Old Army Lingo: Countersign and Parole

One a.m., Monday, August 17, 1863, Lieutenant Colonel James W. Carr made his prescribed nightly guard post rounds as field officer of the day at Point Lookout, Maryland.  Carr and his escort approached the post manned by Private Martin A. Haynes, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry.

Photo portrait of Private Marin A. Haynes, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry
Private Martin A. Haynes, 2nd New Hampshire Infantry frequently referred to performing guard duty in dozens of letters written to his wife. Haynes, therefore, had to know the daily countersign on a regular basis.  Photograph courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library.

Upon seeing the unknown figures in the darkness, Haynes announced “Halt! Who goes there?”  Following regulations the sergeant escorting officer of the day announced the daily countersign “Glendale”, Carr then confirmed the parole “Cowdin”.

The scenario outlined above is largely based on fact.  We know from a letter written by Haynes that he was on guard duty that night.  Documents recently digitized by Old Army Records confirm that Carr served as field officer of the day and we know the countersign and parole used that day.  Countersigns and paroles were an integral part of an army service record.  Yet, until now little has been published on their specifics.

Definitions

The 1889 U.S. Army regulations succinctly define the two words used in the performance of guard duty.  “The ‘countersign’ is a word given daily to enable guards and sentinels to distinguish persons at night.  It is given to such persons as are entitled to pass and repass during the night, and to the officer, non-commissioned officers, and sentinels of the guard.  To officers com­manding guards a second word, called the ‘parole,’ will be given as a check upon the countersign, by which such officers as are entitled to make visits of inspection at night may be distinguished.”  In short, countersigns (or watchwords) and paroles helped ensure that authorized soldiers passed through the guard posts and prevented officers with ulterior motives from interfering with the guard.

Scanned image of paragraph 425 of the Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861 revised 1863 edition, concerning countersigns.
Army manuals regulated the conversation sentries had with people encountered at night. The above, for example, from the revised 1863 edition outlines such conversation related to countersigns.
Countersign and Parole Words Used in the Civil War

Based on lists obtained by Old Army Records, place names usually constituted the daily countersign.  Not surprisingly, sites of Civil War battles or significant cities, northern, southern, and foreign, dominated the list.

Paroles usually consisted of surnames with generals of the period predominating.  Not all names used during the Civil War period were of well-known officers.  Take, for example, the parole used on August 17th , 1863 at Point Lookout.  The general used that day was Robert Cowdin, whose appointment expired in March 1863.  Occasionally, paroles included foreign generals, such as Revolutionary War British commander Cornwallis.

Sometimes the dual watchword association left little to the imagination.  For instance, on March 13, 1863 the countersign/ parole combo was “Moscow” and “Napoleon.”  As early as 1834, army regulations required, for obvious reasons, that should a guard desert, the countersign be changed immediately.

Simple Words, Lots of Responsibility

Not surprisingly, safeguarding the countersign was of utmost importance.  Carelessness with the words often resulted in a dark spot in an army service record.  For example, Captain Pardon Mason, 3rd Rhode Island Artillery, stood a general court martial.  One charge read “Giving the wrong countersign or watchword, violation of the 53rd Article of War.”  While serving as field officer of the day on October 2, 1862 at Hilton Head, South Carolina, Mason allegedly issued the picket guard the wrong countersign,“Springbrook,” instead of “Crown Point.”  Found guilty, Mason’s punishment consisted of a public reprimand read to his brother officers by regimental commander, Colonel Nathaniel W Brown.

Knowingly disclosing the countersign or parole to any person not authorized to know the words could suffer death or other punishment imposed by a general court martial.  The case of 2nd Lieutenant William M. Crozier, Dubuque (Iowa) Light artillery Battery illustrates the importance of securing watchwords.  In December 1862, Crozier faced a general court martial on two charges, including violating the 53rd Article War.  The violation stemmed from the fact that the officer disclosed the daily countersign to one of the battery’s enlisted men, 1st Sergeant Otis G. Day.  Day evidently was not detailed for guard duty and therefore not in a position to know the watchword.  The indiscretion caused Crozier to be cashiered (dismissed) from army service.

Filling in the Details

Diaries, journals, and letters written by 19th century soldiers, like New Hampshire infantryman Haynes, frequently referred to performing guard duty.  However, these extant documents rarely provide details about the people encountered and specific instructions, including countersigns, relative to the security detail.  The 380+ countersign/ parole combinations recently discovered by Old Army Records will add rich detail to anyone (site administrator, living historian, author or genealogist) researching 19th century U.S. Army history.  Feel free to contact us with any research request, no matter how specific or mundane.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the staff in the Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, and especially Dale Valena, for providing the image of Martin A. Haynes.

Sources

Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
Army of the Frontier, Paroles and Countersigns (1863)
Department of the Missouri, General Court Martial Orders
District of St. Mary’s, Paroles and Countersigns (July 1863- July 1864)
Division of the South, General Court Martial Orders

Government Documents
General Regulations for the Army (1834)
Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army (Heitman, 1903)
Regulations for the Army of the United States (1889)
Revised United States Army Regulations of 1861 (1863)

Other Primary Documents
A Minor War History Compiled From A Soldier Boy’s Letters to “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, 1861-1864 (Haynes 1916)

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