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Source: Anonymous. A Plea in Favor of Maintaining Floggingin the Navy. n.p., n.d. [This rare item is non-circulating and must be examined in the Navy Department Library. Its call number is Spec. Coll. VB840.P53].

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A Plea in Favor of Maintaining Flogging in the Navy

[Essay by an anonymous US Navy officer on the benefits of flogging for maintaining discipline, probably written in the 1840s.]

Image of inside of A Plea in Favor of Maintaining Flogging in the Navy, note: there is no printed title page, only a handwritten title and note indicating date and authorship unknown and inked stamp of receipt in 3 Jul 1885.
Image of inside of A Plea in Favor of Maintaining Flogging in the Navy, note: there is no printed title page, only a handwritten title and note indicating date and authorship unknown and inked stamp of receipt in 3 Jul 1885.

As at the present time a great effort is being made to abolish the law which authorizes flogging in the Navy as one method of punishment, a member of that service desires to express his views upon the subject.

The Navy is the armed police of the country upon the ocean; its purposes are warlike, and its service is that of emergencies, whilst its duties are always rendered precarious by the nature of the element upon which it exists. It is maintained by the Nation, for the protection of its commerce upon the high seas, and in those countries of the globe, whose laws are unequal to as sure the safety of vessels visiting their ports. Thus, the guns of numerous cruizers, keep the ocean a secure highway for traders; and the presence of a man of war, in distant and half civilized ports, is almost the only surety the merchant possesses for the undisturbed prosecution of his business. The ultimate use of the Navy, is of course, as a means of offence and defence afloat in the event of a war.

To prepare ships of war, for the services that may be desired of them, at any moment, they are carefully provided with heavy armaments, comprising the most improved inventions for the whole sale destruction of human life; and they are thronged with men, who are more zealously taught to wield these instruments of death, than they ever were to fear God and obey his commandments.

The crew of our vessels of war, comprise men of all nations and of almost every variety of character. Among them are many who are respectable in their demeanor, capable, tractable and industrious; there are many others who are insolent, ignorant, quarrelsome, lazy and mischievous. And there is always, in every ship, a knot of abandoned and incorrigible vagabonds, sweepings of the jails and streets, the outcasts of the shore, who herd with the vicious portion of the seamen, and form a turbulent and unruly gang; setting at defiance all moderate attempts to govern them, and having the fixed purpose, so far as in them lies, of shirking duty and of over turning decency, order and law on board.

The number of men, according to the size of the vessel, varies from 100 to 1000 men.

They engage to serve for three years, or longer, should they necessarily be detained abroad; to be obedient to the laws of the Navy, and to the orders of their superiors. On the part of the government, they receive settled wages per month, a daily ration, medical attendance, and after a length of service, provision for their old age.

The laws for the government of men thus banded together for the purposes of war, are necessarily arbitrary and severe. Death is prescribed as the penalty for offences, which, in shore communities, would be deemed trivial, as well as for the higher crimes. Punishment, with the cat of nine tails, is awarded to specified cases; other offences are to be noticed after the customs at sea, methods embracing various devices of a milder nature.

The duties required of the crew of ships of war, are all such as appertain to the management of the great guns and the use of other arms; to the manoeuvering under canvass, and to the service in boats; to the care of the rigging, provisions and stores; and to the cleanliness of the vessel and of their clothing and persons.

In the performance of these duties, by such numbers, obedience, attention, silence, order and alacrity, are necessary to ensure efficiency and decorum, and to preserve the creditable character of the country afloat, and abroad, amid the nations of the earth.

To the captain and officers, the responsibility is entrusted, of organizing and disciplining the crew, and of maintaining the ship in good and efficient condition for the most active service.

Thus manned and equipped the ship of war goes forth on her errand to distant seas.

How is her nondescript community to be governed, that it may be an orderly and useful body ?

Not like a town, where the inhabitants are born, grow up, feel local attachments, have cent[e]red their families, property and business, and therefore feel a strong and lasting interest in its prosperity; where each man has his own house and castle for his dwelling and where, notwithstanding all this, are established police, courts, prisons and the gallows, for the preservation of the public peace and security, for the detection of crime, and for the safe keeping and punishment of offenders.

