1850 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

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On September 28, an act of Congress outlawed one of the U.S. Navy’s oldest and most barbaric traditions, flogging as a means of punishment. The ban, which squeaked through the Senate on a 26-24 vote, applied to merchant vessels as well. The movement to outlaw flogging had been aroused by two very popular books that unflinchingly detailed the practice’s brutality: Two Years Before the Mast , by Richard Henry Dana (1840), and White-Jacket , by Herman Melville (1850). Within the Navy, however, opposition to the change was strong.

Since Revolutionary days, flogging had been a commonplace part of life on naval vessels. As a seaman on the USS Fairfield from 1828 to 1831, William McNaIIy wrote, he witnessed at least one flogging every day. A decade later the frigate United States saw 163 floggings in a 14-month cruise, an average of 2 or 3 per week. Treating a sailor’s lacerated back was a routine task for Navy doctors.

Flogging could be administered at the captain’s discretion for virtually any offense, from stealing to fighting to the catch-all “neglect of duty.” But most violations that were punished with flogging—four-fifths of them, by one estimate—were for drunkenness, liquor smuggling, or other acts traceable in one way or another to alcohol. These figures called into question the wisdom of the Navy’s twicedaily ration of grog (diluted whiskey).

Sailors knew a flogging was about to take place when they heard the boatswain’s mate shout, “All hands muster to witness punishment!” The miscreant was stripped to the waist and had his hands tied to a grating, and then the boatswain’s mate laid into him with a cat-o’-nine-tails. Although an 1800 law limited floggings to 12 strokes, captains could get around it by citing a sailor for several different offenses and giving him a dozen for each. Fifty or a hundred lashes or more were not unheard of, sometimes spaced out over a few weeks and sometimes not. In extreme cases, though regulations forbade it, a sailor could be “flogged through the fleet”—taken to each of a fleet’s ships in turn and flogged before its crew.

Many naval officers saw flogging as an indispensable tool for keeping their men in line. By and large Navy crews were recruited from the dregs of society, sometimes with the aid of “crimps” who lured men into dockside lodgings, drugged them, and bundled them onto shipboard. Experienced sailors preferred to sign on board a merchantman, where the pay was better, discipline was less severe, and the tour of duty was a single cruise instead of a three-year enlistment.

Stingy appropriations from Congress created a vicious circle in the Navy: Only the worst and least motivated sailors volunteered, which made harsh methods necessary, which made it even harder to attract good men. Since captains were trained to remain aloof and their first lieutenants were often rich young wastrels appointed for political reasons, there was little opportunity for officers to build discipline through mutual respect.

After the ban on flogging was passed, old-timers predicted that naval discipline would collapse without the salutary example of the lash. Yet alternatives to the cat-o’-nine-tails still existed. A man could be hanged from a bulkhead so that his feet barely touched the deck, or have his hands chained behind him to a gun carriage and be left to the mercy of a rolling sea. On steam vessels a wrongdoer could be locked up next to the boilers in a “sweatbox” six feet high and three feet wide. And of course, there was always confinement to the brig on a diet of bread and water. In time, however—especially after abolition of the grog ration in 1862—the vicious circle was reversed, as improved shipboard conditions attracted a better class of sailor. By the time Congress virtually abolished confinement in irons, in 1909, corporal punishment had already become a rarity.