U.S. Civil War Glossary

Abolitionists were the most radical opponents of slavery in the 19th-century United States, who sought the immediate end of slavery everywhere it was practiced.

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, an anti-slavery Republican, who led the United States during the Civil War.

Ambrotype is a photographic process on glass introduced in the early 1850s. It is comprised of an underexposed glass negative placed against a dark background.

The anti-slavery movement in the United States, which gained traction in the early- and mid-19th century, sought to prevent slavery from expanding into new western states. Advocates of this ideology believed that confining slavery to the U.S. South would cause the institution to die out over time. They differed from abolitionists, who sought an immediate end to slavery everywhere it existed in the United States.

The Atlantic slave trade describes the kidnapping and sale of people who were mainly African or of African descent to and from ports on the Atlantic Ocean, between the 16th and 19th centuries.

Balance of power between free and slave states referred to the share of votes each bloc commanded in the legislature, with a larger share increasing the chances of passing legislation favorable to their interests.

Black Codes were laws (based on earlier Slave Codes) that circumscribed the lives of Black people, including bans on voting, possessing weapons, and owning property.

Bleeding Kansas was a period in which violence erupted when the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was passed, overturning the existing ban on slavery north of the Missouri Compromise line in favor of the doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” which allowed territories to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery. The Act also stripped the Indigenous residents of their land rights and opened the territory to settlers. Thousands of armed pro- and anti-slavery settlers poured into the Kansas Territory to influence whether it would be free or would allow slavery.

A blockade is the act of actively preventing a country or region from receiving or sending out food, supplies, weapons, or communications, and sometimes people, by military force.

Boarding schools for Indigenous children were instituted as a form of cultural genocide in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Operated by religious missionaries and later the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the schools forced Indigenous children to abandon their language and culture in order to assimilate into white American society.

Border states were those states where slavery was permitted that were adjacent to northern states where it was outlawed, including Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri.

Carte-de-visite (visiting card) was a popular, inexpensive format for the distribution of photographs on card stock (paper board). They were commonly collected in albums.

Cession is the formal giving up of rights, property, or territory by a state. Seven slave states withdrew (seceded) from the United States in the months following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860. Ultimately 11 southern states would leave in order to protect slavery, starting the Civil War.

Cheyenne are an Indigenous northern Plains people.

Chromolithographs are prints created by pressing stone plates with different ink colors to paper, resulting in a painting-like quality.

Citizen soldier monuments depict common soldiers, usually anonymous figures, standing with their rifles at ease. This form contrasts with the great general monuments that show specific historical figures astride horses.

Henry Clay was a Kentucky statesman who served as Speaker of the House and Secretary of State. He was called the “Great Compromiser” for his role in brokering compromises between northerners and southerners.

A coffle was a line of enslaved people who were chained together.
A company, in this context, is a military unit. During the U.S. Civil War a company was commonly organized of 100 soldiers, though this number could vary.

Confederates rebelled against the United States from 1861–65 in order to create a separate country for the perpetual protection of slavery. The Confederate States of America initially broke from the United States on February 8, 1861, and eventually included South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina (and also claimed Kentucky and Missouri).

Copperheads were northern Democrats who wanted the United States to make peace with rebels and allow them to create a separate nation.

The cotton gin was a machine that made it easier to separate cotton seeds from fibers. 

Daguerreotypes are sharply defined, highly reflective, one-of-a-kind photographs on silver-coated copper plates, usually packaged behind glass and kept in protective cases. Making daguerreotypes was the first commercially successful photographic process.

The Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Sioux Uprising, was an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of eastern Dakota also known as the Santee Sioux. The Oceti Sakowin Oyate (People of Seven Council Fires, known to some as the Sioux Nation) are linguistically related peoples who speak three different dialectsDakotaNakota, and Lakota—of the same language. Today, there are many Oceti Sakowin nations descended from the original groups who maintain their own lands, governments, courts, and various government programs. Santee is located in Knox County, Nebraska.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution states, among other things, that all humans descend from a common ancestor and differences between populations develop due to environmental adaptation.

