Nineteenth Century Guard Duty

(this ran in the 1999 October, December, and the January 2000 Regimental Dispatch.)

Gaurd Duty

Data compiled by:/n R.W. Gregory


The duties of a guard are among the most important responsibilities in the military. It is the sentry who prevents the theft or destruction of vitally needed supplies. The sentry protects public and private property; and most importantly he protects his comrades while they rest.

Guard duty was viewed as solemn responsibility during the Civil War. One of the hardest tasks for commanders early in the war was to get their new civilian volunteers to understand the importance of guard duty. It took many examples of stern justice to those men failing in their duty to impart the proper respect towards the responsibility of guard duty.

Inattentive sentries have been key factors in many military disasters. The failure of guards to alert Union troops to the initial Southern assault at Shiloh almost caused a major catastrophe to Union forces. The failure of the Eleventh Corps guards to warn of Jackson’s attack at Chancellorsville was a key element in Jackson’s victory.

Guard duty was a highly structured affair. The entire procedure from the parading of personnel chosen for guard duty to the relief of the guard was a very formal affair.

In either garrison or camp a great number of guards were needed every day. Besides being detailed for regular guard duty for the protection of the bivouac area, guards were needed to protect fatigue details, and to watch over the quarters of generals and high ranking visitors. If men were confined to the guard house, men were needed to watch over them. In addition, the homes of citizens may have been placed under guard to protect them from overzealous foraging parties.

Organizing the Guard Force

All guard duty and details for fatigue originated at either the divisional, brigade, regimental or company level. The officers would discuss what work needed to be done and who would provide it. A duty of the field and company grade officers was to ensure that they were not over extending their manpower reserve by taking on needless duties. Once everything had been settled, the officers turned this information over to the senior NCO’s.

It has long been a byword in the Army that officers propose and NCO’s dispose. It was the job of the senior NCO’s; usually company and regimental 1st Sgt.’s to balance the available manpower against the demands placed on the unit. These NCO’s had a very difficult task as their available manpower resources could fluctuate greatly every day. Factors such as sick lists, deserters, and combat engagements could cause rapid changes in available manpower. Adding to these factors were men who were carried on the company strength but were assigned such jobs as teamster or medical steward and thus were exempt from all details.

The axiom that an army travels on it’s stomach may be true, but an army moves daily on paperwork. The 1st Sgt.’s were responsible for the various documents that were needed to sort out who was assigned what duty. Rosters were needed for the unit’s daily strength, and for the various classes of duty that could be assigned. In general terms there were three classes of duty that concerned the NCO’s. The first, second, and third class. Each of these duties was further broken down into various sub sections.

NCO’s were responsible for seeing that men were detailed for the various duties assigned. Should a unit be assigned duties beyond it’s capabilities, the NCO’s would concentrate on providing men for duties of the first class and then second and third class duties if men were available.

Duties of the first class were 1. Grand guard and exterior posts, 2. Guards of the interior (magazine, hospital, and guardhouse), 3. Orderlies, and 4. Police guards. Soldiers assigned to these duties were always under arms and required by regulations to take their knapsacks with them unless told otherwise.

Second class duties were 1. To protect laborers on military works, 2. Providing details for labor on military works and 3. To protect fatigue details. This class of duties was also under arms.

The third class of duties was to provide fatigue details. Unless otherwise ordered the men when leaving camp would take their arms and equipment.

The NCO’s were required to keep a separate company roster for each of the class of duties. Along with these rosters were rosters that listed the corporals and sergeants assigned to each duty. Officers were responsible for their own duty rosters.

The rules of who stood what duty were simple. Longest off, first on. Simply stated this meant that the longer it had been since your turn, the more likely it was that you would be picked. For example, on Monday you were assigned the grand guard. Since this duty lasted twenty-four hours and you were not relieved until late the next afternoon, you would not be assigned any duty on Wednesday. Thursday may find you detailed to provide a guard for a fatigue detail. Depending upon the actual strength of your company you may find yourself standing grand guard again on Friday.