Not like a workshop, where men assemble during the day, disperse at night; are measured by their ability, faithfulness and good conduct, and are discharged the moment their labor becomes value less to the owner, or their behavior injurious to his establishment.

Not like a penitentiary, where all are condemned criminals, with its appropriate system of labor and confinement.

Not like any civil administration under the sun, neither exactly like an army on the land.

The crew of the ship of war come on board mostly as strangers to each other, to be banded together for a specified and limited period, at the expiration of which their association ceases, and they separate. They are without any but casual ties to link them to each other, or to identify their interests with the welfare of the vessel in which they sail. They have neither wives nor children with them, nor have they any capital invested in their temporary home. Men of every clime and of every shade of character, are to be made to assimilate in their narrow quarters which they rarely leave. They must work, eat, drink, dress, wash, mend, make, cook, sleep and play within limits that are known by no other class of men; and jostling each other as they do, their angry passions must be kept down, by means powerful enough to quell the most reckless natures, and so produce quiet, or, they maybe let loose, and Bedlam is afloat.

The crew, good, bad and indifferent, are engaged for a term of years, at specified wages, chiefly without previous trial, and without any such shore going process, as a reference for character. When aboard, they form a whole, which cannot be weakened by discharges. They are to be kept together, the wicked and the worthless, as well as the rest. They cannot be dismissed in foreign ports for misconduct. Ships of war, would be neither very welcome nor credit able visitors abroad, if they sent their scape-gallows rascals ashore. Nor would it be good policy to resort to this means, even if it were allowed by law; discontented men would commit offences on purpose to be discharged, and the ship's company weakened in its numerical force, where vacancies could not be filled.

The various duties expected from a vessel of war, require so many men to enable her to perform them; she is supplied with the requisite number, such as they are, when she leaves home, and by no act of hers is she to reduce it. Sickness and death cannot be avoided; but no other cause is to induce her to lose an arm from her complement, except to relieve vessels in distress. She must keep every body she can, and must form out of such incongruous materials an orderly and systematic body, with all its efforts directed for the benefit of the nation. She must subdue the wicked-she must tame the insubordinate-she must make the disobedient prompt and willing-she must cause the idle to be industrious-she must tutor the ignorant-she must preserve peace among her people, without any aid from outside her own decks, and must therein do, what is not done, elsewhere, in the world.

The crew cannot be set to work in solitary cells, neither can they labor in apartments common to those of a certain trade, and be shut up alone for the night. They are not all rogues, and cannot be treated as such; and if they were, the penitentiary system is totally opposed to the duties, and inapplicable to the necessarily gregarious habits of ship board, and to the contracted limits between the decks.

The crew cannot be governed like any civil body, because there is not, nor can there be, any parallel between their different condition.

Nor can the system that applies to armies be adapted to ships, because of the radically opposite nature of the two services; because of the wide difference in their respective methods of association and accommodation, which difference is all in favor of the army; and because the solitude, as well as the hazards, of the ocean, are unknown upon the land.

The ship of war, with her crew composed of the most discordant material, banded together in a highly unnatural state of association, not very much inclined to habits of docility, and possessing a physical majority sufficient to throw off and to defy all control; with her position often isolated upon a treacherous element, entirely cut off from any appeal to other human aid, and always remote from the protecting influences which surround more happily balanced communities on shore-must inevitably be governed on principles peculiar to her anomalous condition.

A few words will explain the system by which, hitherto, ships of war have succeeded in ruling their disorderly spirits; in keeping the idle to their duty; in suppressing entirely, or in a great measure, the vicious propensities of the ill-disposed; in preventing the leaven of the disaffected characters from infecting the mass; in short, in sustaining within their own narrow limits, an obedient and serviceable body. It is not too much to say, that this control has often been exercised over men, who, if gathered and kept within one room on shore, would, from their confirmed and monstrous depravity of habit, utterly dishearten and repel the most sanguine of philanthropists.

Arbitrary laws, directing severe bodily, as well as other milder punishments for offenders; the power to administer these punishments summarily, and as an example to all, lodged in the hands of the man who is held responsible for the safety and good condition of his vessel; the resistance to these laws or to these punishments, made mutiny, and the consequence of mutiny, death! Such is the code and the practice, by which the turbulent and ill-assorted characters common on board every ship of war, have been kept within the bounds that distinguish the discipline of the cruizer, from that of the pirate.

