Guard Duty

In the words of American Revolutionary War Soldiers:

“’Tis nothing – a private or two, now and then,

Will not count in the news of the battle;

Not an officer lost – only one of the men,

Moaning out, all alone, the death rattle.”[1]


British Line
British Line

The lone sentry looks hard into the dark or night. Web-like mist slithers up between the tall grasses of the morass and crawls over the road where he stands. The waters, dark and corrupted with decayed and rotting vegetation, seethe their fetid smells that fill his nostrils. Heavy moist air mixed with the day’s hot sticky sweat and dampens his tow shirt. In the chill night air of the early fall, he shivers. He runs a sleeve down his face, rubs his eyes, opens them, blinks, and stares down the road. The fence post, not ten rods distant, is nearly lost in the shadowy gloom. He glances skyward and sighs. There’s still another hour till dawn… and relief. Then he will find himself sitting in the safe comfort of a warm fire amongst good friends.

Eyes fall to the fence post, the same one he has been staring at all night. He blinks, and blinks again. He shakes his head slightly. The post… did it waver, ever so slightly? He narrows his eyes. He stares willing it to not move again. Yet… once more, it moves, this time to the side. His fingers tighten around his firelock. Could the post be leaning farther to the left? Could he be watching someone slowly approaching? It’s not possible. His eyes must be playing tricks. It’s happened before.  He’s been staring into the dark all night and his eyes are tired. But – what if…? He raises the heavy barrel of his musket and takes a step forward. And another. Two more steps before a sigh of relief escapes his lips. He sees the single railing laid alongside the base of the post. He cradles his musket, turns, and walks back to his station.

Two shadows emerge from the behind the fence and scamper a dozen paces, slipping behind a clump of furze bushes on the side of the road.

Young men eagerly enlisted to fight a war for a cause they believe in, though most did it for the thrill of adventure. Once they made their mark and joined their regiment[2], they quickly learned that only a fraction of their time would be spent in actual combat. From before dawn to past dusk, a Revolutionary War soldier’s life was regimented by perpetual duty. Of all the many camp functions a soldier was assigned, the largest chunk, twice more than all others combined, was guard duty.

“Commanding officers of guards and detachment… [are to] parade their men at their posts, half an hour before daybreak and remain there until the commanding officer think properly to dismiss them.”[3] Though other duties may occasionally be put aside, guard duty seemed perpetual: “The 17th [May 1776] was set aside as a day of fasting and prayer by order of Congress, and by order of Washington, all duties, except the necessary guard, were discontinued.” [4] Long endless hours were consumed standing alone or in a small group in every type of weather imaginable. Anxiety, boredom, fear, hunger, fatigue – nerves twisted the deep shadows of an eternal night, breathing life into faded objects. For the most part, the Revolutionary War was fought by very young men. Many were boys of fifteen or sixteen who had never been away from home from their parent’s care. They stood alone, vulnerable, knowing that the enemy was near, and at any moment could strike.

There were many forms of guard duty. Men were needed to observe; feel out the enemy; act as a buffer against attack; guard prisoners, civilians, or structures; escort commanding officers and politicians; witness execution; and keep watch over camp and supplies. When the army or a large body of troops marched, guards were posted to the front, side, and rear. Guards had to be stationed at all hours. The amount of time a soldier spent on one given duty varied, sometimes hours; other times days at a stretch. This article explores the several types of guard duty. Most of it described in the words of the officers and rank and file who walked the endless miles, watched the countless roads and passes, probed for enemy positions, and risked their lives in a lonely grove of trees or on the banks of a nameless creek.

General orders were issued on a daily basis by the supreme commander through his adjunct, who in turn issued them to brigade[5] adjuncts. The orders were passed on to regimental colonels who in turn had their subordinates inform the men. Those orders listed the daily guard requirements. April 30, [1775]: “That guards be posted as follows: vis – two companies in Charlestown Road, with advanced parties on the heights, one guard at Phip’s Farm, … one at the bridge and one towards Menotory.”[6]

Captain John Fenno, artillerist and secretary to Washington listed in his orderly book: “That the guards parade near the guardhouse… that a guard be mounted[7] to consist of a subaltern, a sergeant, and corporal with thirty men…”  And “…one captain; two subaltern, two sergeants, two corporals, forty rank and file from each regiment.[8] General orders would also notify guards in special instances: “That all officers of the guard pay obedience to orders signed by the President of the Congress… hereby ordered to permit members of his [Congressmen’s] company to pass and repass…”[9] During a lull in the action and when the army falls into a routine, the General Orders would just list “Guards as Usual”[10]

Once the guards were established in general orders, regimental commanders would assign field officers and an orderly sergeant called sergeant of the guard. Very early in the war Rufus Putnam, nephew of General Israel Putnam, wrote: “I was not only pleased with the duty of orderly Sergeant, as considered in itself, but as it is his duty, every day to bring his men for guard onto parade, and attending there until the guard is formed, and inspected by the officer of the day.”[11] Captain William Colt writes that arms and provisions were to be examined prior to posting guard: “Respective officers who furnish men for the picket guard strictly examine their arms and ammunition before the march.”[12] As the war advanced into its second year, men’s clothing became little more than rags and shoes wore out. General Greene, on May 17th, 1776 issued an order to his division: “General Greene forbade any soldier to mount a guard without shoes.”[13]

Officers would assemble or ‘parade’[14] the men on a common prior to mounting guard. “The adjuncts will take care to bring the men upon the place of parade for guards… precisely by the time prefixed by the adjunct general.”[15]

Once guardsmen were posted, they communicated by by word of mouth, a system that was prone to error. If there was no immediate alarm requiring guards to fire a musket, messages were to be sent to the guardhouse or the field officer, relayed from guard to guard until it reached the field officer in command who would then send word to the brigade commanders. Because important news could be left out or incorrectly told at any point of the relay, this method proved to be inefficient.

