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Civil War Slang Terms & Their Meanings

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The American Civil War was full of colorful expressions and terms. In this lesson, we are going to check out a few common 1860s slang terms and see how they would have been used.

Civil War Slang

So, you've learned about the Civil War. You've read about it and studied it, but that's not enough. You want to be able to talk like you're in the Civil War too. Okay, let's do that. As is often the case, fun things happen to language when you take a bunch of people and cram them into an army that spends lots of time together. The Civil War was no exception. So let's check out some of the great slang you might have heard around army campfires back in the 1860s.

Behaviors

Let's start with slang for behaviors and feelings. If someone called you a bad egg, it meant you were no good. That's a phrase you may have heard before. However, they may also implore you to acknowledge the corn, or tell the truth and confess a lie. What did you lie about? Maybe you repeated a false rumor you heard through the grapevine. Ever wonder how that phrase came to be? Telegraph wires look like grape vines, so this was a rapid system of conveying information.

Most soldiers spent their time toeing the mark, or doing their jobs. They had to be fit as a fiddle at all times, in good shape, because they never knew when they would see the elephant, or witness battle. At the end of the day, they just wanted to grab a root, a phrase which meant eating dinner, and likely stems from the fact that lots of their meals were potato-based. They'd likely have some alcohol as well, but had to be careful not to drink too much and get wallpapered.

Seeing the elephant, or witnessing battle, was always a terrifying experience
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Things

Imagine that you're in an army camp. People are shouting for various objects, and often they'll use slang terms to describe daily items. A soldier looking for bark juice is hunting for liquor, maybe to wash down those sheet iron crackers, the hardtack soldiers ate. After all, a cup of rio (coffee) could be scarce as hen's teeth when rations were low.

Others soldiers might be preparing for battle, filling the beehive (knapsack) with hornets (bullets). Be careful if someone mentions having an Arkansas toothpick, however; that's just a really big knife. That person might be loaded for bear, armed to the teeth and ready to pick a fight.

People

Of course, a lot of Civil War slang simply had to do with the people you might encounter. As you can imagine, many of these terms could be far from polite. Union soldiers might call a Confederate soldier butternut on account of the yellow/brown uniform some wore, or grayback for the more traditional Confederate uniform. A grayback was also a slang term for lice, so we can see the insult here. The most common term for a generic Confederate, however, was Johnny Reb.

Illustration of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb as two brothers on opposite sides of the war
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Confederates had their own colorful names for Union soldiers, calling them bluebellies or Billy Yank. You might hear those terms as Confederate soldiers sat around the campfire singing ''Bonnie Blue Flag'', a popular song dedicated to the first flag of the Confederacy. You could grab a handful of goober peas (peanuts) and sing along.

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