What is a Civil War?

Mary McMahon

A civil war is a war that is fought internally within a nation between differing factions, religious groups, or powers. Exactly what makes a war "civil" can be hard to pin down; one common definition includes several criteria, including when both sides in the dispute have gained control of territory, created their own governments — however marginal — and have some sort of organized military that performs regular operations. In addition, most people only consider a conflict a civil war when other nations recognize the claims of one or more parties in the conflict. Smaller or less widespread conflicts may be known as insurgencies or insurrections, although they certainly have the potential to develop into a war.

The War of the Roses was a 15th Century English civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York.
The War of the Roses was a 15th Century English civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York.

Many Americans think of the American Civil War when they hear the term, but in fact, civil wars have marked human societies for centuries. These wars between countrymen can be particularly destructive, because they undermine the infrastructure and confidence of a country. In some cases, such a war might restore the balance of power in a country, while in other instances it might result in a more oppressive government, depending on who ultimately wins the conflict.

The U.S. Civil War pitted the northern and southern states against each other.
The U.S. Civil War pitted the northern and southern states against each other.

Some people like to distinguish between this type of conflict and a revolution or insurrection, arguing that a civil war involves distinct powers or factions. This is in contrast to an insurrection, when ordinary citizens individually start banding together to oppose the government, usually because they perceive it as unjust. A large-scale insurrection may turn into a revolution, with a violent overthrow of a prevailing government in the interests of the people. In some cases, the aftermath of a revolution turns into a civil war, because various factions may have emerged among the rebels to struggle for power.

Rwanda fought a civil war during the 1990s.
Rwanda fought a civil war during the 1990s.

There are a wide range of reasons that a war within a country can begin, ranging from religious beliefs to conflicts over available resources. Civil wars can be rapid and extremely efficient, like coups, or they can stretch on for decades, often costing thousands of lives and totally disrupting society. In this case, outside governments may step in to stabilize the region, either because they are concerned about events in the country or they are dealing with an influx of refugees from the fighting.

Many nations all over the world have struggled with civil wars, from Asia to Latin America. In parts of Africa, these conflicts became endemic after the collapse of colonialism, and some endure to this day. Sadly, in some cases genocide has accompanied civil war, as was the case in Rwanda, and many wars also claim large numbers of uninvolved civilians as well.

Flags of the opposing sides during the American Civil War.
Flags of the opposing sides during the American Civil War.

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Discussion Comments


What many people don't realize is that the Confederacy was actually a nation for four or five short years. It's capital was Montgomery, and the states consisted of Southern slave states, namely anything south and west of Virginia. Therefore, the Civil War was not actually a civil war. It was a war between two nations.

Now the Sudan civil wars were civil wars, but the American Civil War was not. It was two nations fighting, one believing in slavery, and one not. Further proof of this is it contradicts the fact a civil war is fought internally in one nation. Some battles were in the Union, Gettysburg for example. Others were in the Confederate states, like at Fort Sumter.


In effect, both sides of this discussion are correct. The Confederacy, by its very name, chose to reject Federal rule or government. As such, if in name only, it was a separate country. However, by virtue of being denied the opportunity of being recognized as an independent country by both England and France, the U.S. claim that this was an internal dispute between factions does hold true.

Also, looking at the individual governments, with the Confederacy mirroring the government of the U.S. in every way, there was no clear demarcation between the two -- despite the fact that the South still had slavery as an active institution. This one fact was not enough to differentiate the two governments to bring a strong support from Europe as most of the European countries had abolished slavery by the mid-18th century.

When, in 1863, President Lincoln declared the true purpose of the war as the total abolition of slavery and the reunification of the Confederacy with the Union, England and France--the primary leaders of abolition in Europe--would not have assisted the separatist nation, even if they believed that it would aid in consolidating a foothold in the West and strengthening their positions with Canada.


The Confederacy (Confederate States of America) was viewed by the Union (United States of America) as states in rebellion, not as a separate country. Also, the Confederacy narrowly lost diplomacy with Great Britain and France; they refused to acknowledge the Confederacy as a country in the end, and in turn, no other country acknowledged it. Also, in terms of "history is written by the victors", yes, the American Civil War *was* an internal struggle between factions; that is how the Union saw it and that is what the victor wrote.


Technically, the American Civil War wasn't an internal struggle between factions. Since the Confederate States had declared independence from the United States, the American Civil War was actually fought between two distinct nations, much like the American Revolution.

A classical civil war, in the sense that it is used today, would be the Russian Revolution, between the Red Army (Socialist forces) and White Army (Tsarist forces). The Red Army won, and took over the Russian Empire, forming the Soviet Union.

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