In 1862, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was one of the most famous captains in the Army of the Potomac. Not because of anything he had done (later he would be famous in his own right as the Great Dissenter of the U.S. Supreme Court), but because his father was the author of the hugely popular The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, a collection of seriocomic essays. Hence, when young Captain Holmes was missing on the Antietam battlefield, his friends went looking for him.
Eventually, he was found. When asked what had happened, he explained he was “shot in the neck,” which was a poor excuse, as it was army slang for being drunk. Holmes had to explain that no, he hadn’t been wounded by alcohol, but had actually been shot…in the neck.
Armies generate their own slang. The longer they serve, the more their talk becomes impenetrable to the outsider. Our Civil War generated a rare set of jargon which paints its own picture of army life. A surprising number of words like “shebang” (a temporary shelter that lives on as “the whole shebang”), have etymologies that date from the war and say origin uncert. Others, like “skedaddle,” have respectable etymologies, but owe their popularity to the Civil War. The Federal’s disorganized retreat from Bull Run became known as “The Great Skedaddle.” Soon other routs acquired the same nickname.
Others jargon terms have well-known origins. For instance, the ubiquitous hardtack, a rock-hard 3 x 3 x ½ inch cracker, was the mainstay of the soldier’s diet. It was far too hard to eat without prolonged soaking in some convenient liquid. It was variously known as “floor tiles,” “sheet-iron crackers,” and the like. Often it contained weevils, which the soldiers referred to as “fresh meat.”
This tell us something. Fresh meat was obviously a highly desirable commodity in both the northern and southern armies. Preservation of food was still redolently in its infancy, as shown by their calling canned meat “embalmed beef” and pickled beef as “salt horse.”
Fresh vegetables and fruit were even more desirable and more rare, as the standard ration was made up of a cooked and dried (and stripped of all nutrients) product officially known as Desiccated Vegetables and inevitably called Desecrated Vegetables. Of course, the poorly (and irregularly) paid soldiers could always buy dubiously fresher treats from the sutlers, independent traders who established a “Robbers Row” whenever the army stopped long enough to allow it.
Not too surprisingly, this sort of diet gave rise to an endless sea of digestive problems. The vast majority of soldiers suffered from bouts of dysentery (called either the Virginia or the Tennessee Two-Step) alternated with nearly equally unpleasant bouts of constipation. Having no microbial disease theory, Civil War surgeons treated the symptoms with a brutal effectiveness.
If the soldiers had diarrhea, they received a hefty dose of opium, which slowed down the guts along with its other effects. For constipation, the inevitable cure was a “blue mass.” This was a blue pill, based on either elemental mercury or mercury chloride (known as calomel).
The very idea of taking a hefty dose of mercury is horrifying to us, but at the time it was given not only for dysentery, but as the sovereign cure for tuberculosis, toothache, and the pains of childbirth. Some idea of its universal prescription may be seen in the fact that the Federal soldiers called a bunch of their brethren lined up for sick call a “blue mass.”
Along with dysentery, the other great plague of Civil War armies was lice. Called by the Federals “graybacks” (also a term for their southern opponents), they were ubiquitous in every army that had spent any time in the field, on officers and men alike. If the army returned to camp and got fresh uniforms (rarely enough for the Confederates), they called throwing away their old clothes “giving the vermin a parole.”
If the variety of jargon terms is roughly in proportion to the importance of an item in the soldier’s life, then surely liquor was important to the soldiers. Legal for officers but illegal for common soldiers, booze (usually toxic home-brews) sold by sutlers or smuggled in was variously known as “Pop-Skull,” “O Be Joyful,” “Nokum Stiff,” “Old Red-Eye,” “Rifle Knock-Knee,” and a dozen other names. For some unknown reason, drunks were “shot in the neck” or “wallpapered.”
Of the various terms for that universal bane of the soldier, the useless young officer, such as “Bugger,” “Greenhorn,” and “Skunk,” my favorite in capturing the total contempt the veteran feels for the bothersome newbie is “Pumpkin Rinds,” from the shoulder straps the young lieutenants wore. Another pet target for the envious disdain of the foot soldier was the cavalry, known as “Manure Spreaders.”
We have to remember that there was a lot of laughter in the Civil War armies. They were young, they were comrades, and death was something that happened to someone else.
But it is also true that this war that was supposed to last a few weeks began to seem as if it would never end. Amid the laughter and horseplay there was always the endlessly postponed dream of getting out and going home. Something of that is captured in their phrase for someone killed in action.
They said he had been “Mustered Out.”