Main guard. The main guard would be assigned in daily general orders. It would normally list the number of officers and subordinates including the total strength of the main guard. They would serve many general purposes: guarding camp, probing for the enemy, sorties and raids to capture enemy for questioning, tracking deserters, etc. “Field officers for the main guard… Main guard to consist of six captains, twelve subalterns, twenty-four sergeants, three hundred thirty rank and file, and that the aforesaid guards… [will[ relieve the present guards.”[16]   Brigade advocate generals [aides to the brigadier generals] would assign field officers and companies of a regiment to fill the ranks of the guard. Main guards were posted from a guardhouse and from such, sentinels, skirmishers, and patrols[17] would be sent out. Roxbury Camp, [outside Boston] June 25, 1775. “Yesterday, about 1 o’clock, the regulars [British soldiers] began firing from the breast work and block house upon our lowermost sentinel & main guard but did no harm.”[18]

Strong guard. Strong guards were comprised of two to three hundred men or more and were often used on extended tours. “…joining the army at Morristown, the enemy, having withdrawn, made it necessary to have a strong guard. I was detached with three hundred men for a fortnight tour during which time we slept on our arms.”[19] Strong guards were posted when the enemy was deemed near or prior to a planned attack. This in a letter from Washington to Reed during which time Washington contemplated a February attack against the British forces penned up in Boston. “… completed our work on Letchmore’s Point; we have got some heavy pieces of ordinance placed there, two platforms fixed for mortars, and everything but the thing ready for any offensive operation. Strong guards are now mounted there, and at Cobble Hill.”[20]

Picket guard. The main guard and picket guards were assigned separately in general orders. Picket guards were usually given specific duties:  escorting, guarding roads and bridges, manning intersections and sensitive areas, guarding headquarters, etc. Soldiers were to remain on picket duty night and day. Orders were specific as to when and the number of soldiers may leave their posts when on picket duty: “That the commanding officer of the picket guard never leave his post… for more than one hour at a time leaving directions with his next commanding officer where to find him… no more than ten [rank and file] be allowed to be off their post at a time.”[21] This from Elias Cornelius, Surgeon’s mate with Colonel Varnum’s Rhode Island regiment: August 22, 1777. “After that, the Gen. thought proper to send out picket guards. Cpt. Alden of Col Samuel Webb’s regiment was detached with about fifty men to command the advanced picket on the left near West Chester. Cpt. David Dexter of Israel Angell’s regiment was detached with the same number of men to command the advanced guards on the right at Miles Square.”[22]

Sentry. Individual guards were called sentries. They guarded officers and politicians from bodily harm, theft, and assignations. They stood watch over various locations to prevent sabotage and forced entry; basically to discourage any violent or illegal actions. The sentry was usually by himself when posted outside headquarters or on a lonely bridge. Most often they were within hailing range of a companion.

Quarter guard. Quarter guards referred to those posted within a unit used for specific purposes. “All those guilty of crimes triable by a regimental court-martial to be sent to the quarter guards of their respective corps…”[23]

Foot guard. A foot guard was basically a picket guard, however it was not designated in general orders. Usually a foot guard was formed for an immediate specific purpose: Rufus Putnam, chief engineer, was nephew of the garrulous General Israel Putnam. This from his memoir: “The next morning by order of the general I set out from Kingsbridge, to reconnoiter their position [British] and &c. I set out in company with Col. Reed the adjunct general & a foot guard of about twenty men.”[24]

Skirmisher: Often skirmishers would be sent forward from the main guard. A company[25] of skirmishers could also be assigned directly from a regiment during an emergency or if circumstances demanded it. When an enemy was near or presumed near, skirmishers were sent forward to act as a buffer against attack. Here General Heath orders a guard sent to reconnaissance the enemy. “… reconnoiter the enemy with due precaution, and make such remarks as you may think proper, you will take a part, or the whole of your light company as a guard.”[26] Usually skirmishers from both armies would fire upon each other until one side decided to attack in force and thereby drive in the enemy’s skirmishers and or pickets. “About 9 o’clock our scouts and guards [were ordered] to push in towards camp…”[27]

Camp Guard. Soldiers posted along the perimeter of camp called it camp guard. “I was one day upon a camp guard; we kept our guard in the fields, and to defend us from the night dew, we laid down under some trees…”[28] Men rested when assured the guard was alert. Elish Bostwick wrote: “I think if the guards do their duty, I am effectually provided against any surprise.”[29]

Guardhouse. The Guardhouse was a specified location that served as a base of operations for the main guard and/or a place to house prisoners. It may have been a residence, garrison, redoubt, barn, etc. Major Abraham Leggett wrote: “While the British held possession of the city [New York], they used the City Hall[30] as a guard house for the main guard. There were dungeons below for the confinement of prisoners.”[31] Most cases the guardhouse was in advance of the army and close to the enemy. Sentries, patrols, and relief were sent out from the guard house and at times attacked an enemy’s guard. July eighth, 1775, Ensign Nathaniel Morgan writes of a patrol from the main guard:  “Last night our people went to set the guard house on fire where the regulars [British soldiers] encamped and was assaulted by the regulars.”[32] “The Refugees [armed Tories] rushed on for the house, to massacre the remainder of the guard, but they [Americans] had taken the alarm and left the house.”[33] A guardhouse could also be assigned to collect the sick and stragglers: “That Captain Brown, of Watertown, do appoint a proper guardhouse for stragglers and persons to guard them that who have had the small-pox so that the distemper may be prevented from spreading.”[34]

