I know that the North tended to name battles after rivers (Bull Run, Antietim) while the South tended to name them after towns (Manassas, Sharpsburg). Why the split? Who gave the battles their names, the press or the commanders?
The way that it was explained to me (in some distant unciteable past) was that the Federal forces, on the offensive, tended to pick an objective or perceived fortifiable position and referred to it in their reports while the defending Confedrates tended to use the towns where they might be setting up headquarters. A battle involving 20,000 - 60,000 (or more) men is going to cover a lot of area and may swing wildy across the countryside as it saws back and forth. The battle may have never actually involved the nearby town or it may have involved more than one hamlet.
The Union did identify battles by the names of cities or towns (or forts) when they were the particular objective to be captured or defended, but when the armies met in open terrain, they tended to use physical features (creeks, rivers, hills, mountains), rather than picking one town’s name, arbitrarily, when they had never actually fired on or entered any specific town during the battle. The Confederates, generally picking locations to defend, picked towns where multiple roads provided easy communications to call for support, even if the town was not actually involved in the battle.
As an example. had the Union picked town names, they’d have probably called First Bull Run/Manassas, “Centreville” as that town was in their rear and they never got close enough to Manassas Junction to even look at it.
Here is an extract from an article by General Daniel Harvey Hill which offers an explanation as to why these battles were differently named.
Gen. Hill implies therein that the battles were named by the army commanders.
All due respect to General Hill, (a pretty good general, but possibly not educated in demography), but even using the general guideline that the North was 25% urban while the South was only 10% urban, there is no way to get to “The troops of the North came mainly from cities, towns, and villages. . . .” There were more people clustered in cities in the North, but it was still primarily an agrarian society in 1861.
I cannot (yet, if ever) provide evidence that I have the better claim, however, I will note an example he provides that, I believe, supports my hypothesis. The name given to the horrific battle in the West, in April, 1862, was Shiloh by the South and Pittsburg Landing by the North. This is in direct reversal of the more typical nomenclature.
In fact, however, Shiloh Church (near Shiloh Creek) was the site of the Southern headquarters while Pittsburg Landing was the important crossing of the Tennessee, a military objerctive that Grant had to defend in order to ensure that Buell could support him when he arrived from the far side. The rest of the battlefield was swamp and marsh with no town at which Johnston and then Beauregard could establish a headquarters, thus their use of the church. (Even today, there are scarcely any hamlets in the neighborhood.)
I am aware of the temerity of challenging a person who was actually involved in the war, (although he admits that he, too, is speculating), but I am up to the task.
I do not make any claim that I have to be right, but so far I think my speculation, (based on old memories) is holding up pretty well.
To a great extent the names of battles have much to do with what commanders chose to call them and the address used on the commanders after-action report. At Antietam /Sharpsburg in 1862 the Army of Northern Virginia was in fact headquartered just on the west edge of the town and Lee designated the thing as the Battle at Sharpsburg. McClellan, on the other hand was headquartered at a large farm house on the east side of the creek and chose to designate the battle as having taken place at Anteitam Creek. Same sort of thing at Pea Ridge/ Elk Horn Tavern. At Shiloh/ Pittsburg Landing, the village and boat landing was about the only geographical landmark in the vicinity and the Methodist Chapel did mark the most forward Union camps before the fight started and the line along which the fight ended the next day. Beauegard, who was in command of the Confederate Army at the end of the battle, used Pittsburg Landing in his dispatches, Grant used the Shiloh Church in his. For the commander it was just a matter of using a name that seemed obvious from his point of view, sometimes the name of a creek (Bull Run, Mine Run, Wilsons Creek, Chickamauga, Peach Tree Creek), sometimes a town (Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg, Chancellorsville, Altoona), and sometimes some other landmark(Shiloh, Pea Ridge, Kennesaw Mountain, Chickasaw Bluffs, Look Out Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Pork Chop Ridge, Hill 175, the I Drang Valley).
Sometimes the decision to name a battle is deliberately political or parochial. The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 was fought at and around a low ridge and crossroads south of Brussels called Mont St. Jean. Wellington’s headquarters were at a wide spot in the road a few miles to the north named Waterloo. Blucher, the Prussian commander wanted to name the battle after a country tavern and cross roads in the middle of the French position where Anglo-Dutch and German forces met in the midst of the rout of the French army. That place was called La Belle Alliance – in honor of the landlord’s profitable and happy marriage. Welling was happy to minimize the Prussian contribution to the victory and chose the name more easily pronounced in English– thus the Battle of Waterloo. The old German sources talk of the Battle of La Belle Alliance and some old French ones refer to the catastrophe at Mont St. Jean.