Civil War Terminology

Civil War Terminology

When guns fired upon Fort Sumter in 1861, the decades-old political and economic tensions that existed between the North and South finally erupted into war. The government initially believed that the war was about slavery and states’ rights would end in a matter of days, but the conflict lasted until Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. By the time the war was over, at least 618,000 Americans were dead and the infrastructure of the South was destroyed. The vocabulary of war consistently changes as it reflects the politics, social norms, and technology during the time of conflict. The Civil War was no exception, as new terms described many of the elements in this war.

ABATIS: A cluster of logs or sharpened sticks that act as a barricade against a charging army.

BARBETTE: A barbette was a raised platform that allowed a cannon or large gun to fire over a wall, without exposing the gun crew to the enemy.

BATTERY: Groupings of artillery. A battery consisted of six cannons for Union forces. For the Confederates, a battery consisted of four cannons.

BLOCKADE: The act of blocking waterways and prohibiting people and supplies from traveling.

BORDER STATES: The border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri) were those that lay on the border between the USA and the CSA. Their populations often had divided loyalties.

BOUNTIES: A bounty was a sum of money that was used as an incentive to join the army. The term was also used to describe the reward received for capturing a criminal or deserter.

BREVET RANK: A rank given to a military officer that is a higher level than the pay received.

BRIGADE: A brigade was a grouping of three to six regiments. Each regiment had 500 to 1,000 men.

BUCK AND BALL: An ammunition load that included a .69 musket ball and three buckshot pellets.

BUMMERS: There were three meanings of the word during the Civil War. First, a bummer referred to a foraging or marauding soldier. It also referred to a soldier that was in the rear during combat or away from combat altogether. Finally, the uniform caps worn by both armies were referred to as bummers.

BUTTERNUT: A Confederate soldier. Confederate uniforms were often dyed using a walnut and copper mixture that gave them a “butternut” color.

CARPETBAGGER: A Southern slur used to describe opportunistic Northerners who went South after the war to make a profit. They were named for the carpetbags that they used for travel.

COMMUTATION: Many draftees were able to buy their way out of military service by paying “commutation fees”. A commutation is generally an exchange of one penalty for another.

COMPANY: Each company consisted of 50-100 men that were commanded by a captain. Approximately, 10 companies made up a regiment.

CONSCRIPTION: The Civil War term for what is today known as the draft. Both governments used conscription to fill their armies.

CONTRABANDS: Escaped slaves who sought refuge behind Union lines.

COUP DE MAIN: A fast, surprise attack on the enemy.

DIVISION: In the North, a division usually consisted of three or four brigades. The Confederate army used almost twice as many brigades to make up their divisions.

FASCINE: A bundle of sticks and wood that was used to support earth walls in the trenches.

FEINT: A minor and false attack designed to divert the enemy’s attention and troops away from the main point of attack.

FLANK: The sides of an army’s battle line.

FLYING BATTERY: A horse and cart with a firing canon that is driven through the battle line.

FORAGING: The act of living off the land, and taking food and supplies from civilians.

FRONTAL ATTACK: A direct frontal attack where an army charges the main point of the enemy’s army.

FURLOUGH: A commanding officer could grant his men leave. He would write a furlough letter that described the man and gave the dates of his permissible leave.

GABION: A wooden, cylindrical basket. It was filled with dirt and was used to stabilize earthworks.

HABEAS CORPUS: This is a legal tool that prohibits people from being jailed without trial. Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus during the Civil War.

HAVELOCK: A cloth that extends from the uniform cap to the shoulders of the wearer. It was used to ward off sunstroke, but often went unused because it cut off air circulation around the neck and face.

HAVERSACK: A pouch made out of cloth or leather that soldiers used to carry their rations.

IMPRESSMENT: Impressment allowed armies to seize the private property of civilians. In some cases, anything of value was subject to impressments.

LUNETTE: A shelter that had two or three sides. It was used in the field and was often reinforced with wooden flanks.

MINIE BULLET: The Minie bullet was named after its inventor. It became the most popular bullet during the war, because it was more accurate and faster to load than the traditional musket.

NAPOLEON: The technical name of this cannon was the 12-pounder Field Gun, 1857. It made up 40% of the artillery for both the Union and Confederate sides.

OBLIQUE: The crossing of the battlefield in a diagonal line.

POINT D’APPUI: A point where the battle line was anchored.

PRIVATEERS: Privately owned vessels that attacked and harassed ships that worked for enemy causes.

PROLONGE: An 18-foot length of rope that was between two points on an unlimbered gun.

REVENUE CUTTERS: Revenue Cutters were a service of small ships that aided the navy in its operations.

RIFLE PIT: This was the Civil War’s version of a foxhole. It was a small, shallow shelter that protected soldiers from attack.

RUNNING THE GUARD: A term that meant desertion.

SALIENT: The battle line spreads out and around an area as it crosses a battle field.

SCALAWAGS: White Southerners that supported the government after the Civil War.

SHODDY: A poor uniform cloth that fell apart after a short time of use.

SUTLERS: Merchants that followed the armies and sold their goods to soldiers.

UNRECONSTRUCTED: Veterans of the Confederate army that refused to accept defeat.

VIDETTE: A sentinel on horse-back stationed in advance of pickets.

ZOUAVE: The origins were North African units that distinguished themselves during the Crimean War. A few Zouave units formed at the beginning of the war. They were recognized by their colorful uniforms and short jackets.