Civil War Terminology
  1. Abatis - One of the oldest forms of defense. Usually, fell trees, sharpened at one end and facing towards the enemies front. Abatis was designed to prevent an enemies advance. While not used extensively in the Civil War due to the intense labor required, semi-permanent camps often saw its use.
  2. Aide-de-camp - A sometimes confidential ex officio officer appointed by general officers. This person reported directly to their commanders and took orders only from him. The aide must be thoroughly knowledgeable with tactics and maneuvers and be able to modify or change orders in the absence of authority. Also known as the generals right-hand-man.
  3. Barbette - A raised wooden platform, normally found in permanent fortifications, that allowed an artillery piece to be fired over a wall without exposing its gun crew. Mound or earthen dirt often took its place.
  4. Battery - Usually, six guns, each attached to a limber which is a two wheel ammo chest, drawn by three pairs of horses in tandem. A standard battery consisted of 155 men with various jobs to perform. Cannons are said to be in-battery while in use.
  5. Bivouac - The Civil War term defined by the U.S. Army in 1861: "When an army passes the night without shelter, except such as can be hastily made of plants, branches, etc., it is said to be in bivouac."
  6. Blockade - The term referred to the blockading of essential waterways, inlets, by ships of war. During the Civil War, the North used this method extensively and had a Blockade Bureau, fully assigned to 1) determine targets of blockades, 2) assign effective ships and 3) to refine blockading methods. The intent was to deprive the South of much needed war material and to prevent foreign ships from delivering war material. Blockading also prevented the South from selling and moving its exports abroad and in the South, this normally meant cotton and other raw goods.
  7. Border States - Considered by the Lincoln administration as being Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware and Missouri. This was due to their geographical location and questionable loyalty to both the Union and the Confederacy. Lincoln courted them and considered the border states a key to Union victory.
  8. Bounties - A monetary sum of money, sometimes $500 for short term enlistment and $1500 for a three year enlistment to augment the armies of both the North and South. The bounty system was riddled with problems. Men would often enlist, then jump regiment hoping to reenter with another unit. The Federal government and local governments paid 600 million in bounties during the war.
  9. Brevet Rank - A Civil War term Borrowed from the British during the Revolutionary War. Different from a commission, officers were often awarded a higher rank due to meritorious service in combat or to allow them to serve on staff positions. Many West Pointers were awarded brevet rank because there were not enough vacancies in the regular army. The rank also allowed volunteers to be promoted. It has not been used in the military since 1918.
  10. Brigade - The common tactical infantry and cavalry unit of the Civil War. The brigade had 4-6 regiments, sometimes less, sometimes more. Operated by the brigade general, the brigade could be commanded by a colonel, dependant on its size. Brigades were not of equal strength on both sides of the war. The Confederate brigade was said to have greater numbers than the Northern brigade.
  11. Brogans - an ankle-high bootee, laced in the front; known commonly as bootees, or "Jefferson Boots" or "shoes". The term "brogans" is listed separately from bootees on the Quartermaster records and contracts, and typically listed as "negro brogans". They were intended for issue to freemen employed by the Army, and perhaps to United States Colored Troops. Brogans may or may not include metal eyelets. Many in re-enacting contend that these were not known then, or not in common use. However, documentary evidence indicates that the eyelet was created and in circulation by 1838, and in common use shortly thereafter. In the Federal OR’s for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1865, approximately 8.3 million pairs of bootees (2.2 million were pegged, 6.1 million sewn) were purchased; 2.6 million pairs of boots (1.1 million pegged, 1.5 million sewn) were purchased, and approximately 155,000 pairs of brogans were purchased.
  12. Buck and Ball - A close range musket load having 3 large buckshot bound on top of a .69 calibre, smooth bore musket ball, encased in paper. It was most often found in Confederate hands and was not commonly used during the war simply because it was highly inaccurate at a distance.
