Naval Discipline: Flogging

By Gene Oleson, Capt, USN (Ret)

Illustration from Edward Shippen, Thirty Years at Sea; the Story of a Sailor’s Life (1879)

While this article focuses on flogging in the Colonial/United States Navy, much if not all of it still applies to our beloved series (and our beloved Royal Navy). 

Means of Punishment

“The master-at-arms [assisted the prisoner] off with his shirt, leaving him naked to the waist, but throwing the garment loosely over his shoulders. Removing the port gangway ladder, his wrists were made fast, with a lashing, to the brass man-rope eyebolts, and his ankles to a small grating laid on the deck. Thus standing straight up, his arms were stretched considerably above his head. The assistant surgeon then stepped up close on one side of the man to see that the punishment was not excessive. The boatswain had, in the mean time, produced a green baize bag, which contained the ‘cats.’ These consisted of a wooden handle, about fifteen inches long, covered with cloth, with nine tails of white line about as thick as thick pack-cord, twenty inches long, and the ends ‘whipped,’ not knotted. One of these cats was handed to the chief boatswain’s mate, who was mildly cautioned by the captain to ‘do his duty, and not favor the man, or he would be triced up himself.’ …At this the master-at-arms removed the blue shirt, and [the] boatswain’s mate swung round and brought the ‘cats’ down across the man’s shoulders, the master-at-arms called out, aloud, ‘One – two,’ and so on, until ‘twelve,’ when the captain said, ‘Stop. Take him down.’” Quotation and illustration from Edward Shippen, Thirty Years at Sea; the Story of a Sailor’s Life, 1879.

Samuel F. Holbrook, a Navy carpenter, offers examples of the harshness of Navy discipline in his 1857 autobiography Threescore Years.

Two young sailor new to the Navy and awaiting assignment absent themselves from the receiving ship. Found and returned to the ship within hours, they are kept in irons for two days, and finally brought on deck to be punished. “Here were three hundred men, boys and marines, assembled round the old hulk to see these two young men nearly flayed alive, for going over to New York without leave. When all had assembled, the two prisoners were brought from their place of confinement, more dead than alive. The first was stripped and seized up. On these occasions, every man and officer stands with hats off, and perfectly silent, in order to show the ‘supremacy’ of a law that cuts a man’s flesh to pieces. Capt. Chauncey, standing on a slight elevation, and with a stentorian voice, addressed the crowd: ‘Men! What the law allows you, you shall have, but by the eternal God if any one of you disobeys that law, I’ll cut your back bone out. Go on with him, boatswain’s mate and do your duty, or by God, you shall take his place.’”

“The shrieks of the youngster were dreadful, calling upon God and all the holy angels to save him. After the first dozen, another boatswain’s mate took the cat, and when he had received two dozen, he fainted, and hung by his wrists. The punishment was suspended for a few moments until he had revived sufficiently to stand on his feet; he then took four dozen more, making six in all, and when taken down he could not stand. The other received seven dozen; he fainted, however, before he had received the first, and received the greater portion of his punishment in that state. The flesh was fairly hanging in strips upon both backs; it was a sickening sight.”

Holbrook tells of a variation on flogging when six bluejackets are found guilty of stealing Spanish coins they are loading in the hold of a frigate. Although the crime is discovered within hours and the coins recovered, the group is confined and sentenced to each receive 75 lashes of the cat. Jim, the sailor thought to be the ring leader, is sentenced to additional lashes. When Jim’s back is uncovered for the punishment it is a sickening sight. He had been part of a gun crew wounded in battle and horribly burned from neck to hips. Even after several years the flesh is still raw. Under these circumstances the captain would not flog him on the back.

Instead, the stripes are on his bare buttocks. The culprit is brought over a carronade (cannon carriage). Standing at the breech, he bends over towards the muzzle. His wrists are secured, one on each side the gun to the forward axletree, and his legs to the gun tackle bolts in the carriage. His pants are then pulled down presenting the the boatswain’s mate with a prominent field for operation. One lick of the cat here is worse than a dozen on the back. The standard order is issued, “Do your duty, boatswain’s mate, or you’ll take his place.” Lashes are laid on and the blood begins to flow.

Besides confinement and flogging, the six offenders are compelled to carry a 32 pound shot with 32 pounds of chain attached to their legs and a wooden yoke about the neck four feet long and nine inches wide with “Thief” painted on it in several places.

In summation of flogging, Holbrook comments, “I fancy that those editors and legislators who sit in their cozy armchairs, in office or congressional hall, and talk wisely about the necessity of flogging for sailors, need only once to witness the infliction of the punishment they think so needful, and experience with their own breasts the feeling of dark humiliation which falls upon the soul at seeing the manhood being scourged out of a fellow creature, to alter their convictions as to the expediency of flogging.”

Answering the critic who would ask why the bluejacket does not protest, he continues. “A ‘man-of-war’ is not the place for too free an expression of opinion. The regulations of the service do not admit to freedom of speech. They contain such a word as ‘mutiny’, for which they provide ‘death or such other punishment as a court-martial shall provide.’ And, as there can be no half-way-talk concerning so brutal a practice as flogging a human being – a creature created in the image of God – the consequence is an ominous silence. ‘A still tongue makes a wise head’ – nowhere more so than in the service, where it is truly said, ‘You are allowed to think what you please, but you must not think aloud.’”

All Services

Flogging was not limited to the Navy. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (U.S. Army) records a number of floggings in the first two years of the journey (1804-1805). One deserter was sentenced to 500 lashes. Another offense was sentenced to run a gauntlet of whips. One Indian chief observing the ordeal of flogging was horrified and suggested it would be more humane to put the man to death.

The Law

The Colonial Naval Rules of 1775 regarding punishments, state, “No Commander shall inflict any punishments upon a seaman beyond twelve lashes upon his bare back with a cat-o’-nine tails; if the fault shall deserve a greater punishment, he is to apply to the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy in order to the trying of him by a Court-Martial, and in the meantime, he may put him under confinement.”

In 1799, Congress passed a law that restricted a Commander of a naval vessel to applying no more than twelve lashes on the bare back of a sailor or marine, unless more were ordered by a court-martial. The law, as noted above, was abused in many cases.

New Hampshire Senator Hale in 1850 added an anti-flogging clause to the Naval Appropriation Bill. Commander Uriah P. Levy had been instrumental in securing Senator Hale’s interest in the measure. Hale showed that one sailor had been sentenced at court-martial “to receive 500 lashes, and actually received 400.” This punishment was given in twelve lash installments. The attempt to ban flogging didn’t pass as the Navy Department reported that it would be impossible to maintain discipline at sea without this form of punishment.

Finally, in 1851-1853 Commodore R. F. Stockton, Senator from California, further restricted flogging by legislation. But it wasn’t until 17 July 1862, that Congress finally abolished flogging entirely.


For an in depth discussion on the history of naval discipline see :
James E. Valle, Rocks & Shoals : Order and Discipline in the Old Navy 1800-1861, Annapolis MD, Naval Institute Press, 1980

Courtesy of Gene Oleson, Capt, USN (Ret) at Bluejacket.

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