Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Blue; the Gray; and the Runaway – a History and Etymology of “Skedaddle”

Another “Skedaddle.” – “Skedaddle” is a handy word.  We think it was invented purposely to describe the military movements of the Missouri traitors; for it is the only word that can do justice to the subject.  Run, scamper, fly, and all such terms, are too tame for the occasion; but “skedaddle” fills the bill precisely.  Our readers, therefore, may know why we make such frequent use of the word.

White Cloud Kansas Chief (White Cloud, Kansas), July 25, 1861, page 2, column 4.


The word, “skedaddle,” became well-known during the first year of the Civil War.  It first gained widespread notoriety in October 1861, in the aftermath of the Union Army’s recapture of Munson’s Hill, in the Seven Corners region of Virginia.  Union soldiers rechristened the hill, “Fort Skedaddle,” to mock the Rebels’ retreat.  The word was not new at the time, however; it was already well-known throughout the Army of the Potomac.  Although the word may have come from a Scottish word, meaning to spill milk from a bucket; the immediate source of the word may have been Kansas.

Pre-Civil War – Skedaddle in Kansas

All of the examples of “skedaddle” in print that I could find, dated earlier than October 1861, are from Kansas, or stories written in Kansas.  Two examples pre-date the bombardment of Fort Sumter, on April 12, 1861, the onset of the Civil War. [(Update: I have found one earlier example (1859) from Missouri - see Update below, before the end notes.)]

The word appears to have already been well-known in the region, or at least to the readers of that one paper, as it seems to be tossed out freely, without explanation:

Thurlow Weed, who had been at Washington endeavoring to sell out the Republican party in order to spite Greeley, “skedaddled” for home as soon as he read the report of Lincoln’s speech at Indianapolis.  He probably discovered evidences in that speech that he could not lead Lincoln to water as he had Seward, and that his “occupation was gone.”

White Cloud Kansas Chief, February 28, 1861, page 2, column 1.

But veni vidi Gloria mundi – which, being interpreted, means that the governor came, saw, and skeedaddled with a flea in his ear.

White Cloud Kansas Chief, March 21, 1861, page 2, column 6. 

Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, an account of a skirmish in Missouri reported either, that retreating Confederates repainted their flag of surrender, or that they soiled their drawers in panic.  You be the judge:

[B]e it known that Harney is a mortal terror to Indians and Pukes[i] – but Jeff and his ragamuffin crew “skeedaddled” full tilt for home, hid their regimentals, and dressed in their ordinary citizens’ clothes; and in a very short time there was not a sign in the neighborhood to indicated that a military organization had ever been dreamed of in the “4th Military District of Missouri.”  Yet it is positively asserted that Jeff and his valiant followers did paint “stripes” on their “white flags.” The discovery was made by the washerwomen!

The White Cloud Kansas Chief, May 23, 1861, page 2.   

Most of the early uses of “skedaddle” relate to Confederate soldiers or Confederate sympathizers in Missouri or Kansas (Missouri was a border state, with divided loyalties; and Missouri and Kansas had been the site of cross-border skirmishes since 1854), running away from their pursuers:

“Now, by St. George, the Work Goes Bravely on!” – A report has reached us, just before going to press, that United States troops to the number of one or two hundred, entered Oregon [(Oregon, Missouri)], on Wednesday evening, and commenced arresting such obnoxious secessionists as had not “skedaddled.”

White Cloud Kansas Chief, July 11, 1861, page 2, column 6. 

There was the usual amount of “skedaddling” for the brush and cornfields, but it was generally regarded as a piece of sport.  The traitors have become used to the dilly-dallying of the Government authorities, and begin to regard these affairs as first-rate jokes.

White Cloud Kansas Chief, August 22, 1861, page 2, column 1.