The Deep South is a region of the United States comprising Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas, which were the geographic areas most involved in plantation slavery and cotton agriculture.

The Democratic Party (still in existence today) was founded in 1828 when Andrew Jackson won the presidency. In this era, the Democratic Party wanted to limit the power of the central government and banks, and support white working men and farmers through territorial expansion.

The Democratic-Republicans, also called the Jeffersonian Republicans, were members of an early American political party (1792–1834). They championed state and local government, westward expansion, and the interests of farmers. 

Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) was a U.S. Supreme Court case that ruled that Black people, whether enslaved or free, could not be citizens of the United States.

Emancipation Day is a holiday observed by Black communities to commemorate the end of slavery, often held on January 1st, the day in 1863 on which the Emancipation Proclamation took effect.

The Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential proclamation and executive order (made in September 1862) declaring that enslaved people in areas in rebellion against the United States would be free beginning on January 1, 1863. 

An engraving is produced by sculpting into a copper plate. The entire surface of the plate is then inked. Next, the plate is wiped clean so that only the ink deposited into the incised lines will remain. Then it is run through the printing press. The pressure from the press pushes the paper into the grooves and picks up the ink, resulting in a mirror impression of the image engraved on the plate. Engravers transferred drawings to wood or metal plates so that they could be printed for wide circulation.

The Enrollment Act (1863), also known as the Conscription Act, required states to draft men to serve the U.S. in the U.S. Civil War if individual states did not meet their enlistment quotas through volunteers.

The federal armory and arsenal at Harpers Ferry both manufactured and stockpiled guns and cannons for the U.S. military.

Fictive kin describes honorary relatives who are treated as family members. Enslaved people, who often were separated from their blood relations, embraced fictive kinships with other enslaved people living in their labor camp to create family ties of mutual care and affection.

Filibustering, its original 19th-century meaning derived from Dutch and Spanish words meaning piracy, was the practice of mercenaries undertaking unauthorized military expeditions in foreign countries.

The Five Tribes, historically called the Five Civilized Tribes by whites for their adoption of aspects of Euro-American culture, comprised the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Muscogee Creeks, and Seminoles. They inhabited the southeastern part of what became the United States until the U.S. government forced them to relocate to territory in what is now Oklahoma starting in the 1830s.

40 acres and a mule refers to the 1865 U.S. government decision to set aside land that had belonged to rebels in South Carolina for the use of formerly enslaved people, of which one family could claim a parcel of up to 40 acres. Later, they added the loan of U.S. Army mules as farm help.

Franchise is the right to vote.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper was a popular magazine that reported news of the war with illustrations to northerners. The magazine hired “special artists,” who were sent to travel with armies to sketch the action; those sketches would then be engraved, printed, and distributed in the publications.

Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–95) was a renowned abolitionist writer and orator. He was born into slavery in Maryland but as a young man escaped to the North, where he became a leader of the abolition movement.

“Free Black people” refers to Black Americans who escaped slavery, purchased freedom, were freed by their enslavers, or were born into freedom.

“Freedman’s Bureau” is a shorthand for The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. It was a part of the U.S. War Department and established by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865. The Bureau was responsible for the management of refugees and freedmen, and land that was seized or abandoned during the Civil War.

The Gilded Age refers to the period from approximately 1865 through 1900 in the United States, when rapid economic growth and immigration led to social stratification. Mark Twain coined the term as a critique of the era, which he compared unfavorably to a golden age by saying it was merely gilded.

Gold Rush: The news of the 1848 discovery of gold in northern California led to hundreds of thousands of settlers from the United States and all over the world moving to the territory.

Gradual emancipation refers to strategies that eliminated slavery over time, such as mandating the emancipation of all children born to presently enslaved people when they reached a certain age.

