Grand Guards and Pickets

by Gustav Person
Co. H, 4th U.S. Infantry, Sykes Regulars
March 2004

    In my previous article, entitled Guard Duty, the role of Camp (Police) Guard and sentinels was examined.  This article will discuss the functions of guards in actual combat operations.

    August Kautz in his 1865 Customs of Service for Officers of the Army, noted: In time of war, Police (Camp) Guards are almost entirely dispensed with, and the guard duty is confined almost entirely to Advanced or Grand Guard Duty for the purpose of watching the enemy.  The Police Guard, if any, is small.  The Guard is usually relieved and men rejoin their companies, except a sufficient number to guard the prisoners.  Prisoners however are, in time of war,  generally confined to a Provost Guard.

    The Grand Guard is a force thrown out in the direction of the enemy to prevent surprise, to give notice of his approach,  to delay his advance, and give the main body time to prepare for battle, or make good its retreat.  It is often called an Advance Guard, which should only be applied to a force thrown out to the front, when the main body is moving, to give notice of the vicinity of the enemy to conceal preparations for battle and cover offensive movements. 1

    During the Civil War, Grand Guard duty was, by practice, called picket duty, and the outer sentinels were called pickets.  Different foreign national armies often used various names for these functions, and the American military often used different systems during various conflicts (e.g., War of 1812, Mexican War, etc.).

    During the Civil War, each Grand Guard, normally commanded by a captain, consisted of a line of sentinels (pickets); a line of Supports from which the pickets were furnished for the front of the brigade; and a Reserve.  The Reserve would occupy a commanding position, and was stationed about one mile in front of the main body of the brigade.

    The Supports would be thrown out one mile further to the front.  They were placed in such positions to easily communicate with each other and with the Reserve.  From these Supports the line of the pickets was thrown out about two hundred yards to the front.

    The line of pickets was formed by posting groups of three men each; these groups were not to be more than 150 yards apart, and much closer when the terrain or enemy position required.  These pickets were relieved every two hours, and were furnished by the Supports which was divided into three reliefs for this purpose.  The Supports were relieved from the Reserve every six hours.  The Reserve was required to furnish a line of sentinels to communicate with the Supports, as well as a line communicating with the headquarters of the brigade. 2

    The pickets were required to keep a vigilant watch over the country to their front, and over the movements of the enemy.  They were posted at places where they could see furthest, out of sight of the enemy, and where they were in communication  with each other and with their Supports.  The picket was always ready to fire.  Pickets received thecountersign before sunset, and started challenging at that time.  Discharge of a weapon would normally signify an enemy attack.  If forced to retire, they would slowly close their intervals and fall back on their Supports.  Military compliments were normally dispensed with on picket duty. 3

    One relief of the Supports would be allowed to sleep.  One relief would be constantly on the alert.  A commissioned officer (normally a lieutenant) was required to be up and awake at all times in the Support area, but most often this requirement was shared with a sergeant.

    The Reserve, stationed in a strong position, and which commanded all approaches to the camp, was to be of sufficient strength to check the advance of the enemy, thus affording the main body of the army ample time to form and prepare to receive an attack.  It served as a rallying point for the pickets and their Supports.  Fires were only permitted in the Reserve area, and then well hidden from enemy observation.  Fires were not permitted on the line of Supports, or in the picket posts. 4

    As a general rule, the Grand Guard would consist of about one-tenth of the effective strength of the command.  The Reserve (with the sentinels and patrols it furnished) would comprise two-thirds of the entire guard;  the other third being subdivided for theSupports and their pickets.  5

    Patrols properly belonged to the Grand Guard although they might be specifically detailed for that duty.  As a rule, they consisted of small parties of soldiers, varying from two to thirty, to make short reconnaissances. 6

    Grand Rounds were conducted by the Officer of the Day, commanders, or a general officer to go about the chain of sentinels and pickets to inspect the condition and vigilance of the Guard.  The Officer of the Guard and the NCOs would regularly visit the pickets.  When the officer wished to make the Grand Rounds, during the hours of challenging, he would take an escort of a sergeant and two men.  See the previous article for a discussion of challenging by sentinels and pickets.

    Those re-enactors who have taken part in a picket post or Grand Guard impression, have found it to be a rewarding living history experience.  This is an excellent opportunity to relive the exhilaration, daily duty and even boredom of a soldiers life.

 1  August V. Kautz, Customs of Service for Officers of the Army (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1865), 36-38. 

 2  Ibid., 42-43. 

 3 Dominic Dal Bello, Instructions for Guards and Pickets, 3rd Edition (Santa Barbara, CA: Army of the Pacific, 2002), 64-65; U.S. War Department, Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States (Philadelphia: J.G.L. Brown, Printer, 1861), 90. 

 4  Kautz, Customs of Service for Officers, 44. 

 5  Ibid., 45. 

 6  Ibid., 53.