Advance guard. When an army marched – guards preceded it. “A little before seven, the advance guard stationed a mile and a quarter towards Lexington…”[35]  “Immediately upon arrival… I was ordered upon an advanced guard, about half a mile in advance of a bridge which lay across a large creek… the enemy’s shipping lay in the river a little below us. There was a large guard of militia in advance of us. We used to make excursions in parties… into the neighborhood of the enemy, and often picked up stragglers.”[36] Advance guard was also referred to as van guard. “… one of them fired on us, which gave notice of our approach to their van guard.”[37]  Also known as out guards: “… first throwing himself between their out guards and their camp where he concealed his party…”[38] At times guards were sent out before the main advance guard. “Nixon’s brigade were [was] ordered to cross the creek which separated the two armies. Cap. Goodale with forty volunteers went over before the advance guard, he soon fell in with a British guard of about the same number…”[39]

Flank Guard: When an army marched, pickets and skirmishers, known as flank guards, were sent out on either side of the moving columns to prevent a surprise attack. General Heath describes a moment in the Battle of Lexington where the British were retreating and the militia continued to attack from all sides. “Not far from this place, several of the militia… imprudently posted themselves behind some dry casks… near to the road, unsuspicious of the enemy’s flank-guard, which came behind them, and killed every one of them dead on the spot.[40] In the same battle: “They [British] ordered out a flank guard on the left to dislodge the Americans from their posts behind the trees.”[41] During General Israel Putnam’s desperate retreat from New York on September 15th 1776, to prevent his division from being trapped within the city, he sent out flank guards ¼ mile to the east of his column from which direction the enemy had invaded.

Rear Guard: A detachment of rear guard – usually a strong guard, secured the rear of the army when on the move. “When the main army was on the way to Cambridge, it is conceivable that the rear guard felt the need of smoke to obscure their movement.”[42] Captain Samuel Shaw noted: He sent all his prisoners (157) with his lame and fatigued men forward, composing a rear guard with about fifty under his own immediate command.”[43] During Washington’s hasty retreat across New Jersey, a strong rear guard occasionally fired upon the quickly advancing enemy while crews cut trees across the road and laid down other obstacles to hinder the British advance.

Among physical obstacles to impede pursuit, the rearguard was known to use biological warfare. Lt. William Feltman of the 1st. Pennsylvania regiment wrote of one such incident: “At dark took up our line of march in order to overtake Colonel Simes’s horse[44], who had the rear guard with a great number of cattle, plundering as he was making his way towards James Town; left one negro man with the small-pox lying on the roadside in order to prevent the Virginia militia from pursuing them, which the enemy frequently did, left numbers in that condition starving and helpless, beggin of us as we passed them for God’s sake to kill them, as they were in great pain and misery.”[45]

Andance & rear guard. There were instances when an advance guard became a rear guard action when the army retreated from the position they held. Two days after the devastating Battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776, on the evening of the 29th, Washington’s army made a desperate retreat across the East River. Guards were posted in front of the earthworks along Brooklyn Heights while the rest of the army boarded long boats and departed. “… the last night we was (sic) on the island [Long Island] myself and several of Volunteers was put on advanced centres [advanced guard] with special orders how to behave should we discover the enemy advancing – the night was foggy and very dark….  we then formed the rear guard, we was ordered forward. Still expected to meet the enemy till we found ourselves at the ferry and the army all crossed. But the guard then under the command of Gen’l Mifflin… at this time no boats. I prepar’d myself to swim the river flood tide but fortunately two battoes struck the shore – by this time there was but a few of us left – we all hurried on board and shoved off – the enemy rush’d down on the hill and commenced a brisk fire. Fortunately no one was hurt in our boat – the other boat had four wounded.”[46]

Life Guards: George Washington had a company of men called life guards who saw to his personal safety. This from Webb’s manuscripts where he describes a letter from the British sent under a flag of truce: “July 20th, 1776. At twelve o’clock we met the flag and took Lt. Colonel Patterson… and escorted him safe to town to Colonel’s Knox’s quarters, where his Excellency General Washington attended with his suite and life guards.”[47] One of Washington’s life guards, Thomas Hickey[48], a former deserter from the British army, was accused in a plot of sabotage and assignation and was consequently hanged.[49]

Desertions. If a soldier made the decision to leave the army for home or offer his services to the other side, what better opportunity did he have than to quietly slip off into the night while posted guard? This was especially true for “old country” soldiers, those who had recently emigrated from Europe or came specifically to fight the war: “When a sentinel deserted to the enemy, he became the subject of comment; “old countrymen”; as the soldiers of foreign birth were called, never quite gained the confidence of the army, and if a man who was reported as “gone over to the enemy” was known to be an old countryman, the fact was emphasized among the rank and file after the evening roll-call.”[50] Lieutenant Isaac Bangs emphasized the mistrust of those who deserted from the British army to join the American forces: “This man was a deserter from the ministerial army. He that is false to one part is not to be trusted in any…”[51]

George Washington preferred “natives” over old countrymen and foreigners for sentinels, and later chose from them when considering his life guard [after the Hinkey affair of June 1776]. He insisted that officers should place as sentinels at the outposts those whose characters were “thoroughly known”. “He therefore orders that for the future, no man shall be appointed to those important stations who is not a native of this country, or who has a wife or family in it, to whom he is known to be attached.”[52]

Guarding and capturing prisoners. Guards were detailed to escort or detain prisoners. This entry after a major action: “That Cpt. Hill repair to Woburn and apply to the selectmen for a suitable house for the reception of prisoners, and a guard of fifty men.”[53] They were to apprehend any suspected deserters and hold them. “… if soldiers without leave [are found], they are to be made prisoners and a report sent to the commanding officer.”[54] Benjamin Trumbell writes of the large number of Tories who tried to slip by guardsmen to join the British: “Troops who had enlisted in the service for the King of Great Britain [colonists loyal to the crown] and were attempting to make their escape last night to the British army were taken up by our guards this morning and confined.”[55] So too does Colonel Rufus Putnam express concern of Tories joining the British: “… it may be well to have a guard kept hereabouts as there is a number of Tories sheltering themselves in these mountains waiting an opportunity to get to the ministerial[56] army.”[57]

