Civil War Slang and Terms

Source

One of the hardest, yet most important tasks when writing a book is to get the talk, slang, and terms correct. To make a more believable book and therefore more saleable book your characters need to talk, walk, and behave as though they are actually living during the time period you have placed them in.

In my case, I needed to find out just what kind of words and expressions my characters needed to use for the Civil War area. A lot of research goes into getting this right. I am sharing some of my reasearch to help you along. It's quite an interest collection of silly sounding phrases. I hope you enjoy them.

  • President Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated.
  • The first shot of the Civil War was fired from the battleship the "Merrimac".
  • Missouri sent 39 regiments to fight in the seige of Vicksburg: 17 to the Confederacy and 22 to the Union.
  • The chance of surviving a wound in the Civil War was 7 to 1.
  • One third of the soldiers who fought for the Union Army were immigrants.
  • While treating a patient, Clara Barton had a bullet pass through her sleeve and would her patient.

Source

Civil War Slang

  • Absquatulate - to take leave or disappear
  • Acknowledge the corn - to tell the truth
  • Ask no odds - ask no favor
  • Balderdash - nonsense
  • Bark Juice - liquor
  • Bean - a $5 gold coin
  • Beat the Dutch - if that don't beat all
  • Big Bugs, big wigs, important people
  • Blackleg - a gambler or swindler
  • Bread Bag - haversack
  • Bust Head or Pop Skull - cheap whisky
  • Buzzard - an eldery male
  • Breadbasket - stomach
  • Bugger - officer
  • Cabbaging - stealing
  • Cashier - to dismiss from the army dishonorably
  • Cattywampas - cater-cornered or diagonal
  • Chicken Guts - gold braid used to denote officer ranks
  • Chief Cook and Bottle Washer - a person able to do many things
  • Chin Music - conversation
  • Contraband - escaped slaves who sought refuge behind Union lines
  • Copperhead - Northern person with Southern, anti-Union sympathies
  • Diggings - soldiers camp
  • Dog Collar- ceavet issued with uniforms, usually discarded
  • Dog Robber - soldier detailed from the ranks to act as cook
  • Embalmed Beef - canned meat
  • Fancy Girl - prostitute
  • Fast Trick - a woman known to be morally loose
  • Fit as a fiddle - in good shape
  • Fit to be tied - angry
  • Forty Dead Men - a full cartridge box, which usually held forty rounds
  • French Leave - to go absent without leave
  • Fresh Fish - new recruits
  • Going Down the Line - visiting a brothel
  • Goobers - peanuts
  • Grab a Root - potato or have dinner
  • Graybacks - lice or Southern soldiers
  • Hard Case - someone who is rough or tough
  • Hard Knocks - beaten up
  • Hoof It - to march
  • Hornets - bullets
  • Horse Collar - soldiers bedroll
  • Horse Sense - on the ball or smart
  • Humbugged - out smarted
  • Livermush - a food similar to scrapple
  • Mollygrubbing - to rest or lay about
  • Nokum Stiff - hard liquor
  • Old Scratch - the devil
  • Open the Ball - begin the battle
  • Pepper Box - pistol
  • Possum - pal, friend or buddy
  • Quick-Step - diarrhea
  • Rag Out - dress well
  • Sardine Box - cap box
  • Secesh - a Southern sympathizer
  • Shebang - a shelter tent
  • Sheet Iron Crackers - hardtack
  • Skedaddle - scatter or run
  • Skeesicks - a soldiers tent mate
  • Skillygalee - hardtack soaked in water then fried in bacon grease
  • Slumgullion - a stew made from whatever is on hand
  • Soldier's Disease - opium addiction
  • Sow Belly - bacon
  • Toad Sticker - knife, sword, or bayonet
  • Toad strangler - a very heavy rain
  • Top Rail - first class
  • Traps - a soldier's belongings or equipment


