Glossary of Civil War Terms

Improve Your Civil War Vocabulary

Improve your Civil War vocabulary with our collection of relevant words & definitions.

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Abatis: (pronounced ab-uh-tee, ab-uh-tis, uh-bat-ee, or uh-bat-is)  A line of trees, chopped down and placed with their branches facing the enemy, used to strengthen fortifications.  See image »

Abolitionist: Someone who wishes to abolish or get rid of slavery.

Agriculture: The science of growing crops or raising livestock; farming.

Aide-de-Camp: A soldier who was appointed by an officer to be his confidential assistant.  The aide wrote and delivered orders and held a position of responsibility which required him to know troop positions and where officer quarters were located.  The aide-de-camp was an officer by virtue of his position and he took orders from his commander only.

Ambulance:  A two-wheeled or four-wheeled wagon or cart used to transport wounded or sick soldiers.  See image »

Ambush: To lie in wait for an unexpected attack.

Antebellum: (pronounced an-tee-bel-uhm) A term often used to describe the United States of America before the outbreak of the Civil War.

Armory: A place where weapons and other military supplies are manufactured.

Army: The largest organizational group of soldiers, made up of one or more corps. There were 16 Union armies (named after rivers, such as the Army of the Potomac) and 23 Confederate armies (named after states or regions, such as the Army of Northern Virginia). 1 company = 50 to 100 men, 10 companies = 1 regiment, about 4 regiments = 1 brigade, 2 to 5 brigades = 1 division, 2 or more divisions = 1 corps, 1 or more corps = 1 army.

Arsenal: A place where weapons and other military supplies are stored.

Artillery: Cannon or other large caliber firearms; a branch of the army armed with cannon. See image» 



Barbette:  Raised platform or mound allowing an artillery piece to be fired over a fortification's walls without exposing the gun crew to enemy fire.

Barrel: The long metal tube on a gun through which a projectile is fired.

Battery: The basic unit of soldiers in an artillery regiment; similar to a company in an infantry regiment. Batteries included 6 cannon (with the horses, ammunition, and equipment needed to move and fire them), 155 men, a captain, 30 other officers, 2 buglers, 52 drivers, and 70 cannoneers. As the War dragged on, very few batteries fought at full strength. A battery can also be the position on a battlefield where cannon are located.  See image »

Bayonet: (pronounced bay-uh-net) A metal blade, like a long knife or short sword, that could be attached to the end of a musket or rifle-musket and used as a spear or pike in hand-to-hand combat.

Bedroll:  Blanket or other bedding rolled up and carried over the shoulder by a soldier.  Sometimes soldiers would include personal belongings in their bedroll.

Bivouac:  (pronounced BIH-voo-ack) Temporary soldier encampment in which soldiers were provided no shelter other than what could be assembled quickly, such as branches; sleeping in the open.  See image »

Blockade: The effort by the North to keep ships from entering or leaving Southern ports.

Bombproof: A field fortification which was made to absorb the shock of artillery strikes. It was constructed of heavy timbers and its roof was covered with soil. See image »

Bonnie Blue Flag”:  Extremely popular Confederate song named after the first flag of the Confederacy, which had one white star on a blue background.  The lyrics listed each state in the order in which they seceded from the Union.

Border States: The states of Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, and Missouri. Although these states did not officially join the Confederacy, many of their citizens supported the South.

Breach:  A large gap or hole” in a fortification's walls or embankments caused by artillery or mines, exposing the inside of the fortification to assault.  See image »

Breastworks:  Barriers which were about breast-high and protected soldiers from enemy fire.  See image »

Breech-loading: Rifle-muskets that could be loaded at the breech (in the middle between the barrel and the stock) instead of from the end (by shoving gunpowder and a ball down the barrel) were called breech-loading guns. See image»

Brevet: (pronounced brehv-it) An honorary promotion in rank, usually for merit. Officers did not usually function at or receive pay for their brevet rank.

Brigade: A large group of soldiers usually led by a brigadier general. A brigade was made of four to six regiments. 1 company = 50 to 100 men, 10 companies = 1 regiment, about 4 regiments = 1 brigade, 2 to 5 brigades = 1 division, 2 or more divisions = 1 corps, 1 or more corps = 1 army.