Guardsmen posted watch over gaols or jails: “The great number of prisoners confined in the jail made it necessary to keep a strong guard…”[58]  Alexander Graydon records: “Major Skene, of the British army, ventured to show himself in Philadelphia… it was deemed expedient… to have him arrested and secured. A guard was accordingly placed over him at his lodgings, at the city tavern. I well recollect the day that the guard was paraded to escort him out of the city….”[59] Those disobedient or who did not follow military decorum were jailed and placed in the custody of the main guard: “… the soldiers that disobey the officers order [in this case cleanliness] are to be continued at the main guard until they receive such punishment adequate to the crime so heinous.”[60]

Suspected spies received special treatment: In a letter written to Samuel Adams on October 9, 1775, Elbridge Gerry refers to the treasonous Dr. Benjamin Church who was apprehended while passing information to British General Gage. “Church is confined under a guard of fifty men, without being permitted to communicate with anyone.”[61] Also related to Church, this from Ebenezer Huntington: “You will be much surprised to hear that our famous Doct’r Church that great pretended patriot is now under a special guard of a Capt’n and forty men for corresponding with Gage and other of his hellish gang…”[62]

Cruelty abounded among those guarding prisoners: Elisha Cornelius details some of his experiences once captured while he was on picket duty: “Where, as I and my companion were put in close confinement, with thirteen sentinels, who would not allow us to speak… Once in a while the Hessian that guarded us would bring some sour apples in his hat and throw them down among us as he would among so many pigs.”[63]  Beatings and starvation were not uncommon.

Protect Citizenry & Dignataries, Structures, and Supplies. “That a guard be appointed out of Captain Cook’s company to prevent injury that may happen to Judge Danford’s house by persons entering the same…”[64] “… that a sentry be appointed at… the house of Cpt. Stedman…[also] to be placed at the office of Mr. Pigion…” and “that the commanding officer of the main guards post a sentry between the apparatus and library.”[65]  Bostwick writes: “. “Our company on their march for Boston… ordered to go down the Connecticut River to Lyme to keep guard at Gov. Griswold’s house.[66]

Sentries were posted outside headquarters and commanders’ encampments as well as other locations: “That Sergent Green… take command of the guard at the small-pox hospital near Fresh Pond [New York City] and keep a sentry at the gate, he is to permit no person going in and out except the doctor and those the doctor permits to pass… a strict guard be constantly kept.”[67] Colonel Israel Angell writes: “The regiment was principally employed in guard duty at the ferries.”[68] Chase writes “… a guard of men had been patrolling the Concord streets at night.”[69] Colonel Thomas Knowlton of the elite Rangers’ unit wrote: “The strip of hard upland bordering on the Mystic, the key to the American works on the peninsula, must be guarded at all hazards.”[70]

The protection of supplies was key to the survival of the army. “The guard for the security of the stores at Watertown to be increased to thirty men immediately.”[71] William Hull wrote in his memoir: “I made a detachment of 200 men… with orders to proceed to the river Raisin and guard those cattle safely to camp.”[72] Joseph Joslin recorded accompanying supplies while on route: “Landed some pork and set out to go to the North River [Hudson] at Peekskill… we had a guard to go with us…”[73] Fear of losing the water supply necessitated a guard: “That the officer of the main guard set a sentry over the pump… so no person put anything into said pump.” [74] Supplies needed security not just from the enemy, but from the army’s own troops who were poorly clothed and fed: “As we returned to our camp, we passed by our Commissary’s quarters, all his stores, consisting of a barrel about two thirds full of hocks of fresh beef, stood directly in our way, but there was a sentinel guarding even that…”[75]

Crowd control: Guard duty would also encompass keeping the peace between Whigs [patriots] & Tories. Isaac Bangs wrote: “I mounted guards at the North River in the city [Hudson River in New York]. There are many in the city of York who have behaved in an inimical manner to America, a large mob this day visited many of them and treated them very inhumanly by carrying them on a rail through the streets… toward night, they came nigh our guard and I desired the captain [probably Dr. David Townsend] to turn out the guard and dispose [of] them… however the two Tories whom they were in pursuit of brought them to us and desired us to keep them… we dismissed them [the Tories] at relieving the guard [however] they were unwilling to quit the guard house [seeking asylum].”[76]

Signs and countersigns: Daily general orders issued the parole, what the sentry is to call out to challenge a person or persons, and response, the expected countersign by the approaching person. When approached, a sentry would call out “who goes there?” The person would identify himself. The sentry may also give the parole. If he did not receive the counter sign, the sentry would sound the alarm or hold the person prisoner until the sergeant of the guard was notified. If several persons approached, the sentry would immediately call out the sergeant of the guard who would order his men out under arms. Parole and counter signs with would then be exchanged. Since the parole and countersign were changed daily, young soldiers had trouble remembering the proper signs. To aid this, pains were taken to associate the words in some manner such as Wealth with Neatness, or Inoculation with Health. These are taken from the army’s general orders dated July 24th to July 29th, 1775,  Parole/Countersign: Cumberland/Brookline, Salisbury/Cumberland, Halifax/York, Amsterdam/Amboy, Bedford/Guilford, Dartmouth/Cork.[77]   Often the countersign of the day was corrupted: June 30, 1776; “Those who had been entrusted with the countersign had been so imprudent as to give it to others… it was directed that the countersign should be delivered to none but colonels and officers of guard…”[78]

At times, the guard making the challenge was fooled: Surgeon’s mate Israel Cornelius was making his escape from New York City where he had been held prisoner. He was challenged by a British sentry. Quick thinking proved his safe passage. “I was challenged by a sentinel… upon which I answered nothing, on being challenged the second time I answered friend. He bade me advance and give the counter sign, upon which I fancied I was drunk and advancing in a staggering manner, and after falling to the ground, he asked me where I was going, home I told him, but had got lost, and having been to New York, had taken rather too much liquor, and become somewhat intoxicated…. and solicited him to put me in the right road [towards home], but told me that I must not go until the sergeant of the guards dismissed me from him, unless I could give him the counter sign. I still entreated him to let me go knowing the situation I was in. Soon, however, he consented and directed my course which I thanked him.”[79]

