Buzzwords, De-buzzed – 5 Keys to Unlocking Civil War Terminology

There’s just no reason to get lost in military jargon. I can say that, because I was once lost in the jargon. When I found my way out of the fog, I realized that I was confused for an unnecessarily long time. And so with that in mind, the purpose of this article is to share my five keys to unlocking Civil War terminology. Today, I de-buzz the buzzwords. I hope that you find my summary helpful.

Keys to Unlocking Civil War Terminology

If you are not very interested in military weapons and tactics, the good news is that there are only a handful of terms that we must understand in order to keep the story moving. I’m not saying that deep mastery of Civil War terminology isn’t important. Instead, I am suggesting that it’s okay to start with the basics, especially if the alternative is to give up in boredom or frustration.

1. Right Flank, Left Flank

Civil War terminology
Union Fishhook Formation

I am a visual learner. So, early in my learning, when books or speakers would throw around terms like “right flank” and “left flank,” I would do one of two things. I either zoned-out because there wasn’t a picture, or I got annoyed because I felt that military jargon was too complicated. That is what motivates me to offer this tip:

Make an effort to learn the meaning of “right flank” and “left flank,” and you will unlock many doors to understanding a battlefield story. Once I conceded that need to myself, I began to understand what I was reading. It sounds simple. And it is.

Our Civil War Cycling glossary includes the following straight-forward definition:


The left or right end of a military battle line. On battlefield monuments, the abbreviations “L.F.” and “R.F.” mark the left and right flanks of regiments.

In other words, if you and I are two different “armies” and we are facing each other, then your left hand faces my right hand; your left flank, my right flank, and vice versa. It’s as simple as that.

For visual learners, please see my Gettysburg map for July 2-3, 1863. The Union battle line is marked in blue. The Confederates battle line wrapped around the exterior of the Union line with gaps that changed places as Lee executed his strategy. (I did not draw the Confederate battle line, because making it accurate would detract from our main point about the meaning of the terms left and right flank.)

2. How many ways can you say “Union army”?

Sometimes, authors are afraid of sounding pedantic and boring. They will mix-it-up a bit by introducing different words that all mean basically the same thing.  Of course, I am over simplying my case, but that’s the point; for the general reader, some distinctions don’t matter. Better to understand something than nothing, I say! Close enough!

On the Union side, these words are largely synonymous:

  • The Union Army
  • The Army of the Potomac (at Gettysburg)
  • Meade’s Army (at Gettysburg)
  • The Federals
  • The Yankees
  • The Blue
  • The USA
  • The North

On the Confederate side, we see the same pattern:

  • The Confederate Army
  • The Army of Northern Virginia (at Gettysburg)
  • Lee’s Army (at Gettysburg)
  • The Confederates
  • The Rebels or Rebs
  • The Gray
  • The CSA
  • The South

3. Think Like Goldilocks – Big, Medium, Small

Although I would argue that precision is a good thing, if you have trouble having numbers stick in your head, remember how the fairy tale, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” begins:

Once upon a time there were three bears who lived in a house in the forest. There was a great big father bear, a middle-sized mother bear, and a tiny baby bear.

When I apply that lesson to U.S. Civil War military organization, I can remember this:

  • HUGE – An army consists of corps.
  • BIG – A corps consists of divisions which consist of brigades.
  • MEDIUM – A brigade consists of regiments.
  • SMALL – A regiment consists of companies.

And this: Regiments are the main fighting units of an army. When fully recruited, they consist of 10 companies of 100 men, for a maximum of 1,000 soldiers.

Generally, “battalions” are even smaller infantry units (think foot soldiers) and “batteries” are small artillery units (think cannon operators). There are so many exceptions to these definitions, that it is easiest to let them be. If you would like a little more detail, please see our glossary of Civil War terminology.

If you want to memorize the actual size of each military unit, things start to get complicated, because the answer varies by army; by branch of the army (infantry, cavalry, artillery); by year; and by circumstance. And this doesn’t even include the fact that navies were also at war.

4. Don’t obsess over officer rank.

Officers are important, but so are enlisted men (and civilian women, for that matter!). If you are reading a Civil War book, it’s highly likely that almost everyone is a “general” of some sort — or on their way to being a “general” — or temporarily a “general.” At some point, an officer’s rank may be important to you, but no worries. If you’ve ever played the Milton Bradley board game, Stratego, you already know who outranks whom:

  • General, Lieutenant General, Major General
    • Brigadier General – typically command brigades
      • Colonel – typically command regiments
        • Major
          • Captain
            • Lieutenant
              • Sergeant

5. Arms

Finally, you might have to bite the bullet (so to speak) and memorize a few weaponry terms. If you know the difference between cannon and small arms, then the next most important thing is to know the difference between a smooth bore musket and a rifle. Rather than provide definitions here, please allow me to point you to our glossary of Civil War terminology.

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