The language of Civil War letter writers has much to tell us about American English in the mid-nineteenth century. Many of their words and usages are now obsolete or archaic, others that were once widespread are now uncommon in some parts of the country or have disappeared entirely. Some words appeared for the first time during the war. Sowbelly, skedaddle, and tarheel have no documented existence prior to the Civil War. Other words took on new meanings or became popular with soldiers from one part of the country but not in others. Before the war, bushwhacker signified a backwoodsman, a rustic, someone who literally “whacked bushes” (earliest citation in the OED from 1809). By the beginning of the war bushwhacker and the verb bushwhack had taken on much more sinister meanings associated with violence, lawlessness, and guerrilla warfare. The word hardtack as a name for ship’s biscuit had been around at least since the 1830s, but very early in the war was widely adopted by soldiers from the Northern states but was rare among Southerners except those serving in the Union Army. Even the term Dixie, now so widely used as a name for the South as a region, occurs in only two letters written by Confederates, although it is commonly found in letters written by Union soldiers.

With nearly 800 collections and more than 10,000 letters and diaries, we are in the process of compiling an extensive glossary of words, usages, and grammatical forms we have found in these documents. At present this glossary consists of more than 1,200 draft pages of entries and citations (quotes taken from the letters), covering more than 2,500 words. As a preliminary step, the “Camp Talk” section includes subsections exploring related areas of the vocabulary which explore the letter writers’ experiences of war: words used to label the enemy, words used to describe the food they ate, the places and regions they found themselves in or were absent from, words that reflect the experiences of victory and defeat. We only include words that occur in the CACWL collections, a body of evidence that will continue to grow as time and resources allow. The places of residence of the letter writers in these collections can be found on a MAP included in this section. In cases where the words or forms are of sufficient frequency we will include maps showing the places of residence of letter writers who used it.

Some of the dictionary resources we consult include the online Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (HDAS), the Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English (DSME), the English Dialect Dictionary (EDD), the Concise Ulster Dictionary (CUD), the 1848 and 1859 editions of John Bartlett’s Americanisms, and Maximilian Schel de Vere’s Americanisms (1872).


Bartlett, John Russell, Dictionary of Americanisms (New York: Bartlett and Welford, 1848).

Bartlett, John Russell, Dictionary of Americanisms, 2nd edition (Boston: Little, Brown, 1859).

Cassidy, Frederick G. and Joan H. Hall, eds., Dictionary of American Regional English, 6 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard-Belknap, 1985-2013).

Lighter, J. E., ed., Historical Dictionary of American Slang, 2 vol. (New York: Random House, 1994)

Macafee, C. I., ed., A Concise Ulster Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

Mathews, Mitford M., ed., A Dictionary of Americanisms on historical principles, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951)

Montgomery, Michael B. and Joseph S. Hall, Dictionary of Smoky Mountain English (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004).

Schele De Vere, M., Americanisms, The English of the New World (New York: Scribner, 1872).

Wright, Joseph, ed., English Dialect Dictionary, 6 vols. (London: Frowde, 1898-1905).

NEXT: Sowbelly and Hardtack

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