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What is a Civil War?

A Civil War is an internal conflict where factions within a single country engage in battle over political, social, or ideological differences. It's a struggle that can reshape nations and redefine their futures. As we explore the causes and impacts of such wars, consider how these internal battles have shaped the history of societies around the world. What lessons can we learn?
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What defines a civil war?

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

A civil war is characterized by conflict between groups within the same country or state. It involves organized groups that aim to take control of the government, change government policies, or split the country into separate entities. Civil wars are typically marked by a sustained, high-intensity conflict that causes significant casualties and disruption. According to the Correlates of War Project, a conflict must result in at least 1,000 battle-related deaths in a year to be considered a civil war.

How does a civil war differ from other types of wars?

Unlike international wars, which involve conflict between different nations, civil wars occur within the borders of a single country. Civil wars involve non-state actors, such as insurgent groups or militias, fighting against the state or each other. The focus is on control over the state or a region, rather than on disputes between separate sovereign entities. Civil wars can also lead to humanitarian crises, including displacement and civilian casualties, often at a scale that rivals or exceeds international conflicts.

What are some common causes of civil wars?

Civil wars commonly arise from a mix of political, social, economic, and ethnic tensions. Issues such as governmental oppression, economic inequality, ethnic strife, and the struggle for resources can fuel discontent. Historical grievances and the desire for self-determination or autonomy also play significant roles. For instance, the Syrian Civil War, which began in 2011, was sparked by political repression and quickly escalated due to ethnic and religious divisions, as well as external interventions.

What is the impact of civil wars on civilian populations?

Civil wars have devastating effects on civilian populations, often resulting in high civilian casualties, mass displacement, and human rights violations. Infrastructure such as homes, schools, and hospitals are frequently damaged or destroyed, leading to long-term socioeconomic challenges. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that conflicts, including civil wars, have forcibly displaced over 84 million people worldwide as of mid-2021, illustrating the profound impact on civilian lives.

How do civil wars typically end, and what are the challenges of post-conflict reconstruction?

Civil wars can end through military victory, negotiated settlements, or external intervention. However, achieving lasting peace is challenging due to deep-seated grievances, weakened state institutions, and the need for reconciliation. Post-conflict reconstruction involves rebuilding infrastructure, restoring law and order, and addressing the root causes of the conflict. The World Bank emphasizes the importance of inclusive political processes and economic development to prevent the recurrence of violence and promote sustainable peace.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

anon100019

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.

anon52178

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.

anon37545

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.

anon34666

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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    • Flags of the opposing sides during the American Civil War.
      By: peteri
      Flags of the opposing sides during the American Civil War.
    • The U.S. Civil War pitted the northern and southern states against each other.
      By: Bill Perry
      The U.S. Civil War pitted the northern and southern states against each other.
    • The War of the Roses was a 15th Century English civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York.
      By: Georgios Kollidas
      The War of the Roses was a 15th Century English civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York.
    • Rwanda fought a civil war during the 1990s.
      By: lesniewski
      Rwanda fought a civil war during the 1990s.