Men assigned any duties of the first class could not be assigned to second or third class duties. They were required to stay in camp until the either the guard mount parade or if the parade was dispensed with until the guard relief detail was formed . Should the soldier be dismissed from his original duties, he could then be assigned to other duties.

Guard Formation and Parade

The guard mount and inspection was a highly formal affair. It was in essence a miniature parade and review. It took place once a day at a time set by the regimental adjutant usually between 8 and 10 a.m.

Musicians were an integral part of the guard mount. Thirty minutes before Guard mount was to take place the chief musician would play The Drummer’s Call/Assembly of the Buglers whichever was appropriate. Fifteen minutes before guard mount the musicians would assemble on the parade ground and play Guard Assembly. It was with this call that the details under the guidance of a corporal would march to the parade ground. While awaiting the final call the 1st Sgts would conduct a preliminary inspection of the detail.

The final musical call was Adjutant’s Call followed by a quick step. At this musical command the Adjutant with the Sgt. Major on his left would march onto the field. While the adjutant marched to the center of the parade ground, the Sgt Major would post himself twelve paces to the left of the field music facing to the left. The details march onto the field.

The 1st Sgt. will be posted on the far left of his detail. The first file aligns on the Sgt. major while facing the front. The 1st Sgt. takes one pace out, turns to the right and faces the Sgt. Major. He then commands:

To the rear in open order-March
Right Dress

Corporals would be 5 paces behind the second rank
The 1st Sgt. dresses the ranks, commands


The 1st Sgt. will salute With Arms and give the report:

All Present or Accounted For.

The Sgt. Major will acknowledge by hand salute. The first Sgt. will then face front, take one pace forward, face to the right and march around by the right hand side of the Sgt. major and post himself five paces behind the corporals. As subsequent details arrive they will dress on the left of the first detail and their 1st Sgts will make similar reports and post the same marching all the way around the Sgt. Major to the rear of their respective detail.

After all details have reported to the Sgt. Major, he will then equalize the ranks and dress them to the right. To ensure that enough men have been detailed he will draw his sword, place his sword in the position of Carry and order:

In each rank count: Two's

If enough men have been detailed, the Sgt. Major will march to the center of the guard detail; face right and march halfway to the adjutant.

He will salute the adjutant and report:

All present and accounted for.

The adjutant will return and the salute and command the Sgt Major to;

Take your post.

The Sgt. Major will about face and march to within two paces of the front rank, face to his right and post himself two paces to the left of the front rank.

The Adjutant draws his sword; places it in the Carry, and then orders:


At this command the Officer of the Guard (usually a Lt.) comes to the front of detail by marching to the left of the field music and places himself twelve paces in front center of the guard detail. The Sgts and corporals will follow by marching behind the guard detail and to the left of the field music. The Sgts will be eight paces in front of the detail and the corporals 4 paces. At this time the Adjutant will inform the officer of the Guard and the NCO’s of any special duties they are to perform.

Once this task is completed the Adjutant will order:

Officers and Non Commissioned Officers-ABOUT FACE-Inspect your guards-MARCH.

At the command MARCH, the NCO's assume what would be their normal positions in the company. The Officer of the Guard will order:

Order Arms, Inspection Arms

And along with the Adjutant sheathes his sword. The Officer of the Guard will inspect the arms of the men, the Adjutant will inspect the men for general appearance.

At the conclusion of the inspection, the Officer of the Guard will redraw his sword and post himself in the normal position for the company commander for a company in open ranks which is four paces forward of his normal spot.

During this interval the current Officer of the Day and the previous Officer of the Day will take a position approximately 60 paces from the center of the guard. The previous Officer of the Day will post himself three paces to the right and one pace behind the current Officer of the Day. The Adjutant will draw his sword and place it in the position of Carry. The adjutant will march half the distance to the Officers of the Day.

He will then order:

Parade Rest (2) Troop Beat Off.

At this command the field music will face to their left, and playing a quick march, move down the line of the guard. Upon reaching the end of the line they will countermarch by the right and still playing a quick march return to their place on the right of the line.

The Adjutant will now order:

Attention, Shoulder Arms Close Order March.

