The war that raged on the North American continent from 1861 to 1866 [the official end] has gone by many names, some of them more accurate than others, others of them wildly inaccurate.
One highly inaccurate name was coined by Alexander Stephens in his postwar writings–the “War Between the States.” While states furnished regiments, those regiments were then mustered into national service on both sides. The Commander-in-Chief of the 90th Pennsylvania wasn’t Andrew Curtin of Pennsylvania; it was Abraham Lincoln. Georgia didn’t fight against Ohio. It wasn’t a war between states. It was a war between two centralized entities, the United States and the confederacy.
A laughingly stupid term is “War of Northern Aggression.” Use of this term shows the person using the term is either joking or doesn’t have the first clue about what happened in the war. It ignores the fact that four southern states fought for the Union. It ignores the fact that hundreds of thousands of southerners fought for the Union. It ignores the fact that the confederacy started the war by their aggression. Anyone who seriously uses this term is probably dumb enough to agree with a bully who picks a fight with someone else, gets beaten up, and then complains the other guy beat him up. They are advertising their ignorance and childishness.
“War for Southern Independence” is only marginally better. While the confederacy did fight for its independence in order to preserve slavery, again it ignores all the southerners who fought to maintain the Union and the fact that four southern states fought to preserve the Union.
“War of the Rebellion” was the official name of the war. Neoconfederates and groups like the Sons of Selective Memory [a term coined by Tampa Bay Times columnist Daniel Ruth] don’t like it because it tells the ugly truth that the war was the result of a rebellion against legitimate government.
“War of the Slaveholders’ Rebellion” is a term I sometimes use in response to neoconfederates using some silly, ahistorical name such as the first three addressed above. It has the virtue of being completely historically accurate, but it is a provocative term
“The Late Unpleasantness” is a whimsical term that I really enjoy. It’s a relatively balanced term, for those who think that is important, and it doesn’t carry any historically inaccurate baggage.
“The Second American Revolution” has some accuracy attached to it, and it could fairly be applied to both sides, eventually. James McPherson argues that secession was a counterrevolution against changes, mostly in attitudes, occurring with regard to the institution of slavery. Certainly the confederates were in rebellion, trying to change the central government over them. And the social upheaval caused by the war was itself a revolution, particularly as it affected slavery by destroying it. But the term, “Second American Revolution” is bandied about for a number of historical events, among them the War of 1812, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement. This tends to cause confusion when applied to yet another historical event.
In some places it’s simply known as “The War” or “The Woah,” as if no additional specification is required. Since we’re all not living in the latter 19th Century, it’s probably best to specify which war.
When you get right down to it, “The American Civil War” or simply “The Civil War” is the best term for it. It is accurate. Some neoconfederates who don’t know how to use a dictionary will contend that it’s not a civil war because the two sides weren’t fighting for control of the same country. That simply shows they don’t know the meaning of the term. A civil war is merely a war between people of the same country. As unilateral secession was an illegal act [This is settled law. Any comments claiming otherwise will not be posted], all the confederates remained citizens of the United States, so it was a war between people of the same country. It is also neutral between the two sides, implying fault for no side.
There are, of course, many other terms used for the war. Here I’ve only hit the major ones.
Prof. Robertson also discussed the many names for the war in a podcast you can access here.