Definitions of Civil War Terms

This section provides definitions of some of the more obscure terms that were used in the Civil War.  These terms primarily address those used by the armies and appear frequently in the reports as written by the commanders in the Official Records as well as some that I just found interesting.

Abatis - One of the oldest forms of defense for fortifications, the abatis is an arrangement of felled trees, with the branches facing outward from the defending position to impede the charging enemy.

Acoustic Shadow - Several times during the war, observers watching a battle only a few miles away reported hearing no battle sounds, while people 10 or 20 miles away clearly heard the booming of artillery. This phenomenon, referred to as an acoustic shadow, was attributed to abnormal atmospheric conditions that prevented normal transmission of sound, resulting in a pocket of silence.

Aide-de-camp - A Confidential ex officio officer appointed by general officers to their staffs, an aide-de-camp reported directly to his commander and took orders only from him.  In a position of great responsibility, an aide was required to write orders deliver them personally if necessary, and be thoroughly knowledgeable about troop positions, maneuvers, columns, orders of corps, routes, and the locations of officers' quarters. 

Antebellum - In general speech this term designates the period between 1812 and 1860 .  Strictly speaking, the Latin phrase means "before the war" and could be applied to any prewar period.  In the United States, the label is still used to designate the prewar South.

Baby waker - First shot of a cannonade.

Balaclava - A wool hood covering the head and neck, first worn by troops in the Crimean War.  Balaclava (or Balaklava) was the focal point of the "Charge of the Light Brigade."

Barbette - Usually found only in permanent or semi-permanent fortifications, a barbette was a raised wooden bed or platform that allowed an artillery piece to be fired over protective wall or parapet without exposing its gun crew to the enemy. During a long siege, the besieging army often set up elaborate but temporary fortifications for their artillery pieces, in which case a large mound of earth was often used as a substitute for a formal wooden barbette platform.

Bivouac - Civil War armies did not always provide temporary shelter for their men on the move. The 2-man shelter (dog tent) was widely issued in the Northern armies but not always carried. In active operations men were expected to bivouac, to sleep in the open. The U.S. Army defined the term in 1861: "When an army passes the night without shelter, except such as can be hastily made of plants, branches, & c., it is said to bivouac."

Breastworks - a barricade usually about breast high that shielded defenders from enemy fire.

Buck and Ball - This musket load, to be relied on in a defensive situation, was made up of 3 large buckshot bound on top of a .69-caliber, smoothbore musket ball and was encased in a paper cartridge like those used with the Minie bullet. The .69 caliber musket (most often found in Confederate ranks, but not preferred) was an inaccurate weapon that could be converted to good use at close range with this load. The use of the buck and ball was not common.

Buck and Gag - A Form of tying up 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 employed for rank insubordination.

Butternut - A slang term for a Confederate soldier; derived from the practice of dyeing homespun cloth in a mixture of walnuts and copper as to make a uniform of a brown, yellowish hue.

Camouflet - To combat enemy miners tunneling under their siege works or trenches, Confederate and Federals sometimes used a simple explosive device called a camouflet. The explosive charge was planted in front of the defenses so that as enemy miners tunneled forward, the camouflet would rest in their path. When the enemy struck the device with a pick or shovel he would have to retreat hastily or the shaft would collapse on him. If planted skillfully, the camouflet would explode downward leaving the earth above intact so as not to reveal the mine's location.
        Probably as old as the history of siege warfare and gunpowder, these countermining devices were rare used during the Civil War but were tried by Confederates at Vicksburg. An 18th-century military dictionary stated that when miners struck camouflets, "stinking combustibles" would fly into their faces. Camouflet, from the Old French, means a whiff of smoke puffed into someone's face.

Case Shot - Properly, case shot refers to grape shot, canister, or spherical case shot, an artillery round that purposely breaks apart on firing and is used as an antipersonnel load. Most often in Civil War literature, references to case shot imply spherical case, a round invented in 1784 by English artilleryman Lt. Henry Shrapnel. It was an iron sphere filled with bits or balls of iron and a bursting charge intended to break apart shortly after firing. Its effective range was 500-1,500 yards.