Brogan:  A leather shoe, similar to an ankle-high boot, issued to soldiers during the Civil War.  Brogans were also popular amongst civilians during the time period. See image»

Bummer:  A term used to describe marauding or foraging soldiers.  Although armies on both sides often had rules against foraging or stealing from private residences, some soldiers often found ways to do so.

Butternut:  Home-made dye used to color homespun” cloth a yellow-brown color, used when imported gray cloth became scarce.  The dye was made from the husks, leaves, bark, branches and/or roots of butternut and walnut trees.  Butternut” was also a slang term for a Confederate soldier.



Caisson: (pronounced kay-suhn) – A two-wheeled cart that carried two ammunition chests, tools, and a spare wheel for artillery pieces. The caisson could be attached to a limber, which would allow both to be pulled by a team of horses.  See image»

Caliber: The distance around the inside of a gun barrel measured in thousands of an inch. Bullets are labeled by what caliber gun they fit.
Campaign: A series of military operations that form a distinct phase of the War (such as the Shenandoah Valley Campaign).

Canister: A projectile, shot from a cannon, filled with about 35 iron balls the size of marbles that scattered like the pellets of a shotgun.  See image»

Canteen:  Round container used to carry water; made of wood or tin and carried over the shoulder by a strap. See image»

Cap: Essential to firing a percussion rifle-musket, a cap is a tiny brass shell that holds fulminate of mercury. The cap is placed on the gun so that when a trigger is pulled, the hammer falls on the cap. The chemical in the cap ignites and flame shoots into the chamber that holds the gunpowder. This ignites the powder and the blast shoots the bullet out of the barrel.

Carbine: A breech-loading, single-shot, rifle-barreled gun primarily used by cavalry troops. A carbine's barrel is several inches shorter than a regular rifle-musket.

Cartridge:  Roll of thin paper which held a small amount of gun powder in the bottom and a ball or bullet in the top.  A soldier needed to tear off the top of the cartridge in order to fire his weapon - part of the nine steps to fire a muzzle loading gun (or five to fire a breech loading gun). 

Casemate: (pronounced kays-mayt) A sturdily-built, arched masonry chamber enclosed by a fortification's ramparts or walls.  Casemates were often used to protect gun positions, powder magazines, storerooms or living quarters. See image»

Cash Crop: A crop such as tobacco or cotton which was grown to be sold for cash --not grown for food like corn or wheat.

Casualty: A soldier who was wounded, killed, or missing in action.

Cavalry: A branch of the military mounted on horseback. Cavalry units in the Civil War could move quickly from place to place or go on scouting expeditions on horseback, but usually fought on foot. Their main job was to gather information about enemy movements.  Until the spring of 1863, the Confederate cavalry force was far superior to its Federal counterpart.  See image»

Charge: To rush towards the enemy.

Chevaux-de-Frise:  (pronounced sheh-VOH-de-freez)  A defensive obstacle constructed by using a long horizontal beam pierced with diagonal rows of sharpened spikes.  When several cheval-de-frise (singular, pronounced she-VAL-de-freez) were bolted together they created an effective barrier for roads and fortifications.  See image»

Colors: A flag identifying a regiment or army. TheColor Bearer” was the soldier who carried the flag in battle, which was considered a great honor.

Columbiad:  (pronounced cull-UHM-bee-ad) Smoothbore heavy artillery which lobbed shot and shell; used in coastal fortifications.  By the end of the Civil War, the columbiad was rendered obsolete by rifled, banded artillery.  See image»

Commutation:  Stipulation adopted by both the Union and Confederate governments which allowed certain draftees to pay a fee in order to avoid military service.  Because the fee was higher than the average worker's annual salary, this provision angered less-wealthy citizens on both sides of the war.

Company: A group of 50 to 100 soldiers led by a captain. 10 companies = 1 regiment, about 4 regiments = 1 brigade, 2 to 5 brigades = 1 division, 2 or more divisions = 1 corps, 1 or more corps = 1 army.

Confederacy: Also called the South or the Confederate States of America, the Confederacy incorporated the states that seceded from the United States of America to form their own nation. Confederate states were: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Confederate: Loyal to the Confederacy. Also Southern or Rebel.