There can be no rational hope, that a better class of men than such as ships now get, will speedily, if ever, be furnished our vessels of war. The inducements offered by a sea-life are not of the kind to attract quiet people afloat, nor can any such be given. The Navy will continue to be manned by the unsettled population of the world, and all the chimerical plans for supplying it with a steady body of men, will expire upon the pages on which they are written.

While shore communities cannot by any means purge themselves from the hosts of scamps and villains who disturb their peace, how is it to be expected that a service like that of the Navy, filled up at hap-hazard-with men so badly wanted, that all who offer, are taken-can be freed from its portion of the abandoned characters who are constantly going up and down on the earth?

Can human ingenuity furnish a scheme, by which this evil, common everywhere in the world, shall be excluded from the Navy, wherein it is most likely to abound?

If seamen were so plenty that characters could be sifted and selections made, the remedy would not yet be found. The nature of mankind must change, ere men can be had for such, or for any purposes, by the hundred and by the thousand, who will act from proper impulses, and with the opportunities for concentrated association on shipboard and the power to work evil, need no other control than slight checks and moral suasion.

Crime, by an inevitable law, steadily increases with population, and is now, of course, more rife than ever throughout the globe. Each succeeding day brings its dreadful record of wicked deeds; acts of iniquity, of outrage and of murder, into the commission of which, men of every class are led, by the bad passions that have been common to our race since its creation. Is this, then, a propitious time to remove the harsher restraints, which long and often tried experience has shown to be the only effective punishment, that will hold in dread the lawless spirits, whos every recklessness of nature impels them to quit the land, for the ocean?

Reflection upon the lessons of the past, and that kind of consideration for the rights, peace and comforts of communities, which is not entirely merged in sympathy for offenders, would seem to demand that such an organic change should not be made, without deliberation and inquiry as to the probable consequences.

Other things remaining unaltered; ships of war still to be sent abroad; trust and authority to carry out the public purposes confided to the few; ill assorted material in an unnatural state of association, supplied wherewith to accomplish those purposes; and the stringent means and power withdrawn, by which such material can be ruled and such association held in order; it may be, that the National Cruizer will not exactly fulfil[l] the objects for which she has been equipped; but, the rather, turn herself into a floating Hell, with the hand of every man raised against his neighbors.

It is not contended that flogging on the bare back, with the cat-o'-nine tails, should be the sole and the universal method of punishment on ship board: far from it. An infinite variety of milder forms answers perfectly for the generality of offenders. But there are occasions when such an appeal is necessary, to prevent the spreading of disaffection, which, under milder and more remote measures would disorganize a ship; there are, and ever will be, cases that nothing but the lash will reach, and occasionally, some hardened reprobates who care not for the pain and degradation of the lash, until its repetition, combined with other extremes, brings even them into subjection.

Lenient schemes are of no avail with such characters, and reprimand and persuasion are but mockeries. It is only by carrying into effect the severities of the law, and by having the support of the well-disposed of the crew on such occasions, that order is preserved.

Extra labor, ordinary confinement, solitary confinement, bread and water diet, are plans that do not suit very well on shipboard.

How can extra labor be got out of men, who are averse to do their own proper share? The man who would avoid this, would also rebel on being saddled with a double load. The mere order to him, to exert himself, would be of no avail, unless the authority of the ship could be brought into play by some other method to enforce it.

Ordinary confinement, such as is practised, is scarcely a mode of punishment at all. The offender hears and sees most of what is going on, is relieved from work, his pay is not stopped, and he lies snug between his blankets, while others who have done no wrong, are exposed to the weather and deprived of sleep, upon their watch. Of what consequence is it to such offenders, that their confinement is so little closer than that of the rest of the crew? At sea, the ship herself is a prison, in limits, to all hands.

Prisoners at large, are only afforded opportunities by day and by night, to add to the mischief they have already fomented.

Solitary confinement is not practicable on board ship, from the want of room. If cells were built in the hold for the purpose, they would take up space required for stowage, and be at the same time totally destitute of ventilation and reeking with a foul atmosphere. Above the hold, the accommodations for the crew and for the battery, preclude the erection of any thing of the kind.

