What defines a civil war?

Generally, a “civil war” is when one or more factions are trying to overthrow the existing central government.

What we commonly call our “Civil War” isn’t correct, because The South had no interest in overthrowing Washington, it wanted to secede from it. Which is the same thing that Washington did during what we call the Revolutionary War.

If one agrees with the Declaration of Independence (which I do) where it mentions “dissolving political bands,” then The South had exactly the same right to secede from Washington as Washington did from Britain – despite what Lincoln said.

You guys convinced me. I take back my earlier contention the the American Revolution is a misnomer. It was a different sort of revolution from the one in France, but it was a revolution nonetheless. And a civil war too, with loyalists on one side and patriots on the other.

Well, the Rebellions of 1837-1838 were relatively serious, in the sense that they were one of the causes of Canada gaining greater self-government, and they are still commemorated today.

The province of Manitoba where I currently live also entered Canada following a rebellion that is also still commemorated today.

It didn’t start out that way, but then neither did the French Revolution. Originally the intent was just to right grievances with the government, but things snowballed and the result was a change in the form of government. After the war, there was some talk of making George Washington king, and if that had happened there would be less reason to consider it a revolution since the US would just have become a monarchy.

Brazil is an interesting case in that, unlike other Latin American countries, it had a war of independence but not a revolution. During the Napoleonic Wars the Portuguese ruling family fled to Brazil. In the aftermath, the son of the Portuguese emperor ended up declaring Brazil independent with himself as emperor. So Brazil became independent without a change in the form of government.

Mexico also gained independence as a monarchy in 1821, but soon became a republic.

It is definitely worth pointing out the difference between a war between rival factions for control of the whole country and a war of secession. Many or most conflicts called “civil wars” seem to be of the former kind, as in the cases of the Irish, Finnish, Spanish, Greek and Lebanese civil wars.

However, there are several examples that I can think of where a conflict of the latter kind has been referred to as a civil war - the aforementioned American Civil War, the Sri Lankan Civil War and the Civil Wars in Nigeria and Congo in the 1960s. In all four the secessionist movement was unsuccessful; had they been successful I suspect the conflicts would be known to history as “the X war of independence”.

I think maybe what contributes to the misconception is conflating the ideas of the nation, and the nation-state.

A nation can be any of the four definitions above, but a nation-state is only the first. So the American Revolution is a war fought between different nations (Def. 4,) American and British, within the same state (the British Empire,) the result of which was a new nation-state. The Civil War was fought between people of the same nation (def. 4 - arguably) to see if they would form separate states. The Philippine Insurrection was fought between different nations (def. 4) in the same state (the U.S. use of the word “state” to include intranational boundaries can also be confusing here.)
So I’d put out there that civil wars are fought within the same nation; which is why the American Civil War qualifies, the Revolutionary War doesn’t, and the Philippine Insurrection doesn’t. It’s mostly consistent.


India wasn’t really a nation until it emerged from British control. Before the Raj, it was just a collection of (occasionally warring) city-states. Indians also were British in certain meaningful senses. Gandhi’s campaign for the rights of Indians in South Africa was primarily based around the fact that they were British subjects just like white South Africans.

India also did not have the same level of democratic home rule that the American colonies did, because it had no domestic tradition of democracy. Where there was home rule, it tended to be in the princely states that had not been amalgamated and weren’t really part of British India (and it was monarchial rule).

Mexicans love explaining that the war which ended with their independence started against the French, and about the same time as the metropoli itself was fighting the same French. Their Guerra de la Independencia is a branch of our Guerra de la Independencia.
I think a key difference is that a civil war wants to change the whole country; colonial wars involve a colony wanting independence from the metropoli. The aforementioned Guerras de Independencia started as the reaction to an invasion which had originally been pacific thanks to a betrayal; eventually, one was left as just that and the other became a colonial war.