Conscript:  A draftee.  The military draft became a necessity on both sides of the conflict.  While many conscripts were excellent soldiers, veterans often considered draftees to be inferior, unreliable soldiers.  Towns often posted pleas for volunteers in order to avoid the draft”.  See image»

Contrabands: Escaped slaves who fled to the Union lines for protection.  See image»

Copperhead:  Term for a Northerner who opposed the war effort.

Corps: (pronounced kohr or korz) A very large group of soldiers led by (Union) a major general or (Confederate) a lieutenant general and designated by Roman numerals (such as XI Corps). Confederate corps were often called by the name of their commanding general (as in Jackson's Corps). 1 company = 50 to 100 men, 10 companies = 1 regiment, about 4 regiments = 1 brigade, 2 to 5 brigades = 1 division, 2 or more divisions = 1 corps, 1 or more corps = 1 army. 

Cotton-Clad:  Gunboats using stacked cotton bales to protect themselves from enemy fire.

Coup de Main: (pronounced koo-duh-mahn) A French term used to describe a quick, vigorous attack that surprises the enemy. 

Courier: (pronounced KUHR-ee-er)  A soldier who served the officers of his regiment by carrying mail or messages.



Dahlgren Guns:  Bronze boat howitzers and rifles used by the navies which were useful in river operations.  They were named after Admiral John A. Dahlgren, their inventor.  See image»

Defeat in Detail:  Defeating a military force unit by unit.  This occurred when units were unable to support one another, often because of distance.

Defensive: Resisting or protecting against attack from someone.

Defilade:  (pronounced DEH-fih-lade)  To arrange walls, embankments and other features of a fortification or field work so that the enemy cannot make an accurate shot inside.

Democratic Party: The major political party in America most sympathetic to states rights and willing to tolerate the spread of slavery to the territories. Democrats opposed a strong Federal government. Most Southern men were Democrats before the War.

Demonstration: A military movement which is used to draw the enemy's attention, distracting the enemy so that an attack can be made in another location.

Drill:  To practice marching, military formations and the steps in firing and handling one's weapon. 

Dropsy: (pronounced drop-see) Nineteenth-century term for the condition known today as edema. Fluid builds up in the tissues and causes limbs to swell up horribly.

Dysentery: (pronounced DISS-ehn-terr-ee)  Intestinal disease causing severe diarrhea.  Dysentery was a leading cause of deaths by disease.



Earthwork: A field fortification (such as a trench or a mound) made of earth. Earthworks were used to protect troops during battles or sieges, to protect artillery batteries, and to slow an advancing enemy.

Emancipation: Freedom from slavery.  See Emancipation Proclamation »

Enfilade: (pronounced en-fuh-leyd) To fire along the length of an enemy's battle line.

Entrenchments: Long cuts (trenches) dug out of the earth with the dirt piled up into a mound in front; used for defense.  See image» 



Fascine:  (pronounced fah-seen)  A tightly bound bundle of straight sticks used to reinforce earthworks, trenches or lunettes. Fascines could also be used to make revetments, field magazines, fill material and blinds.  See image»

Federal: Loyal to the government of the United States. Also known as Union, Yankee, or Northern.

Feint: (pronounced feynt) To pretend to attack in one direction while the real attack is directed somewhere else.

Fieldworks: Temporary fortifications put up by an army in the field.  See image »

Flank:  Used as a noun, a flank” is the end (or side) of a military position, also called a wing”.  An unprotected flank is in the air”, while a protected flank is a refused flank”.  Used as a verb, to flank” is to move around and gain the side of an enemy position, avoiding a frontal assault.

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 another position.  This practice gave the impression that many guns were in use when only a few were actually being used.

Foraging: A term used for “living off the land,” as well as plundering committed by soldiers.

Fortification: Something that makes a defensive position stronger, like high mounds of earth to protect cannon or spiky breastworks to slow an enemy charge. Fortifications may be man-made structures or a part of the natural terrain.  Man-made fortifications could be permanent (mortar or stone) or temporary (wood and soil).  Natural fortifications could include waterways, forests, hills and mountains, swamps and marshes.  See image »

Furlough:  A leave from duty, granted by a superior officer.   The furloughed soldier carried papers which described his appearance, his unit, when he left and when he was due to return.  Furlough papers also contained a warning that failure to return on time would cause the soldier to be considered a deserter”.  



