Uncommon History

An uncommon look at history

So why is this all so fascinating to me, the author?

It all started in 1991, shortly after joining with a group of reenactors I met at a gun show in Norfolk, Virginia.  Why I went to a guns how, I’ll never know as I really wasn’t interested in guns. Perhaps it was just something to do as a single 20 year old, new to a city with no friends.

Anyway, a few weeks into my newfound reenacting hobby, I packed into the back of a truck one Thursday with a half dozen weekend warriors and headed off to the mountains of Pennsylvania. It was what is termed a “tactical” reenactment and there were no spectators until the big battle on Saturday afternoon.

We arrived in the cold, damp valley, transferred the gear from the truck to our backs and headed down to join the gathering army. I noticed a man wearing black, wandering around the officer tent then in and around the infantrymen. He carried a leather bible and knelt to pray with a few of the men. I was rather non-participatory in things Christian at the time and I pretty much blew it off.

The day went as planned and a raucus battle was capped off with music, song. During that time, more than a few bottles of whiskey were dispersed into various tin cups and enjoyed by all.

The next morning was the big public battle. Cannons volleyed across the high hills as spectators gathered to take in the sights, sounds and smell of nineteenth century warfare. Our brigade lined up behind a tall rise and received some wonderful words of encouragement from our commander. At the completion of his pep-talk, the commander introduced a man he called a chaplain. It was the fellow in black I had noticed the day before.

The words of the chaplain were wrought with out-of-date religious cliche’ and needless to say, it was more pitiful in my sight than the three-hundred pound general I watched trying to mount his horse that morning. The battle was superb, fulfilling everything I had ever imagined.  Once the crowds had gone and a quick dinner of hard-tack crakers and bacon, the festivities of the previous night continued.

Sunday morning was cold, damp and gray. I tried to sleep, but as the sun tried its best to reveal itself from behind the curtain of clouds, I shivered beneath my single, wool blanket. Before long, a drummer began to beat some repetitive tune. Being new to the scene, I asked my tentmate what was going on. He told me it was a call to Church. Ugh…how mundane.

I got up from my losing battle with sleep to warm myself by the fire. While I sat trying to rekindle dying embers, I watched a number of men file by towards the sound of the repeating drum. One man looked my way and motioned for me to come along. My comrades were still sawing logs and there wasn’t much else to do, so I complied.

The Church scene I took in was antiquated and out of touch with everything my enlightened mind knew was right about God and His children. When the service was over, I confronted the chaplain with my plethora of knowledge. He got an earfull from me about how unrealistic it would have been for a man of God to be following unruly soldiers from camp to camp. He challenged my advice and suggested I do some reading of my own. Fine with me, I was up for the challenge.

When I returned home, I went straight to the local library. What ensued was a several week mental marathon. I spent almost every evening unlearning what I thought was true about 1860’s religion. That marathon continues to this very day, with the exception that I submit to the fact that I was incredibly wrong in my assumptions. I learned from that experience to never take anything for granted and to read, read, read. I will forever be grateful to that anonymous chaplain who pointed me towards Jesus Christ.

Friday Fiction – May 8, 2009

I had planned to write a fresh, new entry for today, but time escaped me. Instead, today’s Friday fiction entry is my Beginner’s Level 2nd Place winner (03/08/08)! For more terrific Friday Fiction, hop on over to today’s FF host: The Surrendered Scribe

Whisper Creek

Crisp chirps of waking cardinals welcomed the silver light of dawn. At the edge of Whisper Creek, a red male sipped from the brook, undaunted by the strangers camped about his mountain meadow. With thirst quenched, the bird fluttered away at the approach of a man in a clean black frock.

Joseph Meyers knelt and washed the dust from his face. Refreshed, he folded his hands in prayer, “Father, give me this day to reach these men for your kingdom, Amen.” He stood and turned towards camp. Above the white tents thin lines of blue smoke reached toward heaven.

He quietly guided his steps through a row of tents. “Good morning chaplain.” The muffled call came from a ruddy-haired youth bowed over a fire. “Good morning. I hope to see you at service tonight.” The Private returned a polite nod then attended a strange concoction sizzling in his skillet.

Chaplain Meyers entered his tent, leaving the flap open, hoping that an eager soul might feel more comfortable approaching an open door. The wooden chair creaked as he sat. With eager hands he opened his Bible and began scribbling notes on pristine paper.

Outside, the camp sprung to life. Two men passed by uttering foul sentiment at their suffering from marching in fresh footwear. Joseph considered leaving his work to pursue the soldiers to convict them of their profane tongues. Instead he conceded that there was still much writing to do.

