Saturday, August 17, 2013

Thoughts on the Rebellion of 1861-1865

During the war, Northerners and Southerners sometimes used the uncapitalized phrase “civil war” as a declarative description of the mess in which they found themselves, but Civil War was not yet a proper noun. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war,” President Lincoln famously declared in the Gettysburg Address. Less famously, Lt. James Langhorne of the 4th Virginia Infantry lamented to his mother, “I think our country is doomed to a civil war of years duration.” Throughout the struggle Confederates likewise spoke of the “civil war,” or just “this war.”

But most often, Northerners referred to the war as a rebellion. They commonly used phrases like “this rebellion” and “the great rebellion.” Northerners followed the course of the war in Frank Moore’s popular Rebellion Record, which began to run in 1861, and Lincoln himself frequently used the word “rebellion” to describe the war in public and in private. Rebellion was simply what Union soldiers, and sometimes even Confederate ones, called the war. It seemed as natural as calling a tree “a tree.” The perpetually grouchy Massachusetts soldier Roland Bowen grumped that “we have not done much toward putting down this Rebellion yet,” for example, while the Floridian Roderick Gaspero Shaw worried that if Confederates did not kick the Yankees out of Georgia by the spring of 1864, the “Rebellion will tremble.” And of course, Northerners blasted Confederates as “rebels,” a label that many Confederates proudly adopted. But what did it mean to call the war a rebellion?

Lincoln understood the importance of semantics. “It might seem, at first thought, to be of little difference whether the present movement at the South be called ‘secession’ or ‘rebellion,’” he told Congress in July 1861. “The movers, however, well understand the difference.” Lincoln thought that secession was an act of rebellion against democratic self-government. A disgruntled minority had captured the reins of power in the South and rode it out of the Union because it did not like the way a presidential election turned out. This act defied the core principle of democratic self-government, for elections have validity only when all parties agree to abide by results, even when they don’t like them. If self-government was to survive, then the rejection of – rebellion against – a fairly and freely elected government had to be defeated. As Lincoln put it, “It is now for [us] to demonstrate to the world, that those who can fairly carry an election, can also suppress a rebellion.”
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