Gabions: (pronounced gey-bee-en) Cylindrical wicker baskets which were filled with rocks and dirt, often used to build field fortifications or temporary fortified positions.  See image »

Garrison: A group of soldiers stationed at a military post.
Goober Pea: A common Southern term for “peanut”.

“Graybacks”: A slang term for lice, or occasionally an offensive “Yankee” slang term for Confederate soldiers.

Greenbacks:  Paper currency which began to circulate in the North after February 1862 with the passage of the Legal Tender Act.  The bills were called “greenbacks” because of their color.

Green Troops: Phrase used to describe soldiers who were either new to the military or had never fought in a battle before.  



Hardtack: Hardtack is a term used to describe the hard crackers often issued to soldiers of both sides during the Civil War.  These crackers consisted of nothing more than flour, water, and salt.  They were simple and inexpensive to make in very large quantities.  However, these crackers became almost rock solid once they went stale. See image»

Havelock: (pronounced hav-loc) A white cloth cover that went over a soldier’s kepi, and had a long back that covered a soldier’s neck and shoulders.  Although it saw use in the early stages of the war, soldiers quickly learned that it cut off circulation around the head and face, leading to the eventual abandonment of the havelock.  

Haversack:  Small canvas bag, about one foot square, used to carry a soldier's food.  Typically, these bags were painted with black tar to make them waterproof.  See image»

Housewife:  Small sewing kit soldiers used to repair their garments.  See image»

Howitzer:  A cannon which fired hollow projectiles and was generally lighter and shorter than its solid-shot cousins.  A howitzer's projectiles had a smaller powder charge.  Also, canister projectiles contained more small balls than other types of canister.  Howitzers were useful in defending fortifications and causing disorder within with in an attacking force. See image »



(Attack) In Detail: To destroy the enemy piece by piece — by attacking smaller segments one at a time — instead of attacking the entire force all at once.

Indian Territory: The area that is now Oklahoma (except for the panhandle.)

Industry: Manufacturing goods from raw materials, such as cloth from cotton or machine parts from iron.

Infantry: A branch of the military in which soldiers traveled and fought on foot.

“Infernal Machine”: A term of contempt for torpedoes (either the land or the water variety).  This term was also used to describe the Confederate vessel H.L. Hunley- the first successful submarine.

Instant:  Used in letters and reports, “instant” referred to a particular day in the same month.  For example, Robert E. Lee's Report Concerning the Attack at Harpers Ferry, written on October 19, 1859, states that Lee arrived on the “night of the 17th instant”.  The “17th instant” would be October 17th. 

Insult:  A sudden, open, unconcealed attack upon a fortified position with the intent of capturing it before its defenders could mount an effective defense.

Interior Lines:  A military strategy which holds that the fastest, most efficient maneuvers, transportation and communication are conducted within an enclosed geographic area as opposed to outside the geographic area.

Ironclad: A ship protected by iron armor.



Juggernaut: (pronounced juhg-er-nawt) An overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path.



Kepi:  (pronounced KEH-peeh)  Cap worn by Civil War soldiers; more prevalent among Union soldiers.  See image» 



Limber:  A two-wheeled cart that carried one ammunition chest for an artillery piece. The artillery piece could be attached to the limber, which would allow both to be pulled by a team of horses.  Also verb: The practice of attaching a piece of artillery to the limber that holds its ammunition.  See image »

Litter: A stretcher which was carried by two people and used to transport wounded soldiers.

Long Roll: A long, continuous drum call which commanded a regiment to assemble.

“Lost Cause”:  Cultural movement in which Southern states attempted to cope - mentally and emotionally - with devastating defeat and Northern military occupation after the Civil War.  The movement idealized life in the antebellum South, loudly protested against Reconstruction policies, and exalted Confederate figures such as “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

Lunette: (pronounced loo-net)  A fortification shaped roughly like a half-moon. It presented two or three sides to the enemy but the rear was open to friendly lines.



