It’s All In How You Say It: Civil War Slang 2

An exciting find for any researcher is coming across a letter or diary written by an ancestor. Reading those words opens our twenty-first century eyes to life during that time. Or maybe the find wasn’t written by our relatives at all but by someone whose life and circumstances were so close to our ancestor’s that their writing could reflect our own family’s life. With either resource we gain a better understanding of a time long ago.

It’s exciting to find a letter written by an ancestor Photo Credit: Sanja Gjenero User Cindy Freed

The same holds true for the Civil War researcher. It’s thrilling to find a letter penned by our veteran but usually that doesn’t happen. So we turn to the resources available at state archives and large genealogy libraries to read Civil War era journals and letters. The opportunity to dive into our veteran soldier’s experience is exhilarating, except when you have no idea what he’s saying. It’s frustrating when the words you’re anxious to read make no sense in today’s vernacular. Have you ever been there? I have too, so here’s a list of slang words and phrases popular during the Civil War. Some we’ll recognize and may even use today. Others can be eye-brow arching phrases not heard in decades. This list is compiled from two websites: Civil War Era Slang and Terms, and North Carolina in the Civil War

So don’t bellyache or skedaddle, just toe the mark and read this top rail list of Civil War era lingo.

Absquatulate - to take leave, to disappear (1)
Acknowledge the Corn - to admit the truth, to confess a lie, or acknowledge an obvious personal shortcoming (1)
Apple Lady - Hard cider (2)
Arkansas Toothpick - a long, sharp knife (2)
Bad Egg - bad person, good for nothing (1)
Balderdash - nonsense (2)
Bark Juice, Red Eye, O Be Joyful - liquor, adult beverage (1)
Barrel Shirt - barrel worn by thieves for punishment (2)
Beat the Dutch - if that don't beat all (1)
Bragg's Body Guard - lice (2)
Been Through the Mill - through a lot, seen it all (1)
Bellyache - complain (1)
Big Bugs - big wigs, important people (1)
Blowhard - braggart, bully (2)
Blue Mass - refers to men on sick call (1)
Bread Bag - haversack (2)
Bread Basket - stomach (2)
Bull Pit - under arrest, confinement (2)
Bully - terrific, hurrah (1)
Bully for You - good for you (1)
Bumble bee - sound of flying minie balls (2)
Bummer – malingerer, someone who deliberately lags behind to forage or steal (2)
Bummer's Cap - regulation army cap with a high/deep crown, so-called because it could be filled with gathered foodstuffs (2)
Bust Head / Pop Skull - cheap whiskey (1)
Buttermilk Cavalry - term Infantry had for Cavalry (2)
Cabbaging - stealing (2)
Camp canard — tall tale circulating around camp as gossip (2)
Cashier - to dismiss from the army dishonorably (2)
Chief Cook and Bottle Washer - person in charge, or someone who can do anything (1)
Chicken Guts - gold braid used to denote officer ranks (1)
Company Q - fictitious unit designation for the sick list (2)
Conniption Fit - hysterics, temper tantrum (1)
Contraband - escaped slaves who sought refuge behind Union lines (1)
Coosh - Hardtack when soaked in water and fried in bacon grease (2)
Cracker Line - supply line for troops on the move (2)
Desecrated Vegetables - Union, dehydrated (desiccated) vegetables formed into yellowish squares (1)
Dog Robber - soldier detailed from the ranks to act as cook (1)
Dog Collar - cravat issued with uniforms, usually discarded (2)
Embalmed Beef - canned meat (1)
Essence of Coffee - early instant coffee, found in paste form (1)
Forty Dead Men - a full cartridge box, which usually held forty rounds (2)
French Leave - to go absent without leave (1)
Fresh Fish - new recruits (1)
Go Boil Your Shirt - take a hike, get lost, bug off (1)
Grab a Root - eat a meal, especially a potato (1)
Greenbacks - money (2)
Grey Backs - lice, also derogatory term for Confederate soldiers (1)
Goobers - peanuts (2)
Hanker - a strong wish or want (1)
Hard Case - tough guy (1)
Hardtack - unleavened bread in the form of ¼ inch thick crackers issued by the army (1)
Highfalutin - highbrow, fancy (1)
Hospital Rat - someone who fakes illness to get out of duty (2)
Housewife - sewing kit (2)
Hunkey Dorey - very good, all is well (2)
Jawings - talking (2)
John Barleycorn - beer (1)
Jonah - someone who is or brings bad luck (1)
Knock into a Cocked Hat - to knock someone senseless or thoroughly shock him (1)
Let Drive - go ahead, do it (1)
Likely - serviceable, able-bodied (1)
Light Out - leave in haste (1)
Long Sweetening - molasses (1)
Lucifers - matches (2)
Muggins - a scoundrel (1)
Mule - meat, (2) especially if of dubious quality (1)
Mustered Out – wry term meaning killed in action (1)
No Account - worthless (1)
Not By a Jug Full - not by any means, no way (1)
On His Own Hook - on one's own shrift, without orders (1)
Opening the Ball - units waiting to move into battle (2)
Opine - be of the opinion (1)
Peacock About - strut around (1)
Pie Eater - man from a rural area (2)
Pig Sticker - knife or bayonet (1)
Play Old Soldier - pretend sickness to avoid combat (1)
Played Out - worn out, exhausted (1)
Pumpkin Rinds - gold lieutenant's bars (1)
Quartermaster Hunter - shot or shell shot overhead that goes overhead and far into the rear (2)
Quick Step - diarrhea (2)
Robber's Row - the place where sutlers set up to do business (1)
Salt Horse - salted meat (1)
Sardine Box - cap box (2)
Sawbones - surgeon (2)
Scarce as Hen's Teeth - exceedingly rare or hard to find (1)
Secesh - derogatory term for Confederates and Southerners: secessionists (1)
See The Elephant - experience combat or other worldly events (1)
Shakes - malaria (2)
Shanks Mare - on foot (1)
Sheet Iron Crackers - hard tack (2)
Sing Out - call out, yell (1)
Skedaddle - run away, escape (1)
Slouch Hat - a wide-brimmed felt hat (1)
Snug as a Bug - very comfortable (2)
Somebody's Darling - comment when observing a dead soldier (1)
Sparking - courting a girl (1)
Spondulix - money (2)
Sunday Soldiers / Parlor Soldiers - derogatory terms for unsuitable soldiers (1)
Take an Image - have a photograph taken (1)
Tennessee or Virginia Quick Step - diarrhea (1)
Tight - drunk (2)
Toe the Mark - do as told, follow orders (1)
Top Rail - first class, top quality (1)
Traps - equipment, belongings (1)
Wallpapered - drunk (2)
Wrathy - angry (1)
Zu Zu - Zouaves, soldiers whose units wore colorful uniforms in a flamboyant French style with baggy trousers, known for bravery and valor (1)