Copperheads - A label for Northerners who opposed the war and occasionally worked to undermine the war effort.

Cotton-clads - Gunboats that used cotton bales stacked on their decks as a shield from enemy fire.

Defeat In Detail - In Civil War literature the defeat in detail is often misconstrued to mean complete destruction of a force. It actually meant to defeat a force unit by unit, usually because the individual regiments or companies were not within supporting distance of one another.

Demonstration - In this strategic maneuver, used frequently during the Civil War, a detached unit from the main force made a show of strength on a portion of the enemy's line not actually targeted for attack, distracting the enemy while an attack was made elsewhere. Demonstrations were useful to large bodies of troops as well as small ones.

Echelon Attack - A refused advance on an enemy position, meaning that the advanced occurred in sequence from right to left or vice-versa in parallel but nonaligned formations; ideally an echelon attack would compel the reinforcement of those parts of the enemy line first assailed thereby to weaken the latter parts and increase the chances of breaching them, but more frequently such an attack became disorganized and faltered in confusion.

Embalmed Beef - The Civil War was the first American conflict that saw soldiers issued canned rations. "Embalmed beef" was the Union soldier term for canned beef.

Enfilade - To fire upon the length rather than the face of an enemy position; enfilading an enemy allows a varying range of fire to find targets while minimizing the amount of fire the enemy can return.

Engagement - Today engagement refers to a combat of varying size: a full-scale battle or a limited fight in advance of a battle. A variant, meeting engagement, denotes and encounter that surprises either or both opponents. Apparently these definitions were also in use before and during the Civil War.
        In the late 1870's, however, engagement took on a more specific meaning.  During that period boards of army officers studied the varied terminology bestowed on combat through the ages and chose that most applicable the American experience.  The minutes of these boards are available today in the National archives and reveal that panel members defined battle as a wide-scale encounter between major elements of independent commands directed by general officers.  The records fail to specify the criteria developed to classify combats of lesser size but suggest that engagement denotes a combat of more limited scope, involving subordinate units or detachment of main armies.  In size, an engagement ranks just below a battle and above such other loosely defined combats as skirmishes, actions, and affairs.

Envelopment - The object of this offensive, directed against a flank of a fixed position, was to pour an enfilading fire along the enemy's line. A double envelopment, usually a risky operation, involved an attack against both flanks simultaneously. A similar though longer-range operation was known as a Turning Movement, or Strategic Envelopment, in which the offensive was directed not against the enemy position itself but toward a point in its rear, compelling the enemy to leave his works and defend that point, making him more vulnerable.
        Most Civil War maneuvers were either envelopments or turning movements, since by 1861 the long-range accuracy of rifled small arms had rendered frontal assaults against fixed-especially entrenched-positions extremely costly. It should be noted, however, that Civil War-era tactics manuals did not apply specific definitions to either "envelopments" or "turning movement"; these were not rigidly defined until later in the century. Civil War tacticians used the terms only in their most general sense-in reference to any maneuver that was not a frontal attack.

Fascine - A bundle of sticks or twigs used to reinforce earthworks, trench walls, or lunettes, as fascine was a field substitute for a sandbag or cotton bale, the most preferred reinforcing materials. Usually buried in the earth interior of a wall, a fascine had a bristling top that would often protrude above hastily built field fortifications and the impression of being a defensive feature like an abatis.

Flank - (n) also called a wing; either end of a mobile or fortified military position; a refused flank is attached to or protected by terrain, a body of water, or defended fortifications, while one that is not protected is said to be "in the air"; (v) a maneuver that seeks to avoid a frontal assault by gaining the side or read of an enemy postition.

Flying Battery - 2 or more horse-drawn cannon whipping along the battlefield, unlimbering, firing, limbering up, and riding off to fire from another position were loosely referred to as a "flying battery." No Union or Confederate organization officially listed a gun section as a flying battery. The term refers to the light-artillery tactic of keeping guns moving and fighting.

Fougasse - In Western military history, the use of this primitive land mine can be traced to the late Middle Ages. Most often a shallow hole in the ground filled with jagged stones and a charge of gunpowder, it was set off by a fuse that ran to a fortified position.