Mason-Dixon line: A boundary surveyed in the 1760s that ran between Pennsylvania to the North and Delaware, Maryland and (West) Virginia to the South. It became a symbolic division between free states and slave states.

Massacre: The cruel killing of a number of helpless or unresisting people.

Magazine:  A fortified location where powder or supplies were stored. See image »

Militia: Troops, like the National Guard, who are only called out to defend the land in an emergency.

Minie Bullet (or minié bullet): (pronounced min-ee or min-ee-ay) The standard infantry bullet of the Civil War. The bullet was designed for muzzle-loading rifle-muskets. It was invented by two Frenchmen, Henri-Gustave Delvigne and Claude-Étienne Minié (pronounced “min-ee-ay”). It was small enough to load quickly, and had a special feature that let it take advantage of a rifled-barrel. When the rifle-musket was fired, expanding gas from the gunpowder blast was caught in the hollow base of the bullet forcing it against the rifled grooves inside the barrel.  See image »

Monitor: Originally, the U.S.S. Monitor, the first ironclad warship in the United States Navy, commanded by Admiral John L. Worden.  The vessel had a large, round gun turret on top of a flat raft-like bottom, which caused some spectators to describe it as a “cheesebox on a raft.”  The first engagement between ironclads occurred on March 8-9, 1862, at the Battle of Hampton Roads, VA, when the U.S.S. Monitor fought the C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimack).  Eventually a “monitor” became the official term for an entire class of warships modeled after the original U.S.S. Monitor. See image »

Mortar:  An unrifled artillery gun which was designed to launch shells over walls and enemy fortifications.  The most famous Civil War mortar is the “Dictator” -- a mortar which was mounted on a railroad car and used during the siege of Petersburg.  With its 13 inch bore it was capable of launching two hundred pound shells.  See image »

Musket: A smoothbore firearm fired from the shoulder. Thrust from exploding powder shoots the bullet forward like a chest pass in basketball.

Muster: To formally enroll in the army or to call roll.

Muzzle-loading: Muzzle-loading muskets or rifle muskets had to be loaded from the end by putting the gunpowder and the bullet or ball down the barrel.    



Napoleon Gun:  Another name for the Model 1857 gun howitzer.  This lighter, more maneuverable field artillery piece fired 12 pound projectiles and was very popular with both Federal and Confederate armies. See image »

Napoleonic Tactics: The tactics used by Napoleon Bonaparte that were studied by military men and cadets at West Point before the Civil War. His tactics were brilliant for the technology of warfare at the time he was fighting. However, by the Civil War, weapons had longer ranges and were more accurate than they had been in Napoleon’s day.
Navy: A branch of the military using ships to conduct warfare. During the Civil War, “blue water” ships cruised the oceans and “brown water” boats floated up and down the rivers. See article »

Nom-de-guerre: (pronounced nahm-duh-gair) Literally, in French this means “war name”. A nom-de-guerre is a nickname earned in battle, such as “Stonewall” Jackson or “Fighting Joe” Hooker.

North: Also called the Union or the United States the North was the part of the country that remained loyal to the Federal government during the Civil War. Northern states were: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. West Virginia became a Northern state in 1863 and California and Oregon were also officially Northern but they had little direct involvement in the War.



Offensive: Actively attacking someone.

Ordnance:  The term used for military supplies, such as weaponry and ammunition.



Parole: A pledge by a prisoner of war or a defeated soldier not to bear arms. When prisoners were returned to their own side during the War (in exchange for men their side had captured) the parole was no longer in effect and they were allowed to pick up their weapons and fight. When the South lost the War and the Confederate armies gave their parole they promised never to bear weapons against the Union again.

Parrott gun:  A rifled artillery piece with a reinforcing band at the rear, or breech.  Parrott guns were used by both the Army and the Navy, and ranged from 10-pounders to 300-pounders.  They were named after their designer, Robert Parker Parrott. See image »

“Peculiar Institution”: Another term for slavery in the South.

Percussion Arm: A musket or rifle-musket that requires a cap to fire. A tiny cap is placed on the gun so that when a trigger is pulled, the hammer strikes the cap. The chemical in the cap (fulminate of mercury) ignites and flame shoots into the chamber that holds the gunpowder. This ignites the powder and the blast shoots the bullet out of the barrel. (Percussion means striking—a drum is a percussion instrument and a gun that uses a hammer to strike a cap is a percussion arm.)

