Why We Are Is: Ambrose Bierce vs Historian James McPherson

Today, we commonly say, “The United States is going to Hell in a handbag” and not, “The United States are going to Hell in handbags” and think nothing of this grammatical absurdity.

It was Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson, in summing up his 900 page history of the Late Unpleasantness, who famously observed that after the Civil War, the United States of America–which used to referred to in the plural in both popular writing and official texts–suddenly began to be referred to in the singular.    McPherson, in Battle Cry of Freedom, also noted that after the war Americans now referred to our country as the Nation, no longer as the Union, except when referring to it in a historical sense—as in “Union forces won the war.”

James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning scholar of the Civil War, author of Battle Cry of Freedom
James McPherson, Pulitzer Prize winning scholar of the Civil War, author of Battle Cry of Freedom


In his first inaugural address in 1861, Lincoln referred to the Union 23 times, but to the Nation not once.  Yet, by 1863, in the very, very brief Gettysburg Address, Lincoln refers to the Nation five times and the Union not once.  Lincoln is now talking about “a new birth of freedom,”–of ONE NATION–dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, which shall not perish from the earth.[i]

Lincoln, author of the Gettysburg Address and the man who transformed the Union into a Nation.
Lincoln, author of the Gettysburg Address and the man who transformed the Union into a Nation.

What makes this brief homily of Lincoln’s so timeless is that every phrase is fraught with meaning, every word carries some point to it.  It is not just flowery prose.  When Lincoln spoke those words, he had a specific political message to convey to the North, as well as the South.

This is why generations of school children (myself included) were required to memorize this text—and if teachers are doing their job these days, still should be.  Kindle or Google won’t cut it; it is one of those fundamental texts that needs to be seared into the memory, as a branding iron does to the flesh.

While I sometimes disagree with Professor McPherson on some issues, on this score I believe his argument is cogent and his observation of the is vs are is quite right.

While McPherson’s point was made decades ago, I recently stumbled across a reference to the very same point by Ambrose Bierce, eveyone’s famous curmudgeon, but also a battle-hardened veteran of the Civil War, someone who not only fought but bled for that “new birth of freedom.”

Ambrose Bierce, brilliant writer, curmudgeon, lexicographer and war hero.
Ambrose Bierce, brilliant writer, satirist, curmudgeon, lexicographer and, above all, war hero.

As anyone who has delved into Bierce’s life and career will tell you, one of the major problems with researching Major Bierce is that almost all of his work was originally published in serial form in newspapers and magazines, during a career spanning over forty years.

While researching Bierce’s life and work is now getting better thanks to Messrs Joshi and Schultz and a handful of other scholars, traditionally most people have only accessed the corpus of Bierce’s work via the anthologies published during his lifetime or else through his “Collected Works” which he collated late in life.  All the anthologies you may have read of Bierce since then have largely been rehashes of those old tomes.  In recent years, however, a few brave souls have gone back into microfilm archives of old newspapers, looking at the original articles and essays.  While much in these old journalistic pieces may only be of passing historical interest, here and there one finds occasional nuggets among the dust.

Fredrick Edwin Church's patriotic "Our Banner in the Sky" (1861)
Frederick Church’s patriotic “Our Banner in the Sky” (1861)

When the Spanish-American War broke out, for example, it stirred the old war dog within Bierce.  In between pontificating about current events in his “War Topics” column, Bierce began to ruminate about his own experiences of war.  Although the Jingoism promoted by his publisher, William Randolph Hearst, grated against his last nerve, Bierce too soon got caught up in the war fever of the day.

Always the contrarian, one would not suspect from these pieces written close to the turn of the century that once Bierce was a fierce idealist and a recklessly brave soldier—but I’ll leave that for another time.  More to the point, in one of his ruminations, the Devil’s Lexicographer Bierce weighed in on the whole “is” vs “are” issue.  Since “Almighty  God” Bierce is, by far, a better writer than I, it is best to let him make his point in his own words:

“In the light of patriotism’s altar fires, newly kindled and splendoring the Land of the Comparatively Free, I note a revival of that disgusting solecism, “the United States is,” :the United States does” etc. Actually, there are persons—writers, too—who believe that the laws of syntax are affectible by political phenomena, and that the word “States” becomes singular in number if the things that it represents are for some purposes “united.” They would not thing of saying: “The herded cows is grazing,” or “The yoked oxen is tired”—there would be no patriotism in that; and these excellent persons are, before all else, lovers of their country. (The shrillest and most raucous of them—a teacher in the public schools!—is chief proponent of the simple plan of making little children good and loyal citizens by compelling them once a week to perform monkey-tricks before the flag.) Tell them that this is not a political matter, but a grammatical, and they will put you down with “E pluribus unum,” the only Latin that they know. They will affirm (and not care a cent if overheard by the effete dynasties and tottering despotisms of the Old World) that these United States is one nation—one nation, sir, and don’t you forget it! We shall not forget it, nor are we permitted to forget that they themselves are one nuisance; yet Heaven forbid that any of us should say “These united intolerable is in danger of everlasting fire!” God sees them, and that is enough.”[ii] 

[i] See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (NY: Oxford U. Press, 1988), 859,
[ii] S.F. Examiner, May 8, 1898.