Patrols. Patrols to probe for enemy activity or capture hostile troops were often times issued from the guard. The following entry is from Sergeant Ebenezer Wild’s journal from Warwick, Rhode Island. He wrote: “I carried my men to roll call. After the rolls were called, I mounted guard with sixteen men under my command. I marched with my men about two miles towards the point, where I left my guard. At one o clk, I sent a corporal and four men out as a patrolling party, which went down to the point and all ‘round the shore… came in [two o’clock] at which time I sent another party, which went the rounds as usual and came in between four & five o clk, and then I sent another party, which patrolled till daylight and then came in with the other corporal and four men from the point. I went to the commissary and got a gill of rum per man. After I gave it to them I dismissed them.”[80]

Hazards of guard duty. Far too often the lone sentry would be missing or found dead. Even if he were able to fire his musket and sound the alarm, it would take too long to reload so his only avenue of escape was to run. If he wasn’t quick enough he would be captured or suffer death. This is taken from Plumb Martin’s narrative where he laments the death of a young friend. They were stationed in New Jersey along the Hudson River; an area prone to Tory attack.[81]  “… the sergeant stationed a sentinel… about the time the moon was setting, which was about ten o’clock, they came… [he] saw them coming; he immediately hailed them by the usual question, “who comes there?” They answered him that if he did not discharge his piece, they would not hurt him, but if he did they would kill him. The sentinel, being true to his trust, paid no regard to their threats, but fired his piece and ran to the house to alarm the guard. In his way he had to cross a hedge fence… he got entangled in the bushes… the enemy coming up thrust a bayonet through him, they then inflected twelve more wounds upon him with bayonets… his breast like a sieve, caused by his wounds.”[82] Guard duty close to the enemy was susceptible not just to small arms fire, but to shelling: “… they [British] opened a tremendous fire from their battery… when some of our guards were there killed. [One] his head being quite dashed open by a cannon ball.”[83]

Guards were in constant fear of being cut off from their main body of troops. Lt. Colonel William Henshaw[84], adjunct under General Artemas Ward, commanded a picket duty during the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776. “When it began [the battle], he [I] was stationed at Flatbush, and was in command of a picket guard and found himself cut off from the body of Continental troops by the sudden advance of the enemy…”[85] This from Surgeon’s mate Cornelius: “To my great surprise, I found that our troops had left the place and retired back and the enemies scouting parties were in the town. At this time Cpt. Alden on the left was killed and his pickets [approx. fifty men] chiefly killed or taken.”[86]

Soldier grievances: Often guards that were posted for duty were not relieved at the appointed time. “I mounted the guard upon the point… my duty calling me to visit the centuries [British regulars – to observe]. I could hear them busily employed, as I supposed, in spiking up the cannon [rendering cannon temporarily useless]… they continued the next day… this lasted until about sunset… our guard were now expected to be relieved and were paraded to receive the relief, but the relief being detained… [they returned to duty] the guard coming very late to relieve us.”[87]

Fatigue and constant motion was one common complaint: “Being so far from the troops, and so near the enemy that they were obliged to be constantly on the alert. We had three different houses that we occupied during the night… we had to remove from one to the other of these houses three times every night from fear of being surprised by the enemy… there was no trusting the inhabitants, for many of them were friendly to the British. We were obliged [through the night] to keep about one half the guard upon sentry and [in] small patrolling parties on all the roads leading toward the enemy.”[88]

Early in the war, there were not enough officers to handle the high demands placed on them. Colonel Benjamin Trumbull writes from Westchester County on the 11th of October, 1776, two weeks prior to the Battle of White Plains. “There being not but nine officers of my rank, in the whole brigade to do duty, eleven days of the nineteen last part I have been on guard duty.” Though officers would complain, their lot in clothing, food and was far better than the rank and file. Often, on a wintery eve, they would be found in the guard house before a roaring fire while their sentries stamped the frozen ground on lone country road.

Unexpected pleasures. At times guard duty presented pleasant circumstances, though mainly for the officers. Bangs wrote in his memoirs:  “April 26 [1776]. I mounted guard with Cpt. Crocker at Harrison’s brewery. I had a pleasant guard; treated very handsomely by Mr. McPherlin and his wife who live in the house where the officers’ room was. They invited us to sup and every way treated us genteelly and engaged our future acquaintance.”[89] Bangs also wrote: “[This] afternoon I visited a very agreeable young lady of this city [New York] with whom I had before had a small acquaintance, as I had, while on guard duty, shewn this young lady and the company with her the civility due to persons of their appearance…”[90]

However, the rank and file also found ways to pass the boredom and stress. Mostly boys, the troops would, whenever possible, occupy themselves in play: “… some trees which stood on the brink of a deep gully were covered with walnut and hickory saplings, three, four, or five inches diameter at the butts, and many of them were fifty or sixty feet in height. In the morning before the guard was relieved, [we] took it into our heads to divert ourselves by climbing these trees as high as they would bear us and then swinging off our feet, the weight would bring us by a gentle flight to the ground…”[91] The teenagers would also get into mischief: “Several of us went into the woods and fields in search of nuts; [starvation was common among the rank and file] returning across the fields which were all common, we came across a number of horses at pasture; thinking to make a little fun for myself, I caught one of the horses and mounting him, as the Dutchman did his bear, without saddle or bridle, set off full speed… guiding my nag with a stick.”[92]

Punishment: Guard service in all kinds of weather and sometimes in places of great danger was not the least trying part of a soldier’s routine. Often after great bodily exertion and fatigue made worse by poor nutrition, they would fall asleep while on duty, even while propped up against a tree or building. Those who fell asleep while on duty were stripped before their regiment and received twenty lashes on their bare backs. If the enemy was near, it would be considered a heinous crime and the flogging would have been much more severe. Some, after punishment, were cashiered out of the army. No less were the number of lashes that fell upon a soldier who was late mounting his guard.

