Civil War Military Terms

Civil War soldiers had a language all of their own.  While some of the slang and terms they used in the 19th century may seem unfamiliar, you may recognize some expressions that survive today.  Check out both the military terms and period slang and try to memorize as much as you can.  By using these terms as often as possible you will be able to improve your impression.

ABATIS: Trees felled and laid with their branches sharpened and interwoven so as to present a thick row of pointed stakes towards the enemy. They were generally used in front of field works.


AIGUILLETTE: The worsted red cord and tassel worn with the US Army's dress light artillery shako. 


APRON: In gunnery, a piece of leather covering the vent of a cannon. 


ARMSTRONG GUN: An English-made breech-loading cannon whose projectile had cast lead bands wound about it; these could kill the gun crew when they flew off. 


BANQUETTE: A small elevation of earth three or four feet wide and four feet nine inches below the crest of the parapet to enable the shortest man to fire over it easily. 


BATTLE FLAG: A color displaying battle honors carried in battle; in the Confederate Army, a regimental flag that was less formal than the color. On 23 July 1862 battle honors were allowed to be inscribed on Confederate battle flags. 


BEARDSLEE TELEGRAPH: A telegraph used in the US Army that used a dial for pointing to the appropriate letter rather than a key which required knowledge of Morse code, a lighter cable and a hand-cranked magneto instead of a battery. 


BERM: A narrow space between the ditch and parapet to keep the parapet from falling into the ditch. 


BOOTEE: An ankle-high, laced shoe or boot, termed the "Jefferson Boot" in US Army regulations.


BRAID: Woven colored band, often of worsted cotton or wool and sometimes having metallic thread, used to trim uniforms. 


BROGANS: Ankle-high bootees laced in front. 


BREVET RANK: Temporary, often honorary, commissions enabling the owner to wear the uniform and collect the pay of that rank while yet being listed in the official lists with a lower rank. 


BUCK AND BALL: The 0.69 inch calibre cartridge containing one 0.69 inch calibre ball and three buckshot. 


BUFF LEATHER: A heavy but flexible leather of a natural buff color and dyed on one side. It was used for belts in the Union Army. 


BULLSEYE CANTEEN: The M1858 US canteen as made between 1862 and 1865 with nine concentric rings pressed into each side for added strength. 


BUMMERS: Foragers with the Army of Tennessee in Sherman's campaign through Georgia. 


BUMMER'S CAP: A modern term for the US Army's regulation forage cap. 


BURNSIDE CAP: A regular US Army officer's dress felt hat made with a lower crown.


BUTTERNUT: A dye used in the South for uniform cloth during the early years of the war; it was made from the oily nut of the white walnut mixed with copperas. 


CADET GRAY: A gray tending towards blue rather than brown. The regulation Confederate coat color. 


CALIFORNIA BRIGADE: In the Army of the Potomac, the 1st California (71st Pennsylvania), 2nd California (72nd Pennsylvania), 3rd California (69th Pennsylvania), and 5th California (106th Pennsylvania) were recruited in Philadelphia under command of Edward D. Baker, but reverted to their Pennsylvania designations after Baker's death at Ball's Bluff and became the Philadelphia Brigade. 


CALIFORNIA 100: Co A. 2nd Massachusetts Cavalry was recruited in California, traveled East and mustered in 3 January 1863. Its members wore the brass roman letters "CAL 100" or "CALIFORNIA 100" on the top of their forage caps. 


CAMOUFLET: An explosive device placed in front of works that would explode inward in shafts tunneled under the works. 


CAMP COLORS: Flags, 18 inches square, used to mark the color line, points of wheeling, etc.; they were also carried by the markers in evolutions. In the Union Army they were white for infantry and red for artillery, with the regimental number on them, mounted on eight-foot poles. 


CAPONNIERE: In fortifications, a passage from one part of the work to another. 


CASCABEL: That part of a cannon behind the base ring made up of the knob, the neck, the fillet and the base of the breech. 


