated by the end of 1921. The Rada in Ukraine, Alash Orda in Kazakhstan, the Dashnaks in Armenia, the Musavat in Azerbaijan, and Milli Firka in Crimea were not trying to seize control of Moscow. They were all movements seeking greater national autonomy or independence.

        It is also questionable as to how much many armed political factions other than the Whites sought to take control of the central government. Nestor Makhno’s anarchists in Ukraine did not even believe in central government. The armed Mennonite self defense units in Ukraine (the only time that Mennonites ever willingly took up arms) did so to defend themselves from Makhno’s forces not take control of distant Moscow. Antonov’s Green army in Tambov also appears to have had no desire to seize Mosocow, but rather to prevent the Red Army from engaging in further forced requisitions of grain.

        • joe from Lowell

          What’s the difference between the Blue Army and the Green Army?

          • Green Army is the peasant uprising in Tambov under Antonov. So called due to their agrarian roots. The Blue Army as far as I can tell is the new Polish military called Blue because of their uniforms. But, almost all the English and Russian language literature I have seen just calls them the Polish Army rather than giving them a color.

            • joe from Lowell

              Wikipedia uses the term Blue Army for Antonov’s Army.

              This source also uses it for the Tambov peasant army, and calls the Green Army “Ukranian Nationalists.”

              I was wondering if they were different peasant army groups or what. You’ve never come across a Blue Army in the Russian Civil War?

              • I just did a keyword OCR search in three books on the subject: Swain, Lincoln, and Schapiro and nothing came up for Blue Army. There were a lot of hits especially in Swain for Green Army with is Antonov’s outfit in Tambov.

        • JoyfulA

          Thanks, Otto, that’s very interesting. I knew of those eastern European countries’ independence after WWI, and I’ve been told that the Lvov area was pure hell in those years, but your detail is great and new to me.

          I also didn’t know that Mennonites had ever taken up arms. (The Hutterites, having been promised by President Grant before they emigrated that they would never have to take up arms, moved to Canada after they were persecuted for their pacifism during WWI.)

          • Yes, the Mennonite self protection squads caused a division in the community. If you can find it there is a great documentary/oral history source from Canada consisting of interviews of Mennonites from Ukraine about this period. It is called “…and When They Shall Ask.” The producer is David Dueck and John Toews the author of Lost Fatherland scripted the film.

    • LeeEsq

      What about the English Civil War? The Roundheads basically won that conflict till Cromwell died and its still called a Civil War.

      This might be the exception that proves the rule though.

      • Ed K

        Pet peeve. “Proves” in that phrase is being used in the sense of tests. If there’s an exception, there’s no rule.

        Aka, logic.

        • njorl

          I thought that the “the exception that proves the rule” referred to an explicitly stated exception to an unstated rule. Something like “You do not need to buckle your seat belt when moving your car in your driveway”, is an exception that proves that the rule about buckling your seat belt exists.

          • A civil war implies a rough equality between the causes/ sides at least for some portion of the war.

          • Ed K

            No. The phrase is archaic, plays on the archaic meaning of ‘proves’–i.e., tests (as in, proving ground–and in that usage makes a correct logical point: if you can find an exception, your proposed rule (i.e., your proposed universal claim) doesn’t hold.

            If you were trying to frame it in general, rather than universal terms, then the exception would still describe not the fact of the general rule, but the limits of its general applicability. In either case, where you have an exception, you DO NOT have a rule.

            It has been bastardized into this totally illogical claim that if there’s an exception, that means there’s a rule. As such, it’s listed in most logic textbooks I’ve ever taught from as a fallacy.

            • Hogan

              H. L. Fowler via Wikipedia disagrees.

              The phrase is derived from a legal principle of republican Rome: exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis (“the exception confirms the rule in cases not excepted”), a concept first proposed by Cicero in his defence of Lucius Cornelius Balbus.[1] This means a stated exception implies the existence of a rule to which it is the exception. The second part of Cicero’s phrase, “in casibus non exceptis” or “in cases not excepted,” is almost always missing from modern uses of the statement that “the exception proves the rule,” which may contribute to frequent confusion and misuse of the phrase.