Soldiers would stray while on guard duty. This was a severe problem early in the war when an army of mostly militia observed little discipline. General Orders, July 24, 1775: “Notwithstanding the orders of the 11th expressively forbidding all officers and soldiers from quitting their guards before they are relieved and dismissed, the General [Washington] is informed such unsoldierly practices are committed.” The same general order offered a solution to help remedy this problem: “Care [is] to be taken the men are properly supplied with provisions before they mount guard.”[93] 

Illness & swapping duty. In most cases, soldiers were excused from guard duty when ill: “Called for guard tomorrow, but excused on account of my illness.”[94] Others tried faking sickness to be relieved from guard duty. “I returned to camp just at sunset and met our orderly sergeant who immediately warned me to prepare for a few day’s command… I told the sergeant that I ws sick and could not go. He said I must go to the doctor. I saw our surgeon’s mate… he felt my pulse, at the same time shutting his eyes, while I was laughing in his face.”[95] There were times when the sick and wounded were ordered to guard duty. “It became only necessary for the enemy to leave at their forts in that quarter a few invalids to guard their barracks.”[96] When desired, officers were allowed to swap duty: “Cpt. Allen and myself both warned for guard… He drew Harrison’s Brewery [NYC] and I drew the upper barracks [Commons]. We were desirous to go together. I swapped with another officer.”[97]

Winter quarters. Companies or main guards were regularly detached from the main body of troops in their encampment. This was especially true during winter quarters. Guards were posted to maintain an observance of enemy movements and often would be far from the main body of troops. Though officers were permitted to ride in horse or carriage, rank and file had to walk, at times, incredible distances to their staging outposts or guardhouse: “We started before sunrise this morning, and walked forty-nine miles…”[98]

Long periods of time elapsed in camp when both opposing forces kept watch near each other. A guard tour could last months as told by Plumb Martin. “Our duty all the winter and spring was thus… I must march from the parade at eight o’clock in the morning, go a distance of ten miles and relieve the guard… stay there [Woodbridge] two days and two nights, then be relieved. Take up the afternoon of that day to reach our quarters [return trip of ten miles]… warned for Elizabethtown the next day. It was Woodbridge… then Elizabethtown, Woodbridge, Elizabethtown… til I was absolutely sick of hearing the names mentioned.”[99]

Witnessing punishment, acknowledging officers & special circumstances. Executions, court-martials, miscellaneous events required posted sentries. In many cases, as in executions and punishment by flogging, a main guard under arms was needed. “Where the prisoners will be brought from the main guard and the sentence of the general court-martial be put in execution…”[100] Guards were to be observant of the presence of commanding officers. “The Commander-in-chief, or any of the general officers, are to be received with rested arms, the officers to salute, and the drums to beat a march.”[101] At times circumstances necessitated an immediate guard. Colonel Rufus Putnam wrote:  “… he [Gen. Nixon] informed me he should send on a guard of fifty men…I told him I was charged with executing a special service & requested him to increase the detachment to 100 men under the command of a field officer.”[102] This from Washington’s general orders allowing Rufus Putnam to pass all guards: “Colonel Putnam has permission to take as many men as he chooses of his own regiment or any other for special services and to pass all guards, July 9th, 1779.”[103]

Women guardsmen. There were instances where women assumed the roles of men. When men were called up to the militias, their women remained behind. They supported the war effort through homespun clothing, manning the farm in their husband’s absence, producing food for commissaries, and keeping their ears open for any hostile attempts by raiding parties or spies. One such circumstance is detailed in Ellen Chase’s text on the Beginnings of the American Revolution: On the fateful day, April 19th, 1775, when the first shots of the revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord and blood ran freely, the women of the nearby towns acted as guards in the absence of their husbands hurrying to the call of alarm. When the alarm was sounded, Groton sent two companies of militia to the fight. Mrs. Wright of that town had two Tory brothers.  She was visiting one named Sam. Not long after the alarm and the men had left, she overheard Sam plotting with an old French War veteran. They were discussing how they might guide a party of British to Groton.

“Mrs. Wright hurried home and spread the news among the women in town. She was put in command of forty women. They donned men’s clothes and armed with pitchfork and muskets, took guard post at the bridge through town; determined that no one would pass. A little before nightfall, riders came by with dispatches from Canada to Boston. They were accompanied by Sam. When the women ordered them to stop, the men were about to fire when Sam recognized his sister’s voice. He cried out ‘Hold, that’s Prue’s voice, and she would wade through blood for the rebel cause.’ “Realizing resistance was out of the question, they dismounted and allowed themselves to be searched. The dispatches were found and they were escorted under arms to the local gaol.”[104]

Conclusion. As the war progressed, the Continental Army, through the help of many experienced veterans and foreign officers, such as Prussian officer Van Steuben, learned the intricacies of drill and military order. Systems of communication and proper posting of guards including numbers required were improved. Men enlisted for longer terms and the militiamen were gradually replaced by regular soldiers who were not apt to desert for home while on sentry duty. Though lack of clothing and food remained a problem throughout the war, improvements in the commissary did aid in the soldiers’ overall health and helped them sustain the grueling hours of marching to and performing guard duty. Though no matter the period of history or the conflict involved, guard duty was and remains among the most fearful and many times the most resentful part of military life for the common soldier.

Read the first installment of A Black Man’s Destiny (Shades of Liberty) here.


Austin, James T.  The Life of Elbridge Gerry with Contemporary Letters to the Close of the American Revolution.  1828:  Wells & Lilly Court Street, Boston, MA.