The word appeared in a Vermont newspaper in late September 1861, in an article filed from Kansas:

Atchison, Kansas, Sept. 9, 1861.
Last Friday our city took a puke.  No less than a dozen of the most ultra secessionists in the place, fearing the jay-hawkers[ii] were coming into town that night and hang them packed up their traps in a hurry and at once skedaddled for Mo.

Vermont Phoenix (Brattleboro, Vermont). September 26, 1861, page 1, column 2.

When soldiers of the Army of the Potomac occupied Munson’s Hill a few days later, the word, “skedaddle,” was believed to be, “used throughout the whole army of the Potomac.”  If skedaddle had been merely a Kansas localism, as suggested by the fact that it can only be found in Kansas newspaper during the period, it could have been transplanted to the Army of the Potomac by soldiers from Kansas, or who had served in Kansas before, or during the early days of, the Civil War.

Soldiers from Kansas in Virginia

The 1st Cavalry Regiment (later reorganized as the 4th Cavalry Regiment) of the United States Army was organized in Missouri in 1855, and saw action in “Bloody Kansas” before the Civil War.  Although most of the regiment was assigned throughout the Western Theater (Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Indian Territory) during the Civil War, General McClellan, who had once served in the regiment, requested Company A and Company E serve as his personal escort.  Those units saw service in Virginia in the battle of Bull Run in July 1861.  General McClellan assumed command of the Army of the Potomac after the Union’s defeat at the Bull Run, and was in command of the army when they retook Munson’s Hill and renamed it, Fort Skedaddle.  There were plenty of soldiers with Kansas connections and experience who might have introduced the word into the ranks of the Union Army.

General McClellan’s actions, or, rather, inaction, leading up to the retaking of Munson’s Hill went a long way toward cementing his reputation as someone unwilling to take bold, decisive action.  Although the name, “Fort Skedaddle,” was intended to mock the Rebels’ quick flight; the name, in retrospect, may be ironic.  The Rebels withdrew from Munson’s Hill as part of an organized, strategic withdrawal.  It was the Union soldiers, several months earlier, who had actually “skedaddled” during the first Battle of Bull Run. 

And, when McClellan retook Munson’s Hill, it showed no signs of having been occupied, and was defended only by fake cannons. 

Munson’s Hill

Munson’s Hill was the talk of the town in Washington DC and environs in August and September, 1861.  Its prominent location overlooking the Capitol, and daily skirmishes nearby, lent it an air of mystery and importance, well beyond its actual military value:

Most of your readers are no doubt familiar with the high, bold, open appearance of the hill, crowned with a few straggling trees.  A tall pole has been erected on the highest point, and on that pole a secession flag is flying at least forty feet above the tops of the highest trees.  The three stripes are plainly seen.  A smaller flag is visible to the left.  No doubt these flags can be seen from the dome of the Capitol, in Washington, with a good glass, as Munson’s hill is distinctly visible with the naked eye from that point.

Evening Star (Washington DC), August 30, 1861, page 2. 

Up to the present moment, Munson’s, (the genuine and substantial Hill itself), has not been taken, although, for the last three days, reports to the contrary have been rattling and flying in like swarms of bullets.  The truth is, that everybody has a positive, though not clearly explicable, notion that it ought to be taken, and, while wondering why it is not, all are ready and eager to spread the idea that it is.  The fact that it is not particularly worth taking, will not be accepted by the public on any condition.  The public hereabout has fixed its mind on Munson’s, has elevated Munson’s to a dignity far beyond its merits, and will listen to no depreciation whatever.  Nevertheless, at the risk of destroying a popular delusion, it must be here recorded that the much-talked of position is, by no means, so important as people suppose.

New York Daily Tribune, September 13, 1861, page 8.

