At the Brockport memorial ceremony, Brian Bennett reminded me about an article on "Civil War Slang & Humor" that appeared in the June 1957 issue of Kent State University's Civil War History quarterly. Written by war-in-the-west expert Jay Monaghan, it contains a few mistaken generalizations which have been revealed by research since it appeared, but it still contains some great stuff. The following extracts come from Mr Monaghan's article.
Many idioms used by soldiers in the Civil War have completely evaporated from modem speech. Words common to those troops and now extinct include "sardinebox" for shoulder strap, 'bee-hive" for knap-sack, "tar-bucket" for shako caps, and 'horse-collar" for a blanket roll carried across the body. "He got his comb cut," which meant whipped or defeated, has also left the language. To squeal on a companion was called "blowing on him." The Civil War expression "to run against a stump" is more commonly worded today as "to ran against a snag."
Perhaps the most noticeable thing about the slang used by Civil War soldiers is its ruralness. At mess, men would "grab a root." Boys would say that the captain was "mad as a blind bull" or better yet, "mad as a stump-tailed bull at fly time." A ricocheting shell or panicky soldier "jumped up and down like a bob-tailed dog in high oats." A frightened man "mumbled like a treed coon." A culprit went to his punishment "with ears drooping like a wet mule." If a man exaggerated and told a "whopper" he was warned "to draw your furrow straighter." A brave soldier might be pronounced "cool as a man hoeing corn."
As the slang was rural, it is natural that it survived the longest in rural areas of the west. The commonest of these westernisms is "pard" or "pardner." These include phrases used during the California gold rush, such as "he was euchred" or "he cashed in his checks." The word "phiz" for face,"blowing his Bazoo," and "an appointment with Captain Hemp" (for hanging), all took to the open range after the war. So did the names for whiskey - "bug juice," "Mississippi tanglefoot," and "forty-rod." The latter was an abbreviation for "whiskey so strong it will kill at forty rods and around a corner." To ask a man if he would like to "change his breath" was to offer him a drink of ardent spirits.
When "shelter tents" (NOTE FROM BEN - also called tents d'abri after the french word for "shelter") began to be, issued, it was recalled that British soldiers in the Crimean War had called them "dig tents." The phrase was used in America but the boys preferred "dog houses" or "pup tents." Immediately after these tents had been issued to the 96th Illinois. General Gordon Granger rode through their camp to inspect the soldiers' efficiency in erecting them. The soldiers, on hands & knees in the tents, stuck out their heads and barked at Granger.
Words that sounded right but meant nothing were particularly useful for chaplains. One could relieve his irritation by saying, "Dog bite it," or "By Hemp." Chaplain Thomas M Stevenson of the 78th Ohio could say that his regiment suffered "heat and gallnippers" in the Vicksburg campaign. The word "cuss" was often used in place of stronger nouns. It was common to say, "I killed the cuss," or "I liked the little cuss."
The language spoken by Southerners amused New Englanders. A man in the 36th Massachusetts remembered that his hostess in a cabin apologized for the proffered fare. "Our butter is gin out, but you can wobble your corn dodgers in the ham-fat if you choose." When he asked if she had any molasses, she replied, "Well, we haven't many but we have a few."
A soldier in the 29th Massachusetts recalled that Southerners had an odd way of measuring distances. When asking how far it was to a certain house he was told, "It's six bends and a go-over," meaning six turns in the road and a bridge. Another soldier was told "bout two sights and a half," which meant two and a half times as far as a man could see. Yet another was told to go "four screeches yan way," meaning four times as far as he could be heard calling. Pvt Henry Forrest of Co K 122nd Pennsylvania. was told that the distance to the next town was "two sights and a right smart git."
Southern soldiers had slang of their own to disparage the Yankees. They called them "Blue-Bellies" and "little coots." The Union flag was "that old grid-iron." Rebel soldiers, when "codded" about their ragged uniforms replied, "We'uns don't put on our best suits when we go out to kill hogs."
Confederates who answered sick-call were said to be on the "puny list" while Yankees seeing the surgeon were "going to Blue Mass." "Soldier feathers" were evergreen bows. A mule might be called a "brevet horse." Recruits were known as "fresh fish" or "veal." "flunky" meant superb or magnificent (NOTE FROM BEN - So a handsome Hungarian was a hunky hunky.) The exclamation "by golly" frequently appeared as "by hookey."
Quite naturally many of the boys became "girl sick." An absent-minded fellow was apt to be called a love-sick noodle." To dress well was usually called "to rag out." "Chin-music" was talk and a witty remark was "a keen." A man who put on airs before "the frailty" was called "a fast animal." A "spoony man" obviously ragged out to see his girl might be described as "stepping along like a peacock in tall grass." A "fast trick," a "pretty rapid little case," and a "soiled. dove" might be used interchangeably. Some Maine soldiers said that the girls in Scottsboro, Alabama, looked like they combed their hair only as they crawled under the fence after the hogs. Often when enemy lines were close together the Yankees shouted across, "We're gonna spark your sisters." (NOTE FROM BEN - Yeah, right.)
THE END, BY HOOKEY!
by Ben Maryniak