Bangs, Isaac.  Journal of Lt. Isaac Bangs, April 1 to July 29, 1776.  Edited by Edward Bangs. 1890:  John Wilson & Son, University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Bugbee, James.  The Journal of Ebenezer Wild (1776-1781), Who Served as Corporal, Sergeant, and Lieutenant in the American Army of the Revolution.  1890:  Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.  Journal found pp 78-96. (digitized on JSTOR).

Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, Vol. VII. Included within: Journals of Cpt. William Colt, Colonel Benjamin Turnbell, General Nathaniel Morgan, and Lt. Joseph Joslin.1899:  Published by the Society, Hartford, CN.

Cornelius, Elias.  Journal of Elias Cornelius, M.D. Surgeon’s Mate in the American Revolutionary Army, While a Prisoner to the British in the Provost Jail, New York, 1777 & 1778.  1903:  Charles M. Tompkins & Chester T. Sherman, New York, NY.

Feltman, Lt. William.  The Journal of Lt. William Feltman of the First Pennsylvania Regiment,1781-82.  1853: Published for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania by Henry Carey Baird, Philadelphia, PA.

Ford, Worthington Chauncey – Edited by.  General Orders Issued by Major General Israel Putnam When in Command of the Highlands, In theSummer & Fall of 1777.  1893: Historical Printing Club, Brooklyn, NY.

Graydon, Alexander P.  Memoirs of a Life, Chiefly Passed in Philadelphia, Within the Last Sixty Years.  1811:  John Wyeth, Harrisonburg, PA.  Reprint 1822:  Blackwood & T. Cadell, Edinburg & London, UK.

Heath, Major General William, Edited by William Abbott.  Memoirs of Major General William Heath by Himself.  1798:  Thomas and Andrews, Boston, MA.  1901:  William Abbott Publ. New York, NY.

Henshaw, Colonel William.  Notes by Charles Smith.  The Orderly Book of Colonel William Henshaw of the American Army, April 20 – Sept. 26, 1775.  1877: Press of John Wilson & Son, Boston, MA.

Hull, William.  Memoirs of the Campaign of the North Western Army… With an Appendix Containing a Brief Sketch of the Revolutionary Services of the Author.  1824:  Published by True and Greene, Boston, MA.

Huntington, Ebenezer.  Letters Written by Ebenezer Huntington During the American Revolution.  Original printing – 350 copies for Chas Fred Heartman.  2013: Reprinted by Hardpress, New York, NY.

Knowlton, Thomas, Woodward, Ashbel M.D. Edited by.  Memoir of Colonel Thomas Knowlton, of Asford Connecticut. 1861: Henry W. Dutton & Son, Boston, MA.

Leggett, Major Abraham.  The Narrative of Major Abraham Leggett of the Army of the Revolution Written by Himself with Notes by Charles Bushnell.  1865:  Privately Printed for Abraham Alsop Leggett, eldest son, New York, NY.

Lovell, Louise Lewis.  Israel Angell, Colonel of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment, Memoir. 1921: he KInickerbocker Press (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), New York, NY.

Martin, Joseph Plumb.  A Narrative of a Revolutionary Soldier, Some of the Adventures, Dangers, and Sufferings of Joseph Plumb Martin.  1830:  Glazier, Masters & Co., Hallowell, Maine.  2010:  Introduction by Thomas Fleming, Penguin Group (USA), New York, NY.

Powell, William S.  A Connecticut Soldier Under Washington: Elish Bostwick’s Memoirs of the First Years of the Revolution. William & Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Vol. 6. No. 1 (Jan. 1949), pp 94-107.

Putnam, Rufus & edited by Rowena Buell.   The Memoirs of Rufus Putnam and Certain Official Papers and Correspondence.   1903:  National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Ohio, Houghton, Mifflin & Company, New York, NY.

Reed, William.  Life and Correspondence of Joseph Reed by His Grandson William B. Reed. 1847:  Lindsay & Blakiston, Philadelphia, PA.

Shaw, Samuel, edited by Peter S. Onuf.  The Revolution in the States, Vol. 3 of the New American Nation, Captain Samuel Shaw’s Revolutionary War Letters to Captain Winthrop Sergeant. 1947: Garland Publ., Inc., Princeton, NY.

Washington, George.  Official Letters to the Honorable Congress, Written During the War Between the United Colonies & Great Britain by His Excellency George Washington. Vol. II.  1795:  Printed for Cadell Jr. & Davis., London, UK.

Secondary Sources:

Bolton, Robert Jr.  History of the County of Westchester from Its First Settlement to the Present Time.  1848:  Alexander S. Gould, New York, NY.

Chase, Ellen.  The Beginnings of the American Revolution Based on Contemporary Letters and Diaries and Other Documents, vol. III.  1910: The Baker & Taylor Company, New York, NY.

[1]    From “The Picket Guard” by Ethel Lynn Beers, first published in Harper’s Weekly, November 30, 1861.

[2]    A regiment’s normal strength was, on paper, six to eight hundred men.  Throughout the war, the Americans,

due to sickness, desertions, and poor recruitment, their numbers averaged around three hundred. Only the

Maryland and Delaware regiments fielded anywhere near the required number of men. A regiment was

commanded by a colonel.

[3]    Henshaw, pg. 53.

[4]    Angell, pg. 91.

[5]    A brigade’s size varied. Usually it was composed of six regiments, though the number could be larger or smaller depending on the present number of men in each regiment. It was commanded by a brigadier general.

[6]    Ibid pg. 13.

[7]    Vernacular of the times to describe the posting of guard duty.

[8]    Henshaw pg. 14.

[9]   Ibid, pg. 23.

[10]   Ibid, pg. 19.

[11]  Putnam, pg. 31.

[12]  Captain William Colt, Connecticut Orderly Book, pg. 21.

[13]  Angell, pg. 91.

