Guard Duty

by Gustav Person
Co. H, 4th U.S. Infantry, Sykes Regulars
October 2003

    Brigadier General August Kautz, writing in his 1865 Customs of Service for Officers, noted that, The manner in which Guard duty is performed is a very good criterion of the discipline and military character of a Regiment. Properly performed, it is a source of instruction and means of preserving the tone and spirit of the command. Punctuality and precision in the performance of all the compliments required of Guards are indications of the military character of the command to which the Guard belongs, and if all the duties of the Police (Camp) Guard are properly performed, they may be relied on for proper vigilance in Advanced (Grand) Guards and Picket Duty.1

    This article will examine the role and duties of guards/sentinels in camp and garrison. A future article will discuss Grand Guards and Pickets in the field on campaign.

    Every morning, each units guards were assembled in camp for a formal Guard Mount ceremony which usually included the regimental field music and/or band.2 Refer to the Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States 1861 (pages 58-60) for a discussion of this important ceremony.

    Generally, each guard was on duty for a 24 hour period. The full guard was divided into three (3) reliefs, each supervised by a Corporal of the Guard (Relief). Sentinels were detailed for duty with 2 hours on duty, and 4 hours off.  Time on sentinel duty could be shortened or lengthened based on the weather or other exigencies.  Off duty sentinels could sleep, but were required to be fully accoutered at all times in case of alarm, and had to remain in the vicinity of the guard house/tent.

    Sentries were relieved under the supervision of a Corporal of the Guard. The new relief marched by the flank at Support Arms. When the relief approached each guard post in daylight (during non-challenging hours), the sentinel on post halted and faced the relief at Shoulder Arms. When the relief was within six paces, it halted and was brought to Shoulder Arms. The corporal commanded: Number (Post Number), Arms Port. The old sentinel, and the relief sentinel of that post approached each other at Arms Port. Under the supervision of the corporal, the old sentinel stated his General and Special orders (see below) to the new sentinel in a low voice, and the new sentinel acknowledged the orders. The old and new sentinels would Shoulder Arms. The sentinels passed, and the corporal would then order: Support Arms. Forward March. The relief then continued until all the posts were relieved at which time they returned to the guard house/tent.

    If a sentinel, from any cause, wishes to leave his post, he calls for the Corporal of the Guard, who will relieve him if necessary. When sentinels are required to remain at their posts at all hazards, the soldier has no alternative except to die at his post if necessary.

    Sentinels normally carried their weapons (loaded, bayonets fixed) at Support Arms, or on either shoulder. They never gave their weapons to another, nor allowed them to touch the ground, unless by order of an Officer or NCO of the Guard. They were allowed to carry their muskets at Secure Arms during inclement weather.5

    Normally, each post was governed by General and/or Special orders. These were of two distinct types: those which belonged to all sentinels on all posts, and those peculiar to the post on which he was placed. An example of a General order is as follows: I am required to take charge of this post and all public property in view; to salute all officers according to rank; to give the alarm in case of fire or the approach of an enemy, or any disturbance whatsoever; to report all violations of the Articles of War, Regulations of the Army, or camp or garrison orders; at night to challenge all persons approaching my post, and to allow no one to pass without the countersign until they are examined by an officer or non-commissioned officer of the Guard.

   A typical Special order would be: My special orders are to take charge of all these commissary stores and to allow no one to interfere with or take them away, except by direction of the quartermaster or commissary sergeant.6 Each sentinel was also instructed as to the length and conditions of his beat. As noted above, each sentinel was required to pass on his General and Special orders to any relieving sentinel.

    Sentinels were required to render appropriate military compliments to passing officers and bodies of troops. Sentinels would Present Arms to general and field officers (majors and above), to the Officer of the Day (who wore his sash over his right shoulder), and to the commanding officer of the post. To all others the sentry halted and stood at Shoulder Arms. When any sentinel of the guard observed any body of soldiers, or an officer entitled to a compliment, approaching the guard house/tent, that sentinel turned out the guard. The guard turned out and presented arms to generals and regimental and national colors passing the guard. After sunset, guards did not normally turn out as a compliment, nor were sentinels required to salute during hours of darkness.7

    After retreat (or the hour appointed by the commanding officer), until broad daylight, a sentinel challenged every person who approached his post, taking the position of Arms Port. He would allow no one to come nearer than within reach of his bayonet until that person had given the Countersign.

A sentinel, in challenging, would call out:

Who comes there?

If answered:

Friend, with the countersign,

he would reply,

Advance, friend, with the countersign.

After receiving a satisfactory answer, he would allow that person to pass. If the sentinel was approached by a group of people, he would command:

Halt! Advance one with the countersign.

   This prevented his being overpowered by a hostile group. One member of the group was allowed to approach and render the correct countersign. If the sentinel had no authority to pass persons without the countersign, or if the wrong or no countersign was given, the sentinel would immediately call for the Corporal of the Guard.8

    A word must be devoted to the definition of certain watchwords. The countersign and parole were normally issued daily from the headquarters of the local command. The countersign was the password, given only to those who were permitted to visit and pass the line of sentinels at night (e.g., officers and NCOs on duty), and to members of the Guard. Soldiers who needed to pass the line of sentinels would generally be given a written pass to do so.

    The parole was given only to the commander of the Guard and other officers (including the Officer of the Day) who might visit, inspect or give orders to the Guard, or conduct the Grand Rounds (Part II will cover Grand Guard, Grand Rounds and Picket duty). Each sentinel was given the Countersign and Parole before assuming duty. If compromised, or if a sentinel deserted, they were immediately changed, and that fact reported to superiors. This was a very serious matter. For example, if any officer or soldier gave the parole or countersign to any unauthorized person, he was subject to the death penalty as specified by Article 53 of the Articles of War.9

    Guard Duty can be a very useful living history tool to educate the public, and to present a disciplined, professional and efficient unit. While sentinels were not permitted to converse with passers-by while on duty, this rule is normally waived in living history situations to allow the sentinel to interact with the public, and to pass on directions or information. Every re-enactor should assume a tour of guard duty during his living history career to relive what our forebears had to experience during their period as soldiers.

1 August V. Kautz, Customs of Service for Officers (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1865), 32-33.

2  U.S. War Department, Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States(Philadelphia: J.G.L. Brown, Printer, 1861), 61.

3 Ibid., 60-61; Dominic J. Dal Bello, Instructions for Guards and Pickets ,3rd Edition (Santa Barbara, CA: Army of the Pacific, 2002), 25-27.

4  Revised Regulations, 62.

5  Dal Bello, Guards and Pickets, 33.

6   August V. Kautz, Customs of Service for Non-Commissioned Officer and Soldiers(Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1864), 28-29.

7   Revised Regulations,64; Dal Bello, Guards and Pickets, 30-31.

8   Revised Regulations, 65.

9   Dal Bello, Guards and Pickets, 11.