Furlough - An enlisted man's leave from the Union or Confederate army, grated at his superior's discretion, was called furlough. Rules in both services specified that furlough be granted by a commander actually quartered with the soldier's company or regiment. A furloughed soldier's arms and accoutrements remained behind, and he carried furlough papers giving a detailed description of his physical appearance, return and departure dates, unit designation, and pay and subsistence allowances furnished. Furlough papers warned the soldier to rejoin his unit by the date specified "or be considered a deserter."
        Furloughs differed from leaves of absence. Officers were granted leaves, whose rules and stipulations were more extensive. Both leaves and furloughs were freely abused, and both armies had occasion to cancel all leaves and furloughs to account for deserters and malingerers. They were also used as inducements: on expiration of enlistment, entire Union army regiments were given "veterans furloughs" if they reenlisted. There were for an extended time, allowing soldiers to return home, and accounted for a dramatic increase in the national birth rate 1863-64.

Gabion - A cylindrical wicker basket several feet high, filled with dirt and stones, a gabion was used to reinforce fieldworks. Its use preceded the Civil War by centuries.

Greek Fire - An incendiary substance used to charge shells, Greek fire saw little service during the Civil War because of its tendency to explode in a loaded bun before it was fired. In the 7th century the general of Constantine IV's fleet used it to destroy the Saracens' ships; 19th-century military encyclopedias speculated that the combustible was principally naphtha. Inventor Levi Short of Philadelphia developed the Greek fire of Civil war vintage, probably a combustible achieved by making a solution of phosphorus in bisulfide of carbon.

Havelock - a white kepi cover with a long tail draping over the wear's neck and shoulders, the havelock was named for Sir Henry Havelock, the British military man who made it popular in India in the 1850s. Considered smart martial apparel in hot climates, it was worn early in the Civil War by Northerners and Southerners to ward off sunstroke. The havelock was eliminated from uniform requisitions when American found that it cut off air circulation around the head and face.

Haversack - A white canvas bag about a foot square, the haversack held the Civil War soldier's daily rations, slung on a strap over the right shoulder, it had a waterproof lining and a flap that buckled over its top, and hung on the left hip. Some custom-made officers' and militia models, were made of patent leather. Most had a number or other company identification painted or stenciled on them.

Hors de combat - Civil War-era Americans thought French the language of war, not love. In contemporary literature, a wounded soldier was said to have been rendered hors de combat-out of combat.

Hot Shot - Intended for maritime use, hot shots were solid iron shot heated in a furnace and fired at wooden vessels. Shot furnaces were found in seacoast fortifications as well as aboard ships. Armored shipping reduced hot shot's effectiveness. It was used to set afire the wooden interior at Fort Sumter April 1861, and Confederates at Fort Fisher, North Carolina, used it against the bombarding union fleet January 1865. At its most efficient, it was fired to just pierce the hull of a vessel, then sit smoldering inside a bulkhead, eventually setting the ship afire.

Instant - A designation meaning "a day of the current month."  For example, in his record of the defense of Fort Sumter, Samuel W. Crawford noted --following a meeting of the officers in early April 1861--their food would enable them to hold out until "the 15th instant" (i.e., April 15).

Interior Lines - The military circumstance of either being able to move over a shorter distance to execute maneuvers and effect reinforcements or possessing a more efficient transportation method, such as a railroad, that allows for rapid deployments.

Ironclad Oath - The Ironclad Oath originated in a stringent loyalty oath passed by the Federal Congress July 2, 1862. Largely because of President Abraham Lincoln's conciliatory approach toward reconstructing the Confederate states and citizens, the oath had little effect during the war despite the heated debate it prompted in Congress. The oath as written into the Reconstruction Act of March 23, 1867 called for allegiance to the U.S. government. While earlier loyalty oaths included only a pledge of future loyalty, Radical congressmen insisted on a pledge of past as well as future allegiance.