Picket: Soldiers posted on guard ahead of a main force. Pickets included about 40 or 50 men each. Several pickets would form a rough line in front of the main army's camp. In case of enemy attack, the pickets usually would have time to warn the rest of the force.

Pontoon Bridge:  (pronounced pawn-TOON)  A floating bridge which was constructed by anchoring a series of large, flat-bottomed boats across a waterway and then laying wooden planks across them.  The planks (the “chess”) were anchored by side rails and then covered with a layer of soil to protect it and to dampen sounds.  Pontoon bridges were extremely important to the outcome of several battles, including Fredericksburg. See image »

Popular Sovereignty: (pronounced sov-rin-tee) This doctrine was prominent during the debate over slavery in the territories. Popular sovereignty said that the people of each territory should be able to decide for themselves if slavery should be allowed in their territory when it became a state.

“Powder Monkey”: A sailor (sometimes a child) who carried explosives from the ship's magazine to the ship's guns.  See image »

Private: The lowest rank in the army.



“Quaker Guns”:  Large logs painted to look like cannons; used to fool the enemy into thinking a position was stronger than it really was.  See image »

Quartermaster: The officer who was responsible for supplying clothing, supplies and food for the troops.



Rampart:  A large earthen mound used to shield the inside of a fortified position from artillery fire and infantry assault. Occasionally ramparts might be constructed of other materials, such as sandbags.  See image »

Ramrod: Long, cylindrical metal rod used to push the cartridge down the barrel of a musket in preparation for firing.

Ratify: To formally approve or sanction.
Rebel Yell: A high-pitched cry that Confederate soldiers would shout when attacking. First heard at First Manassas (First Bull Run) Union troops found the eerie noise unnerving.

Rebel: Loyal to the Confederate States. Also Southern or Confederate.

Reconstruction:  A term used to describe the time in American history directly after the Civil War during which the South was “reconstructed” by the North after its loss in the war.

Recruits: The term used to describe new soldiers.

Redan: (pronounced ri-dan) A fortification with two parapets or low walls whose faces unite to form a salient angle towards the enemy. That is, they form a point that juts out past the rest of the defensive line of works.

Redoubt: (pronounced rih-dowt) An enclosed field work - without redans - which had several sides and was used to protect a garrison from attacks from several directions.  While redoubts could be very useful, one key weakness was that each protruding angle was a salient.  This meant that the redoubt would be susceptible to enfilading fire.  A redoubt could also extend from a permanent fortress.  See image »

Reinforcements: Troops sent to strengthen a fighting force by adding an additional number of fresh soldiers.

Regiment: The basic unit of the Civil War soldiers, usually made up of 1,000 to 1,500 men. Regiments were usually designated by state and number (as in 20th Maine). 1 company = 50 to 100 men, 10 companies = 1 regiment, about 4 regiments = 1 brigade, 2 to 5 brigades = 1 division, 2 or more divisions = 1 corps, 1 or more corps = 1 army. See image »

Republican Party: A political party created in the 1850s to prevent the spread of slavery to the territories. Eventually Republicans came to oppose the entire existence of slavery. Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. Very few Southerners were Republicans.

Reserve(s):  Part(s) of the army which were withheld from fighting during a particular battle but ready and available to fight if necessary.

Revetment:  A structure built to hold either natural or man-made embankments in position.  Revetments could be made of items such as sandbags, fascines, gabions, brick, stone, and so on. See image »

Revolver: A handheld firearm with a chamber to hold multiple bullets (usually 6). The chamber turns so that each bullet can be fired in succession without reloading.

Revenue Cutter:This term applies to fast ships that were used to patrol the seas and Great Lakes to prevent smuggling and impose importation and custom fees.  Revenue cutters would go on to become the United States Coast Guard.

Rifle-Musket: The common weapon of the Civil War infantryman, it was a firearm fired from the shoulder. It differed from a regular musket by the grooves (called rifling) cut into the inside of the barrel. When the exploding powder thrusts the bullet forward, the grooves in the barrel make it spin, just like a football spirals through the air. Rifle-muskets were more accurate and had a longer range than smoothbore weapons.