Early reports put the number of troops on Munson’s Hill as “700 rebel cavalry, 1000 infantry and three rifle cannon.”[iii]  But in late September, a Rebel deserter reported that the numbers, and morale, of the Rebel forces were much lower than believed.  Despite Union soldiers’ fears that 100,000 enemy troops were massed, and ready to invade Washington DC at any moment, he reported that several Confederate regiments had already withdrawn from the area.[iv] 

When McClellan finally advanced on Munson’s Hill, on September 28, 1861, they found a shell of a fortification defended by two stove pipes and a log, painted to look like guns:

The army then passed on to Munson’s Hill, where it was supposed the enemy was in force, protected by strong works, but, whatever their number, they ingloriously fled, leaving nothing behind them, but two pieces of stove pipe mounted like cannon, which they were intended to represent, and a wooden gun painted black, and mounted on wheels. . . . .

The only works at Munson’s Hill consisted of a ditch about two feet deep, dug around the bill, the dirt thus excavated being thrown up to form a breastwork.  No appearance of having had tents, as the bottom of the ditch was covered with straw.

The National Republican, September 30, 1861, page 2.

One year later, an anti-McClellan tract ridiculed the General’s delays and lack of action:

His debut was made with the announcement that we would carry on the war with as little loss of life as possible, and we have seen that, though the enemy, in vastly inferior numbers, kept thrusting the rebel flag under his nose at Fairfax Court House; nay, at Munson’s Hill for several months, he would not give our “Southern brethren” battle.

George Wilkes, McClellan: Who He Is and What He Has Done, New York, page 5 (New York, August 4, 1862, Office of Wilkes’ Spirit of the Times).

Fort Skedaddle

When the Army of the Potomac finally reoccupied Munson’s Hill, they rechristened it, “Fort Skedaddle”:

“Skadaddle” – The Washington correspondent of one of the morning papers informs us that the German soldiers have christened the rebel earthworks back of Munson’s Hill “Fort Skadaddle.”

The Evening Star, October 22, 1861, page 2.

The word was apparently new, and interesting, as it was widely reported.  The following item about the new name was sandwiched between a poignant reminder of the human suffering that brought on the war, and foreboding of the human suffering yet to come:

The National Republican (Washington DC), October 24, 1861, page 2.

The use of the word, “skedaddle,” in relation to Munson’s Hill, may be the first time that the word was used outside of Kansas and outside the insular world of the Army of the Potomac.  The initial reports about “Fort Skedaddle” are the first published instances of the word from outside of Kansas that I could find.  Although the word was new, its longevity was already suspected.  One of the first reports of “Fort Skedaddle,” defined the word for the benefit of its readers, and for generations of etymologists yet to come:

Skadaddle” –

. . . .  For the benefit of future etymologists, who may have a dictionary to make out when the English language shall have adopted “skedaddle” into familiar use by the side of ‘employee” and “telegram,” we here define the new term.

It is at least an error of judgment, if not an intentional unkindness, to foist “skedaddle” on our Teutonic soldiers.  The word is used throughout the whole army of the Potomac, and means “to cut stick,” “vamoose the ranche,” “slope,” “cut your lucky,” or “clear out.”  So that Fort Skadaddle is equivalent to “Fort Runaway.” – N. Y. Post.

The Evening Star (Washington DC), October 22, 1861, page 2.

The article appears to have correctly rejected the possible German origin.  The rumor that the word came from Germany may have stemmed from the fact that a number of German immigrants served among the units that marched on “Fort Skedaddle.”  The Second and Fifth Michigan Regiments took the hill, and the “gallant 37th” from New York held the hill.[v]  An English journalist, who visited “Fort Skedaddle” a couple days after the Union advance, wrote that it seemed that, “more than three-fourths of the army of the Potomac is composed of Irish and German mercenaries; I only met with one American soldier for the two days I stayed in that quarter.”  If the word were widespread among the troops, “German” soldiers, “Irish” soldiers, and all other American soldiers were likely using the word too.

