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Naval Discipline in the Old Navy

By Chuck Veit

As reenactors of the American Civil War, it is important to remember that we do not portray people who existed only from 1861-1865. Every person in that war had experiences that stretched back decades into the early nineteenth century. The men and officers of the U.S. Navy were no exception. While the war changed the Navy radically, the officers and professional seamen who formed its core were heirs to years of service in the "Old Navy" of 1800-1861. One of the facets of their service life that they would have seen change most radically was in the area of discipline.

At the time of the Revolution, the Continental Navy suffered from problems of discipline so severe that commanders of squadrons sometimes found it impossible to maintain control over squadrons of national, state, and private vessels. Continental Navy authority was not always accepted by crews made up primarily of "townies" recruited from one area and officered by local favorites; John Paul Jones experienced this aboard the Ranger and even more severely aboard the Alliance, where he was viewed as an "outsider." Disbanded in 1783, the U.S. Navy was reorganized under the Adams administration in 1797 to fight the Quasi War with France. Adams was receptive to the discipline of the Royal Navy and the Articles of War drawn up for the fledgling Navy were based upon British practice – with a leavening of the autocratic and anti-democratic ideology of the Federalist party. The Royal Navy, in turn, borrowed freely from Roman naval custom. Practices such as flogging, keel hauling, clapping in irons, and the drawing of a very firm distinction between officers and men all had their origins aboard Roman ships with their relatively small complement of freemen and crews of galley slaves. The methods by which individual ships were operated and their crews kept in order survived the transition from oars to sail and from slave crews to ships companies comprised of nominally free men. A sailor of the Tudor navy who suffered flogging, branding or confinement on short rations was simply being punished by means that parliamentary acts seldom specified but referred to vaguely as "the ancient customs of the sea service."

The Old Navy was typical of military organizations of the day: an authoritarian system based upon dominance and domination, characterized by organizational rigidity which looked for solutions to disciplinary problems through the rote application of traditional practices and policies. A code of iron discipline imposed the strictest possible control over the enlisted men. Because they were seen as the lowest class of humanity, reliance was placed on flogging, confinement in irons, and the threat of capital punishment – on the grounds that this was all that they could be expected to understand. The behavior of American naval seamen was minutely regulated; and punishments, although not cruel or sadistic by the standards of the times, were handed out freely. The merest sign of hesitation in carrying out an order was enough to merit several stripes with a petty officer's "colt" (whip). Petty offenses which found their way into the logbook -- the wearing of dirty clothes, spitting on the deck or urinating out of a gunport -- easily merited from six to a dozen lashes with the cat-o'-nine-tails. Close punitive disciplinary control was also a feature of life aboard American merchant vessels.

The regimen of duty and discipline imposed upon the enlisted men was perhaps the strictest and most oppressive in force in any nineteenth century fleet. Coupled with the fact that promotions into the officer corps from the enlisted ranks were practically unknown in the American service, it is not surprising that it was difficult for the Navy to attract and hold native-born American seamen. The Old Navy became the repository of so many foreign-born sailors that both officers and Congressmen were alarmed. David Dixon Porter commented that the fleet was "as fine a body of Germans, Huns, Norsemen, Gauls, Chinese, and other outside barbarians as one could wish to see…" Turnover among crews was almost 60% per year; as late as 1888 less than half the men were native-born. One estimate placed the number of fugitive criminals among the crew of the frigate Congress at ten percent (1844).

The Navy of the day demanded a level of technological expertise from its crewmen far below that necessary today or, for that matter, required by the time of the Civil War with the advent of steam technology. A warship’s crew was very large in relation to her tonnage because of the manpower required to work the guns: a forty-four gun frigate would be manned by a crew of five hundred men, although fifty could sail her. The surplus crew was kept occupied with unskilled and menial tasks, endlessly holystoning decks, polishing brass or drilling (in the case of the marines). Infractions against this tedious routine were punished through routine floggings – the "punishment of first resort" for the Navy. Commander Samuel Francis Du Pont kept a journal of the floggings he awarded as captain of the Congress on a passage from Norfolk to Callao between 17 November and 28 March 1846. Du Pont was not known as an unduly strict commander. During the 131 days of the voyage, his notebook records 108 floggings; although this averages to somewhat less than one per day, in reality punishments were usually meted out every few days so that as many as half a dozen men were sometimes flogged. The offenses recorded included missing muster, fighting, "skulking," lying, sleeping below deck on watch, being asleep on lookout, disobedience, disrespect, neglect of duty at quarters, and being dirty at muster.