  13. Buck and Gag - A form of corporal punishment used during the Civil War era. The soldier set on the ground, and had his hands and feet bound. His knees were drawn up between his arms and a rod inserted under the knees and over the arms. A stick was placed in his mouth sideways. The offending soldier was normally placed in full view of the command and had to endure this punishment for hours. It was normally reserve for shirkers, stragglers and drunkards.
  14. Bummers - The term applies to foraging or marauding soldiers in the war. Military rules often disallowed foraging but when allowed, supposedly, had strict rules. A discreet officer was placed in charge; soldiers could not use threatening or abusive language; they could not trespass in a private dwelling and must leave enough for family subsistence. Too often, these soldiers became marauders, answering to no one as they gathered their spoils of war with their own methods.
  15. Butternut - Many soldiers of the Confederacy wore uniforms colored a yellowish-brown by dye made of copperas and walnut hulls. The term later became a synonym for the soldier.
  16. CDV - Carte-de-visites were small portrait photographs created using a process patented by the Parisian photographer Andre Disderi in 1854. He used a multi-lensed camera to produce eight small images on one large glass negative. Contact prints were made from these, when cut up the resulting portraits were trimmed to 57mm by 89mm and pasted on cards 63mm by 102mm. The photographers name and address was usually printed together with a simple logo on the back of the card.
  17. Camouflet - A counter mine device or explosive placed to the front of a tunnel believed being excavated. When struck by pick or shovel, the device exploded, burying the miners. Rarely used during the war, it is said the Confederates attempted it at Vicksburg.
  18. Camp - A location anywhere armies were at rest or said to be in "bivouac" while in the field. Cavalry always camped in the rear.
  19. Camp Follower - A broad term simply meaning anyone who followed armies for profit and employment. It applied to sudlers, laundress's, bakers, barbers and the like. It also applied to prostitutes, card dealers, illegal whiskey sellers.
  20. Cascabel - The large round knob found near the base of a cannon breech.
  21. Carpetbagger - The term of contempt by Southerners for any Northerner who came to the South and gained political control with the aid of the black vote. Many were unscrupulous and corruptionists who gained control of land through taxation. Others, benefited the South by real investment and hard labor. The term had conflicting meanings.
  22. Case Shot - Spherical case - a cannon round invented by Henry Shrapnel, English artilleryman in 1784. The round is an antipersonnel round, fired at close range. The load breaks apart shortly after firing and smaller balls devastate close-by combatants.
  23. Chain Shot - An obsolete form of artillery ammunition which saw some use in the Civil War. Designed originally to attack the rigging of sailing vessels, the device consisted of 2 hollow hemispheres connected by a short length of chain folded inside and the hemispheres closed together into a ball for loading. When shot, the chain whirled towards the enemy with deadly precision but only for a few.
  24. Chevaux-de-frise - Like the Abatis, this defensive weapon was designed to protect fortifications or positions. The device has angles of six to nine feet of long pointed stakes. It was effective in stopping or slowing an advancing charge by infantry.
  25. Commutation - A legalized form of evading the draft during the Civil War. The "commutation fee," normally about $500 allowed one to avoid military service altogether. Military records indicate 86,724 draftees bought their way out of the military and this did not include those that hired substitutes to take their place.
  26. Company - Normally consisted any unit of 50-100 men, commanded by a Captain. 10 of these generally made up a regiment. Companies had 4 squads made up of a sergeant or corporal. Most had colorful names and mascots.
  27. Company Fund - Was made up of funds or tax assessed to the camp sudlers (vendors) or savings from the post bakery and stores. The money was used to supplement food or minor items for distribution to the entire company. Rules governing the fund were identical in both the Confederacy and Union.
  28. Conscription - Began during the Civil War. The Confederacy passed the first conscription act, then the Union. Officers and soldiers alike, despised the draftees, stating it undercut morale and compromised volunteers. It also seemed to encourage bounty jumping and desertion. Draft riots became famous in New York. Conscripts accounted for 25 per cent to 35 per cent of all Southern armies between April 1864 and 1865.
