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PUNISHMENTS. Punishment in the military forces of the eighteenth century was intended to maintain the order and subordination necessary for proper and effective operation in the face of the enemy, with the ultimate goal of defeating the enemy before he defeated you. While the pain and suffering inflicted on soldiers and sailors were incredibly severe by modern standards, most of those who labored under military discipline accepted the need for the physical punishment of bad behavior, as long as it could be seen to be applied equally to similar infractions. Soldiers and sailors who brought the bad habits of civilian life into military service could be expect to be flogged for offenses like theft, gambling, and drunkenness, and to receive no sympathy from their peers who would otherwise have been their victims. The special circumstances of military and naval service also introduced a set of offenses that had no parallel in civilian life (like sleeping on guard duty, disrespect of officers, desertion, and mutiny) or that sometimes had a different standard of punishment than might apply to a similar crime in civilian life.

Flogging on the bare back with a nine-strand whip, called a cat-o'-nine-tails, was the most common punishment, performed by a drummer or drummers under the supervision of the regimental surgeon. It was intended both to punish current bad behavior and deter future misbehavior, impressing the miscreant with the seriousness of his offense but not killing him. Although flogging could maim a man for life, soldiers and sailors were too scarce a commodity to be regularly subjected to savage punishment and thereby rendered unable to perform the services for which they had been recruited in the first place. The system of military discipline gave officers considerable leeway when sitting on courts martial in judgment of men who were, in European armies at least, considered to be their social inferiors. While there was the occasional sadist in the officer corps, and many officers could be inattentive to the welfare of their men and their regiment, good officers tried to apply punishment fairly, with the goal of maintaining order among groups of unruly, mostly unmarried men, and of ensuring that in battle they responded swiftly and predictably to their officers' commands. Still, the scale and intensity of corporal punishment in European armies and navies seem cruel and capricious to the modern reader. A court-martial might award three hundred lashes for a misdemeanor infraction, or it might condemn a man it had to punish but thought it might rehabilitate to a thousand lashes. This latter punishment was administered in increments, but nonetheless approached a death sentence.

Colonial Americans generally found corporal punishment, as applied in the British army, to be excessive and distasteful, perhaps more because it ratified and emphasized the social gulf between officers and men than because of the severity itself. Americans derided the "Bloody Backs" (British enlisted men) for accepting this sort of degradation and, at the start of the Revolution, believed that they did not need to be beaten to be good soldiers. Their first articles of war (in Massachusetts and adopted by the Continental Congress) set a limit of thirty-nine lashes even for the most serious non-capital infractions. This limitation caused problems because it deprived General George Washington and his officers of a graduated scale of punishment. Congress gradually adopted a more flexible system, assigning a higher number of lashes for more serious crimes, thus disabusing Americans of the notion that discipline could be maintained by their innate virtuous behavior rather than by physical sanctions.

Some enlightened contemporaries questioned not the need for discipline, but differed as to the best means of maintaining it. Reflecting in his journal on soldiers who were marauding in the neighborhood of their winter quarters, Dr. James Thacher noted on 1 January 1780 that:

General Washington … is determined that discipline and subordination in camp shall be rigidly enforced and maintained. The whole army has been sufficiently warned, and cautioned against robbing the inhabitants,… and no soldier is subjected to punishment without a fair trial.

While Thatcher understood that corporal punishment "may be made sufficiently severe as a commutation for the punishment of death in ordinary cases," he remarked that it "has become a subject of animadversion and both the policy and propriety of the measure have been called into question." He went on to note:

[I]t is objected that corporeal punishment is disreputable to an army; it will never reclaim the unprincipled villain, and it has a tendency to repress the spirit of ambition and enterprise in the young soldier; and the individual thus ignominiously treated, can never, in case of promotion for meritorious services, be received with complacency as a companion for other officers … it remains to be decided, which is the most eligible for the purpose of maintaining that subordination so indispensable in all armies.

Much time would elapse before less draconian solutions won general acceptance. Flogging was not abolished in the U.S. Army until 1861, and other corporal punishments, like "riding the wooden horse," survived through the Civil War. The extent to which military justice was balanced between punishment and correction is seen in the way Washington occasionally used his power to commute a death sentence to make a point with his troops. Soldiers would be drawn up in formation on three sides of a square, assembled to witness the execution of serious criminals—deserters, murderers, mutineers—who were sitting or standing along the fourth side, when word would arrive that the commander in chief had pardoned one or more of the malefactors, perhaps because they were young soldiers led astray by their more culpable elders. One or more executions of those deemed to be hardened criminals would proceed, with the commuted—but flogged—survivors serving as living reminders that discipline would be enforced.

SEE ALSO Bloody Backs; Corporal Punishment.


Frey, Sylvia R. "Courts and Cats: British Military Justice in the Eighteenth Century," Military Affairs, vol. 43. no. 1 (February 1979): 5-11.

―――――――. The British Soldier in America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Gilbert, Arthur N. "The Changing Face of British Military Justice, 1757–1783," Military Affairs, vol. 49, no. 2 (April 1985): 80-84.

Neagles, James C. Summer Soldiers: A Survey and Index of Revolutionary War Courts-Martial. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Incorporated, 1986.

Thacher, James. A Military Journal During the American Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783. 2d Ed. Boston, Mass.: Cottons and Bernard, 1827.

                              revised by Harold E. Selesky