J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, March 17, 2014

Was “St. Patrick” the Continental Password for 17 March 1776?

Was the Continental Army’s password for 17 Mar 1776 “St. Patrick,” as the South Boston Parade’s website says?

The security system that both British and Continental armies used involved two passwords: a “parole” and a “countersign.” Thomas Simes’s Treatise on Military Science (London, 1780) explained:
An hour before night, the Commanding Officer of the grand-guard is to give out the parole, to all the Officers depending upon him, together with the countersign, or signal, that when the posts are visited in the night-time, they may be able to distinguish with certainty their own rounds, and the enemy be prevented from imposing upon them. . . .

The centries are to challenge in proper time, and to demand the countersign before they permit any one to approach within the distance of forty paces; nor must they on any account, suffer persons to pass, ’till they are become perfectly well convinced, they don’t belong to the enemy.

The centries, when they have challenged any person, but receive no answer, are immediately to demand the countersign; and if they still receive no answer, they are directly to fire: For which reason, the Officers are to examine the arms of every relief, see that they are in proper order, well primed, the powder dry, and the hammer-stalls taken off.
The countersign was thus the password that anyone had to murmur to the sentries in order to pass the lines. The parole was the super-secret password, meant to be known only to the sentries and those officers authorized to give them orders. A sentry’s job was not to let anyone pass without hearing the countersign and not to take orders from anyone who didn’t know the parole. The Continental Army around Boston formalized its system for distributing passwords each evening on 8 Oct 1775.

Gen. George Washington’s general orders on the last day of the siege of Boston, as officially preserved and transcribed here, start:
Head Quarters, Cambridge, March 17th 1776.
Parole Boston.
Countersign St Patrick.
Thus, there’s authoritative evidence that that day’s countersign, or password, was indeed “St. Patrick.”

TOMORROW: But there’s also conflicting evidence.


Joe Bauman said...

My impression is that the cockade always was on the soldier's left side -- yet the illustration shows it on his right. Could you comment on this? Thank you, Joe

J. L. Bell said...

I can't comment on the details of that modern artwork. There are, alas, few period images of Continental Army sentries, especially from the first year of the war.

Don N. Hagist said...

The image is reversed. The lock is on the wrong side of the musket, bayonet scabbard on the wrong hip, etc.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks, Don!