[14]  Parade is referred to whenever troops assembled on a common ground prior to movement.  It could entail preparing for action, for guard duty, or moving onto to a new camp or army posting.

[15]   Putnam pg. 38

[16]  Henshaw, pg. 17.

[17]  Patrols were a dozen or so men sent out for closer scrutiny of the enemy or to conduct small raids to bring in prisoners and or supplies. They were usually led by a lieutenant, though on occasion by a sergeant.

[18]  Huntington, pg. 16.

[19]  Bostwick, pg. 105.

[20]  Reed, vol. I, pg. 166.

[21]  Henshaw, pg. 30.

[22]  Cornelius, pg. 1.

[23]  Henshaw, pg. 47.

[24]  Putnam, pg. 61.

[25]  A company was a portion of a regiment usually around sixty men. They were led by a captain.

[26]  Rufus Putnam Memoirs, pg. 80.

[27]  Benjamin Turnbull, Conn. Orderly Book, pg. 204.

[28]  Martin, pg. 163.

[29]  Putnam, pg. 136.

[30]  The Old City Hall was erected in 1700. It stood at the corner of Wall and Nassau streets and faced Broad Street. It was constructed from the materials of a stone bastion in the line of the old wall at defense along Wall Street. It was the proper prison of the city, having a whipping post, pillory, etc. in front of it on Broad Street. The Provincial Assembly, the Supreme Court, and the Mayor and Admiralty Courts held the sessions in the building.

[31]  Leggett, pg. 61.

[32]  Nathanial Morgan, Conn. Orderly Book, p9 101-102.

[33]  Martin, pg. 154.

[34]  Henshaw, pg. 15.

[35]  Chase, pg. 11.

[36]  Martin, pg. 74.

[37]  Perry, pg. 34.

[38]  Putnam, pg. 71.

[39]  Ibid, pg. 72.

[40]  Heath, pg. 8.

[41]  Chase, pp 69-70.

[42]  Ibid, pg. 95.

[43]  Shaw, pg. 293.

[44]  Here Feltman must be referring to Colonel John Graves Simcoe, ruthless leader of the Queen’s Rangers (formerly Robert Rogers’ Queen’s Rangers). They were a regiment of Tories originally recruited by Rogers in 1776 from loyalists living in New York City and Long Island. Under Simcoe’s leadership, they became an effective fighting force hated by the American patriots. At war’s end the regiment along with their leader emigrated to Canada.

[45]  Feltman, pg. 6.

[46]  Leggett, pg. 11.

[47]  Reed, pg. 207.

[48]  Irish born British soldier/deserter convicted and hanged [first person ordered executed under the new United States] on June 28, 1776 for mutiny, sedition, and treason.

[49]  When the Hinkley plot was uncovered in June of 1776, it had a dramatic affect on guard duty. “The Gen’l deeply affected at such a plot has wisely and prudently doubled his guard in and about the city and ordered patrolling parties to be patrolling all night.”  Huntington, pg. 35.

[50]  Wild, pg. 96.

[51]  Bangs, pg. 50.

[52]  Washington’s Writings, Ford, vol. 3, pg. 6.

[53]  Henshaw, pg. 16.

[54]  Ibid, pg. 20.

[55]  Benjamin Trumbell, Conn. Orderly Book, pg. 197.

[56]  Period vernacular for the British Army.

[57]  Putnam, pg. 130.

[58]  Bangs, pg. 56.

[59]  Graydon, pg. 124.

[60]  Henshaw, pg. 30.

[61]  Gerry, pg. 118.

[62]  Huntington, pg. 22.

[63]  Cornelius, pg. 2.

[64]  Henshaw, pg. 16.

[65]  Ibid, pg. 18.

[66]  Bostwick, pg. 97. Matthew Griswold (1714 – 1799).  Lieutenant governor of Connecticut from 1769 – 1784.

[67]  Henshaw, pg. 35.

[68]  Angell, pg. 100.

[69]  Chase, pg. 3.

[70]  Knowlton, pg. 8.

[71]  Henshaw, pg. 42.

[72]  Hull, pg. 72.

[73]  Joseph Joslin, Conn. Orderly Book, pg. 310.

[74]  Henshaw, pg. 21.

[75]  Martin, pg. 88.

[76]  Bangs, pp 43-44.

[77]  Henshaw, pp 56-59.

[78]  Bangs, pg. 55.

[79]  Cornelius, pg. 10.

[80]  Bolton, pp 146-147.

[81]  Tories remained loyal to the crown. They numbered just over a third of the population of the colonies. Many Tories formed bands which practiced hit and run tactics at night, melting back with the citizenry the next day. The American patriots called them rascals and refugees. In some cases entire regiments [such as Rogers’ Queens Rangers], were recruited by the British who fought alongside them.

[82]  Martin, pg. 154.

[83]  Bostwick, pg. 99.

[84]  Henshaw is credited for coining the term ‘minutemen.’ “We must have companies of men ready to march on a minute’s warning.” Recommendation made to the Provincial Congress (terminated July 19, 1775) and the Worcester County Committee of Correspondence (early state legislatures).

[85]  Henshaw, preview pg. xi.

[86]  Cornelius, pg. 2.

[87]  Bangs, pg. 17.

[88]  Martin, pg. 151.

[89]  Bangs, pg. 30.

[90]  Ibid, pg. 33.

[91]  Martin, pg. 163.

[92]  Ibid, pg. 204.

[93]  Henshaw, pg. 57.

[94]  Bangs, pg. 66.

[95]  Martin, pg. 45.

[96]  Hull, pg. 13.

[97]  Bangs, pg. 60.

[98]  Martin, pg. 223.

[99]  Martin, pg. 151.

[100]  Henshaw, pg. 38.

[101]  Ibid, pg. 49.

[102]  Putnam, pg. 82.

[103]  Ibid, pg. 80.

[104] Chase, pp 274-277.

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