Source

Civil War Terms

  • Abatis - a line of trees shopped down with their branches facing the enemy.
  • All in three years - a term said when something went wrong.
  • Antebellum - a term often used to describe the United States of America before the civil war.
  • Baby waker - first shot of a cannonade.
  • Barbette - a raised wooden platform nomally found in permanent camps that allowed a soldier to fire his weapon oer the wall without being exposed.
  • Barrel shirt - term used for the barrel worn by thieves for punishment.
  • Battery - the basic unit of soldiers in an artillary unit. They included: 6 cannons and the horses, ammunition, and equipment needed to move and fire them; 55 men, a captain, 30 other officers, 2 buglars, 52 drivers, and 70 cannoneers.
  • Blockade - the effort by the North to keep ships from entering or leaving Southern ports.
  • Bluebellies - a term used by Confederates for Union soldiers.
  • Blue coats - a term used to describe Union soldiers
  • "Bonnie Blue Flag" - extremely popular Confederate song named after the first flag of the Confederacy, which had one white star on a blue background.
  • Braggs bodyguard - a term used for body lice.
  • Brogan - a leather shoe, much like an ankle-high boot, issued to soldiers during the civil war.
  • Buck and Gag - a form of punishment in which a soldier was bound and gagged in a seated position with a bar placed between his arms and knees. It was usually used to punish rank insubordination.
  • Bughill - a term used for a rural or rustic place.
  • Bummer - a soldier who would take needed items from farmers and townspeople.
  • Butternut - a sland term for a Confederate soldier. The name came about because of the practice of dyeing homespun cloth in a mixture of walnuts and copper. As a result of the mixture their uniforms came out to a yellowish brown hue.
  • Caisson - a two-wheeled cart that carried two ammunition chests, tools, and a spare wheel for artillary pieces.
  • Camp canard - a term for a tale tale circulating around the camp as gossip.
  • Cantonments - a soldier's quarters in towns and villages.
  • Carbine - a breech-loading, single-shot, rifle-barreled gun primarily used by cavalry troops.
  • Cash Crop - a crop such as tobacco or cotton which was grown to be sold for cash, unlike crops grown for food such as corn or wheat.
  • Commutation - stipulation adopted by both Union and Confederate governments that allowed certain draftees to pay a fee inable to avoid military service.
  • Company Q - term used for the sick list.
  • Contrabands - escaped slaves who fled to the Union lines for protection.
  • Copperhead - term for a Northerner who opposed the was effort.
  • Creeper - a soldiers frying pan used early in the war.
  • Defeat in Detail - defeating a military force unit by unit.
  • Division - in the Civil War it was an operational unit consisting of two or more brigades. On an average for the Union Army it contained 6,200 officers and men. While the Confederate Army was 8,700 officers and men.
  • Draw your furrow straighter - tell the truth.
  • Enbalmed Beef - a Union soldier term for canned beef.
  • Enfilade - to fire along the length of an enemy's battle line.
  • Flying Battery - a system where several horse drawn cannons would ride along the battle front, stop and set up the guns, fire, limber up, and ride to a different position.
  • Foraging - during the Civil War it meant to live off the land.
  • Forlorn hope - a term for party selected to begin an attack.
  • Forty dead men - a term used for a full cartridge box.
  • Gallinippers - a term for insects or mosquitoes.
  • Giving the Vermin a Parole - throwing away clothes infested with lice
  • Goober Grabbers - a term for Georgia troops
  • Grapeshot - cast iron pellets packed together for cannon shot.
  • Gray coats - a term describing Confederate soldiers.
  • Greybacks - a slang term for lice or or occasionally an offensive Yankee term for Confederate soldiers.
  • Guerrillas - small units of Confederate soldiers who went behind Union lines and destroyed railroads, county courthouses and supply depots.
  • Havelock - a white cloth cover that went over a soldier's kepi,and had a long back that covered the soldier's neck and shoulders.
  • Hospital rats - a term used for those faking an illness.
  • Infernal Machine - a term of contempt for torpedoes.
  • Insult - a sudden, open, unconcealed attack upon a fortified position with the intent of capturing it before it's defenders could mount an effective defense.
  • Irish shanty - a term used for outhouse.
  • Ironclad possum - a term for a dinner made of armadillo.
  • Jonah - a term used for a person who is thought to be a jinx or brings bad luck with him.
  • Juggernaut - an overwhelming, advancing force that crushes, or seems to crush everything in it's path.
  • Kepi - a cap worn mostly by Union soldiers during the civil war.
  • Knock into a crooked hat - to beat senseless.
  • Litter - a stretcher that was carried by two people and used to transport wounded soldiers.
  • Little coot - Confederate name for a Federal soldier.
  • Lond Roll - a long, continuous drum call which commanded a regiment to assemble.
  • Minie Bullet - the standard infantry bullet of the civil war. It was designed to be used by muzzle-loading rifle-muskets.
  • Mudsill - unkind Southern name for a Northerner.
  • Mustarded out - a term meaning killed in action.
  • Not born in the woods to be scared of an owl - a term refering to one who is experienced and unafraid.
  • Panada - a mixture of hardtack and medicinal whisky or water. It was given to weak patients.
  • Parole - a pledge by a prisioner of war or defeated soldier not to bear arms.
  • Peas on a trencher - a term for breakfast call.
  • Picket - soldiers posted on guard ahead of a main force. Pickets were made up of about 40 to 50 men and would form a rough line in front of the main army's camp.
  • Popular Sovereignty - a doctrine that said the people of each territory should be able to decide for themselves if slavery should be allowed in their territory when they became a state.
  • Powder Monkey - a name for a sailor (sometimes a child) who carried explosives from the ship's magazine to the ship's guns.
  • Quaker Guns - large logs painted to look like cannons; used to fool the enemy into believing a position was stronger than it really was.
  • Rebels - Confederate soldiers and sympathizers.
  • Rebel Yell - a high pitched yell that Confederate soldiers would use when attacking.
  • Regiment - the basic unit of the Civil War soldiers, usually including 1,000 to 1,5000 men.
  • Rout - a crushing defeat usually ending with soldiers running from the field.
  • Sap Roller - a very large bullet resistent gabion which was used to protect soldiers rfrom enemy fire as they dug trenches.
  • Shebangs - crude shelters Civil War prisoners built to protect themselves from sun and rain.
  • Smoked Yanks - a term for Union soldiers cooking over a fire.
  • Spike - to make an artillary piece unusable so that it could not be used by the enemy if captured.
  • Sutler - a peddler who followed the armies to sell food and supplies to the soldiers.
  • Theater - a theater of war is an area where fighting takes place.
  • The devil is beating his wife - a saying used when the sun is shining and it is raining.
  • To see the elephant - a term meaning to not get what you expected. To be short changed or cheated.
  • U. S. Christian Commission - established in 1861 for the relief of Union soldiers. They provided food, Bibles, and free writing materials to the soldiers.
  • Worth a goober - something that amounts a lot.
  • Yellow hammers - a term for Alabama troops
  • Zouaves - Civil War units known for their colorful uniforms and bravery.

