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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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

“Who Goes There?” “St. Patrick.” “Really?”

As I quoted yesterday, Gen. George Washington’s orderly book records that on 17 Mar 1776 the Continental Army countersign—the main password for anyone in the army trying to pass a guard or sentry—was “St. Patrick.”

Since October, the army had a system for transmitting that password (and a higher-level password, called the parole) down from headquarters to all parts of the army besieging Boston.

However, the orderly book of Gen. Artemas Ward (shown here), second-in-command of the army around Boston and directly overseeing the troops in Roxbury and Dorchester, states that the countersign for that day was “Evacuate.”

Usually, of course, on any given day the whole army was supposed to be using the same passwords. That’s really the point. So we might ask what was wrong with Gen. Ward’s staff.

Except that that wasn’t the only discrepancy between the two generals’ orderly books that month. Here’s how they compare a few days earlier:
Date in book   Gen. Washington’s    Gen. Ward’s
11 Mar Niagara/Thompson Niagara/Thompson   
12 Mar Niagara/Thompson Fairfax/Kent
13 Mar Fairfax/Kent Georgia/Amboy
14 Mar [blank] Lewis/Armstrong
15 Mar Augustine/Bristol Augustine/Bristol
Washington’s general orders, as written down at his headquarters, have repetitions and skips in the passwords. Ward’s orderly book looks more, well, orderly: each day a new pair of passwords. So which document is more reliable about 17 March?

Who was keeping the records at Washington’s headquarters? One man involved was the mustermaster general, then serving as the commander-in-chief’s chief aide: Stephen Moylan. He was one of the very few Irish Catholic officers in the Continental Army, and he had a sense of humor. Might he have influenced the choice of “St. Patrick,” or slipped that name into the record?

We can ask whether Gen. Washington was likely to have used that name as a password, even on 17 March. Certainly Gen. Ward, a traditional Congregationalist Yankee, wouldn’t have chosen the name of a Catholic saint. On most days the Continental countersign was a common British surname or place. Both possibilities for 17 March—“St. Patrick” and “Evacuate”—would have been breaks in that pattern, clearly chosen to highlight a memorable day.

Might the American commanders have given out two countersigns that day to the two wings of the Continental Army, or to the troops inside and outside Boston? Had the rejoicing over finally winning the siege made those men less worried about security? Did transcribers of one or the other document misread it? All are possibilities.

So was the American password on 17 Mar 1776 really “St. Patrick”? I think the most complete answer is “yes and no.” But there’s certainly enough evidence in the official transcript of Washington’s general orders to validate the claim.


John L. Smith said...

"Yes and no" sounds like the most logical and most correct answer in the countersign mystery, J.L. Great piece of research and deductive comparison!

Byron DeLear said...

Good ol' Moylan! When I began reading this post, I flashed on the possibility of it being Moylan as well.