Where Did the United States Go During the Civil War?

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. 

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13 comments… add one
  • Gretchen Adams Apr 23, 2011 @ 14:25

    I insist (here in Texas) on saying USA/Union and CSA/Confederacy interchangeably in lecture. I explain that since the CSA declared itself a nation that “south” is wrong. My reasoning is based on two things—that “north” and “south” as students prefer is erasing a lot of contemporary history and, since they are all too aware of my native state (Massachusetts) from my accent and often overtly “worry” about my teaching the war, my position is that if *I* can recognize the CSA as a self-declared nation, then they should be delighted to as well.
    The fact is that the US didn’t cease to exist when states left so there is no question that the states remaining in the union were indeed the USA. What Lincoln did for pragmatic political reasons is his own affair—as you can see, I have my own contemporary political minefield to navigate.

  • K.P. Marshall Apr 16, 2011 @ 3:42

    I agree with Kevin’s take. The Confederacy was a nation. I think Mr. Gladstone’s words are the best here “Jefferson Davis and the other leaders in the South have made an Army, they are making, it appears, a Navy, and they have made what is more than either…a Nation” Gladstone Newcastle 1862

  • Larry Tagg Aug 10, 2009 @ 11:59

    Good point. Lincoln was the most pragmatic of presidents, and did indeed play both sides of the “one nation” issue, as you point out. When necessary to bring back Union prisoners, or negotiate an end to the war, he did treat the Confederacy as legitimate. The rest of the time, he just called them “rebels.” That way, foreign nations would be less likely to recognize the Confederacy, and he could more easily reconstruct the United States once the war was over.

  • Kevin Levin Aug 10, 2009 @ 11:44


    Thanks for writing. Lincoln’s language did indeed reflect a reluctance to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Confederacy, but his actions suggest that his stance was much more complex. After all, they negotiated about prisoner exchanges and Lincoln met with representatives of the Confederacy on occasion.

  • Larry Tagg Aug 9, 2009 @ 20:07

    It’s a very good question, one I came up against writing _The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln_. I consistently took the position that Abraham Lincoln took, which was that the United States of America was still one nation. He never referred to the Confederacy, always referring instead to “the rebels,” small “r.” I did the same, not only because it seemed right in the context of a book about Lincoln, but because I agree with Lincoln’s interpretation. It is also interesting, as a side note, that the United States of America was always seen as a plural noun before the war (“the United States are . . .”, but a singular noun afterwards (“the United States is . . .”).
    Larry Tagg

    • K.P. Marshall Apr 16, 2011 @ 4:59

      So the struggle of a people in deadly earnest fighting for their independence doesn’t even deserve a capital letter in your eyes? That position is as ridiculous as Mr. Lincoln’s, and Adolph Hitler’s, position that the national government was not a creation of the States but was somehow older. How do the lovers of Mr. Lincoln reconcile the mans own words, some of the most horribly white supremacist garbage ever uttered, with the public image that you help sustain?

    • Andy Hall Apr 16, 2011 @ 5:47

      It is also interesting, as a side note, that the United States of America was always seen as a plural noun before the war (“the United States are . . .”, but a singular noun afterwards (“the United States is . . .”).

      At the risk of thread-jacking, I wonder how accurate that really is. I suspect most folks heard that (as I did) from Shelby Foote, in Ken Burns’ documentary.Was there really a dramatic (and documented) change in the usage, or is it a folksy sound bite that, due to its origin, has simply been taken as gospel these twenty-some years?

  • Lori Stokes Sep 12, 2008 @ 17:53

    The United States lost southern members after secession, but still continued to exist. The remaining states in the Union were referred to as the United States by Britain and most other nations, and referred to themselves as such, too.

    If someone discontinues their membership in a society, the society goes on! A kind of lame metaphor, but it works.

  • Craig Sep 12, 2008 @ 4:59

    Maybe we should acknowledge that the United States hasn’t really been united since the Civil War and that perhaps a more accurate description would be the Confederated Union of American States. Or perhaps the Confounded Union of American States.

  • Rebecca Sep 11, 2008 @ 10:33

    I definitely think you’re onto something there. However, for me personally, I don’t refer to the nation as the United States during the Civil War, because the nation wasn’t “united”. The very question of whether the country would remain as one nation was being decided.

  • Richard Sep 10, 2008 @ 21:28

    You raise a point that has always been of interest to me. I think it would be worth while researching this especially since you do so much with how memory is formed. Keep us informed.
    BTW, I knew there was something I liked about G.G. I just could not put my finger on it.

  • Brooks Simpson Sep 10, 2008 @ 21:15

    I do see Union and United States as interchangable. I don’t see the South and the Confederacy as interchangable.

  • Adam Arenson Sep 10, 2008 @ 20:34

    If I recall correctly, President Lincoln made a point of referring to the entire (pre-1860) country as the United States, and that the designation Union came into regular usage for just the North after the war. (You can read period usages — For the Union! — as extensions of the pre-Emancipation Proclamation view from the North, that this was a fight to keep the Union of United States together, so that term also included the Confederate States against their will.)

    I agree an interesting question; will be curious what others have to say.

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