The drummers struck up the familiar call for drill. Soldiers scurried for uniforms, leather gear and weapons. Chaplain Meyers chuckled. These men, boys really, had been at the same routine for months yet it still seemed such a show. Glistening musketry, polished leather and waving flags were indeed inspiring. What such pomp accomplished in preparing the men for eternity was folly in Joseph’s mind. The resignation in his pocket was a reminder of many services that had been canceled in lieu of drill. Should one more opportunity to preach be precluded by the shouts of heathen officers, he would submit it. What good could he do if he was never given the opportunity?

At the conclusion of drill, weary soldiers returned to their tents; as well as to their cards and profanity. A few of the men draped dusty uniforms over tree limbs and splashed into the cool water of Whisper Creek. Others followed their lead and soon the creek was full of boys at play.

The chaplain donned his black frock once more and meandered throughout the camp. He took note of who was writing, reading, playing cards or otherwise. His presence inspired polite smiles and kind words but his heart was heavy with the sin in his midst. He must get back to his sermon.

Upon his return trip Joseph encountered a recruit sitting quietly under the shade of an ancient Oak. The boy’s face was tired. The dusty blue uniform hung on him like a cheap sack. Chaplain Meyers retrieved a tract from his coat and held it out. “Come to service tonight lad and receive some rest.” The tired soldier didn’t stir. Joseph laid the tract on the ground at the boy’s side then returned to the incomplete sermon in his tent.

The page was half-full when the ink well on his desk began to quiver. Joseph stared at it in confusion. A voice rang out from the woods beyond the meadow, “Rebs!” Instantly the sound of galloping cavalry reverberated throughout camp. Crackling bugles merged with uneven drums as panic gripped the camp.

Men, soaked from head to toe, raced to their uniforms and gear. Cartridge boxes scattered along the ground as officers scurried in vain to form the regiment into line of battle. Sharp cracks of pistol shot mixed with the boom of musketry. Shouts of anger blended with cries of agony as sabers and bayonets found their mark.

Chaplain Meyers had no gun, no sword. He stood with his sermon in hand, and watched the carnage unfold before his eyes, helpless to save a single soul. As quickly as the rebel force arrived, they vanished into the woods.

Wrought with grief, Joseph assisted in collecting the dead. Among them was the ruddy-haired boy, the boys with new boots and the tired recruit from under the tree. With muddied tears streaming down his face, the chaplain returned to the water’s edge and fell to his knees. He threw the sermon and the resignation into the blood-red water of Whisper Creek.

Words Worth a Goober

As a lay historian, writer, speaker, semi-retired reenactor and avid book consumer of all things Civil War, era-appropriate language has always been an interest of mine. Being neck deep in my own Civil War historical fiction project, I am becoming increasingly depended upon (and interested in) slang words used by the soldiers at the time.

During my most active reenactor years, while the internet was still in its infancy, I relied heavily upon the advice and information from other seasoned reenactors in order to develop my own first person characterization. Over time, I began to question the authenticity of such slang and continue to question what I find on various spindles on the web.

Some some slang words have very distinctive Southern overtones, yet many Federal reenactors would use these terms in first person events. I was rarely convinced that a Federal soldier would have used the word, or at least as often or in that specific context.

As such, I am using this space to compile my own online index of Civil War slang words. Over time I hope to better fine-tune the definitions as well as determine the origins and history of the terms as well as whether the words were used exclusively by one side or the other, or by both simultaneously. I welcome any input such historians would enjoy submitting to me in the aid of this research.

