Words Used During the American Civil War

bombproofWith the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War and renewed interest in our ancestors who either fought or were affected by this destructive war, it is a good opportunity to learn as much as possible relating to this time period. One aspect you may or will come across is the terminology used by people 150 years ago. You may have letters from an ancestor who served in the Union or Confederate side and have come across a phrase or word that today just does not make sense to us.

One piece of clothing worn by many soldiers in that first year, especially the summer of 1861, could have been a ‘havelock.’ That was a piece of cloth that hung down from the back of their hat to help shade or cover the back of their neck and shoulders. Only they quickly felt it was not fully beneficial since it tended to cut off circulation to the head and face. So there is a little known word referring to something worn by a soldier.

Something quite common was that an ancestor could have served as a ‘picket’. This was a group of about 50 soldiers who moved ahead of the main regiment as the army advanced and could warn the rest of the soldiers of any enemy forces.

A term relating to a civilian might have been ‘copperhead’. This person was from the Northern states and opposed the war.

When an Army company had to make due with a temporary shelter as their camp it was referred to as ‘bivouac’, such as sleeping under trees rather than a tent.

It is good to know what made up an army company or regiment. A ‘company’ consisted of 50 to 100 soldiers led by a captain. To have a regiment there were ten companies put together. Then with four regiments a brigade was formed.

Before a big battle the soldiers needed to dig trenches for protection. As they constructed the trenches they needed a ‘sap roller’ which was a large bullet resistant shield which served as temporary protection in case they were fired on.

A large glossary of other terms and phrases are available to examine at the Civil War Trust web site. Even if you did not have ancestor in the Civil War, the phrases and words used 150 years ago are still fascinating to look over.

Photo: A ‘bombproof’ was a fortification made to absorb the shock of artillery strike.

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