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detail of world war I military poster of doughboys library of congress collection

Doughboy: Origins of a Classic Americanism

Though “doughboy” was popularized during World War I, the origin of the word as a military term is disputed, with several explanations emerging over the years.

In her 1887 book Tenting on the Plains, Elizabeth Custer cited an 1867 letter by her husband, George Armstrong Custer, which noted, “We passed the infantry about five miles out. Wasn’t I glad I was not a doughboy, as I saw the poor fellows trudging along under their heavy burdens.”

Mrs. Custer attached a footnote that defined doughboy as “a small, round doughnut served to sailors on shipboard, generally with hash. Early in the Civil War the term was applied to the large globular buttons of the infantry uniform, from which it passed, by natural transition, to the infantry themselves.”

The resemblance of buttons to dough balls offers one explanation. Other accounts have surfaced since Custer’s time, nicely summarized by John D. Wright in his 2001 volume The Language of the Civil War: “The fact that U.S. soldiers ate a baked mixture of flour and rice during the Mexican War, and the idea that western troops were once covered in adobe dust.”

A search of reveals references that support these explanations, while others suggest new meaning to this classic Americanism

1853: Familiar term

Though no direct Mexican War references were located in the collections, the May 28, 1853, edition of the Deseret News of Salt Lake City, Utah, indicates that doughboy had already become a familiar term. A correspondent attached to Fort Yuma, Calif., reported on the aftermath of an earthquake along the Colorado River: “The soldiers stationed close by, turned out the guards to see the end of the world, and many a doughty doughboy quaked more than mother Earth, as he vainly attempted to recall his Sunday School reminiscences for the good of his soul.”

1861: Negative stereotype

A correspondent for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle portrayed the infantry in much the same negative light as Custer in a dispatch filed from camp near Rolla, Mo., on Aug. 26, 1861, and published in the Sept. 5 issue: “I have seen the roughest times that I ever have of wish to see, and am entirely sick of it. Instead of sending us forward to the New Mexico and California frontiers, the detachment was formed into two companies and sent off as doughboys with the infantry, then to help form the Western Division and march through the State of lonely Missouri, solitary prairies and miserable dilapidating brushwood and forests.”


1862: No Doughboys, Mr. Lincoln!

In June 1862, according to the June 1867 number of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Kansans loathed enlisting as doughboys. They preferred the cavalry. Energetic Sen. Jim Lane, so the story goes, addressed a crowd of his constituents on the subject in Paola. “Fellow citizens—the great and good President of this nation sent for me a few days since and asked if Kansas, that heroic little State, which had already furnished ten regiments and two battalions to the army, could add two more regiments of infantry. [Cries of ‘No Dough-Boys!’] I told Mr. Lincoln: ‘Yes, whatever you ask of Kansas, if it is the last plow-boy from the field, to support the Government and crush the rebellion, you shall have.’ [Cries of ‘Give us cavalry and all right—no Dough-Boys!’]” Lane eventually won over the throngs.

1864: Neophytes to “Rough Riders”

The New York Times connected doughboys to neophytes in a Sept. 9, 1864, editorial that condemned mounted infantry.

“Our best cavalry is bad enough, but a mounted infantryman is at best a scarecrow. Good infantry regiments were mounted upon creole ponies and like trash, which, of course, were speedily smashed by the overweights they were compelled to carry. These organizations were designated as cavalry without proper authority from the War Department, and the officers at once commenced a series of experiments in order to ascertain the greatest amount of gold lace that could be put upon a jacket. This matter satisfactorily settled, they took it for granted that they were no longer ‘dough-boys,’ but full-fledged ‘rough riders,’ and they sighed for the time when they should charge the rebs on pony-back.”

1865: Positive view from a cavalryman

An extract from a letter by Pvt. John C. Grubb of the 5th Pennsylvania Cavalry published in the Feb. 6, 1865, issue of the Weekly Oregon Statesman put a positive spin on doughboys during the Petersburg Campaign.

“On the morning of Dec. 9th, our coffee was hardly swallowed when the rapid firing of pickets gave us warning of a fight. Wildly the bugle sounded ‘boots and saddles,’ and soon as wildly went our old regiment into the charge. The rebels had taken one line of our breastworks at the outset. Finding they were behind the works, we dismounted and charged them as ‘dough boys’ (the name we give infantry). We stormed the place three times, and the fourth carried it, driving the Johnnies like sheep, and capturing two brigades.”

1865: Mud churners

The April 3, 1865, Philadelphia Inquirer poked fun at the Army of the Potomac for moving in bad weather:

“The experience of this army presents a notable exception to the law that good and evil are usually mingled in about equal proportions in all human affairs; for, in respect to the weather, its look has almost invariably been most disgustingly bad, so much so, that an order to move now has become regarded among the troops as an indication of rain far more reliable than any of the meteorological phenomena which usually form the criterion of the weather-wise. The sacred soil of Virginia—so often have our marching columns been called to knead its saturated surface, that an infantryman is known as a ‘dough-boy’—if it is not sacred, morning noon and night, sacred now and forever to all intents and purposes.”

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