              Fowler gives the following example of the original meaning:

              Special leave is given for men to be out of barracks tonight till 11.00 p.m.; “The exception proves the rule” means that this special leave implies a rule requiring men, except when an exception is made, to be in earlier. The value of this in interpreting statutes is plain.

              This legal principle is classically referred to as “inclusio unius est exclusio alterius” (Inclusion of one is to exclude the others). The idea is that if the promulgator of law finds reason to enumerate one exception, then it is only reasonable to infer no others were intended. The opposite principle is seen in the Ninth Amendment – “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

              The phrase may also be invoked to claim the existence of a rule that usually applies, when a case to which it does not apply is specially mentioned. For example, the fact that a nurse is described as “a male nurse” (the exception) could be taken as evidence that most nurses are female (the rule). This is a slightly looser interpretation of the original meaning.

              It’s simply not true that if it has exceptions, by definition it’s not a rule.

              • Ed K

                Did you actually read what I wrote above?

                If you were trying to frame it in general, rather than universal terms, then the exception would still describe not the fact of the general rule, but the limits of its general applicability.

                • Ed K

                  To expand, the exception in that case would do nothing to establish the existence of a rule (i.e., the sense of prove everyone mistakenly thinks is operating here). To prove that there is a general, but not universal rule, you need empirical evidence for a statistical regularity. Cases that don’t follow the rule (i.e., exceptions), don’t provide that.

                  In *formal* reasoning where rules are stipulated, as in the case you cite, the exception still does not establish the rule, but reflects its existence by its structure as an exception. You can’t, in other words, establish a rule by making an exception.

                  And in any event, that stipulative case is never the sense in which it’s actually being used — which is almost always inductive or deductive. Both of which, as I mentioned above, are incoherent.

                • Hogan

                  You’re arguing that the verb “prove” must apply in the archaic sense of “test” because the word “rule” must be interpreted in the mathematical or philosophical ssense. I’m arguing that (a) that’s historically wrong, because that’s not the sense of the word “rule” employed in the original formulations of “the exception that proves the rule,” and (b) that can’t be the only possible exclusive reading, because there are even today other senses of the word “rule” that work perfectly well with the original sense of the phrase.

                  Bijan, thou shouldst be with us in this hour.

      • Jon C

        It’s even more striking, since it was, I think, basically their children who used the term “Glorious Revolution” when they threw out James II in 1689.

        Or maybe the Roundheads just hadn’t totally figured out historical propaganda yet.

        • joe from Lowell

          Dude, they ended up being called “the Roundheads.”

          I think it’s safe to say they didn’t pwn things on the propaganda end.

          • ajay

            I think it’s safe to say they didn’t pwn things on the propaganda end.

            Given that their head of propaganda was John Milton, who later wrote a twelve-book epic about a rebellion in which the legitimate government is represented by God and the uppity rebel is Satan himself… well, no.

      • Stephen

        Clarendon in the 1670s tried to have it both ways: History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England.

        Many people called it the Great Rebellion, though.

    • njorl

      If the established government has a relatively uninterrupted string of successes, it is a rebellion. If the rebels have that, it is a revolution. Anything in between is a civil war (provided it is all in one country, and not a colonial situation.

      So you have Buckingham’s Rebellion, The Glorious Revolution, and the English Civil War.

    • Anonymous

      Unforunately, none of the terms are used consistently, and attempts to reimpose some sort of semantic content to their use is probably doomed to failure.

      It would be nice if revolution was reserved for a internal struggle that changed the form of government as opposed to just who holds the power, but the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution are exactly backwards if that’s the case.