Skedaddle Skedaddles

The word, “skedaddle,” quickly skedaddled across the country, and across the pond.  Within months, the word routinely appeared in newspapers from Vermont to Hawaii, and from Washington State to Texas and Tennessee, and all places in between.  In December, 1862, a stage play entitled, Ivanhoe: In Accordance with the Spirit of the Times (by the author of Ill-treated Trovatore and Puss in a New Pair of Boots) featured a musical number entitled, “The Skedaddle Polka,” and included the word, “skedaddle,” spoken several times in dialogue.[vi]  In early 1863, a British humor magazine featured the following nursery rhyme:

Skedaddle – skedaddle – skedaddle!
Put forth your best foot with a straddle;
Look round, far and near,
Till you see the coast clear,
Then, deserting so sly,
Bolt, scamper, and fly,
Skedaddle – skedaddle – skedaddle!

Skedaddle – skedaddle – skedaddle!
Climb stealthily into the saddle;
Stick spurs in your steed,
And be off at full speed,
From the red field of strife,
Be off for your life,
Skedaddle – skedaddle – skedaddle!

Fun, Volume 3, January 24, 1863, page 181.

The Origins of Skedaddle

Interest in the new word soon spurred inquiries into its origins.  Although the published discussions did not make any particular connection to Kansas, at least one writer placed the immediate origins in the West, generally:

Skeedaddle. – This is a western phrase, lately common in the newspapers, signifying to run away or retreat.  What is the derivation and origin of the word?

The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries, Volume 6,  Number 5, May, 1862, page 163.

Many early guesses suggested a relationship to a Greek word  or root, variously given as skeda,[vii] skedao,[viii] skedasis,[ix] or skedannumi,[x] meaning to disperse, scatter, or to retire tumultuously.  A “Harvard professor” was thought to be the culprit.  

A certain, Lord Hill (a distant cousin of Robert Sale-Hill, whose poem, The History and Origin of “the Dude,” introduced the world to the word, “dude” in 1883) defended Britain's honor.  The word was not an American invention, he argued, it was Scottish:

Skedaddle. – The following Note, sent by Lord Hill to The Times (Monday, Oct. 13, 1862, p. 10, col. 3), shows that one Americanism at least is of British origin: -

“To the Editor of ‘TheTimes.’

“Sir, - Your correspondent, in an article upon the American war, tells the public that the war has brought to the surface, and added to the American vocabulary, a new word, viz. ‘skedaddle.’

“My object in writing this note is to correct the above error.  Skedaddle is a word commonly used in Dumfriesshire [(Scotland)], my native home.  To skedaddle, means to spill in small quantities any liquids.  For instance, a person carrying two pails of milk, - jabbling and spilling the milk right and left – would be skedaddling the milk.  An interested observer would cry at once; ‘You blind buzzard, don’t you see you are skedaddling all that milk!’ The same word applies to coals, potatoes, or apples, and other substances falling from a cart in travelling from one place to another.  But skedaddle does not apply to bodies of men scattered, under any circumstances, either in peace or in war.  The Americans totally misapply the word.

“It is not their invention, of that you may rest perfectly assured.       Yours faithfully,

“Dartford, Oct. 9.        Hill.”

Notes and Queries, 3rd Series, Volume 2, October 25, 1862, page 326. 

Another writer believed it to be Irish:

Now although the Greek [skedao] is undoubtedly the root of the English scatter and scud, the German scheiden, and the Scandinavian equivalents, yet skedaddle, instead of being derived from any of them, is probably Irish.
The Irish sgdad, spelled with a g, as that language has no k, doubtless gave the Greeks their [skedao], and the compound Irish word sgedad ol, all scattered or utterly routed, is the very word skedaddle itself.

An old version of the Irish New Testament contains this passage: “For it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be sgedad ol.” The word is probably used in our army by an Irishman, and being looked upon as particularly felicitous, was at once adopted.”

The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries, Volume 6, Number 12, December 1862, page 381.