  29. Contrabands - The Civil War term was used to described fugitive slaves who sought protection behind Union lines during Southern territory invasion. The term was first coined by Union political general and abolitionist, Benjamin F. Butler when he learned the fugitives were building fortifications for the Confederacy. Many relief measures were taken but commanders chronically complained of trouble caused by the masses seeking refuge. In March of 1865, the U.S. Government established a Freedman's Bureau to provide a formal structure in handling the situation.
  30. Corps - The word derives from the French word "corps d'armee." Established by Gen. George McClellan, in 1862, the unit was composed of two or more divisions. Both sides of the conflict had corps. Most corps were designated by a number and corps had badges, such as a triangle, crescents, arrows and acorns.
  31. Coup de main - A french term used by both North and South, meaning a quick, vigorous attack that surprises the enemy.
  32. Davis Boot - Named for Jefferson Davis when he was Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, this soldier's foot apparel was worn by both North and South. Said to fit most men with a few standard sizes, this boot became identifiably famous as did the Kepi, the Civil War cap. Postwar, the boot helped to pave way for mass-produced manufacturing of clothing.
  33. Dictator - Mortar - The oldest form of artillery. The "Dictator" saw service at Vicksburg and Petersburg. It was mounted on a railroad flatcar and could heave a 220 lb. bomb, 4,325 yds with elevation of 45 degrees. It had a 20 lb powder charge.
  34. Division - The second largest unit of military in the Civil War. Normally about 12,000 men and in Union armies, commanded by a brigadier or major general. On the Southern side, brigadiers commanded brigades and major generals, divisions.
  35. Embalmed Beef - Civil War slang by soldiers for issued canned beef.
  36. Engagement - Term used to employ combat of different scales: a full scale battle or limited action in advance of a full scale battle. In descending order: battle, engagement, skirmish, action and affairs.
  37. Envelopment - To pour fire along the enemy's line. A double envelopment meant to attack both flanks of an enemy - a risky venture. A strategic envelopment was not directed against the flanks, but a turning movement designed to a point in the rear whereupon the enemy had to vacate his position to defend it.
  38. Fascine - A bundle of sticks used to reinforce earthworks. This was a field substitute for a sandbag or cotton bale - the most preferred reinforcing material. It sometimes gave the appearance of being an Abatis.
  39. Feint - When armies meant to attack a position, they often put into action a "Feint," or smaller action at another point in a defensive position. This was meant as a distraction to ensure the enemy would pull troops out of the main area of primary assault and commit manpower to the lesser area of attack. This tactic was often used during the Civil War.
  40. Flanking Position - To arrange a defenders battle lines so that 1 or more lines thrust forward at an angle fom the main line, is said to be a flanking position. If troops in flanking positions have sufficient strength and are anchored tightly, they can be wheeled to squeeze the enemy between themselves and main line defenders. This tactic was a favorite of General Stonewall Jackson, C.S.A.
  41. Flying Battery - The Civil War term whereupon 2 or more horse drawn cannons whipped along the battle front, unlimbering, setting up, firing, limbering up and riding off to another position. Confederate Maj. John Pelham refined the practice. It gave the impression many guns were in use when actually only a smaller number were being deployed.
  42. Foraging - A Civil War term meaning to "live off the land." The term also applied to plundering. Receipts were often exchanged for goods taken and these in turn, would be owed or paid by the quartermaster. Too often, the term is more accurately applied to stealing by undisciplined officers and soldiers alike. Many soldiers felt the goods taken were payment for their fighting in the war. It has been said, cavalry was more prone to foraging than infantry. This is because the infantry normally was followed by supply wagons, sudlers and the like. This system of supply was not practical to the cavalry since they were so mobile.
  43. Frontal Attack - A holdover from the 18th century, this tactic, often used in the Civil War, was disastrous to many a soldier. The era of the smooth bore musket had passed and the invention of the rifle changed this tactic forever. Gettysburg, Cold Harbor, Virginia, and Franklin, Tennessee were examples of the deadly attack.