      • ajay

        It would be nice if revolution was reserved for a internal struggle that changed the form of government as opposed to just who holds the power, but the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution are exactly backwards if that’s the case.

        The Glorious Revolution changed the form of government; it brought in the Bill of Rights.

  • JMG

    Dear Mr. Loomis: Once, idly thumbing through a very old history of the town in the public library of Lexington, Mass., I found that its term for the Civil War was “War of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion.” I bet that works for you.

    • Peter Hovde

      Or just “Slavers’ Rebellion.”

      • Wapiti

        I like Slaver’s Rebellion. Short and sweet.

        • And given events like Lee enslaving blacks in Pennsylvania, quite accurate.

    • Ed K

      I was going to suggest this as a more elegant phrase, but then someone else already got there–not surprisingly.

  • cpinva

    a lot of what has become “common knowledge” about the war, is the result of the losers getting to define the terms, in school history textbooks. the state of texas has a unified textbook acquisition program, for all public schools. as a result, texas is the single largest purchaser of school textbooks in the country. publishers who want texas to buy their books, conform them to meet the texas state school board requirements. this resulted in the history of the war being tainted and romanticized, and the defense of slavery being the root cause never, ever mentioned; it was always about “state’s rights”, while not bothering to identify which particular state’s right was being “defended”. the era of digital textbooks will, hopefully, do away with texas deciding what the rest of the country will teach.

  • ajay

    ‘When you rebel against the government and you win, it’s called a revolution. When you lose, it’s called a civil war.’

    Which is wrong anyway, because the rebels won in the Spanish and Chinese Civil Wars.

    I never liked “civil war” for the US conflict; in other contexts it means a war between two factions within a country over which should be in charge (English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian) and the American Civil War wasn’t about that. The South didn’t want to put Jefferson Davis in the White House.

    • Bruce Vail

      I’ll forgive my old teacher in this case for lack of global perspective. He was trying to impress on us that the winners of the war are the ones that usually write the history of the war. And that was true when I was a public high school student in NY’s Hudson Valley in 1970s. Lincoln was presented as a god-like figure, and the war was clearly labelled as right vs. wrong proposition.

      • oldster

        Ummm…The war *was* a right vs. wrong proposition, and should be clearly labeled as such.

        I won’t go to the mat over Lincoln’s god-like status–I think a lot of traditional divinities are over-rated, and so the comparison probably does him a disservice.

        But, what: do you really think it is more historically “sophisticated” and “nuanced” to pretend that the war was *not* a right vs. wrong proposition?

        • Bruce Vail

          I have no argument with you if you hold that the Union was right, and the Confederacy were wrong.

          • oldster

            Being pro-Confederate and in favor of ranking Lincoln higher than divinities–now *that’s* contrarian! I like it! Get me Fred Kaplan on the line!

            • Bruce Vail

              I guess that’s intended as a biting comment, but I am unfamiliar with Fred Kaplan.

              It would be misreading of my comments, by the way, to conclude that I am pro-Confederate.

              • oldster

                No, no–not intended to bite anyone, certainly not you. Intended to be silly, but presupposed some pop-culture knowledge that there is no reason for you to have.

                I knew all along that you were not pro-Confederate. But I was a bit puzzled that you should question whether I was pro-Confederate or not.

                After all, I had just said that I think comparing Lincoln to divinities might do him a disservice. Translated, that means I idolize Lincoln.

                But if you know that I idolize Lincoln, then it would be odd to wonder whether I think that the Union or the traitors had the right side of the question.

                Unless you thought I was taking the stance of idolizing Lincoln while also supporting the disloyal side in the war. That would be a very curious stance to take–not strictly logical contradictory, but highly counter-intuitive.

                In other words: contrarian. And the magazine that is known for seeking out contrarian points of view is Slate, one of whose editors is Fred Kaplan.

                But why should you know that? There is no reason why you should.

                We are at peace, you and I. Let us remain so.

