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)

Old Army Duty: Officer of the Day

As previously discussed, the military service record of 19th century U.S. Army officers included duty on various ad hoc panels.  Duty included temporary appointments to boards of survey and councils of administration.  Besides the daily administration and training soldiers, for junior officers no other duty was as frequent as officer of the day.  The position required the officer to serve as the on-call commander of a camp or military installation for a 24-hour period.  Although temporary, the position of officer of the day held great responsibility.

Unidentified soldier in Union Captain uniform with crimson sash denoting Officer of the Day holding cavalry saber. oldarmyrecords.com
A crimson sash, worn over the right shoulder, denoted an officer of the day. This unidentified captain wears the sash during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The adjutant of each station maintained a roster of available officers and established the rotation schedule for the temporary position.  Those serving in the position wore a crimson sash.  According to the Army Regulations (1863) the sash was “worn across the body, scarf fashion, from the right shoulder to the left side, instead of around the waist, tying behind the left hip as prescribed.”

“The Officer of the Day has charge of the camp or garrison…”

Kautz (1868) outlined the specific responsibilities of an officer of the day.  The officer detailed “…receives his orders and instructions from the Commanding Officer, and transmits them to his subordinates.  All the guards of the camp or post are under his general direction; all the police parties and fatigue parties, when on duty, within the line of the guards, and often fatigue parties sent beyond the lines receives their orders from the Officer of the Day.”  The 1834 edition of army regulations stated that “[n]o other officer except a general officer will interfere with or give any order on the parade to the staff officer on duty there.”  However, the officer of the day reported all significant events/ actions directly to the commanding officer of the installation.

In addition, the officer of the day ensured that the camp or garrison remained clean, exercised control of prisoners in the guardhouse, and had the discretion to detain or release prisoners.  Not surprisingly, some prisoners took exception to directives issued by the officers.  For instance, on June 23, 1868, 1st Lieutenant Theodore Kendall, 33rd Infantry, while serving as officer of the day at McPherson Barracks near Atlanta, Georgia, ordered a prisoner, Private Thomas McDonough (Company I, 16th Infantry) to “carry a log”.  Taking offense McDonough refused the order and physically and verbally assaulted the officer.  A general court martial panel found McDonough guilty of the crimes and imposed several punishments, including a 15-month incarceration in the Dry Tortugas.

In times of war, when larger military units were constituted, field officers of the day were also detailed.  Brigade (compromised of 2 or more regiments) adjutants maintained rosters of officers with the rank of captain to colonel to fulfill the responsibilities referenced above.

Officer of the day rosters. oldarmyrecords.com
Post adjutants maintained rosters of officers available for duty as officer of the day. Similar rosters were kept at the brigade level for field officer of the day. The top example was maintained at Fort Assinniboine, Montana (1893). The bottom roster dates to September 1863 for the Department of Missouri, Army of the Frontier. 1st Division. 1st Brigade.
Posting and Checking Guards

An officer of the day’s tour began at the daily guard mount which typically occurred in the morning.  The new officer of the day held a prominent position in front, and slightly off-center from the guard; the outgoing officer stood directly in front of the guard.  Perhaps the most important responsibility of the 24-hour job was ensuring that the guard was all present, outfitted, and properly posted.  To that end, the officer visited the guard posts, referred to as grand rounds, frequently during the day and at least once after midnight when arguably, the command was most susceptible to attack.  Proactive security measures required the officer of the day to issue daily code words (countersigns and paroles) to the guards.

The military service record of an Old Army officer included various duties, many performed simultaneously.  An 1867 diary entry by Captain Tenodor Ten Eyck typifies those various tasks performed in a day.  Ten Eyck attended guard mount at 9 a.m. as officer of the day on May 7th.  He then served as the president of a general court martial, trying two cases, before attending to company paperwork.  Before turning in for the night, Ten Eyck made his grand rounds at 12:30 a.m. on May 8th.

Photo of Pennsylvania, 114th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, Guard Mount, Headquarters Army of the Potomac, reviewed by Officers of the Day. oldarmyrecords.com
Guard mount of the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry, ca. 1863. The outgoing officer the day (officer wearing the sash with his back turned on the right of center) stands next to his counterpart assuming the duty.
The Cost of being Inattentive

Inattention to guard duty was, for good reason, a very serious military crime punishable by death.  Not surprisingly, most infractions on guard duty occurred at night.  For that reason, officers of the day visited guard posts at least once at night and more frequently in times of hostilities.   Officers tending to the nightly grand rounds often found sentinels sleeping.  Court martial records from the 19th century contain frequent reference to those offenses.  For instance, in May 1870, 4th Cavalry private James Devine was posted as a guard at the post guardhouse in San Antonio, Texas.  The officer of the day discovered Devine sleeping in a chair between 3 and 4 a.m.  The respite cost the private $84 from his monthly pay and confinement at hard labor for six months.

Failure by an officer of the day to visit guards or pickets in the night was just as serious.  The case of Captain Henry Hase, 103rd New York Infantry, illustrates the point.  Hase joined the 103rd New York Infantry in 1861 as a sergeant and rose through the ranks.  On March 8, 1864, Hase, serving as field officer of the day, failed to obey written instructions to visit the brigade picket line on Folly River, South Carolina between the hours of 3 and 5 a.m.  The transgression found Hase defending against two charges (neglect of duty and disobedience of orders) at a general court martial.  The court panel found Hase guilty and abruptly dismissed him from the army; a permanent blemish to his military service record.

Although mundane, officer of the day assignments were critical in the 19th century U.S. Army.  As shown above, the duty factored into the service of officers and enlisted men.  Old Army Records continues to identify these details to complete the military service history of the soldiers who served during the period.  Check back in two weeks for an overview of duty affecting both officers and enlisted men:  countersigns and paroles.  In the meantime, feel free to contact us with questions or comments. 

Sources

Unpublished Sources (indexed by Old Army Records)
General Court Martial Orders, Department of the South
General Court Martial Orders, Department of Texas
Lists Relating to Safeguards, Details, and Other Matters, Department of Missouri, Army of the Frontier, 1st Division, 1st Brigade
Rosters of Officers and Organizations, Fort Assinniboine (1893), Fort Assinniboine Records, Box 6, Folder 11, Montana Historical Society Research Center, Archives, Helena, Montana

Army Regulations
General Regulations for the Army (1834)
Revised U.S. Army Regulations (1863)

Published Source
Customs of Service for Officers of the Army (1868)

Unpublished Source
Tenodor Ten Eyck Diaries (1860-1871), Special Collections, University of Arizona Libraries, Tucson.  Digital copies in the possession of Kevin O’Dell.