Guerrilla warfare is a type of warfare characterized by raids, ambushes, and hit-and-run tactics, often undertaken by small groups of armed civilians against regular armies.

The Haitian Revolution, which took place from 1791–1804, was a successful uprising of self-emancipated people against their colonial enslavers to create a free nation led by people of color.

Harper’s Weekly was a popular magazine based in New York that reported news of the war with illustrations to northerners. The magazine hired “special artists,” who were sent to travel with armies to sketch the action; those sketches would then be engraved, printed, and distributed in the publications.

Harriet Jacobs was a Black author born in slavery in North Carolina. She emancipated herself and went on to found schools for freed people after the Civil War.

Harriet Tubman (c.1820–1913) earned the nickname “Moses” for her role in helping enslaved people escape to freedom. Born into slavery, she escaped from the South and then returned more than a dozen times to guide others north on the Underground Railroad. She guided a raid that freed 750 enslaved people during the Civil War.

The Homestead Act, enacted during the Civil War in 1862, provided that any adult citizen, or intended citizen, who had never borne arms against the U.S. government could claim 160 acres of land, which was the traditional or treaty lands of many Indigenous peoples.

Indian Home Guard: Commanders of the U.S. Army formed three Indigenous regiments known as the Indian Home Guard. They were recruited primarily from the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole nations.

Indian Territory, what is largely now the state of Oklahoma, was where the U.S. government had forced Indigenous peoples from the eastern part of the continent to migrate after U.S. president Andrew Jackson signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act.

Indian Wars refers here to the late 19th-century U.S. Army campaigns of genocide against Plains peoples who refused to move onto reservations.

Indigenous erasure is the harmful practice of failing to acknowledge the genocide of Indigenous peoples in the United States.

Jim Crow was the name given to both the laws and the broader social system in the United States that enabled segregation and discrimination against African Americans from the late 19th to mid-20th century.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) repealed an earlier ban on slavery in new territories north of the Missouri Compromise line (latitude 36 degrees, 30 minutes north), created two new territories, and allowed for popular sovereignty. It also stripped the Indigenous residents of their land rights and opened the territory to settlers.

A kepi is a cap with a flat circular top and a visor. It was worn by soldiers on both sides in the conflict.

The Ku Klux Klan was a white supremacist terrorist organization that threatened and murdered Black people and their political allies.

Land treaties were agreements made between various Indigenous nations, tribes, and bands, and U.S. government entities, that established boundaries and ownership of Indigenous territories. White settlers and U.S. government officials regularly violated these treaties.

Ledger drawing is a form of Plains Indian art named for the type of ruled paper used in its creation. It features scenes of hunts, battles, and dances set against blank backgrounds, and resembles the tepee decoration and hide painting practiced by Plains Indians for generations.

The legislative branch comprises the House of Representatives and the Senate, and is in charge of making laws in U.S. government.

The Lost Cause is a mythology that rewrote the causes of the Civil War to erase the role of slavery and to instead emphasize the heroism of white southern combatants. First named by Virginia journalist Edward A. Pollard in an 1866 book called The Lost Cause: A New Southern History of the War of the Confederates and then popularized in the late 19th century by the histories of the war and memoirs written by former Confederate leaders, the Lost Cause is a set of beliefs that many white southerners embraced with an almost religious fervor. Its basic tenets include the following:

  • Slavery was a benevolent institution, in which honorable white slaveowners provided for the needs of enslaved Black people and contributed to their moral development;
  • Southern states seceded not to protect the institution of slavery but rather because the federal government was trampling their “states’ rights”;
  • The U.S. government (the North) was the aggressor in the war, not the seceding South;
  • The U.S. Army succeeded only because it had “overwhelming numbers” of soldiers, not due to any deficiencies of the Confederate Army, which fought valiantly;
  • Reconstruction (the years immediately following the war) was a tragic period of misrule by uneducated and barbaric Black men, who were merely puppets of unscrupulous white politicians and profiteers from the North.