CHASE: The length of a gun from the trunions to the muzzle. 


CHEVAUX-DE-FRISE: Logs, some 12 feet long and ten inches thick, pierced at 12-inch intervals throughout their length, by holes at right angles. Sharpened stakes about seven feet long, were thrust through the holes. They were used to present an obstacle to cavalry in front of defensive works. 


CHEEKS: The pieces of timber that form the sides of gun carriages and upon which the trunions rest. 


COLOR: The flag carried by a dismounted unit. 


COLUMBIAD: A siege gun differing from most guns in that it had no chamber, the bore being of equal distance throughout, although it was much thicker at the breech than the bore. 


CORCORAN LEGION: A brigade in the Army of the Potomac's II Corps formed of the 155th, 164th, 170th and 184th New York Volunteer Regiments. 


CROWS-FOOT: A trefoil created by stripes of embroidery or lace at the end of a buttonhole. 


DAHLGREN: Similar to the columbiad, it was a standard US Navy artillery piece. 


DUCK: A heavy canvas cloth used for tents. 


EPAULEMENT: An elevation thrown up to cover troops from enemy fire, usually made of gabions filled with earth or sandbags. 


EPAULETTE: A shoulder decoration consisting of a strap that buttoned near the collar, with a crescent at the shoulder from which was hung a fringe. 


EPROUVETTE: A small mortar used to test the projectile force of gunpowder. 


EXCELSIOR BRIGADE: In the Army of the Potomac, the 70th to 74th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiments, joined in December 1862 by the 120th New York and in March 1864 by the 11th Massachusetts and 84th Pennsylvania. 


EXCELSIOR HAT: Same as the Whipple hat (see Whipple hat). 


FACING: A distinctive colored collar and cuffs. 


FASCINES: Long bundles of thin saplings used mostly for the sides of trenches. 


FEZ: A brimless oriental head-dress used by zouaves. 


FIREMAN'S SHIRT: A shirt made with a buttoned plastron in front, often bearing an engine company's number. These were often worn in units such as the 11th New York (New York Fire Zouaves. 


FLYING TELEGRAPH TRAIN: A mobile communications post consisting of two wagons equipped with two Beardslee telegraphs, two hand-cranked magnetos, five miles of wire (the maximum effective range), 150 15-foot poles, 50 18-foot poles and five wire hand reels. 


FORAGE CAP: The floppy version of the 1851 shako, similar to the French kepi, worn by troops for fatigue. 


FOUGASSE: A charge of gunpowder dug into a pit which was exploded when an enemy passed over it. 


FROG: The attachment of a scabbard to a belt, and the worsted or silk button on a cloak or coat. 


GABION: Cylindrical basket made without top or bottom, some three feet high and two feet in diameter, weighing 50-60 pounds, used in siege works. 


GAITERS: Lower leg coverings made of cotton or leather. 


GARRISON FLAG: The national color, 36 feet in fly and 20 feet in hoist. 


GLACIS: A parapet of the covered way in fortifications. 


GREEK FIRE: An incendiary composition used in projectiles and bombs on occasions such as the Confederate attempt to burn New York with bombs, and the Union attempt to burn Charleston with artillery projectiles. 


GUIDON: Small silk standard for cavalry. 


GUM BLANKET: A waterproofed, often by rubberizing, canvas blanket or poncho. The white underside was often inscribed with gaming table markings by troops in the field. 


GUTTA-PERCHA: A hardened rubber used in talmas and often incorrectly referred to when discussing buttons and hard image cases which were actually made of a plastic substance. 


HARDEE HAT: A modern term for the US Army dress felt hat. 


HAVELOCK: A cotton or linen covering for the forage cap with a flap that covered the neck to protect against heat, widely used in 1861 but quickly abandoned as useless. 


HAVERSACK: The cloth bag worn on a strap from the right shoulder to the left hip in which rations, personal items and, at times, spare ammunition was carried. Union haversacks were waterproofed; Confederate haversacks were made of plain cotton. 


