Today my Civil War classes took a short quiz on the question of whether Confederate defeat was inevitable. Their reading for the day in Brooks Simpson's text offered a thorough overview of the advantages and disadvantages that both sides faced going into the war. Shortly after handing the quiz out one of my students asked how he should refer to the two sides. It was a wonderful question and one that I've been thinking about for the past few weeks. I responded by demanding that when referencing nations that the students ought to refer to the United States and the Confederacy.
Following the quiz I decided to discuss my decision with the class. As we all know specific references vary and some are clearly more accurate than others. I am pretty adamant that when referencing the nation that my students not refer to the South since not all southern states seceded following Lincoln's election. Instead, they are to refer to the Confederacy. Of course, they can refer to the Union, but this leads to a certain fuzziness of thought through our linguistic conventions. It's as if there is a United States of America up until 1861, then between 1861 and 1865 it becomes something else (the Union) until 1865 when somehow the United States picks up where it left off.
I rarely hear people today refer to this nation during the Civil War as the United States of America. The one exception to this rule is Gary Gallagher, who almost seems to make it a point of doing so in various public settings. I still remember the moment when hearing him refer to the nation in this way left me with the awkward thought of, "Oh yes…this was still the United States of America." Clearly, Americans continued to refer to the United States between 1861 and 1865, so when did the United States become the Union or the North? Could it be that the continued referencing of the United States in the decades following the war worked to alienate certain people, namely white Southerners who would have heard rebellion rather than secession or states rights? I wonder what I might find in early histories of the war.
Am I onto something here or have I lost my mind? Be honest.