The Louisiana Territory comprised 828,000 square miles west of the Mississippi River, including the modern-day states of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and parts of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, and Louisiana.

The Louisiana Purchase was a land deal between France and the United States, which purchased the right to acquire territory belonging to Indigenous peoples between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. 

Loyalty oaths were vows to support the Constitution of the United States. Defeated Confederate men chose to make loyalty oaths in order for their state to return to the Union after the end of the Civil War.

Lynchings are extrajudicial killings committed by vigilantes. Lynchings in the U.S. South usually took the form of white mobs murdering Black men for supposed transgressions of the white supremacist social order.

Manifest Destiny was the belief that the nation had a divine mission to spread democracy and Protestant Christianity across the North American continent.

Manumission is to release someone from slavery.

The Mexican Cession, negotiated at the end of the Mexican-American War (1846–48), gave the United States most of what is now its southwest region, including the modern-day states of Texas, California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and portions of Colorado and Wyoming.

The Missouri Compromise was a piece of legislation passed in 1820. It drew a line at the 36 degrees, 30 minutes north latitude (from the southern border of Missouri to the western border of the United States), above which all future states admitted to the Union would prohibit slavery.

James Monroe served as president from 1817–1825. He was a member of the Democratic-Republican party and today is most famous for the “Monroe Doctrine,” which opposed further European colonization of Latin America.

Moral suasion is the strategy of changing personal behavior by appealing to morality. Abolitionists believed that moral suasion was the best way to change the minds of people who supported slavery.

Moving panoramas were long, continuous painted canvas scenes. Each end rolled around two large spool-type mechanisms and could be turned, causing the canvas to scroll across the back of a stage.

The NAACP stands for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, formed in 1909 as an interracial endeavor to advance justice for African Americans. 

Nat Turner led an 1831 uprising of enslaved people in Southhampton County, Virginia. Turner, a deeply religious enslaved man, led a group of enslaved people to kill more than 50 white people. The panic that this rebellion created among slaveholders led whites to kill at least 160 Black people, both free and enslaved.

The New York City Draft Riots (July 13–16, 1863) were sparked by conscription lotteries begun in New York City on July 11, 1863. A draft office was attacked, as were prominent Republicans, newspapers, and Black residents who were targeted, maimed, and murdered. In total, at least 119 people were killed and thousands injured, perhaps many more. The uprising was quelled by Federal troops recalled from Gettysburg, just days after the famous battle there.

The Northwest Ordinance (1787) organized the region surrounding the Great Lakes (including modern-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) into a territory. The Confederation Congress had prohibited slavery in the territory. Later, those who were against slavery pointed to the ordinance as an indication that the Founders did not want slavery to spread west.

The Pacific Railway Act, passed in 1862, promoted the construction of a transcontinental railroad to connect the eastern and western parts of the country. The railroad companies appropriated large tracts of Indigenous lands, killed the buffalo on which Indigenous people relied for meat and hides, and brought an influx of white settlers west.

A panorama, also called a cyclorama, is a large image that encircles the spectator.

The parole system (from the French for word, as in to give your word)  in the Civil War allowed captured soldiers to be returned to their own army in exchange for enemy captives if they signed a promise not to fight again until they were back with their commander.

A photomontage is a composite photograph made by cutting, gluing, rearranging and overlapping two or more photographs into a new image.

Phrenology is a pseudoscience which involves the measurement of bumps on the skull to predict mental traits.

Picket duty was a job assigned to soldiers, in which they were positioned on a defensive line to provide timely warning against an enemy advance.

Plantations were labor camps dedicated to growing cash crops. On plantations, white enslavers forced Black people to work planting and harvesting crops under the threat of torture or death.

Political cartoons are cartoons that comment on politics or society.