But without considering the matter, as one of dimensions, a system of imprisonment would neither suit the discipline, nor contribute to the efficiency, of vessels of war. That ship cannot be ready for emergencies of any kind, which has a score or two of her crew laid by the heels in the stocks. Her internal economy demands that every man should be at all times at his post, a useful and active agent in her work. This end would not be gained if she weakened her effective force by throwing offenders into confinement, and putting additional labor upon the faithful and zealous men.

Bread and water diet has been tried, but does not succeed well, owing to the many opportunities for contraband supplies.

Various resorts, that place the offenders in a disgraceful or ridiculous position before the crew, and others that curtail them of their privileges, are adopted with good effect in many instances; but when these fail, or when they are not adapted to the nature of the offence, then the contest for the mastery between the culprit or culprits and the authorities of the ship, remains to be decided by the lash, as the last resort, which seldom fails to bring the matter to a termination, conducive to the cause of order, and to the suppression of riotous desires.

When two hundred, five hundred, or a thousand men sit down to their meals on one deck, three times each day, and rise therefrom, without engaging in a system of single combats or creating a general melee, there must be some powerful influence at work to keep down all belligerent propensities. Every body knows how easy it is for men on shore to come to blows, under circumstances infinitely less liable to provoke them, than such as attend every meal on board ship; and it may be safely asserted, that the prevalence of these disgraceful outbreaks is only prevented afloat, by the fear of a punishment so keen in its effects, as to induce men at least to make an effort to quell their passions, rather than en-counter it. Mild or tardy measures would be of no avail here, to allay the incitings of human wrath amid such a crowd, and but for the knowledge that speedily and sharply the dreaded consequences would follow the offence, a host of angry passions would find their vent, to the utter destruction of proper discipline, and to the ruin of anything like order in the ship.

During the night at sea, one-half of the crew are constantly on deck, each part taking a watch of four hours duration. Thus, one set come on at 8 P. M., and remain on duty until midnight, when they are relieved by the sleepers below, who keep the ship until4 A. M., when the first set are called again. This arrangement gives each division, on alternate nights, eight hours sleep and eight hours watch.

It is not the easiest matter in the world to get these sleeping hundreds out of their hammocks and at their posts on deck, in a reasonable time, and without noise or disorder. There are always skulkers, who, secure from passing observation, prefer the comforts of additional moments between their blankets, to a speedy exposure to the weather; others who abandon their ham-mocks and stow themselves a way in hiding places, that they may secure an extra snooze before they can be found; the majority promptly turn out, and shew themselves at once, on deck. To secure this promptness it is an established and necessary custom, not to allow those whose watch has expired to go below until all the others are on deck, except in cases where only a few stragglers remain unaccounted for, and for whom it is afterwards necessary to search the ship with lanterns. It is neither conducive to good order that this habit of skulking should prevail, nor agreeable to the weary watchers, often wet and cold from exposure, that they should be cheated of their full term of repose by the sluggards of the crew. To break up this practice, no means of punishment tried, has ever succeeded, but the application of the lash.

Even during the period of their watch, these same dodgers will take advantage of the security of darkness and of numbers, to sneak below and keep their jackets dry, while the rest are hard at work in the squalls and rain.

In ill-regulated ships, where the arm of authority is but weakly extended over the crew, the night is the time for scenes of disorder and riot, such as can hardly be conceived but by those who have had the misfortune to sail in vessels whose systems of indiscipline have rendered them a disgrace to the country and to the service.

There must be something more potent than the voice of a solitary officer from amid the gloom, to direct and to control the mass of beings who swarm the deck, in every snug posture for their comfort, or grouped together with every facility for mischief. Even the best of men are sometimes rather slow in their movements to execute the manoeuvers attendant upon every change of the ever varying wind; while not a few are much more disposed to consult their own ease, or to follow their schemes for their own amusement or for the annoyance of others, than to attend to the commands which fall upon their heedless ears.

It is not the necessity of the occasion, nor the habit of obedience, which answers generally in the light of day, that supplies this potency; it is only to be found in consequences which are too much dreaded, to be endured for the sake of a luxurious doze, or for the pleasure of being willful[l]y wicked and contumacious.