Rifle Pit: Similar to what soldiers call a “foxhole” today. Rifle pits were trenches with earth mounded up at the end as protection from enemy fire. A soldier lay in the trench and fired from a prone position.

Rifled: A gun barrel is rifled when it has grooves (called rifling) cut into the inside of the barrel for longer range and more accurate firing.

Rout: A crushing defeat where, often, the losers run from the field.   



Salient: (pronounced SAY-lee-uhnt) A part of a defensive line of works or a fortification that juts out from the main line towards the enemy.  Salients can be very vulnerable to because they may be attacked from multiple sides.

Salt Pork:  Salt pork is a pork product similar to bacon that is made by curing pork bellies in salt.  This curing process allowed the pork to last a very long time without the need for refrigeration.  As a result, salt pork became a common food issued to soldiers by both the North and the South.

Sap Roller:  A very large, bullet resistant gabion which was used to protect soldiers from enemy fire as they constructed trenches.
Scurvy: (pronounced SKUR-vee) A disease caused by lack of ascorbic acid (found in fresh fruits and vegetables). Its symptoms include spongy gums, loose teeth, and bleeding into the skin and mucous membranes.

Secession: (pronounced si-sesh-uhn ) Withdrawal from the Federal government of the United States. Southern states, feeling persecuted by the North, seceded by voting to separate from the Union. Southerners felt this was perfectly legal but Unionists saw it as rebellion.  See Secession Acts of the Thirteen Confederate States »

Sectionalism: Promoting the interests of a section or region (such as the North or the South) instead of the entire country.

Sentry: (pronounced SEHN-tree)  A soldier standing guard.

Shebangs: (pronounced sheh-bang)  The crude shelters Civil War prisoners of war built to protect themselves from the sun and rain. See image »

Shoddy:  Term for cheap, poorly made cloth which was used early in the war to make Federal uniforms.  The cloth fell apart very quickly.  Eventually “shoddy” became a term for inferior, poorly made items.

Shot: A solid, round projectile, shot from a cannon. See image »

Shell: A hollow projectile, shot from a cannon; a shell was filled with powder and lit by a fuse when it was fired. Shells exploded when their fuse burned down to the level of the powder. Depending on the length of the fuse, artillerymen could decide when they wanted the shell to burst.

Siege: (pronounced seej) Blocking the supply lines and escape routes of a city to force it to surrender. A siege usually meant one army trapped in a city, slowly running out of food and fresh water, with the opposing army camped outside.  Famous sieges were held at Petersburg, Vicksburg, and Port Hudson.

Siege lines: Lines of works and fortifications that are built by both armies during a siege. The defenders build earthworks to strengthen their position inside a fort or city against assault while the besieging army constructs fortifications to protect siege guns and soldiers from sharpshooters inside the city.

Skirmish: A minor fight.

Slavery: A state of bondage in which African Americans (and some Native Americans) were owned by other people, usually white, and forced to labor on their behalf.

Smoothbore: A gun is smoothbore if the inside of the barrel is completely smooth. Smoothbore guns were used before rifled guns were developed. Although smoothbores were not as accurate and had a shorter range than rifled arms, there were still plenty of them in use during the Civil War.

Sortie:  A type of counter-attack used to disrupt the enemy's attack or siege of a fortification, causing the enemy to divert some of its resources away from the initial attack or siege.

South: Also called the Confederacy, the Confederate States of America, or (by Northerners) the Rebel states, the South incorporated the states that seceded from the United States of America to form their own nation. Southern states were: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.

Spike:  To make an artillery piece unusable so that it could not be used by the enemy if captured. 

Standard: A flag or banner carried into battle on a pole.

States Rights: This doctrine held the powers of the individual states as greater than the powers of the Federal government. States rights meant that the Federal government held its power only through the consent of the states and that any powers not specifically given to the Federal government remained in control of the states.  See the Declaration of the Causes of the Seceding States »

Stockade: A line of tall stout posts securely set either as a defense, to keep the enemy out, or as a pen to keep prisoners in. See image »

Surrender: To admit defeat and give up in the face of overwhelming odds. Most defeated generals were able to negotiate surrender terms. These might include items like parole instead of prison for the soldiers or letting officers keep their sidearms.   