Kepi - Adaptations and variations of the 1858 U.S. Army forage cap were colloquially and generally referred to as kepis. A French word derived from the Swiss-German diminutive for "cap," kepi usually denoted the French-style military cap with a short, round, flat crown and leather visor. In American Civil War use, it most often implied the Zouave-, chasseur-, or McClellan-pattern cap. The original 1858 forage cap had a taller crown flopping forward, in some cases its top standing almost vertical to the visor, and was used through the war in both armies. The chasseur model, close to the French cavalry fatigue hat, was a nattier number, its shorter crown pinched forward at about a 35 degree angle and its officer models decorated with a crown and band of contrasting colors and perhaps some gold braid around the top of the crown. Kepis are the hats most closely associated with Civil War service.

Lunette - A 2 or 3 sided field fort, its rear open to interior lines, was called a lunette. Lunettes were often named in honor of battery commanders or commanding brigadier generals.

Mortar - Mortars are among the oldest forms of artillery, and they had not changed much by the advent of the Civil War. Classified by bore size, 5.8-in., 8, 10, and 13 in., they threw a "bomb" or fused shell in a high arc over enemy walls and fortifications and sometimes lobbed shells over the heads of friendly troops as they charged the enemy. The coehorn mortar, among the smallest, had a 4.5-in. bore.
        Made of iron, mounted on heavy wood and iron beds, mortars were usually intended for siege and garrison work.

Order of Battle - This term has 2 distinct meanings in modern-day military parlance, only one of which was common usage during the Civil War. Today it is defined as (1) a particular disposition of troops and other military resources in preparation for combat and (2) a tabular compilation of units, displaying information such as organization, commanding officers, and casualty figures. During the 1860s, however, only the first definition was operative, the term "table of organization" being used to cover the second.

Panada - A concoction of crumbled hardtack and medicinal whiskey or water, popular in Mexican War field hospitals, panada was given to weak patients. It made its way into the Civil War on Veterans' recommendations. Mary Anne "Mother" Bickerdyke, Union volunteer nurse, was noted for dispensing it in the under equipped facilities in which she worked.

Parapet - In fortifications, a wall on top of a rampart that shielded riflemen or artillery crews from enemy fire.

Picket - An advance outpost or guard for a large force was called a picket. Ordered to form a scattered line far in advance of the main army's encampment, but within supporting distance, a picket guard was made up of a lieutenant, 2 sergeants, 4 corporals, and 40 privates from each regiment. Picket duty constituted the most hazardous work of infantrymen in the field. Being the first to feel any major enemy movement, they were also the first liable to be killed, wounded, or captured. And he most likely targets of snipers. Picket duty, by regulation, was rotated regularly in a regiment.

Pioneers - Soldiers detailed to carry out duties similar to those of mdern combat engineers such as cutting roads, repairing bridges and works, and dismantling enemy artillery, fortifications, and railroads; the Pioneer Corps was a specialized unit in the Army of the Cumberland.

Point d'appui - A fortified or secure point that anchored or strengthened an army's position was called a "point d'appui." The sunken road and stone wall at Maryre's Heights, Fredericksburg, Virginia are examples of this.

Prolonge - An 18 ft. length of hemp rope 3.5 in. In diameter, a prolonge was wound between 2 hooks on a gun carriage trail and kept there for use in maneuvering an unlimbered gun. It had an iron hook on one end, a metal eye in the center, and 3 chain links and a toggle on the other end.

Quaker guns - When faced with a shortage of artillery, Southern defenders frequently resorted to "Quaker guns" as a defensive strategy. These were logs hewn to resemble cannon, painted black on the "firing" end, then positioned behind fortifications. Sometime real gun carriages were used. This deception often delayed Federal attacks on "strongly held" Confederate positions.

Rampart - In fortifications, a steeply sloped earthen embankment topped by a parapet.

Redan - In fortifications, a form of angled breastworks shaped like a V with its point facing the approach of the enemy

Retrograde - An orderly retreat usually designed to move away from an enemy.

Revetment - A support or reinforcing wall of earthworks or permanent fortifications was called a revetment. Sandbags, gabions, or fascines, revetted fieldworks; masonry revetments supported stone or brick forts.

