The term ‘rebel’ was applied to Southerners by advocates of forcibly preventing the Confederate secession of 1860-61. Northern Unionists saw Southern secessionists as being in rebellion against the United States, which they believed to be a permanent and national government from which the people of a State had no right to ever secede. The name ‘War of the Rebellion’ was also employed by them based on the same line of reasoning.
Many Southerners, in a manner which is consistent with their character as a people, embraced the term proudly and the word ‘rebel’ has remained strongly attached to the culture of Dixie ever since, especially in popular culture. However, not all Southerners welcomed the use of this word to describe them and their struggle for independence from the United States. The South’s most dedicated secessionist, a man who had spent over three decades of his life promoting Southern nationalism, certainly did not look fondly upon it. Robert Barnwell Rhett saw Southerners as remaining loyal to their States, which he and most Jeffersonian-inspired Southerners viewed as the truly sovereign bodies in the US system, and to the spirit of the US Constitution – which he saw the forced-Unionists as violating for their sectional economic and political interests. Author William C Davis describes Rhett’s perspective on the word ‘rebel’ just as Union President Abraham Lincoln was beginning to prosecute his war against the seceded Southern States in 1861 on pages 463-464 of his book Rhett: The Turbulent Life and Time of a Fire-Eater:
Rhett did not see Southerners as rebels. Southerners were citizens of their states, not of the United States, and their only allegiance was due to that one sovereignty. They could only be rebels if they rebelled against their own states. In 1860-61 they faced the alternative of free government and liberty or despotism, and that was why they seceded. The North that now intended to make war upon them was seeking to abolish that freedom. “What language can fitly describe the foul and barbarous attrocity [sic] of making war upon them and murdering them for their fidelity?” he asked, and of course there was no answer. The greedy money power consolidationists of the North had been working toward this end for generations. “They wanted war; for war would produce the grand end of all their Party-policy, co-eval with the existence of the Government. It would spread lawless force over the land, – extinguish the Constitution, – bring creditors to the support of their Party, and boundless taxation, with vast enrichment to monopolists, manufacturers, and Paper-money jobbers. It was all part of a grand conspiracy, and now the South must battle for freedom and its life.”