Source

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Comments 13 comments

vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago

Great idea for a hub! Where did you find all this information? I've learned a lot from this hub, voted up!


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 4 years ago from Sunny Florida Author

vox voicis, I like to do research. For some reason I seem to enjoy it. Plus, I was researching for myself for a book. It seemed like a good idea to share.


vox vocis profile image

vox vocis 4 years ago

I had saved this hub thinking exactly what you mentioned - that it might be useful if you are writing a novel on the topic. Great work!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 4 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I'll keep this hub in mind when I next write a story in that period. You are right that authentic language helps give the tone to a story. Some terms have had more than one meaning or the meanings change. The term "to see the elephant" when used by writers like Louis L'Amour seem to mean something to the effect of discovering new adventure. voted up, interesting shared on stumbleupon.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 4 years ago from Sunny Florida Author

vox vocis, I hope it becomes useful to you.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 4 years ago from Sunny Florida Author

Thanks dahoglund, I find myself compelled to write in the vernacular of the time period I am writing about. Or at least use a good scattering of their terms and slang.


drbj profile image

drbj 4 years ago from south Florida

It's always interesting to learn more about language spoken by those who lived in other times. Excellent research, KK Gals.

Some of these Civil War era words are still popular today. I'm referring to: balderdash, bigwigs, breadbasket, Chief Cook and Bottle Washer, fit as a fiddle, fit to be tied, French leave, goobers, hard case, hard knocks, horse sense, skedaddle, and sow belly.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 4 years ago from Sunny Florida Author

drbj, true some of them are still being used. I felt I needed to include them, there are people out there who have never heard of them. It's funny how some slang is passed down from generation to generation.


bockshiner profile image

bockshiner 4 years ago from Dallas, TX

Interesting hub. I always find it interesting to learn slang from different periods or culture. I think I'm going to try to start working these into my everyday speech. :)


NateB11 profile image

NateB11 4 years ago from California, United States of America

Fascinating, and makes a person think about what it must have been like during this period; and it is interesting how some of the terms reflect some things still common today, especially in terms of war.


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 4 years ago from Sunny Florida Author

Thanks bockshiner. Using some of them certainly will make people stop and take notice.

NateB11, how true. Some of the sayings we have today have been around for ages.


Ellen Karman profile image

Ellen Karman 4 years ago from medina, Ohio

I love learning dialect of different time and from different parts of the country so I love your piece here! You can figure out how some terms of dialect evolved. I have a friend whom found his relations traced back to General Hooker. He told me that General Hooker would keep girls about the camp and provide for them, and these were girls what we'd now call prostitutes, but, the term, she's one of Hooker's girls when a girl was coming to or leaving camp etc. the term was shortened to just hookers eventually or so I've been told by my friend,, did you come across any of this in your research? Love that I found your Hub! you have a follower! Ellen Karman


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 4 years ago from Sunny Florida Author

Ellen Karmann, I didn't hear about that but it does make sense. Thanks for that bit of information. I'll have to look into it.

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