Military Terms from the American Revolution and Civil War Explained

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Dragoon: British/European heavy or medium cavalryman. As opposed to the hussars above, dragoons carried rifles/muskets, and generally fought on foot, using horseback for rapid travel/deployment. One might see the abbreviation “drag.” indicating service in the dragoons.

Flying Camp: You might, if you’re looking for information on your colonial ancestor from Delaware, Maryland, or Pennsylvania, see this term.

Most people are familiar with the “Minutemen,” the militia said to be ready in a minute (not quite, but it sounds better than ‘half-hour men”). The “Flying Camp” was an organization of several thousand men from the states mentioned above, and were to be the Continental Army’s “Minutemen,” men ready for battle or reconnaissance at a moment’s notice. The Flying Camp unit operated for only a short time in the New York campaign of 1776. Their heavy losses caused the unit to be disbanded.

Furlough: Leave granted to a soldier/officer. Furlough papers had to be carried on your person at all times. They denoted what unit you were in, where you were headed, and when you were due to return.

The nature of military justice on both sides of the Civil War was quick and sometimes brutal. All states and many localities had units of soldiers/peace officers looking for deserters. If you were caught without your papers, you might be put on trial and hanged for desertion. On muster sheets, you will sometimes see a man’s name and “furl.” next to it, meaning they are on leave and still in the unit.

Grenadiers: As opposed to light infantry, grenadier units generally carried much equipment – most of it was, you guessed it, grenades. Of course, the grenades of the 18th century were more like the bombs one sees in cartoons today, round with a fuse – they also weighed a lot.

Grenadiers were usually bigger, stronger men who could carry much weight. The British, Hessians, and French used grenadiers during the Revolution. The American colonists, for the most part, eschewed the grenadier idea. In British military records, one sees the abbreviation “gren.” on occasion.

Hussars: Usually Eastern European light cavalrymen that fought for the Americans during the Revolution (trained in the style of hussars from European wars). In most cases, hussars carried only swords and perhaps a pistol or two. Hussars were often used for reconnaissance and fought from horseback. You might see this abbreviated as “hus” in Revolutionary War documents.

Legion: An organization formed mostly by Loyalists during the Revolution. Self-sufficient, and usually organized on the frontier. Though most of the Legion organizations you will find fought on the side of the British, French trappers and civilians in the Ohio Valley and elsewhere formed these units to fight pro-British forces. Additionally, General Anthony Wayne – the famous Continental officer – also organized his own unit, calling it “The Legion of the United States.”

Light Infantry: Lightly armed men used as scouts and skirmishers, also used for raiding. The abbreviation “light” is sometimes seen.


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