                • Bruce Vail

                  Peace, brother. No, I’m not a reader of Slate and the more I hear about it at LGM the less likely I am to become one.

    • Manny Kant

      and the English Civil War. The Russian Civil War is more complicated, but I’m not sure it makes sense to describe the Bolsheviks as “the government.”

    • There were a lot more than two factions in the Russian Civil War and a lot of them were nationalist secessionist movements. See my post up stream on this. It was not just the Whites and Reds there were also Greens, Blacks, and others.

    • Hob

      “The South didn’t want to put Jefferson Davis in the White House” may be literally true, but it’s misleading since it implies that the central government is the only one that can be contested, whereas they were also fighting to establish control over territories they wanted to make into slave states.

  • toberdog

    I love The Band. But yesterday “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” popped up in the shuffle rotation. It really is an awful piece of propaganda.

    Now somebody is going to try to tell me it’s ironic, or something.

    • What an irritating and rather whiny song.

      • Which makes it a perfect encapsulation of the neo-confederates.

    • Lee Rudolph

      I have always preferred to think of it as “The Night They Smoked Old Dixie Cups”. Makes it go down a whole lot better, maybe even explains it.

      • oldster

        That is a huge improvement. From now on, that’s how I’m singing it.

    • Imma not call it ironic. However…

      The way I have always read it is that Virgil, some poor dirt farmer, not having any real knowledge or opinion of the actual issues, is being pushed into events by having a sense of southern ‘culture’ blown up his ass, tailed off of his own pride at (barely) remaining self-sufficient. Those creating this bogus culture didn’t actually give a flying dammit about the dirt farmers, they just needed cannon fodder.
      If the slavers had won, although Virgil was the one put at enormous risk of death or crippling permanent injury, he would not have seen sweet fuck all.

      Shorter me: cognitive dissonance – he knows down deep he is being used, but for his own mental health, he has the need to think he is acting entirely of his own volition.

      My 2/100 of a dollar, flame away…

      • toberdog


        Your interpretation makes the song go down easier. But, respectfully, I think you’re trying too hard.

        • Richard

          Its a great song, beautifully played and wonderfully sung. Its not propaganda, just a song from the point of view of a poor Southerner who fought in the war.

          • rea

            Or actually, did not fight, though his younger brother did (and got killed). He was a railroad engineer until the Stoneman raid in 1865.

            • Hogan

              Does he say the brother was younger?

              • ResumeMan

                His brother was (probably) older. And he did fight.

                “Like my father before me, I’m a peaceful man
                Like my brother before me, I took a rebel stand.

                Just 18, proud and brave
                but a Yankee laid him in his grave”

                The brother *could* have been younger I suppose, but “before me” at the age of 18 suggests that Virgil reached 18 later, and then joined the army.

                • rea

                  The brother *could* have been younger I suppose, but “before me” at the age of 18 suggests that Virgil reached 18 later, and then joined the army

                  I always thought the brother had to be younger because Virgil seemed to have a job as an engineer on the Richmond & Danville RR–“Virgil Caine is my name and I drove on the Danville train”. A train driver on one of the crucial supply lines for Lee’s army and Richmond wouldn’t necessarily be in the army, but staying in that crucial job would certainly count as taking a rebel stand.

                  The Richmond & Danville was severely damaged in a cavalry raid led by Union General George Stoneman in December 1864, leading to starvation in Richmond. There’s a hint that Virgil isn’t telling us everything about his involvement in the last days of the war:

                  In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive
                  By May the tenth, Richmond had fell
                  It’s a time I remember, oh so well

                  Richmond actually fell on the night of April 2-3, after Grant flanked Lee out of Petersburg. Jefferson Davis escaped from Richmond, initially by train, down the Richmond & Danville. He tried to set up a new capital at Danville, but ultimately had to flee by horseback, and was captured in North Georgia on May 10–the date mentioned in the song. Was Virgil involved in the attempted escape?