HOUSEWIFE: A sewing kit containing needles and thread, carried by most soldiers. ...can be also referred to as a hussy.


IRISH BRIGADE: In the Army of the Potomac, the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York Infantry Regiments, joined in the spring of 1862 by the 29th New York which was replaced by the 28th Massachusetts in October 1862. Its member wore a green hat band with the regimental number in the center. A second Irish Brigade, made up ot the old regiments plus the 7th New York Heavy Artillery was formed in November 1864. 


IRON BRIGADE: In the Army of the Potomac, the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin and the 19th Indiana Infantry Regiments, joined by the 24th Michigan in late 1862. Its members wore a dress frock-coat and hat with white-gaiters, even in action.  Battery B, 4th U.S. Artillery was attached to this unit.


JEANS: A twilled cotton cloth. Actually a "jean" can be any material. The definition depends on the weave (always a 2/1 twill), not the material. CW period jean was most commonly wool on cotton a cotton warp. "Jeans" meant clothing from "jean". 


JEFF DAVIS HAT: A modern name for the US Army dress felt hat...Hardee's Hat 


KEPI: The French army cap, a low forage cap. 


KERSEY: A heavy wool cloth, often ribbed, used for outer garments and blankets, mostly for enlisted men. 


KNIGHTS OF THE GOLDEN CIRCLE: A secret pro-Southern society in the North which performed subversive activities. 


LACE: Woven silk or worsted, usually made of branch-of-service colors, used to decorate uniforms. 


LAUREL BRIGADE: In the Eastern theater, the 7th, 11th, and 12th Virginia Cavalry Regiments and the 35th Virginia Cavalry Battalion. In February 1864 its members were ordered to wear laurel leaves on their hats. 


LIGHTING BRIGADE: In the Army of the Tennessee, the 17th, 72nd, and 75th Indiana, and the 98th Illinois Infantry Regiments and the 18th Indiana Light Artillery Battery, all mounted although infantry. The 123rd Illinois soon replaced the 75th and saw most service with the Brigade, which also was reinforced by the 92nd Illinois during the Chickamauga campaign. Unit enlisted men wore a cavalry jacket with the lace removed, mostly a black slouch hat, and carried repeating rifles. 


LUNETTE: A small field work. 


McCLELLAN CAP: A low soft, true copy of the French kepi preferred by Union officers to the issue forage cap. 


MINIE BALL: The soft lead conical bullet with a hollow base used in rifled-muskets and designed by the French Army's Captain Claude Minie. 


NEW JERSEY BRIGADE: In the Army of the Potomac, the 1st to 4th New Jersey Volunteer Infantry Regiments joined by the 10th New Jersey in October 1861, the 15th New Jersey in August 1862, the 40th New Jersey in February 1865, and for a short time, by the 1st Delaware Cavalry. 


NITRE: A compound of nitric acid and potash used in the manufacture of gunpowder. 


ORPHAN BRIGADE: In the Army of Tennessee. The units usually listed as members of the Orphan Brigade were the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 9th Kentucky Infantry and Cobb's Battery. The 3rd Ky. Inf was only in the Brigade for less than a year, as was Byrnes's Btty. The 5th/9th Ky. Inf (not to be confused with the 5th) was in the Brigade throughout the war. 


OSNABURG: A coarse linen or cotton used mostly for linings and shirts. 


PALISADE: A fence of strong stakes. 


PANDA: A mixture of crumbled hardtack and water or whiskey. 


PHILADELPHIA BRIGADE: In the Army of the Potomac, the 69th, 71st, 72nd and 106th Pennsylvania regiments. At first the 72nd wore a blue, trimmed with red, zouave uniform jacket with a light-blue kepi trimmed with red, and sky-blue trousers with red cords down each leg and white gaiters; the 69th wore the same uniform trimmed in green. After 1862 both were worn for dress only. 


PLASTRON: A piece of cloth, usually shield-shaped, worn on the front of a coat or shirt, often of a facing color. 


