The words we should no longer use to describe the Civil War

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Labor camp, not plantation. Enslavers, not slave-owners. The United States, not "the Union."

This is the new vocabulary that Civil War scholars should be using in place of outdated terms, according to a popular new essay on George Mason University's History News Network. In the essay, Michael Todd Landis, an assistant professor of history at Tarleton State University, points to the work of similarly minded historians and argues that since our understanding of history has changed, it is time for the language used to describe historical events to change as well.


He writes:

The old labels and terms handed down to us from the conservative scholars of the early to mid-twentieth century no longer reflect the best evidence and arguments. The tired terms served either to reassure worried Americans in a Cold War world, or uphold a white supremacist, sexist interpretation of the past.


Landis is specifically arguing that the words commonly used when discussing the Civil War need to change because so many of them are inaccurate or carry subtle reinforcements of racism and the Confederate cause.

Landis points to the work of legal historian Paul Finkelman of Albany Law School who thinks the "Compromise of 1850" would be more accurately described as the "Appeasement of 1850." Referring to the legislative chicanery northern and southern Congressmen engaged in to avoid the country splitting even earlier, since the Southern states had their demands met over and over again (more fugitive slave law were passed and Texas' border was enlarged, among other things), and there was no real give-and-take, it was "hardly a compromise."


Landis mentions the work of Cornell's Edward Baptist, who "rejects 'plantations' (a term pregnant with false memory and romantic myths) in favor of 'labor camps'; instead of 'slave-owners' (which seems to legitimate and rationalize the ownership of human beings), he uses 'enslavers.' Small changes with big implications."

Landis' own contribution to this movement is that we should no longer use "Union" and instead stick with "United States" since using "Union" legitimizes the Confederate States, even slightly. "Union" also implies that the "United States" ceased to exist which since elections were held, taxes were collected, diplomacy was conducted, and a war effort was conducted, is simply not true. The United States was trying to quash a rebellion, but it was still there.

The dichotomy of “Union v. Confederacy” is no longer acceptable language; its usage lends credibility to the Confederate experiment and undermines the legitimacy of the United States as a political entity. The United States of America fought a brutal war against a highly organized and fiercely determined rebellion – it did not stop functioning or morph into something different.


This summer saw issues like Confederate legitimacy and iconography crop up over and over again, including debates about whether slavery was really all that bad ("heritgage, not hate," etc.). Landis' argument, like a lot of other recent scholarship on the Civil War, is meant to nip that right in the bud. This happened and the country still needs to reconcile with that fact. A change in vocabulary is a good start.

[History News Network]

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