Salient - A salient is an area of a defensive line or fortification that protrudes beyond the main works. In the Civil War, it extended closest to an enemy's position and usually invited an attack. Generals erected salients primarily to cover dominating ground beyond their entrenchments.

Sap roller - A large wicker basket similar to a gabion, a sap roller was filled with stones and planks and rolled in front of lead sappers working on assault trenches in the face of the enemy. It deflected some of the small-arms fire and partially obscured a view of sappers at work.

Screening - A function of cavalry deployed to prevent enemy reconnaissance from determining the size or movement of the main army.

Shrapnel - A hollow cast-iron projectile filled with lead bullet set in a sulphur matrix and equipped with a time or percussion fuse that would set off a bursting charge and scatter the balls.  "It is thus calculated to extend all the advantages of canister shot, to distances far beyond the reach of that projectile" according to Roberts (p.113).  The only practical problem in the way of this theory was the unreliability of Civil War fuses.  Shrapnel is often called case shot or spherical case shot.

Shoddy - Material for making uniforms at the beginning of the war that was described in a factual article in Harper's Monthly at the time as "a villainous compound, the refuse stuff and sweepings of the shop, pounded, rolled, glued, and smoothed to the external form and gloss of cloth, but no more like the genuine article than the shad is to the substance. . . ."  A.N.Y. Tribune writer called it "poor sleezy  stuff, woven open enough for seives  [sic], and then filled with shearman's dust"  The magazine article continued:  "Soldiers, on the first day's march or in the earliest storm, found their clothes, overcoats, and blanket, scattering to the win in rags or dissolving into their primitive elements of dust under the pelting rain"

Skirmish - Of the various terms applied to Civil War military actions, "skirmish" denoted a clash of the smallest scope.  In general, a skirmish was a limited combat, involving troops other than those of the main body;  when the latter participated, the fight was known as an engagement, affair, or battle, depending on its scale.  More specifically, a skirmish denoted an encounter between opposing skirmish lines, composed of troops assigned to protect the head and/or flanks of an army in motion.

Skirmish line - A Civil War army on the march protected itself with lines of skirmishers, troops deployed in loose formation in advance and/or on the flanks of the main body. These troops drew the enemy's fires, developed his position, and warned comrades of imminent clash. Infantry manual in use during the war devoted much coverage to skirmisher tactics, made popular by Napoleon's heavy reliance on them during the Continental warfare of the early 19th century.

Stand of arms - A stand of arms designated a complete set of equipment for 1 Civil War soldier. It included a rifle, bayonet, cartridge belt, and ammunition box. From common usage the term frequently came to mean only the rifle and cartridge belt.

Stand of colors - A stand of colors was a single color or flag. A Union infantry regiment carried 2 silken flags, or 2 stands of colors. The first was the national banner, with the regiment's number or name embroidered in silver thread on the center stripe. The second, or regimental, color had a blue field with the arms of the U.S. embroidered in silk on the center. A typical Confederate infantry regiment possessed only 1 stand of colors.

Strategy - Broadly conceived military operations that entail the application of series of integrated tactics.

Sutlers - A common sight in the camps of Civil War soldiers was a string of huts or tents bulging with various items for sale. These business establishments belonged to sutlers, civilians officially appointed to supply soldiers with a long list of approved items. In both the Union and Confederate armies each regiment was allowed 1 sutler. From these camp vendors a soldier could purchase such items as food, newspapers, books, tobacco, razors, tin plates, cups, cutlery, and illegal alcohol.

Tactics - The maneuvering and deploying of troops before, during, and after an engagement to accomplish the objectives of strategy.

Torpedo - Term for either a land or marine mine.

Trunnions - 2 cylindrical pivots cast on the exterior of a cannon or mortar at its center of gravity are called trunnions. They rest on the field carriage or platform carriage and allow the weapon to be elevated or depressed easily.

Vidette - A mounted sentry on picket or guard duty was called a vidette. Also spelled "vedette," the word derives from the Latin meaning to "watch" or "see."

Works - In military usage, standard terminology for fortifications.

Source: "Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War" edited by Patricia L. Faust  and "The Civil War Dictionary" by Mark M. Boatner III.

This Page last updated 01/04/07

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