I excluded a number of words and phrases from the list like “tuckered out,” or “deadbeat” that are well known and widely used today. Many still on the list we’re familiar with like “snug as a bug” or “bad egg.” I also found that some phrases date prior to the Civil War yet I included them since their use was prevalent at the time but no longer used today.

My hope is that you’ll refer back to this list, or reference the websites below, when you read an unfamiliar word or phrase in your Civil War genealogy research. I don’t mean to be a blowhard but I hanker for you to peacock about with your new found knowledge.

Until next time!


Website & links referenced in the article:


North Carolina in the Civil War

(1) Atwater, G.M. “Civil War Era Slang and Terms.” Rootsweb. Ancestry. March 2005. Web. Accessed 29 January 2017.

(2) Siniard, Diane. “Civil War Slang and Its Meaning.” North Carolina in the Civil War. Lost Souls Genealogy. Web Accessed 29 January 2017.

Cindy Freed

About Cindy Freed

Cindy Freed is a genealogist, researcher and writer. Her blog Genealogy Circle ( documents her personal family research as well as her continuing interest in the Civil War. Along with her monthly IDG column, Tracing Blue and Gray, Cindy is a regular contributor to 4th Ohio, First Call quarterly magazine for the 4th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry Descendants Association.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

2 thoughts on “It’s All In How You Say It: Civil War Slang