                  Robbie Robertson seems to have paid some attention to getting the facts of the Civil War right, although I’m not sure Robert E. Lee actually visited Tennessee in the aftermath of the war.

        • I think you’re trying too hard.

          And that’s entirely possible, I’ll grant, just my thoughts – I take it as resignation, not as celebration.

          • Tucker

            …”And I don’t mind them chopping wood
            And I don’t care if the money’s no good
            You take what you need and leave the rest
            But they should have never taken the very best”

            The argument can be made

            • rea

              And remember, “the very best” is his brother.

            • I agree. I don’t think its trying to hard at all to argue that the song is ambiguous, at worst and quite hostile, at best, to the Southern Cause.

              • Virgil Cain is a railroad worker. The song begins by mentioning Jackson tearing up the tracks, which may have been a militarily sound decision, but it (at least temporarily) ended Cain’s work. So there’s at least one example of his interests directly conflicting with the CSA’s, even if we don’t get into the issue of how much he identifies with his job.

                • Its a cliche of war that “when elephants fight, the ants get trampled.” It feels propagandistic to me to write sympathetically about a Southern Soldier and his sorrows when, since its not your background, you have a choice in whose viewpoint and whose suffering to valorize. They could have written the song about a Union guy, or a fighting contraband/ex slave. I guess even though I thought at first I could see the song as somewhat critical of the Southern Cause I also think it fits right in with the generic mawkishness and self pity of the Lost Cause. Southern soldiers may have been badly served by their government and its military and they may have lost the war and had mixed feelings about it but they had a choice to serve the south or the union and to the extent they chose the south I’m not sure why I should pity them. The song exhorts me to empathy which I reject. They had agency.

                • Fair enough. You’ve thought about it and I was reacting.

                  My bias is showing: I’m an engineer, and the thought of losing your work to intentional destruction resonates with me.

                • rea

                  Not Jackson, but Stoneman–a Union cavalry general who raided the Richmond & Danville RR in December 1864.

                • Halloween Jack

                  Southern soldiers may have been badly served by their government and its military and they may have lost the war and had mixed feelings about it but they had a choice to serve the south or the union and to the extent they chose the south I’m not sure why I should pity them.

                  Did they really have that choice, and did that include the possibility of being repatriated, after the war was over, someplace besides where they came from, where presumably they’d be treated as traitors? (Not to mention what would happen if they were captured and their place of origin were known.)

    • drkrick

      It certainly wasn’t ironic, but I don’t think it was pro-secession propaganda either. It always has sounded to me like it was talking about the impact of the war on a particular family. As in all wars, motives for supporting or participating in the war at the individual level were decidedly mixed. Peer pressure, conscription and desire for adventure are all at least as important as support for the elite secession agenda which was almost entirely about preservation of slavery.

      • toberdog

        Not too far away from paleo’s interpretation, but somehow I like this better.

      • ChrisTS

        I always thought the chorus was just inexplicable if the song was intended to celebrate the CSA. After all, why would “the people” be singing?

        • njorl

          He was in Tennessee. It was a very divided region. Tennessee had it’s own internal civil war while the North and South were mobilizing. It’s entirely possible that most of his neighbors were pro-union, or at least anti-war.

          • ChrisTS

            Huh. And Canadians knew this before I did? :-)

            • Robertson has said a bunch of times that he did real research for the song. Mind you there were a lotta drugs around and time moves in funny ways…

    • It’s entirely legitimate to write a song from the perspective of a southern soldier.

      • toberdog

        Sure. The Band, somewhat like that later group of Canadians, the Cowboy Junkies, wrote many songs from a southern perspective.

        • Richard

          And while wer’e on the subject of the Band, coming out next month is a four CD/ one DVD collection of their complete four performances at the Academy of Music in 1971 from which the Rock of Ages record was culled. Its a bit pricey, $85, but has a couple film clips from the performance and a 5.1 surround mix on the DVD. One of those things that I’m going to splurge on.

