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This Week in Military History: September 22nd - 28th

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September 28th: US Navy Abolishes Flogging

Flogging aboard a naval vessel.


There are few military catch phrases as timeless, tired, and oft-repeated as the many variations on, “Things were much tougher back in my day!” Sometimes it comes from a retired octogenarian clucking his or her tongue at a millennial who served in the same division six decades apart, other times it’s a particularly crotchety E-3 talking down to the boot E-1 in the unit. And if you could travel back to the trenches of Yorktown in 1781, you’d no doubt find a crowd of privates rolling their eyes at a sergeant explaining how easy they had it because the Continental Army went “soft” after Valley Forge.

Battle of Yorktown"Oh yeah? Well, back in the old days we'd have to fight the British without shoes. And it was uphill both ways!"

The veracity of most boasts that things in the service were “tougher” before a certain year/war/event are debatable. But when American sailors and Marines who joined up after September 28th, 1850 heard the old tars and leathernecks talking about how things used to be worse, they probably agreed. Happily. Because that day marked the end of flogging in the US Navy, all thanks to a New Hampshire senator and a Navy veteran turned successful author.

Naval flogging

Flogging was a common punishment in militaries all over the world since long before the Continental Congress made it an official penalty for any military personnel convicted by court martial in 1775. In naval services in particular, the use of a whip or cat o’ nine tails was commonly employed to punish seamen for offenses as trivial as not properly cleaning your dishes or refusing to shave. As with all things aboard a ship, the captain had complete authority to decide who should be whipped for what and how many times. While some commanders viewed flogging as unnecessarily cruel in all but the most extreme circumstances, that was small comfort to the countless enlisted sailors who had their backs lashed to bloody ribbons for minor misdeeds.

A cat o' nine tailsA cat o' nine tails.

Opposition to institutionalized flogging in the US armed forces can be traced back to the late 1700’s but it wasn’t until a few decades into the next century that it really picked up steam. Numerous proposals and petitions by politicians, former sailors, and civilian groups alike but none of them succeeded and the beatings continued. In 1842 the Navy even court martialed and convicted Captain Uriah P. Levy for not flogging a cabin boy for the heinous crime of “mimicking an officer” (imagine if that was still a whip-worthy crime in today’s military). Levy’s dismissal from the Navy was overturned by President John Tyler, but the Navy’s demonstrated willingness to punish officers who refused to whip subordinates made their position on the matter clear. It must have seemed that flogging would forever be a part of the US Navy, despite the many people who opposed it.

Senator John P. Hale
John P. Hale.

One such person was John Parker Hale, a New Hampshire lawyer and co-founder of the short-lived, anti-slavery Free Soil Party. The people of his state elected him to the House of Representative for a single term in 1843, then to the Senate in 1847. Hale, who disliked cruelty and violence in all forms, was the first senator to openly advocate for the abolition of slavery. So it’s no surprise that someone like him would also take a strong stance against flogging in any circumstances. But his efforts to have it banned  from Navy (as well as merchant) vessels were galvanized by a memoir published in March of 1850 and titled White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War. The book portrayed flogging as a brutal and cruel act doled out all too readily during the fourteen months spent as an enlisted seam aboard a Navy frigate by its author, Herman Melville. Yes, that Herman Melville.

Inside cover of Herman Melville's White-Jacket

Hale, with the prose of a famous writer's firsthand experience of flogging’s cruelty to back him up, succeeded in adding the abolition of flogging in the Navy and on all merchant ships under US flag to an appropriations bill just a few short months after White-Jacket hit bookstores. The gravest of inhumane punishments would no longer be inflicted on American sailors and Marines. And countless veteran and retired deckhands gained the right to honestly boast that things were indeed harsher back when they were in the Navy. (Old soldiers would have to wait until August 5th, 1861 to gain that right).

Sketch of a military floggingThough it did give soldiers 11 years of legitimate gripes that things were way worse in the Army than the Navy.

A couple of interesting notes regarding the men mentioned herein who had such important roles in the elimination of flogging:

After a failed presidential run, John Hale returned to the Senate as a member of the brand new Republican Party in 1855 and continued to fight for the abolition of slavery. In 1862 he got the Navy to stop serving rations of liquor aboard ships, which probably made a lot of sailors wonder if things had been better back when there were floggings. President Abraham Lincoln nominated Hale as Ambassador to Spain in 1865, which must have been quite an honor considering Hale liked Lincoln to the point that he tried to get the president’s eldest son, Robert, to marry his daughter Lucy. Unfortunately for Hale, Lucy and Robert merely became close friends. 

Senator John P. HaleSenator Hale.

Instead, Lucy fell in love with and became secretly engaged to a famous actor in the DC theater scene. Doubly unfortunately, that actor happened to be a deeply racist lunatic who fatally shot President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14th, 1865. Yes, the first openly abolitionist politician elected to the US Senate almost wound up father-in-law to John Wilkes Booth. John Hale would go on to fulfill his post in Spain, a position he held until 1869, and passed away in his hometown of Dover, New Hampshire in 1873.

The portrait of Lucy Hale found in John Wilkes Booth's pocket after his death.When John Wilkes Booth was shot and killed by Union troops on April 26th, 1865, he had portraits of five different women. Including this one of Lucy Hale.

White-Jacket was Herman Melville’s last successful book. In October of 1851, his novel The Whale debuted as a three volume piece. A month later it was released in America as a single book titled Moby Dick. It did poorly, critically, and commercially, as did all his successive works. By 1876, all of his work was out of print. He suffered from depression, mood swings, and rheumatism and was forced to take a job as a customs inspector for New York City. He endured multiple family tragedies including the deaths of both of his sons, one from tuberculosis and the other from a self-inflicted gunshot (whether it was accidental or suicidal was never determined). Herman Melville passed away at age 72 on September 28th, 1891. 41 years after his writing helped end flogging in the US Navy. Only in the early decades of the next century did his writing receive widespread recognition for its greatness.

Portrait of Herman Melville, 1970 Portrait of Melville, 1870.

And Captain Uriah Levy, the officer who refused to whip a smartass teenage cabin boy, spent nearly five decades in the Navy fighting in multiple wars as well as against widespread antisemitism among his superiors and comrades. He persevered to become the service’s first Jewish commodore (the highest possible rank at the time), got rich in the real estate market, and retired to become a philanthropist up until his death in 1862.

Commodore Uriah Philips Levy"Oh, you had a tough time in the Navy? Let me tell you about my 49 years dodging cannonballs and discrimination . . ."



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