Ambrose Bierce’s wartime career read Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife (University of Tennessee Press):

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover


For more about Lincoln, read The Paranormal Presidency

The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency
The Paranormal Presidency delves into the more esoteric aspects of Abraham Lincoln and his presidency




Gettysburg: Civil War Ghost Central

In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays.
Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger,
to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.”

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine

For Civil War buffs in general, and those interested in the paranormal aspects of the Late Unpleasantness in particular, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania is something akin to Mecca. The site of the most famous battle of the Civil War.  For generations it has attracted both Civil War enthusiasts and average tourists by the millions. Compounded by its fame as a battlefield is its connection with Abraham Lincoln and his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address.

Certainly, just for the history alone, Gettysburg is worth visiting, especially in this sesquicentennial—and even more this year, the 150th anniversary of both the battle and Lincoln’s speech. Having written about both Gettysburg’s restless dead and Abraham Lincoln’s own fascination with the paranormal, I would be remiss if I did not devote at least one blog entry to this holy grail of re-enactors, ghost hunters, and mainstream Civil War historians alike.

Col. Chamberlain leads the charge of the 20th Maine at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 by Mort Kunstler
Col. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine charging the enemy at Little Round Top. Did they have an assist from the ghost of George Washington?

In Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War I chronicled a few of Gettysburg’s haunted locations; one is connected with Colonel Chamberlain and his famous defense of Little Round Top and another section deals with the phantoms of Farnsworth House. Farnsworth House is on most top ten lists of haunted hotels and what it lacks in size it makes up for in sheer volume of paranormal activity. They offer ghost tours and have even added a re-enactment of a Civil War era séance–of the sort which both President and Mrs. Lincoln attended. For more on the Lincolns and Spiritualism, see Chapters 14 and 15 of The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Fayette Hall Lincoln on Dancing Piano fac 34a
Both President and Mrs. Lincoln attended séances while in the White House. At Farnsworth House they re-enact that sort of nineteenth century session.

I could easily have filled the whole book with other Gettysburg spirits and encounters, but to be honest that field has been amply plowed by Alan Nesbitt and his series of pamphlets covering them. Alan was a tour guide at Gettysburg for years and collected a number of first hand accounts, as well as being knowledgeable about the battle itself. Greystone Productions, with whom I collaborated on the production of their video Ghosts of Music City, has also produced some a nice series of documentary videos on the subject as well; in fact they too have a store in Gettysburg. So why add to the congestion?

The Farnsworth Inn and B&B generally makes the top 10 lists of most haunted hotels.  See Chapter 15 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.
The Farnsworth Inn and B&B generally makes the top 10 lists of most haunted hotels. See Chapter 15 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War.

Well, it just so happens my daughter visited there last summer, while en route to attend a friend’s wedding. Like many visitors, she snapped several photos of her visit. Surprisingly, (or perhaps not so surprisingly) when she viewed a few of them later she saw some weird things had appeared on the digital shots. In one photo, taken at night but without a flash, she caught what definitely appears to be a gray apparition looking out of an upstairs window in the town. Unfortunately, whenever we have tried to enlarge it to make it more distinct, the autocorrect function in the digital camera kept trying to erase the image: so much for the wonders of technology. The image remains on the original, however.

She also took a series of shots looking out over the battlefield in the dark. Standing in one place, she took an overlapping sequence of them to form a panorama. To be honest, in nighttime there is little of the battlefield to see; what was interesting, however was that in several of the shots there appeared a cluster of white “orbs.” Now anyone familiar with both the paranormal and photography is familiar with this phenomena; orbs are thought to be a particular form of ghostly energy not normally visible to the naked eye; debunkers claim it is just dust reflecting back the light of a flash at night. Well, these photos were taken with low level light-sensitive camera; more importantly they were all taken from the same identical position, yet some photos had orbs, yet others didn’t. If it had simply been dust in front of the lens then all the photos should have come out exactly the same: they didn’t.

Many, many other visitors to Gettysburg report similar strange encounters, some far more dramatic than my daughter’s.

As Colonel Chamberlain said, “bodies disappear, but spirits linger.”

Far more about Gettysburg ghosts, see chapters 15 & 16 of Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War; on Lincoln and the paranormal, see my brand new book, The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, Chronicles unexplained phenomena connected with the Late Unpleasantness in the battlefields and houses where the conflict to take place.


Paranormal Presidency cover suitable for online use 96dpi
The Paranormal Presidency documents for the first time many of the reports about Lincoln’s belief and practice regarding the Unexplained and Uncanny.