On the command Close Order, the officer of the guard will about face and on March assume his position in the company. The Adjutant will now order:

Present Arms

And saluting the current Officer of the Day reports;

Sir, the Guard is formed.

Should the Officer of Day desire he could have the guard pass in review, however that evolution is enormously complicated and far beyond the scope of this lesson. We are primarily concerned with guard formation, and the duties of the grand guard and police guard. For simplicity’s sake the Officer of the Day will order:

March the Guard to it's post.

The adjutant would face about and order:

Shoulder Arms
Gaurd to it's post
Right face
Forward march

The guard would face to the right, without doubling and march off to its assignment.

Duties of the Guard

The two main types of guard duty we are going to be concerned with here is the Police Guard and Grand Guard. The Police Guard was the interior guard of the camp; while the Grand Guard was the exterior guard or what we most commonly refer to as picket duty.

The Police Guard served a number of functions in camp. They were to guard the headquarters area, the living quarters of high-ranking officers, the colors, the magazine and guardhouse should any men be sentenced to it.

The Police Guard was to furnish specifically ten men at all times; one was detailed to watch over the arms of the guard, another in front of the Colonels tent, three on the color line (one to specifically watch over the colors), three men to guard the rear of the field officers quarters and one on each flank of the regimental camp to observe the area of other regiments camped to the side.

The guard over the colors was under specific orders not to permit them to be moved except in the presence of an escort. Nor was he to let any one touch them but the color bearer or the Sgt. of the Police guard and then only when he is accompanied by two armed men.

The sentinels on the color line were not to allow the removal of any arms except by order of an officer or the non commissioned officer officer of the guard.

The duty of the sentinel at the Colonel’s tent was to notify the Colonel of any unusual activity in the camp or the approach of visitors.

The sentinels on the front, flank and rear were to ensure that no soldier left camp with arms or with a horse unless accompanied by a non-commissioned officer of the guard. They were cautioned to prevent men slipping out of camp at night. They were to arrest at any time any suspicious persons, which included soldiers from other units. Any persons who were arrested by the guard were escorted to the officer of the guard who would determine if they needed to be sent to the officer of the day.

Another ten men were detailed to watch over any prisoners. These men were under specific orders not to leave the area of their post and would have their meals brought to them.

Another important function of the police guard was to provide a stable guard. Even an infantry regiment had a large number of horses attached to it. The stable guard’s main duties were the safekeeping of the regimental horses and ensure none wandered away from the stable area.

The Grand Guard was the advanced posts of any camp or bivouac. They would cover the approaches to the camp and would provide first warning of any enemy movement.

The Grand Guard was divided into three watches or reliefs. Each guard was expected to stand two hours of duty and then have four off. Each man was assigned to a specific post and he would be continuing to go to that post as his turn for sentry duty came up.

While on sentry duty, the guard was expected to carry his weapon at either the Support Arms or at the Shoulder. In inclement weather the guard would carry his weapon at the Secure Arms.

During daylight hours the sentry would salute all officers. Field grade officers would be saluted by going to Carry Arms, which allowed the soldier to go from Support to the Shoulder Arms. Staff Officers were saluted by going to Present Arms.

At the approach of a either a staff officer, VIP or other dignitary near the guard post all off watch personnel would be turned out to render honors. This was known as turning out the guard. The personnel would line up in single file at Shoulder Arms. They would Present Arms at the command of the Officer of the Guard.

After retreat, rifle salutes and turning out the guard could be dispensed with, but sentries were still to show proper military respect to all officers.

The sentinel was guided by regulations, which addressed his conduct while on duty. These duties were laid out in Regulations For the Confederate States Army-1861. Articles 400-408 were very specific and are very similar to the ten general orders of a watch stander in the military.

Sentinels were not to take orders or allow themselves to be relieved, except by an officer or non-commissioned officer of their guard party, the officer of the guard or officer of the day or the regimental commanding officer.

Sentinels were to report any breach of regulations or orders they are instructed to enforce.

Sentinels were to keep alert, observing everything that took place within their sight or hearing.

No sentinel was to quit his post or to hold conversations unnecessary to the proper discharge of their duties.