Coincidentally, one of the passengers aboard the Congress on this voyage was the future Senator Stockton. Four years later, Stockton would lead the fight in Congress which would abolish flogging. The decades before the Civil War witnessed the attempted redress of a number of perceived wrongs in society, the most well-known of which was the abolition of slavery. The abolition of flogging was, strangely enough, tied closely to the fight against slavery. In drawing up the Articles of War which were to govern the Navy in 1797, debate over the regulations pitted the anti-aristocratic (and anti-Navy) Democratic Republicans against a coalition of seaboard Federalists (who wanted an aristocratic and authoritarian Navy) and Southern slaveholders (who were anxious to see various forms of corporeal punishment given legitimacy through their employment in the armed services). The Federalists and Southerners framed the Articles in order to fulfill ideological needs of their own. During the decades after 1815, the North (having shed Federalism) moved towards a more liberal view of society and towards more enlightened methods of social control. As the sectional and ideological dispute between North and South grew deeper and more heated, the question of naval discipline and its reform became a small part of the larger struggle. The Southerners perceived that a liberalization or humanization of naval discipline would give aid and comfort to those forces which opposed flogging of slaves and the draconian treatment meted out to runaway bondsmen. Northerners felt that if they could liberalize military discipline, it would have the effect of leaving the Southern slaveholders standing in embarrassed isolation as the last remaining practitioners of flogging and arbitrary justice in general. For these reasons, Northerners and Southerners fought each other to a standstill on the issues of naval disciplinary reform that came before Congress; and with the exception of one major victory for the reformers (the abolition of flogging), nothing could be done to straighten out the Navy’s system of justice in any comprehensive way. The cause of reform was not helped by the fact that most of the Navy’s officers opposed any liberalization of the treatment of enlisted men and some were secretly satisfied with the confused and inefficient system of officer discipline which seemed unable to weed out incompetents. Perversely there was even some resistance to the abolition of flogging from the enlisted seamen, who endured the customary twelve lashes as a mark of honor.

With the departure of Southern Congressmen and officers in 1861, sweeping reforms – long postponed by the paralysis of ideological deadlock – came to the Navy. Merit promotions, orderly retirement policies, the abolition of the rum ration, the clarification of flag rank and the creation of two grades of admiral, and many other changes were instituted. The Naval Regulations were taken in hand again and underwent four revisions in the 1860s in an effort to accommodate all the changes. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was instrumental in supporting these changes and showed little patience for the "traditions" that had plagued the Old Navy for decades. For example, resort to courts-martial for petty disputes between officers was a commonplace in the years before the Civil War -- so common, in fact, that few officers enjoyed a record free from such a procedure. The list of offenses for which a court-martial could be summoned was much more extensive than today and the punishments handed down were correspondingly mild (sometimes as little as a reprimand). Having been subjected to one or more courts-martial was not seen as a blight on the career of an officer of the Old Navy. What infuriated Welles was the insistence of the professional Navy officers that courts-martial be held only before career officers (as opposed to including volunteer officers who made up 80% of the Naval officer corps during the Civil War). The list of charges that warranted a court-martial was drastically reduced and it was a brave officer who brought charges before a court-martial to serve a personal vendetta during the war. The Confederate Navy, on the other hand, retained the tradition of courts-martial for the customary range of reasons common in the Old Navy, and so that corps of officers was often tied up hearing evidence and passing judgement.

Another area of reform in the mid-nineteenth century which directly affected the Old Navy was the temperance movement. Prior to 1862 a significant portion of the enlisted men were confirmed alcoholics who entered the service for the sake of the grog ration. This ration was the source of endless trouble for the Navy. Officers were painfully aware that the thirst for liquor among the enlisted men was a dangerous force that could compromise almost any operations if precautions were not taken to keep the men sober. Drunkenness and other offenses related to liquor accounted for more subjudicial punishments than any other category of crime and there were enough serious liquor-related problems to make drunkenness one of the more common court-martial offenses as well.

While the experience of the Civil War did not redress all the discipline problems of the Old Navy, it did allow for the rapid evolution of some important and long-delayed reforms. As a sign of the times, the process by which these reforms developed over the decades prior to the war as well as their final resolution, go hand in hand with the abolition of slavery.

Reference: "Rocks & Shoals" by James E. Valle

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