Popular sovereignty allowed territories and states to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery.

A primary document is a firsthand account or direct record of a historical event.

The privileges and immunities clause in the Constitution prevents states from treating citizens of other states in a discriminatory manner.

Puritans were members of a religious sect who sought to “purify” the Anglican (English Protestant) Church of what they identified as vestiges of Catholicism in the 1600s. Some Puritans immigrated to North America and founded two of its first permanent English settlements, the Plymouth Colony and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Racial othering is the process of imposing negative characteristics on a racial out-group in order to subordinate its members.

Reconstruction (c. 1865–77) was the period during which the U.S. government reintegrated the former Confederate states into the Union, enforcing the end of slavery and the citizenship rights of Black southerners through military occupation.

The Republican Party (still in existence today) was formed in 1854 as an anti-slavery party, dedicated to preventing the spread of slavery to new western states.

A reservation is an area of land managed by an Indigenous tribe under the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many Indigenous peoples were forced to move from their ancestral lands to reservations by the U.S. government.

Secession/to secede is the act of withdrawing or separating from a group; in this case, the Confederate states withdrew from the United States at the start of the Civil War.

The Second Party System (1828–54) pitted the Democrats against the Whigs. The Democrats promoted the interests of farmers, workers, and immigrants, and generally favored states’ rights, westward expansion, and slavery. The Whigs promoted internal improvements and moral reforms. 

Self-emancipation was the process of freeing oneself from slavery, often accomplished through running away from an enslaver.

Short-staple cotton was the only form of cotton that could grow in the soil and climate of the inland South, but it was extremely difficult to clean by hand, and as a result, it was not a crop slaveholders found profitable to grow before the invention of the cotton gin. Long staple cotton could be cleaned manually by an enslaved laborer and still be cost effective, but it had a very narrow growing region.

Slave uprisings were revolts carried out by groups of enslaved and, sometimes, free Black people, with the specific goal of obtaining freedom.

Social Darwinism was a racist pseudoscience that claimed that white people with northern European ancestry were the most evolved race.

Supply lines refer to the route for the transportation of equipment and supplies.

Tack is equipment or accessories equipped on horses in the course of their use as domesticated animals.

Teamsters were people who helped transport army supplies.

The temperance movement opposed the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Texians were supporters of the Texas Revolution, which sought independence from Mexico.

The Three-Fifths Clause is part of Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution, which determines how seats in the House of Representatives are apportioned according to state population. The Framers of the Constitution agreed to count three-fifths (60%) of the enslaved people living in a state as part of its population (even though enslaved people had no citizenship rights and could not vote). This gave southern states more power than they would have wielded otherwise.

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, declared that neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the United States, except as a punishment for a crime.

The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, guarantees citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, as well as due process of the law and equal protection of the laws.

The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, prevents a state from denying a person the right to vote on account of their race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

The Union refers to the single political entity made up of each state in the United States.

U.S. Colored Troops were regiments composed of Black soldiers that served in the U.S. Army in the U.S. Civil War. There were 175 U.S.C.T. regiments by the end of the war.

Vagrancy in the post-Civil War South was a charge leveled at Black people who did not have annual work contracts with white employers, a means of forcing Black people to continue laboring in a system similar to slavery.

The War of Reform was a civil war in Mexico between Liberals, who wanted to implement reforms limiting the power of the military and Catholic church, and Conservatives, who wanted to maintain that power.

Wave the bloody shirt was a tactic used by Republicans after the U.S. Civil War to rally political support by reminding voters of the bloodshed caused by the Confederacy’s actions.

W.E.B. DuBois (1868–1963) was a Black historian, sociologist, civil rights activist, and cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Westward expansion refers here to the process of incorporating new states from territories in North America west of the existing boundaries of the United States.

The Whigs were a 19th-century political party that favored internal improvements, banking, and moral reforms.

White supremacy is the racist ideology that white people should rule society.

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