          • I wonder how vital it will be. I’ve never found Band performances all that interesting. For as much as I love that band and what they stood for and their first 2 albums (and sort of the 3rd), it didn’t exactly translate into a vital live show.

            • Lee Rudolph

              The only rock concert I ever attended (in Boston’s Symphony Hall, home of the BSO, of all places—also the only time I’ve ever been there), on Hallowe’en, 1969, featured The Band opened by Van Morrison. Morrison was shitfaced-out-of-his-mind-drunk, and was hauled offstage (not, alas, with a vaudevillean crook) barely halfway through his set; and The Band were very disappointing, and definitely not “vital”. (Of course he, and/or the venue, may have put them off their stride.)

              I suppose I shouldn’t have let that spoil me for rock concerts, but, frankly, one prefers one’s radiogramophone.

      • rea

        It’s entirely legitimate to write a song from the perspective of a southern soldier.

        It’s a historical fallacy to project the reasons for the war onto any particular individuals’s reasons for fighting.

    • Blanche Davidian

      Very clever propaganda written by a Native North American Canadian. What dog did he possibly have in that fight? It’s a song about a railroader just trying to do his job in a situation completely beyond his control and wondering what happens next. There’s nothing so heartbreaking and destructive as a civil war, and both victor and vanquished understand and suffer the scars of that.

    • Jon C

      Sure, because if there’s any name a Confederate propagandist would use, it’s “Cain”.

  • How about “The War the Confederacy Lost”?

    Accurate, doesn’t argue and quibble about ‘oo killed ‘oo and allows the Dixiests to continue their endless wallow in self-pity and resentment.

    • muddy

      I’ve always felt “War of Northern Aggression” made them sound really whiny.

      “Waah, we were just sitting here being honorable and then our own government got all aggressive for no good reason! Of course we had to defend ourselves! That’s honor, son!!”

      I heard that stupid phrase all the time living in NC. I used to say it was interesting how they liked to brag about a war that they LOST (I gave the loser salute to any in traffic I saw with their stupid losing flag as well). I’d tell them it was a good thing that they lived in the United States of America, because most places don’t let you go on displaying your side’s shit once you’ve lost.

      It was really remarkable to see the fallen faces of those who just realized they were bragging about losing. They had never once thought of it that way. That it was a loser flag.

      I always call it the Loser’s Flag, cuz it is.

      One time after 9-11 a guy gave me shit for not having an American flag on my car. I said that being that this was America, I presumed we all felt patriotic, so why have to show it off? OF COURSE America, duh. I said it would be a real statement if you drove with your flag down the streets in the Middle East.

      Then I pointed out that he also had the Loser Flag, which had been treason to the US.

      “OMG! In this terrible time, you are *still* celebrating treason?” He peeled it off right in front of me, it was so sweet.

  • Pupienus Maximus

    The Traitor Slavers War is more succincter.

  • JMP

    “War of the rebellion” is really bad, because when you say “rebellion”, the first thing most people will think of is Star Wars, and the plucky underdog heroes fighting the evil Empire. I don’t understand why anyone other than Confederate apologists would endorse that.

    • Weren’t the droids essentially slaves? So maybe the analogy is more apt than it appears.

  • Manny Kant

    Just because Davis came up with the name “Civil War” (assuming he did) doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate. It’s certainly better than the preferred southern terms like “War Between the States” and “War of Northern Aggression.” It’s a bland, anodyne name that doesn’t favor either side. The names of events don’t need to have polemical import. “World War II” is a name which does nothing to indicate that the Nazis were super evil, and that’s fine.

    • SamR

      In a way, this issue reminds me of when Fox News started objecting to calling suicide bombers “suicide bombers” and instead started calling them “homicide bombers.” FNC’s argument was basically that calling them suicide bombers shifted the focus to the bomber instead of the victims, and was PC somehow.