  44. Furlough - Any leave granted to a soldier by his superior. A soldier on furlough left his arms and accoutrements behind. He carried furlough papers detailing his leave dates, assignment and return to duty date. Since photos were noticeably absent, such furlough papers gave a physical description of the man.
  45. Gabion - Another Civil War fortification. They were cylindrical wicker baskets filled with dirt and stones. Often used to fortify field works and temporary positions.
  46. GAR. Correct abbreviation for the Grand Army of the Republic.
  47. Grape shot/cannister - An artillery round. Usually 9 shot placed between two iron plates. Canister, was iron plates having iron balls with 4 tiers and packed with sawdust. Both of these rounds were used in close quarters combat and were highly effective and gruesome in their use. Charging infantry were virtually eliminated as they approached these batteries. Very few walked away. Batteries changed over to grape and canister when the position appeared to be overrun or had the potential of being overrun.
  48. Habeas Corpus - One of a variety of writs, by law, issued to bring a party before a court or judge, having as its function the release of a party from unlawful restraint. President Lincoln invoked it during the Civil War at the outbreak of hostilities. The suspension saw 18,000 persons arrested in the North for suspicion of disloyalty, especially in the border states. The military released most quickly. Congress pass the Habeas Corpus Act in 1863, giving Lincoln the official backing to invoke the Act. It was also suspended by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the Southern states. Most in the South saw the act as a step toward despotism even through Davis used it sparingly. The Confederate Congress failed to renew the act despite Davis' appeal to do so.
  49. Hardtack - A quarter inch cracker made of unleavened flour. It was a staple of Northern and Southern soldiers alike. Often worm infested, the cracker was unpopular and unpalatable, but it had shelf life...
  50. Havelock - The white kepi or cap cover that has a tail covering the neck and shoulders of a combatant. Originally designed to prevent sunstroke by Sir Henry Havelock, British commander in India, the Havelock fell out of grace when American Civil War Combatants learned it cut off circulation around the head and face. It saw use early in the war but was later abandoned.
  51. Haversack - A white canvas bag about a foot square. It has a strap and was carried over the shoulder. It carried an enlisted mans rations and personals. Officers sometimes had theirs made out of leather. The Haversack displayed a number or identification thereon. The Haversack had a water proof lining and a flap that buckled down. Like many Civil War issues, it too was often regarded as cumbersome and eventually, many just carried their items rolled up in a blanket or halved tent.
  52. Hot Shot - Used during the Civil War were solid iron shot, heated in a furnace and fired at wooden vessels of war. Shot furnaces were found aboard ships and at coastal fortifications. The projectile would embed itself in the ship, smolder and then set the vessel on fire.
  53. Impressment - A Southern enactment, allowing the Confederacy and state governments to seize property, horses, food, clothing, etc. for the benefit of the war apparatus as a whole. Confederates relied on impressment to augment supplies to their armed services. The U.S. government allowed impressment only in emergencies but rarely resorted to it since their supplies appeared unlimited.
  54. Knapsack - Most soldiers carried these at the outset of the war. Most rode on a light wooden frame and some were made of rubber - most from canvas. These were found to be too hot and uncomfortable. Both armies abandoned the knapsack in short time, opting instead for the rolled blanket.
  55. Lunette - A 2 or 3 sided field fort. The rear was open and exposed, enabling a rear action to be placed against it. Used early in the war, they were also abandoned. Some were named after battery commanders.
  56. Minie Bullet - Developed in the 1840's by French captains Henri-Gustave Delvigne and Claude- Etienne Minie, was the standard projectile of the Civil War. Unlike the musket, the Minie allowed quicker loading and greater accuracy. It is generally thought to be the device that caused appalling battle casualties in the war.
  57. Napoleon - The most famous and in-use cannon of the Civil War. The model 1857 gun howitzer, a 12 pounder smooth bore saw little use prior to the Civil War but was in operation in all quarters near the end. Generally made of bronze, this instruments of war brought devastation to a new meaning.