PLUME: A feather, horsehair, or worsted, standing decoration worn from the top and front of a hat or cap, sometimes called a pompom. 


POLKA: A form of jacket skirt slit on both sides and around descending some six inches below the waist-line, usually cut with a slight flare. 


PONCHO: A blanket or rubberized blanket made with a slit in the middle so as to be worn as a cape. 


PROLONGE: A stout rope with a hook at one end and a toggle at the other, with two intermediate rings into which the hook and toggle are fastened to shorten the distance between a limber and a cannon carriage, sometimes used to connect the lunette of a carriage with a limber when the piece was fired. 


ROUNDABOUT: A waist-length jacket. 


SENNIT HAT: A broad-brimmed hat usually made of woven straw, which could be waterproofed black when worn by seamen in foul weather. 


SHAKO: A tall stiff cap, usually worn with a pompom or plume, a visor and a cap badge on the front. 


SHELL: Sometimes "shell jacket," a waist-length jacket. 


SHODDY: Old woolen rags passed through a machine that reduced them to wool, then saturated with oil or milk, mixed with new wool, and then run into large shallow pans, partially dried, and then pressed between cylinders to make new cloth. The result looked good but lasted only a short time in the field. Many 1861 Union uniforms were made of shoddy.


SHOULDER-STRAPS: Rectangular stripes edged in gold embroidery worn on each shoulder over a ground of a facing color with officers rank badges embroidered inside.


SHOULDER-TAB: A piece of cloth sewn into the shoulder seam and buttoning near the collar. Sometimes called epaulette. 


SICILIAN CAP: A cap without a visor and with a bag ending with a tassel, worn by many Southern volunteers in 1861. 


STANDARD: The flag carried by a mounted command. 


STOCK: A tight-fitting strap worn around an enlisted man's neck, usually of leather, which was regulation but rarely worn during the war. 


STONEWALL BRIGADE: In the Army of Northern Virginia, the 2nd, 4th, 5th, 27th and 33rd Virginia Infantry regiments. 


SUTLER: A civilian retailer attached to a specific regiment, who sold goods such as food, tobacco, newspapers, magazines, and clothing. Some issued their own chits or paper money, while all could keep accounts to be deducted from a soldiers pay. By regulations, prices were to be reasonable and hours were limited to before nine at night and sundays except during religious services. Sutlers were more common in Union armies than among Confederate ones.


TEXAS BRIGADE: In the Army of Northern Virginia, the 1st, 4th, and 5th Texas Infantry regiments, at first with the 18th Georgia Infantry regiment (nicknamed 3rd Texas), then with 3rd Arkansas. Rielly's North Carolina Battery served with the Brigade from time to time. 


TRAVERSE: Parapet of earth raised to cover troops from enfilading fire. 


UNIFORM JACKET: A short jacket cut long in the front and back to fit under a waist-belt. 


VEDETTE: Sentry on horse-back. 


VERMONT BRIGADE: In the Army of the Potomac, the 2nd to 6th Vermont Volunteer Infantry regiments, joined in May 1864 by the 1st Vermont Heavy Artillery regiment and the 2nd New Jersey regiment from October 1862 to June 1863. 


VOLLEY: The simultaneous discharge of a number of firearms. 


WELLINGTONS: Ankle-high boots made without laces in front. 


WHIPPLE HAT: Known as the "Excelsior hat" by Confederates, it was made from light-blue felt with a brim running two-thirds around the hat's perimeter with a leather visor in front. Made by the Seamless Clothing Mfg. Co. in 1861, it was patented by J.F. Whipple of New York on 16 July 1861 and was worn by troops from New York and New Hampshire as well as by the US Sharpshooters. 


WHITWORTH GUN: An English-made breech-loading cannon that saw Confederate service.

Whitworth rifles, using the same boring procedures, were also issued to sharpshooters. 


ZIGZAG: Defiladed trenches run out from parallels of attack so as to form a covered rad by which the attackers could approach the enemy's lines. 

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