In case of disorder the sentinel was expected to call out the guard. In case of fire he was to cry "Fire" and his post number. In case of extreme emergency he was to discharge his firearm into the air to attract attention. It was also his duty to repeat all calls from posts more distant than his own.

Sentries were particularly cautioned about who could inspect their weapon or ask for it. Only the Officer of the Day, Guard Officer of the Day, Sergeant of the Guard could request to handle the sentries weapon.

Guard Relief

Posting and relief of sentinels was a very formal affair. Each watch detail would be under the command of a corporal who would escort the guard detail to each post in turn and see to the relief of the sentry posted there.

The relief column marched in two files. Generally in the first files, the front rank #1 would assigned to post 1 and the rear rank #1 would be assigned to post two, the second file front rank #2 to post 3 and the rear to post 4. The rest of the post assignments would follow in a similar manner.

The relief detail was to march at Support Arms. If the column approached an officer the corporal would order Carry Arms. (Shoulder Arms) and return to Support Arms when the officer had passed.

During daylight hours when the relief detail approached a sentry, the sentry would face the relief and come to the Shoulder Arms. When the relief detail was six paces from the sentry the corporal would order:

Relief Halt

The relief will halt and come to Shoulder Arms. The corporal will then order:

Post Number ___, Arms Port.

The old sentinel and his relief approach each other at Arms Port. The old sentry will pass on any orders or information to the new sentry. When the new sentry takes his position, both go the Shoulder Arms . The sentry who was relieved will fall in at the end of the detail. The corporal will order:

Support Arms, Forward March

And proceed to the next post.

The Grand Round

The Grand Round was any time the Officer of the Guard, Commander, General Officer or Officer of the Day felt like inspecting the sentries at their post. Any officer conducting Grand Rounds was required to take a sergeant and two men as an escort.

As the party would approach; the sentry would call out:

Halt! Who Goes There?

The sergeant would answer:

Grand Rounds

The sentinel would then direct:

Halt Grand Rounds
Advance sergeant with the Countersign

The sergeant would advance and give the countersign and then return to his party. He will inform the officer;

The countersign is Correct.

The officer will then command:

Advance Rounds

The party will continue on to each post in succession.

The Parole and Countersign

The Parole was a watchword that was given to those officers who were authorized to issue orders to the guard, go on the grand rounds, or otherwise visit or inspect the guard. Although the company would furnish the men for guard duty, the guard detail belonged to the battalion staff. It was the battalion staff who would issue new orders to the guards and the parole was a means whereby the Officer of the Guard could ensure that new orders came only from the battalion staff. The parole was usually the name of a General Officer.

The countersign was given to those personnel who required to pass through the guard posts. It was usually the name of a battle.

The correct method of using the Countersign is as follows. A party approaches a sentry post. The sentry comes to Port Arms and calls out;

Halt! Who Goes There?

The reply would be;

A Friend with the Countersign

The sentry will direct;

Advance Friend with the countersign

The sentry will come to the low ready, or guard against infantry as the party approaches. The sentry should not allow the party to get any closer than the point of his bayonet. The party will whisper the countersign.

If the sentry is authorized to pass persons through his line he will command:

Pass, Friend

The party will continue on. If the sentry is not authorized to pass people through the line he will call for the corporal of the guard who will escort the party to the officer of the guard.

If a large group approached the sentry was to allow only one member of the party to advance. The sentry will direct:

Advance One Friend with the Countersign

Mounted men; either a single one or a group were required to dismount and have one of their party give the countersign.

If the party did not know the correct countersign the sentry was to hold them there and call for the corporal of the guard. He was not to fire at the party unless they made an attempt to force their way past him or attempted to escape.


Gilham, William, Manual of Instruction for Volunteers and Militia of the United States, 1860, Reprint of 1861 edition
Hardee, William, Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics-1855, Reprint of 1855 edition.
Revised Regulations for the Confederate States Army-1863, Richmond VA
Scott, Winfield, Infantry Tactics-1835, Reprint of 1835 edition
United States Army Regulations-1861, 1863, Washington D.C.
Instructions for Guards and Pickets, Dominic J. Dal Bello, AOP Press, 1996

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