  • A.W.O.L.: Absent With Out Leave
  • Absquatulate: to take leave, to disappear
  • Acknowledge the Corn: to admit the truth, to confess a lie, or acknowledge an obvious personal shortcoming
  • Arkansas Toothpick: a long, sharp knife
  • Artillery: Camp kettles, stoves, posts, tubs, iron foundries
  • Bad Egg: bad person, good for nothing
  • Balderdash: nonsense
  • Bark Juice, Tar Water, Kokum Stiff, Old Red Eye, O Be Joyful: Liquor
  • Barrel shirt: Barrel worn by thieves for punishment
  • Beat the Dutch: if that don’t beat all
  • Been Through the Mill: been through a lot, seen it all, bad day
  • Beehive : Knapsack
  • Bellyache: complain
  • Big Bugs: big wigs, important people
  • Bite the Bullet: face up to a challenge or something unpleasant
  • Bivouac: to camp without formal shelter or in temporary circumstances
  • Blowhard: A big shot or braggart
  • Bluebellies: Union soldiers
  • Blue Mass: refers to men on sick call; named after blue pill
  • Bluff: trick or deceive, cheater
  • Bombproofs: provost guards/commissaries due to soft life
  • Bragg’s Body Guard: lice
  • Bread Bag: haversack
  • Bread Basket: stomach
  • Bull Pit: Under-arrest confinement area
  • Bully: exclamation meaning, & ‘terrific!’ or ‘hurrah!’
  • Bully for You: good for you
  • Bumblebee: Sound of flying bullets
  • Bummer: malingerer, someone who deliberately lags behind to forage or steal on his own shrift
  • Bummer’s Cap: regulation army cap with a high/deep crown, so-called because it could be filled with gathered foodstuffs
  • Bust Head / Pop Skull: cheap whiskey
  • Buttermilk Cavalry: Term infantry had for cavalry
  • Camp canard: tall tale circulating around camp as gossip
  • Cashier: to dismiss from the army dishonorably
  • Chicken Guts: gold braid used to denote officer ranks
  • Chief Cook and Bottle Washer: person in charge, or someone who can do anything
  • Company Q: fictitious unit designation for the sick list
  • Conniption Fit: hysterics, temper tantrum
  • Contraband: escaped slaves who sought refuge behind Union lines
  • Coosh or Cush: cooked beef fried with bacon grease and cornmeal
  • Copperhead: Northern person with Southern, anti-Union sympathies
  • Cracker Line: supply line for troops on the move
  • Deadbeat: useless person, malingerer
  • Desecrated Vegetables: dehydrated (desiccated) vegetables formed into yellowish squares
  • Dog Collar: cravat issued with uniforms, usually discarded
  • Dog Robber: soldier detailed from the ranks to act as cook
  • Duds: clothing
  • Embalmed Beef: canned meat
  • Essence of Coffee: early instant coffee, found in paste form
  • Fairy Fleet: Boats carrying trade between sides at Fredricksburg
  • Fighting under the black flag: Soldiers killing lice
  • Fit as a fiddle: in good shape
  • Fit to be tied: angry
  • Forage: to hunt for food, live off the land; also came to mean plundering enemy property for sustenance
  • Forty Dead Men: a full cartridge box, which usually held forty rounds
  • French Leave: to go absent without leave
  • Fresh Fish: new recruits
  • Gallinippers: Insects, mosquitoes
  • Ginned Cotton: Flower bread
  • Giving the vermin a parole: Throwing away clothing infected with lice
  • Go Boil Your Shirt: take a hike, get lost, bug off
  • Goober Grabbers: Good natured term for Georgia troops
  • Goobers: peanuts
  • Grab a Root: eat a meal, especially a potato
  • Greenbacks, Rocks, Spondulix: Money
  • Greenhorn, Bugger:
  • Grey Backs: lice, also derogatory term for Confederate soldiers
  • Grit: courage, toughness
  • Hanker: a strong wish or want
  • Hard Case: tough guy
  • Hard Knocks: hard times, ill use
  • Hardtack: – unleavened bread in the form of ¼ inch thick crackers issued by the army
  • Haversack: – canvas bag slung over the shoulder used to carry a soldier’s rations
  • Here’s your mule: Nonsense expression akin to the modern “Kilroy was here”
  • High-falutin: highbrow, fancy
  • Horse Sense: common sense, good judgement
  • Hospital Rat: someone who fakes illness to get out of duty
  • Housewife: sewing kit
  • Huffy, In a Huff: angry, irritated
  • Humbug: nonsense, a sham, a hoax
  • Hunkey Dorey: very good, all is well
  • Iron Clad Possum: An armadillo dinner
  • “I.W.”: In For the War
  • Jailbird: criminal
  • Jawing: talking
  • Jeff Davis’ Pets: Rebel western troops’ term for A.N.V.
  • John Barleycorn: beer
  • Jonah: someone who is or brings bad luck
  • Knock into a Cocked Hat: to knock someone senseless or thoroughly shock him
  • Let Drive: go ahead, do it
  • Let ‘er Rip: let it happen, bring it on
  • Light Out: leave in haste
  • Likely: serviceable, able-bodied
  • Little Coot: Confederate slang for a yankee
  • Long Sweetening: Molasses
  • Lucifer: Match
  • Mealy-mouthed: someone who is hard to talks but doesn’t get to the point
  • Muggins: a scoundrel
  • Mule: meat, especially if of dubious quality
  • Mustered Out: wry term meaning killed in action
  • Night blindness, Gravel: Condition caused by lack of green veggies.
  • No Account: worthless
  • Not By a Jug Full: not by any means, no way
  • On His Own Hook: on one’s own shrift, without orders
  • Opening the Ball: starting the battle
  • Opine: be of the opinion
  • Patent Bureau: Knapsack
  • Peacock About: strut around
  • Peaked: pronounced peak-ed; weak or sickly
  • Peas on a trencher: Breakfast call
  • PepperBox: Pistol
  • Picket: sentries posted around a camp or bivouac to guard approaches
  • Pie Eater: country boy, a rustic
  • Pig Sticker: knife or bayonet
  • Play Old Soldier: pretend sickness to avoid combat
  • Played Out: worn out, exhausted
  • Pumpkin Rinds: Grumpy term for lieutenants due to their gold lieutenant’s bars
  • Quartermaster Hunter: shot or shell that goes long over the lines and into the rear
  • Quick Step, Flux,  Tennesse Quick Step, Virginia Quick Step: Diarrhea
  • Rio: Coffee
  • Roast Beef: Noon Meal
  • Robber’s Row: the place where sutlers set up to do business
  • Row: a fight
  • Salt Horse: salted meat
  • Sand Happers: Good natured term for South Carolina troops.
  • Sardine Box: cap box
  • Sawbones: Surgeon
  • Scarce as Hen’s Teeth: exceedingly rare or hard to find
  • Skillygallee: fried pork fat with crumbled hardtack
  • Secesh: derogatory term for Confederates and Southerners: secessionists
  • See The Elephant: experience combat or other worldly events
  • Shakes: malaria
  • Sham Fight: Mock Battle
  • Shanks Mare: on foot
  • Sheet Iron Crackers: hard tack
  • Shoddy: an inferior weave of wool used to make uniforms early in the war; later came to mean any clothing or equipment of substandard quality
  • Sing Out: call out, yell
  • Skedaddle: run away, escape
  • Skunk: Officer
  • Slouch Hat: a wide-brimmed felt hat
  • Smoked Yanks: Union soldiers cooking over a fire
  • Snug as a Bug: very comfortable
  • Somebody’s Darling: comment when observing a dead soldier
  • Sound on the Goose:
  • Sparking: courting a girl, kissing
  • Sunday Soldiers / Parlor Soldiers: derogatory terms for unsuitable soldiers
  • Take an Image: have a photograph taken
  • Tight / Wallpapered: drunk
  • Toe the Mark: do as told, follow orders
  • Top Rail: first class, top quality
  • Traps: equipment, belongings
  • Tuckered Out: exhausted
  • Uppity: arrogant
  • Vidette: a sentry same as Picket but usually on horseback
  • Web Feet: Term cavalry had for infantry
  • Whipped: beaten
  • Who wouldn’t be a soldier?: “Who cares?”
  • Worth a Goober: Something that amounts to a lot
  • Wrathy: angry
  • Yellow Hammers: Good natured term for Alabama troops
  • Zu Zu: Zouaves