Territory: Land within the mainland boundaries of the country that had not yet become a state by 1861. Nevada Territory, Utah Territory, and Colorado Territory had basically the same boundaries they have today as states; Washington Territory encompassed today's states of Washington and Idaho; Dakota Territory is now the states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and the northern part of Wyoming; Nebraska Territory today is the southern part of Wyoming and the state of Nebraska; New Mexico Territory included the states of Arizona and New Mexico; and the remaining unorganized land, also called the Indian Territory, filled the approximate boundaries of Oklahoma.
Theater: A theater of war is a region or area where fighting takes place.

Torpedoes: Today called mines, Civil War torpedoes were mostly used by the Confederates. Sometimes they were buried in the ground in the enemy's path to explode when stepped on. Mostly they were used as water defenses. They floated below the surface of the water and exploded when the hull of a ship brushed against them.

Torpedo Boats: Small submersible vessels with long wooden spars mounted on the bow for ramming enemy ships. Torpedoes were lashed to the tip of the spar to explode on impact.

Total War: A new way of conducting war appeared during the Civil War. Instead of focusing only on military targets, armies conducting total war destroyed homes and crops to demoralize and undermine the civilian base of the enemy’s war effort. (Sherman in Georgia or Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, for example.)

Traverse:  A mound of earth used to protect gun positions from explosion or to defilade the inside of a field work or fortification. See image »

Typhoid:  Bacterial disease causing fever, diarrhea, headache, enlargement of the spleen, and extreme physical exhaustion and collapse.



Union: Also called the North or the United States, the Union was the portion of the country that remained loyal to the Federal government during the Civil War. Union states were: Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Wisconsin. West Virginia became a Northern state in 1863 and California and Oregon were also officially Northern but they had little direct involvement in the War.

U.S. Christian Commission: An organization established in 1861 for the relief of Union soldiers; the Christian Commission provided food, Bibles, and free writing materials to the soldiers to encourage them in good moral behavior.  See image »

U.S.C.T.:  United States Colored Troops. Federal Army regiments composed of African-American soldiers.  The U.S.C.T.’s were established by General Order Number 143, issued May 22, 1863, and included infantry, cavalry and artillery regiments.   While the soldiers themselves were African American, officers were white.  Until 1864 African American soldiers received less pay than their white counterparts.  The most famous USCT regiment is the 54th Massachusetts, composed of free Northern men.  The 33rd USCT regiment, however, has the distinction of being the first federally authorized regiment.  Composed of freed slaves, it was originally called the 1st South Carolina Volunteer Infantry.  See image »

U.S. Sanitary Commission: A government agency created on June 18, 1861, whose purpose was to coordinate female volunteers who were supporting the Federal army.  These women collected over $25 million in donations from “Sanitary Fairs” and other fundraisers.  The volunteers also made uniforms and bandages, worked as cooks, and nursed the sick and wounded.  Leadership, however, was largely male. See image »



Vedette(or vidette):  A mounted sentry stationed in advance of a picket line.

Volunteer: Someone who does something because they want to, not because they need to. Most Civil War soldiers, especially in the beginning of the War, were volunteers. Men joined the armies on both sides because they wanted to fight for their cause.



West Point: The United States Military Academy at West Point, New York was the military school for more than 1,000 officers in both the Union and Confederate armies—including Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.

Whig Party: A political party generally against slavery and its expansion into the territories. The Whig party had basically been swallowed up by the Democrat and Republican parties by the time of the Civil War.

Works: Fortified structures designed to strengthen a position in battle. This includes earthworks, fieldworks, entrenchments, siege lines, etc.



Yankee: A Northerner; someone loyal to the Federal government of the United States. Also, Union, Federal, or Northern.



Zouave: (pronounced zoo-ahv or zwahv) A zouave regiment was characterized by its soldiers' bright, colorful uniforms which usually included baggy trousers, a vest, and a fez in different combinations of red, white, and blue. American zouave units were found in both Union and Confederate armies. They were modeled after French African troops who were known for their bravery and marksmanship.  See image »