Home Rules of an Asylum Insane British Curious Punishments

Military Punishments

An English writer of the seventeenth century, one Gittins, says with a
burst of noble and eloquent sentiment: "A soldier should fear only God
and Dishonour." Writing with candor he might have added, "but the
English soldier fears only his officers." The shocking and frequent
cruelty practiced in the English army is now a thing of the past, though
it lasted to our own day in the form of bitter and protracted floggings.
It is useless to describe one of these military floggings, and
superfluous as well, when an absolutely classic description, such as
Somerville's, in his Autobiography of a Workingman, can be read by
all. He writes with stinging, burning words of the punishment of a
hundred lashes which he received during his service in the British army,
and his graphic sentences cut like the "cat"--we seem to see in lurid
outlines the silent, motionless, glittering regiment drawn up in a
square four rows deep; the unmoved and indifferent officers, all men of
gentle birth and liberal education, but brutalized and inhuman, standing
within these lines and near the cruel stake; the impassive quartermaster
marking with leisurely and unmoved exactness every powerful, agonizing
lash of the bloody whip as it descended on the bare back of a brave
British soldier, without one sign of protest or scarce of interest from
any of the hundreds who viewed the scene, save on the part of the
surgeon, who stood perfunctorily near with basin and drugs to revive the
sufferer if he fainted, or stop the punishment if it seemed to foretell
a fatal result. We read that raw recruits sometimes cried out or dropped
down in the ranks from fright at the first horrifying sight of an
army-flogging, but they soon grew scarcely to heed the ever-frequent and
brutalizing sight. These floggings were never of any value as a
restraint or warning in the army; the whipped and flayed soldiers were
ruined in temper and character just as they were often ruined in health.
Deaths from exhaustion and mortification from the wounds of the lash
were far from infrequent. The story of the inquiry in army circles that
led to the disuse of the whip in the British army (as for instance, the
Evidence on Military Punishment contains some of the most revolting
pages ever put in print.

English army-laws of course ruled the royal troops in the American
provinces, and the local train bands, and were continued among the
volunteer American soldiers of the Revolution. I have read scores of
order-books and seen hundreds of sentences to flogging, both during the
French and Indian wars, and in the Revolutionary war. A few instances
may be given. Edward Munro, of Lexington, Mass., was a Lieutenant in a
company of Rangers in 1758, and in 1762 he was Lieutenant in
Saltonstall's regiment at Crown Point, and he acted as adjutant for four
regiments. His order-book still exists. On October 19, 1762, a
court-martial found several soldiers guilty of neglect of duty, and he
records that they were sentenced to receive punishment in the following

"Robert McKnight to receive 800 lashes on his naked back with
cat-o'-nine-tails. John Cobby to receive 600 lashes in the same manner;
and Peter McAllister 300 lashes in the same maner. The adjutant will see
the sentences put in execution by the Drum of the line at 5 o'clock this
evening; the Surgeon to attend the execution."

As Peter McAlister was very young his lashes were remitted. He was led
in disgrace to watch the others as they were whipped, two hundred lashes
at a time, at the head of the four regiments, if the surgeon found they
could endure it.

These sentences were horribly severe. Thirty-nine lashes were deemed a
cruel punishment. Ten was the more frequent number. Dr. Rea, in his
diary, kept before "Ticonderogue," tells of a thousand lashes being
given in one case. Another journal tells of fifteen hundred lashes. He
also states that he never witnessed a military flogging, as he "found
the shreaks and crys satisfactory without the sight." Occasionally a
faint gleam of humanity seems dawning, as when we find Colonel Crafts
in camp before Boston in 1779 sending out this regimental order:

"The Colonel is extreamly sorry and it gives him pain to think he is at
last Obliged to Consent to the Corporal Punishment of one of his
regiment. Punishments are extreamly erksome and disagreeable to him but
he finds they are unfortunately necessary."

After that date the "cat" was seldom idle in his regiment, as in others
in the Continental army. Lashes on the naked back with the
cat-o'-nine-tails was the usual sentence, diversified by an occasional
order for whipping "with a Burch Rodd on the Naked Breech," or "over
such Parts as the commanding officer may apoint." There was, says one
diary writer of Revolutionary times, "no spairing of the whip" in the
Continental army; and floggings were given for comparatively trivial
offenses such as "wearing a hat uncockt," "malingering," swearing,
having a dirty gun, uttering "scurulous" words, being short of
ammunition, etc.

A New York soldier in 1676 was accused of pilfering. This was the
sentence decreed to him:

"The Court Marshall doth adjudge that the said Melchoir Classen shall
run the Gantlope once, the length of the fort: where according to the
custom of that punishment, the souldiers shall have switches delivered
to them, with which they shall strike him as he passes between them
stript to the waist, and at the Fort-gate the Marshall is to receive
him, and there to kick him out of the garrison as a cashiered person,
when he is no more to returne, and if any pay is due him it is to be

All of which would seem to tend to the complete annihilation of Melchoir

Gantlope was the earlier and more correct form of the word now commonly
called gantlet. Running the gantlope was a military punishment in
universal use in the seventeenth century in England and on the
continent. It was the German Gassenlaufen and it is said was the
invention of that military genius, the Emperor Gustavus Adolphus.