Civil War Extra

One of the most compelling reasons I read and write about the US Civil War aka War-Between-The-States is that no matter how much is written or discusses, there is always some intriguing aspect left to be uncovered. There remains today, great emotion and heat-felt belief in certain personal figures, battles, weapons,and the like. I find all of these very interesting, but to me, the most compelling story is that of the civilians trying to lead out their lives in the midst of such chaos and turmoil.

When I began researching this period in American history, I admit that I was drawn first to the biggest battles and the larger-than-life generals in control of the armies. Perhaps this is because the vast majority of information written focuses on these facts. As I exhausted some of the more popular research works, I delved deeper into the library. There I found myself stuck for many years, reading about a facet of the war I had rarely, if ever, considered; civilian life.

While soldiers marched and battles raged, mothers and fathers, wives and daughters, holed up back home trying to make the best of it. Fields needed tending, homes needed mending and food cellar supplies grew shorter and shorter. I became increasingly curious as to just how the average man or woman struggled to make ends meet. As I read more about those brave people who suffered through terrible hardships, it also gave me a better outlook on the life we all have today.

Yes, the stock market has been treacherous as of late, and yes gas prices have all given us food for thought, but imagine having to pay more than a month’s wages for a loaf of bread!

Anyway, as a reenactor at the time, I spent much time trying to develop a first-person persona that I could apply at events. I would write letters home as most soldiers did, but I found myself unsure just what to write about. Then, while I was perusing the shelves at a book store, I came across an interesting find. It was a very tall two-volume set of Civil War era newspapers. I tried to move on to other items, but the handsomely bound books  kept calling my attention. Eventually I gave in, purchased the books and took them home.

I set Volume One on my dining room table and opened to the first page. Before I knew it, the sky outside had gone dark and I needed to turn on a light to continue reading. I nearly fell asleep that evening right there at the table. The local stories of commerce dotted with reports from the war, as well as adds for house maids and even slave auctions lit up my imagination.

I continue to scan through these great collections from time-to-time and am never dismayed at the content. I learned many years ago that in Civil War research, primary sources are king. These two books are a treasure trove of primary sources, and they are fascinating to boot. If you are in any way interested in learning more about the lives of ordinary citizens during the US Civil War, these books are a must read.

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