  58. Noncombatants - The Civil War term for surgeons, nurses, chaplains, sudlers and citizens travelling with the armies. Persons captured having this status were released immediately, unconditional and unilaterally by both sides of the conflict. This was arranged by Confederate army surgeon, Hunter H. McGuire. History records no violation of these accords.
  59. Nullification - Early proclamation by Southern States to declare null and void Federal laws within state boundaries which were declared against their interests.
  60. Oblique - Crossing the battlefield in a diagonal line and hitting the enemy position at one end. As more troops joined in the operation, in theory, the enemy line would roll up. The advent of the rifle changed this battle tactic as well as others. Still tried intermittently during the war, the results were murderous.
  61. Parole - Early in the war, both sides of the conflict could not effectively handle the massive number of prisoners. They agreed to let the prisoners take an oath not to fight anymore and were released to their prospective commands. The system was complex, cumbersome and expensive. It was abandoned after U.S. Grant learned many Southern parolees were simply right back in the fray months later and after the slaughter at Ft. Pillow in Tennessee by Forrest's troops.
  62. Partisan Rangers - The South allowed a system of partisan warfare. Civilian roving gangs combed the countryside, sometimes out of control as in the case of Quantrill in Missouri and Kansas. The South repealed their use but allowed it in special circumstances. Their effectiveness comes into question but some historians believe the partisans may have protracted the war by extended it one more year. Mosby's rangers became the only recognized effective force according to J.E.B. Stuart, C.S.A.
  63. Privateers - The Civil War term for the private preying of vessels on the high seas. On April 17, 1861, Confederate President Jefferson Davis offered Letters of marque, allowing privately owned ships the authorization to attack Northern owned vessels on the high seas. Privateers did so, motivated by patriotism and pecuniary gain. Lincoln announced the capture of any such crew would be hanged as pirates. Davis countered with a like faith for any Northern crew. Although some privateers had minimal success, it was the Confederate privateer which did the most damage.
  64. Point d'appui - A support or secured point that anchored a position such as the wall at Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, Va.
  65. Prolonge - An 18 foot length of rope, 3.5 inches in diameter, used in maneuvering an unlimbered gun.
  66. Redoubt - Works outside of the main protected area which supported cannon and infantry. The earthen works also contained logs. Ringed cities and other positions felt to be under imminent attack had redoubts built on the perimeter.
  67. Revenue Cutters - The forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard. These fast vessels prowled the seas and the great lakes to prevent smuggling and loss of U.S. custom and importation fees.
  68. Rifle Pit - A semi-shallow pit, built from earth which sheltered the common soldier against attack. Usually body length in length and 3-4 feet deep, it was often described as a Civil War soldier's foxhole.
  69. Running The Guard - A Civil War term for desertion. Also known as "flanking the sentinel." Desertion was high when Civil War soldiers were stationed close to or campaigned near their homes.
  70. Salient - In the Civil War, the salient was a defensive line closest to the enemy. It invited an attack. Generals erected salients to protect or cover dominate ground beyond their entrenchments. The "Mule Shoe," of Spotsylvania one of the better known salients.
  71. Scalawags - Southern Republicans in postwar politics who had advocated peace during the war or who had never supported the South, later looking to have their loyalty rewarded.
  72. Shoddy - An inferior wool cloth issued in the form of uniforms during the early days of the war. The term later became the word used to describe inferior government equipment. It literally fell apart in a few weeks of being issued.
  73. Sutlers - Civilian businessmen, appointed by the service to be camp vendors. They often inflated prices and extended credit making each wealthy. Sometimes soldiers would raid their tents and clean them out for such practices.
  74. Unreconstructed - unrepentant, bitter, former Confederate veterans who refused to accept defeat.
  75. Vidette - Another term for picket but usually found on horseback.
  76. Zouave - Civil War units known for their colorful uniforms and bravery, first organized in Chicago by Elmer E. Ellsworth.


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