      But the reason we called them suicide bombers was to describe what they did, as distinct from other bombers. Tim McVeigh was a homicide bomber, but didn’t kill himself.

      I’d also note that I assume the US did not care for the Japanese practice of deliberately crashing their planes into our ships, but we still used their “kamikaze” term for it.

      Still, “Traitor Slavers’ War” has a nice ring IMHO.

  • FMguru

    The War To Suppress Peckerheadism And Inbreeding

    • BigHank53

      That one we did lose. Obviously.

    • LittlePig

      Yep. The Northerners were waaaay too kind to my ancestors.

    • Marry me.

    • Gabriel Ratchet

      That coulda been the name of the English Civil War as well. At least the inbreeding part …

  • Hogan

    The Civil Rights movement may have had some effect on white Southern thinking about this qusetion.

    Narrator: Yes, Boris had switched diagrams and the hapless moose was now going over a set of battle plans of the Cival War.
    Colonel Beauregard: Or as we call it, the war between the states.
    Narrator: Now wait a minute. Who are you?
    Colonel Beauregard: Colonel Jefferson Beauregard Lee, sir.
    Rocky: Yeah, but you’re not part of our story.
    Colonel Beauregard: No, I’m from the League of Confederate Correctors.
    Bullwinkle: The League of Confederate Correctors?
    Colonel Beauregard: Every time a programs refers to the late, unpleasantness as the Civil War…
    Bullwinkle: Uh, you show up and correct them?
    Colonel Beauregard: That’s right, shug. We called it “The war between the states.”
    Rocky: Yeah, but…
    Colonel Beauregard: I just can’t abide the word “civil.”

    Rocky & Bullwinkle, 1963

    • joe from Lowell


    • Nice! I was actually just going to try to find the Youtube of that episode to post.

  • Johnny Sack

    Let’s not forget how shameful it is to have a military installation named Fort Bragg.

  • Brian

    Let’s see, the ‘names’ of other wars:

    Revolutionary War
    War of 1812
    Spanish/American War
    World War I
    World War II
    Korean War
    Vietnam War
    Gulf War
    Iraq War
    War in Afghanistan

    It seems that the ‘Revolutionary War’ is the only one that has a motivation in the common name.

    Since the Union was victorious can we just call it the “Southern States War”, similar to all the other wars that are more about where it was fought?

    • Snarki, child of Loki

      You left out the Mexican-American War and numerous “Indian wars”.

      It’s really disgusting that we don’t have anything like the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”. Those damned Brits get all the fun.

      • ajay

        It’s really disgusting that we don’t have anything like the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”.

        And the Wars of the Roses and the First and Second Opium Wars, don’t forget. And El Salvador had the 1969 Football War. But most of the wars seem to follow the 1066 And All That formula of simply being named after the losing side:

        Zulu War.
        Cause: The Zulus.
        Zulus exterminated.
        Result: Peace with Zulus.

        The official name of the force that marched into Kabul (after the disastrous First Afghan War) was the Army of Retribution. The Afghans are still annoyed about it. In 2002, locals in Kabul came to complain to the British commander that British troops had burned the Covered Bazaar in the city. “Oh, lord. When did this happen?” “In 1842!”

    • Warren Terra

      Also The Pig War. Casualties: one pig. Settled by that noted Man Of Peace, ol’ Kaiser Bill hisself. Features George Pickett and yet a notable lack of massively ill-advised bloodshed.

      I swear, people just aren’t taught history these days.

  • WHS

    It’s pretty crazy to worry about this. Crazy enough that I wrote a thing saying why.


  • Stradlater

    Is it because I have lived almost my entire life in American states that have seceded from the union that I don’t see what’s objectionable about “the War between the States”? It sounds apt to me: the Civil War was literally a war between states. Franklin Roosevelt himself used the term I believe.

It is main inner container footer text