Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 88


The flogging of an old man like Ushant, most landsmen will
probably regard with abhorrence. But though, from peculiar
circumstances, his case occasioned a good deal of indignation
among the people of the Neversink, yet, upon its own proper
grounds, they did not denounce it. Man-of-war's-men are so
habituated to what landsmen would deem excessive cruelties, that
they are almost reconciled to inferior severities.

And here, though the subject of punishment in the Navy has been
canvassed in previous chapters, and though the thing is every way
a most unpleasant and grievous one to enlarge upon, and though I
painfully nerve myself to it while I write, a feeling of duty
compels me to enter upon a branch of the subject till now
undiscussed. I would not be like the man, who, seeing an outcast
perishing by the roadside, turned about to his friend, saying,
"Let us cross the way; my soul so sickens at this sight, that I
cannot endure it."

There are certain enormities in this man-of-war world that often
secure impunity by their very excessiveness. Some ignorant people
will refrain from permanently removing the cause of a deadly
malaria, for fear of the temporary spread of its offensiveness.
Let us not be of such. The more repugnant and repelling, the
greater the evil. Leaving our women and children behind, let us
freely enter this Golgotha.

Years ago there was a punishment inflicted in the English, and I
believe in the American Navy, called _keel-hauling_--a phrase
still employed by man-of-war's-men when they would express some
signal vengeance upon a personal foe. The practice still remains
in the French national marine, though it is by no means resorted
to so frequently as in times past. It consists of attaching
tackles to the two extremities of the main-yard, and passing the
rope under the ship's bottom. To one end of this rope the culprit
is secured; his own shipmates are then made to run him up and down,
first on this side, then on that--now scraping the ship's hull
under water--anon, hoisted, stunned and breathless, into the air.

But though this barbarity is now abolished from the English and
American navies, there still remains another practice which, if
anything, is even worse than _keel-hauling_. This remnant of the
Middle Ages is known in the Navy as "_flogging through the
fleet_." It is never inflicted except by authority of a court-
martial upon some trespasser deemed guilty of a flagrant offence.
Never, that I know of, has it been inflicted by an American man-
of-war on the home station. The reason, probably, is, that the
officers well know that such a spectacle would raise a mob in any
American seaport.

By XLI. of the Articles of War, a court-martial shall not "for any
one offence not capital," inflict a punishment beyond one hundred
lashes. In cases "not capital" this law may be, and has been, quoted
in judicial justification of the infliction of more than one hundred
lashes. Indeed, it would cover a thousand. Thus: One act of a sailor
may be construed into the commission of ten different transgressions,
for each of which he may be legally condemned to a hundred lashes, to
be inflicted without intermission. It will be perceived, that in any
case deemed "capital," a sailor under the above Article, may legally
be flogged to the death.

But neither by the Articles of War, nor by any other enactment of
Congress, is there any direct warrant for the extraordinary cruelty
of the mode in which punishment is inflicted, in cases of flogging
through the fleet. But as in numerous other instances, the incidental
aggravations of this penalty are indirectly covered by other clauses
in the Articles of War: one of which authorises the authorities of a
ship--in certain indefinite cases--to correct the guilty "_according
to the usages of the sea-service_."

One of these "usages" is the following:

All hands being called "to witness punishment" in the ship to which
the culprit belongs, the sentence of the court-martial condemning him
is read, when, with the usual solemnities, a portion of the punishment
is inflicted. In order that it shall not lose in severity by the
slightest exhaustion in the arm of the executioner, a fresh boatswain's
mate is called out at every dozen.

As the leading idea is to strike terror into the beholders, the
greatest number of lashes is inflicted on board the culprit's
own ship, in order to render him the more shocking spectacle to
the crews of the other vessels.

The first infliction being concluded, the culprit's shirt is
thrown over him; he is put into a boat--the Rogue's March being
played meanwhile--and rowed to the next ship of the squadron. All
hands of that ship are then called to man the rigging, and
another portion of the punishment is inflicted by the boatswain's
mates of that ship. The bloody shirt is again thrown over the seaman;
and thus he is carried through the fleet or squadron till the whole
sentence is inflicted.

In other cases, the launch--the largest of the boats--is rigged
with a platform (like a headsman's scaffold), upon which
halberds, something like those used in the English army, are
erected. They consist of two stout poles, planted upright. Upon
the platform stand a Lieutenant, a Surgeon a Master-at-arms, and
the executioners with their "cats." They are rowed through the
fleet, stopping at each ship, till the whole sentence is
inflicted, as before.

In some cases, the attending surgeon has professionally
interfered before the last lash has been given, alleging that
immediate death must ensue if the remainder should be administered
without a respite. But instead of humanely remitting the remaining
lashes, in a case like this, the man is generally consigned to his
cot for ten or twelve days; and when the surgeon officially reports
him capable of undergoing the rest of the sentence, it is forthwith
inflicted. Shylock must have his pound of flesh.

To say, that after being flogged through the fleet, the
prisoner's back is sometimes puffed up like a pillow; or to say
that in other cases it looks as if burned black before a roasting
fire; or to say that you may track him through the squadron by
the blood on the bulwarks of every ship, would only be saying
what many seamen have seen.

Several weeks, sometimes whole months, elapse before the sailor
is sufficiently recovered to resume his duties. During the
greater part of that interval he lies in the sick-bay, groaning
out his days and nights; and unless he has the hide and
constitution of a rhinoceros, he never is the man he was before,
but, broken and shattered to the marrow of his bones, sinks into
death before his time. Instances have occurred where he has
expired the day after the punishment. No wonder that the
Englishman, Dr. Granville--himself once a surgeon in the Navy--
declares, in his work on Russia, that the barbarian "knout"
itself is not a greater torture to undergo than the Navy cat-o'-

Some years ago a fire broke out near the powder magazine in an
American national ship, one of the squadron at anchor in the Bay
of Naples. The utmost alarm prevailed. A cry went fore and aft
that the ship was about to blow up. One of the seamen sprang
overboard in affright. At length the fire was got under, and the
man was picked up. He was tried before a court-martial, found
guilty of cowardice, and condemned to be flogged through the
fleet, In due time the squadron made sail for Algiers, and in
that harbour, once haunted by pirates, the punishment was
inflicted--the Bay of Naples, though washing the shores of an
absolute king, not being deemed a fit place for such an
exhibition of American naval law.

While the Neversink was in the Pacific, an American sailor, who
had deposited a vote for General Harrison for President of the
United States, was flogged through the fleet.

Herman Melville