Glossary of War of 1812 Terms

Improve Your War of 1812 Vocabulary

Improve your War of 1812 vocabulary with our collection of relevant words & definitions

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

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. 

Ambush: To lie in wait for an unexpected attack.

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. 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. Forces in the War of 1812 rarely ever operated or maneuvered as armies, but rather as smaller divisions of armies such as brigades or divisions.

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.



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

Bateau: A small boat with a shallow hull able to transport soldiers and supplies along the rivers of North America.

Battery: The basic unit of soldiers in an artillery regiment; similar to a company in an infantry regiment. 

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. 

Blockade: Achievable with naval supremacy, the coast of a combatant nation is blocked from trade outside of its ports.

Blockhouse: A large building used as barracks for soldiers and fortified to be used as a defensive position in case of attack.

Bombardment: The continuous and rapid firing of artillery towards an enemy position or fortification. Notable bombardments include those during the Battle of Fort McHenry and Battle of Fort Eire.

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. 

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. 

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

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.

British North America: The British holdings and colonies in North America. During the war these included Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland.

Brown Bess: The “Brown Bess,” as it was nicknamed by the British army, was the standard issued smoothbore musket given to British soldiers and allies in the early 19th century.

Buck and ball: Buck and ball was a type of munition whose cartridge contained both a common musket ball as well as three to six buckshot pellets. Used commonly by the Americans, this load was known for the devastating effect it had on enemy infantry with its shotgun-like spread. Despite the increase in firepower, this load was notorious for its limiting short range.



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. 

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 Chesapeake 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.

Canon: A long-range artillery piece which launches projectiles propelled by gunpowder.

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

Cartridge: A pre-packaged paper cylinder containing a musket ball and gunpowder.

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

Cavalry: A branch of the military mounted on horseback. Cavalry units were scarcely seen in the war because of their decreased effectiveness in the broken and overgrown terrain of North America. The United States only had two regiments of light dragoons which were rarely used in combat. Notable exceptions include during the Battle of Chrysler’s Farm.

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. 

Coatee: A coatee, or short coat, was the tightfitting, decorated coat worn as a part of the uniform of soldiers during the Napoleonic wars and War of 1812.

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

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.

Conscript:  A draftee mandated into military service.

Corps: (pronounced kohr or korz) A very large group of soldiers led by a lieutenant general. 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.

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.



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-Republicans: Democratic-Republicans were known for their pro-war, anti-British policy as well as being proponents of a small, limited central government with a small standing military. Notable Democratic-Republicans include James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, and John Calhoun.

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.

Deserter: A member of an army who abandons their service before their service term is up.

Dragoons: A class of heavy cavalrymen armed with swords and occasionally firearms, though, without armor.

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

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.

Embargo: A sanction preventing the trade with a hostile nation in an attempt to damage its economy.

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



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

Federalists: Federalists during the War of 1812 were known for their anti-war stance and desire for a strong central government and large standing military. A notable Federalist during the war was Timothy Pitkin.

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.

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.

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. 

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”.

Frigates: Frigates were quick three-masted square-rigged warships with a single main deck of canons.



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.

Garrison: A group of soldiers stationed at a military post.

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

Grenadier: A class of infantrymen known for their large stature and prowess in melee.



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.

Horse Artillery: Artillery which is quickly deployed and moved with the aid of multiple horses.

Howitzer: An artillery piece which launches projectiles in an ark trajectory.

Hussar: A type of light cavalry known for their distinctive shoulder coats and their versatility to both scout and charge.



Impressment: Forcing captured sailors into naval service.

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



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.



Massacre: The cruel killing of a number of helpless or unresisting people. Infamous massacres which took place during the War of 1812 include the mass killing of surredured and wounded Kentucky militiamen after the Battle of the River Raisin. This would lead to the creation of the vindictive catchphrase “remember the raisin.” 

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

Military Districts: During the war, militarily, the United States had divided itself into 9-10 military districts by region to lessen logistical and oversight challenges provided by the expansive geography of the country.

Militia: Militia were generally poorly trained and undisciplined citizens called to arms by their local authorities or state. Their training and supplies were provided by their residential state. Militia made up the vast majority of the American army during the War of 1812 in terms of manpower.

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.



Native Allies: Soldiers from the tribes along the American and Canadian frontiers providing military support to either side. Notable Native Americans who played an important role in the war include Tecumseh and William Weatherford.While Native Americans fought on both sides during the war, the majority took up arms alongside the British.

Napoleonic Wars: A series of wars fought in Europe between the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the various coalitions formed against him, including Great Britain. The need for more sailors to maintain naval supremacy against France was a large reason for the impressment of American sailors by the British Navy.

Nom-de-guerre: (pronounced nahm-duh-gair) Literally, in French this means “war name”. Nom-de-guerre is a nickname earned in battle such as “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson.



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 (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.

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.

Private: The lowest rank in the army.

Pioneer: A class of infantrymen who were responsible for building fortifications and other structures for the army.

Privateer: A private person who has been given commission by a nation to engage in naval warfare, or piracy, on the nation’s behalf. Commissions were given in the form of letters-of-marque.



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. 

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.

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. 

Regiment: The organizational unit of the forces of the War of 1812, usually made up of 1,000 to 1,500 men though regiments, especially American, typically operated at below half-strength. 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. 

Regulars: The regulars of the United States were professional volunteer infantry who were paid, trained, and equipped by the federal government. While the quality of the United States regulars in the beginning of the war was hardly better than the militia, by the end of the war, the regulars had been transformed into a well-trained, well-supplied, and professional fighting force which could rival even the infantry of Great Britain.

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

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

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.

Rockets: Rockets were explosive, long range, projectiles commonly used by the British army during the late Napoleonic Wars and War of 1812. While they were known to be inaccurate, the moral blow inflicted on untrained soldiers by them was devastating.

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. 

Scalping: The process of cutting off the scalp of an enemy, dead or alive, as prize.

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.

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

Shako: A cylindrical hat worn by soldiers as a part of their uniform, commonly featuring plumes and decorative metal plates with regimental insignia on them.

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.

Ships of the line: Ships of the line were large three-masted, square-rigged ships that were heavily armed, commonly at least 2 decks of canon.

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

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 included Fort Eire 1814, Detroit 1812, and Fort George 1813.

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.

Sloop: Sloops were speedy, single-masted ships with a light complement of guns.

Smoothbore: A gun is smoothbore if the inside of the barrel is completely smooth. Despite the large size of the projectile it fired, it was known for their inaccuracy and short range.

Sortie:  A type of counterattack 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.

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

Squadron: A small detachment of either cavalry or ships.

Springfield: The Springfield model 1795 was the first dated Springfield model to be produced and was the common infantry musket given to the soldiers of the U.S. army in the War of 1812.

Standard: A military variant of a nations flag featuring regimental insignia typically carried by standard-bearers in battle.

Status quo ante bellum: Latin for “the situation as it existed before war.” The Treaty of Ghent that ended the war is considered to be a treaty which returned to the “status quo ante bellum.”

Succours: Military aide provided during war. 

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.   



Theater: A theater of war is a region or area where fighting takes place.

Tory: Someone who is loyal, or seemingly loyal, to Great Britain. “Tory” was often used as a derogatory term to describe federalists who opposed war with Great Britain. Additionally, “Tory” was the name of a conservative political faction in Great Britain.

Total 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. 

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