The offences commonly committed on board ship, are such as these: disobeying and thwarting the rules for the preservation of cleanliness, system and order; defacing the ship's furniture, and throwing parts of it overboard; stealing; smuggling liquor on board, and getting drunk there-on; fomenting mischief, in all its varieties; throwing every possible obstacle in the way of the quiet performance of the daily routine of duty; misbehaving grossly when away from the ship in boats, and deserting from them and from the ship temporarily, to have a spree on shore; inciting quarrels at meal times; getting up fights; receiving orders with contempt, obeying them with sullen murmurs or neglecting to obey them at all; appearing dirty, when they should be clean; soiling purposely the paint and decks just after every thing has been scrubbed and put in order; contriving all kinds of malicious and outrageous acts to throw discredit upon the ship generally, and often upon occasions of evolution and ceremony in foreign ports, when the best foot is to be put foremost; getting up insubordinate plots; discouraging willing men from working freely, as "their pay will go on all the same, if they work slow "; skulking as before described, and in any other way that offers : going deliberately to sleep on the look-out, and thus hazarding the frightful consequences of a collision with passing ships; refusing flatly to obey orders; uttering mutinous language and setting at defiance the authority of the ship; taking shelter under the cover of crowds and of darkness, to be insolent, to be noisy, to get up riots, to thieve, to make indecent noises, to violate the sanctity of the quarter deck, to commit filthy nuisances in improper places, to take revenge of each other by unseen blows, to fight out their battles, to be dilatory, impudent and disobedient aloft, and to require frequent calls to move them to their duty.

The minutiae of these offences consists of such diversified specimens of wickedness, of spite, of mischief, and of foul and disgusting habits, as cannot be known to those who are unaccustomed to consort so closely with men, and yet they are results that might naturally be expected to attend such mixed material of the one sex, in such an artificial state of association as exists on board every ship of war.

These things commence at the beginning of a cruise; the pulse of the commander is felt, as it were, and as he is either resolute or weak in the exercise of his authority, so follows either the good or the bad condition of his ship.

The effect of improper example, the evil of contamination, the spread of disaffection, the consequences of outrage are of infinitely more serious account on the sea than on the land. Shore communities have many outlets for escape from the results of crime committed in their midst, while the ship of war has none. Her "foes" are always of "her own household," and the issue of their deeds, remains with-in her wooden walls.

But instead of abolishing the punishment of the lash upon the ocean, would not its revival upon the land be productive of good, supposing it to be applied to certain gangs of "bouncers" and "killers," whose acts on shore, are in some measure parallel to those of their fellows upon the sea?

Much more may be said and thought about the matter, but as long as human nature remains as it is now and ever has been, (and for a change for the better in which, unless by divine means, there is not a reasonable ground for hope,) and so long as such bad samples of it are congregated with-in the narrow limits of a man-of-war's decks, just so long should that system be preserved, which, it is fully evident, will alone fulfil[l] the end for which it was adopted. Wherever a crew, or a number of crews, can be found, who will live together in brotherly love, and in the observance of the golden rule, then, and not until then, will it answer to do away with the only method, short of hanging, by which order can be maintained among the men of this generation upon the solitudes of the ocean.

And when that day comes, perhaps the nations will at last be at peace, and men will be no longer trained for the purposes of war. But now, as the moral sense of our people has not yet arrived at that happy pitch ; while we maintain forces instructed after the most expensive modes in wholesale methods for human slaughter; and while maintaining them, in an unnatural state of association for such bloody ends, it is found necessary to govern them with the laws of Draco, taking life for crimes that would be but venial offences in peaceable communities on the land, whence, it maybe asked, comes that delicate and feeling humanity which shudders at the application, to offenders, of a punishment of a less degree, such, as by authority from Heaven, was inflicted upon the chosen people of God? The camel is swallowed, while the gnat chokes us.

Flogging a Crewman, 1848, sketch by Captain's Clerk Charles F. Sands, from his journal kept on board Porpoise, NH 42642
Flogging a Crewman, 1848, sketch by Captain's Clerk Charles F. Sands, from his journal kept on board Porpoise, NH 42642

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Published: Mon Nov 20 15:34:33 EST 2017