Civil War Glossary

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

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.

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.

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.

Bayonet: 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.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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-barrelled gun primarily used by cavalry troops. A carbine's barrel is several inches shorter than a regular rifle-musket.

Casemate: An armored part of a warship.

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.

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. The President of the Confederacy was Jefferson F. Davis.

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

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

Corps: 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.

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.

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.

Enfilade: To fire along the length of an enemy's battleline.

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

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

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

Fortification: Something that makes a defensive position stronger, like high mounds of earth to protect cannon or spiky breastworks to slow an enemy charge.

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

Goober Pea: A term common in the South meaning peanut.

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

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

Ironclad: A ship protected by iron armor.

Lunette: 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.

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

Minie Bullet: The standard infantry bullet of the Civil War. Sometimes called a minie ball, (pronounced "min-ee") the bullet was designed for muzzle-loading rifle-muskets. It was invented by two Frenchmen, Henri-Gustave Delvigne and Claude-ノtienne Mini (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.

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.

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.

Nom-de-guerre: 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.

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.

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.

Popular Sovereignty: This doctrine came out 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.

Private: The lowest rank in the army.

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.

Recruits: New soldiers.

Redan: 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: A small, roughly constructed fortification, usually temporary, often used to defend high points of land.

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.

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.

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.

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: A part of a defensive line of works or a fortification that juts out from the main line towards the enemy. It is easiest to defend a line with no salients, because they stick out and are vulnerable to attack.

Secession: 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.

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

Sentry: A soldier standing guard.

Shebangs: The crude shelters Civil War prisoners of war built to protect themselves from the sun and rain.

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: 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.

Siegelines: 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.

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.

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.

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.

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: Armies conducting total war: 1) do not distinguish between enemy soldiers and enemy civilians; thus they destroy homes and crops to demoralize and undermine the civilian base of the enemy's war effort or committ wholesale murder; 2) they seek not merely to defeat the enemy army but to re-alter or re-make the enemy society in some fundamental way. Historians argue about the degree to which the Civil War became a total 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.

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, 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. The President of the United States during the Civil War was Abraham Lincoln.

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, siegelines, etc.

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

Zouave: A zouave regiment was characterized by its bright, colorful uniform 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.

[Source: Based in part on http://www.civilwar.org/historyclassroom/hc_glossary.htm]