The word, “skedaddle,” existed in Kansas before the Civil War, but probably not much before; as there are no known attestations of the word before 1861.  The word came to be used among Union soldiers before October 1861, as a mocking description of perceived Southern cowardice.  As applied to Munson’s Hill, however, “Fort Skedaddle,” may have been an unintentionally ironic misnomer.  At least one contemporary observer believed that the word had been used in Dumfriesshire, Scotland before it emerged in Kansas. 

If “skedaddle” was Scottish, it might also have been Irish.  If it was Irish or Scottish, it might also have been Scandinavian.  If it was Scandinavian, it might also have been Germanic.  If the corresponding Germanic forms had been influenced by Greek, it might derive, ultimately, from Greek.  But wherever it came from, it took one “Bloody Kansas” conflict and one Civil War to make the word stick, with its modern meaning.

Forty years later, “skedaddle,” inspired “skidoo,” “skidoodle wagon,” and “twenty-three; skidoo!”  But that’s a story for a different day.

Now Skedaddle!

UPDATE: March 4, 2016

The word "skedaddle" appeared in an article published in at least two newspapers in Pennsylvania, the earliest in December 1859.  The word is used in a story about an ugly Hoosier's travels in Missouri, across the border from Kansas.  The story relates a humorous anecdote about a man who is wrongly believed to be a survivor of a recent steamboat boiler explosion:

A Hoosier, an awful ugly man, relating his travels in Missouri, said that he had arrived at Chickenville in the forenoon, and just a few days before there had been a boat [(the Franklin)] busted, and a heap of people scalded and killed, one way and other. 
. . . "Where did you find yourself after the 'splosion?"

"In a flat boat," sez I.

"How far from the Franklin? sez he.

"Why," sez I, "I never seed her, but as nigh as I can guess, about three hundred and seventy-five miles."

"You'd oughter seen that gang skedaddle."

The Pittsburgh Post (Pennsylvania), December 21, 1859, page 3; The Wellsboro Gazette (Wellsboro, Pennsylvania), January 12, 1860, page 1. (An article published in 1942 ("The Hoosier as an American Folk-Type", Richard Lyle Power, Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 38, Issue 2, pages 107-122 (which is available online here)) cites this story as coming from Yankee Notions, Volume 6, page 272 (1857).  My sources had Volumes 5 and 7 of Yankee Notions, but not Volume 6, so I was unable to verify whether the word is there.  But if it is, then "skedaddle" would have been known in Missouri as early as 1857.  And, since Yankee Notions had a national distribution, the word could have been known everywhere; although the fact that all of the early citations are from Kansas or Missouri suggests that the word was a regionalism. 

[i] “Puke” is a nickname for a person from Missouri.  See, Show Me the Tunnel – How Missouri Became the Show-Me-State.
[ii] A Jay-Hawker (or Jayhawker) was an anti-slavery militiaman (or guerilla fighter) who clashed with Missouri “Border Ruffians” during the pre-Civil War “Bleeding Kansas” border war, from 1854 into the Civil War. See my post, Jayhawkers and Jaywalkers.
[iii] The Daily Green Mountain Freeman (Montpelier, Vermont), August 31, 1861, Evening Edition, Page 3.
[iv] The New York Daily Tribune, September 20, 1861, page 5.
[v] The National Republican, September 30, 1861, page 2.
[vi] Lacy’s Acting Edition of Plays, Dramas, Farces and Extravagances, as performed at the various theatres, volume 59.
[vii] Notes and Queries, Volume 6, Number 6, June, 1862, page 196.
[viii] The Historical Magazine, and Notes and Queries, Volume 6, Number 12, December 1862, page 381.
[ix] The Cass County Republican (Dowagiac, Michigan), June 26, 1862, page 1.
[x] Frank Moor, Rebellion Record, a Diary of American Events, Volume 6, New York, G. P. Putnam, 1866, Addendum, Poetry, Rumors and Incidents, page 10 (citing London Spectator).

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