What’s in a name . . . .

by Alison Arnold

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run, or if you are from the South, the First Battle of Manassas. So I did a little investigation to find out why the same battle has two different names and found some interesting information on the origins of names.

First of all, we can’t even agree on what to call “THE WAR”. The Civil War is the most common name used for the entire conflict but historians outside the United States will refer to it as “The American Civil War” which makes sense since other countries have had civil wars also.

The official war records of the United States refer to this war as “The War of the Rebellion”. If you are from the North you heard the terms “The War for the Union”, or “The War of Southern Aggression” and conversely, if you were a resident of the South, it might have been referred to as the “War for Southern Independence”, “War of Secession” or “The War of Northern Aggression”. Interestingly enough, the term “War Between the States” was rarely used during the war but became prevalent afterward in the South, as part of an effort to perpetuate its interpretation of the war.

As for the battles, the Union forces frequently named battles for bodies of water or other natural features that were prominent on or near the battlefield. Confederates most often used the name of the nearest town or man-made landmark. Because of this, many battles actually have two widely used names. (Just as there is the first Battle of Bull Run or The First Battle of Manassas, there was Oak Hills/Wilson’s Creek, Leesburg/Ball’s Bluff to name just a few). However, not all of the disparities are based on these naming conventions. In general, naming conventions were determined by the victor of the battle.

Civil War armies were also named in a manner reminiscent of the battlefields: Northern armies were frequently named for major rivers (Army of the Potomac, Army of the Tennessee, Army of the Mississippi), Southern armies for states or geographic regions (Army of Northern Virginia, Army of Tennessee, Army of Mississippi).

Units smaller than armies were named differently in many cases. Corps were usually written out (First Army Corps or more simply, First Corps). Often, particularly with Southern armies, corps were more commonly known by the name of the leader (Hardee’s Corps, Polk’s Corps).

Union brigades were given numeric designations (1st, 2nd, …), whereas Confederate brigades were frequently named after their commanding general (Hood’s Brigade, Gordon’s Brigade, …). Confederate brigades so-named retained the name of the original commander even when commanded temporarily by another man; for example, at the Battle of Gettysburg, Hoke’s Brigade was commanded by Isaac Avery and Nicholl’s Brigade by Jesse Williams. Nicknames were common in both armies, such as the Iron Brigade and the Stonewall Brigade.

Union artillery batteries were generally named numerically; Confederate batteries by the name of the town or county in which they were recruited (Fluvanna Artillery). Again, they were often simply referred to by their commander’s name (Moody’s Battery, Parker’s Battery).

So, I guess a war by any name is still a war . . . . .


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