The method of punishing by running the gantlope was very exactly defined
in English martial law. The entire regiment was drawn up six deep. The
ranks then were opened and faced inward; thus an open passage way was
formed with three rows of soldiers on either side. Each soldier was
given a lash or a switch and ordered to strike with force. The offender,
stripped naked to the waist, was made to run between the lines, and he
was preceded by a sergeant who pressed the point of his reversed halbert
against the breast of the unfortunate culprit to prevent his running too
swiftly between the strokes. Thus every soldier was made a public
executioner of a cowardly and degrading punishment.

Several cases are on record of running the gantlope in Virginia; and an
interesting case was that of Captain Walter Gendal of Yarmouth, Maine, a
brave soldier, who for the slightest evidence of a not very serious
crime was sentenced to "run the gauntelope" through all the military
companies in Boston with a rope around his neck. This sentence was never

It is certainly curious to note that the first two parsons who came to
Plymouth, named Oldham and Lyford, came in honor and affection, but had
to run the gantlope at their leaving. They were most "unsavorie salt,"
as poor, worried Bradford calls them in his narrative of their
misbehaviors (one of the shrewdest, most humorous and sententious pieces
of seventeenth century writing extant), and after various "skandales,
aggravations, and great malignancies" they were "clapt up for a while."
He then writes of Oldham:

"They comited him till he was tamer, and then apointed a guard of
musketiers, wch he was to pass thorow, and every man was ordered to give
him a thump on ye breech wth ye end of his musket, then they bid him goe
and mende his manners."

Morton of Merry-mount tells in equally forcible language in his New
England Canaan of the similar punishment of Lyford.

A Dutch sailor, for drawing a knife on a companion, was dropped three
times from the yard-arm and received a kick from every sailor on the
ship--a form of running the gantlope. And we read of a woman who
enlisted as a seaman, and whose sex was detected, being dropped three
times from the yard-arm, running the gantlope, and being tarred and
feathered, and that she nearly died from the rough and cruel treatment
she received.

Similar in nature to running the gantlope, and equally cowardly and
cruel, was "passing the pikes."

In the fierce Summarie of Marshall Lawes for the colony of Virginia
under Dale, I find constantly appointed the penalty of "passing the
pikes:" it was ordered for disobedience, for persistence in quarrelling,
for waylaying to wound, etc.

"That Souldier that having a quarrell with an other, shall gather other
of his acquaintances, and associates, to make parties, to bandie, brave

second, and assist him therein, he and those braves, seconds and
assistants shall pass the pikes."

This was not an idle threat, for duelling was discouraged and forbidden
by Virginia rulers. In 1652 one Denham of Virginia carried a challenge
from his father-in-law to a Mr. Fox. He was tried for complicity in
promoting duelling and thus sentenced:

"For bringinge and acknowledgeinge it to be a chalenge, for deliveringe
it to a member of ye court during ye court's siting, for his slytinge
and lessinge ye offense together with his premptory answers to ye court
ye sd Denham to receave six stripes on his bare shoulder with a whip."

Another common punishment for soldiers (usually for rioting or drinking)
was the riding the wooden horse. In New Amsterdam the wooden horse stood
between Paerel street and the Fort, and was a straight, narrow,
horizontal pole, standing twelve feet high. Sometimes the upper edge of
the board or pole was acutely sharpened to intensify the cruelty. The
soldier was set astride this board, with his hands tied behind his back.
Often a heavy weight was tied to each foot, as was jocularly said, "to
keep his horse from throwing him." Garret Segersen, a Dutch soldier, for
stealing chickens, rode the wooden horse for three days, from two
o'clock to close of parade, with a fifty-pound weight tied to each foot,
which was a severe punishment. In other cases in New Amsterdam a musket
was tied to each foot of the disgraced man. One culprit rode with an
empty scabbard in one hand and a pitcher in the other to show his
inordinate love for John Barleycorn. Jan Alleman, a Dutch officer,
valorously challenged Jan de Fries, who was bedridden; for this cruel
and meaningless insult he, too, was sentenced to ride the wooden horse,
and was cashiered.

Dutch regiments in New Netherland were frequently drilled and commanded
by English officers, and riding the wooden horse was a favorite
punishment in the English army; hence perhaps its prevalence in the
Dutch regiments.

Grose, in his Military History of England, gives a picture of the
wooden horse. It shows a narrow-edged board mounted on four legs on
rollers and bearing a rudely-shaped head and tail. The ruins of one was
still standing in Portsmouth, England, in 1765. He says that its use was
abandoned in the English army on account of the permanent injury to the
health of the culprit who endured it. At least one death is known in
America, in colonial times, on Long Island, from riding the wooden
horse. It was, of course, meted out as a punishment in the American
provinces both in the royal troops and in the local train bands.

A Maine soldier, one Richard Gibson, in 1670, was "complayned of for his
dangerous and churtonous caridge to his commander and mallplying of
oaths." He was sentenced to be laid neck and heels together at the head
of his company for two hours, or to ride the "Wooden-Hourse" at the head
of the company the next training-day at Kittery.

In 1661, a Salem soldier, for some military misdemeanor, was sentenced
to "ride the wooden horse," and in Revolutionary days it was a favorite
punishment in the Continental army. In the order-book kept by Rev. John
Pitman during his military service on the Hudson, are frequent entries
of sentences both for soldiers and suspected spies, to "ride the woodin
horse," or, as it was sometimes called, "the timber mare." It was
probably from the many hours of each sentence a modification of the
cruel punishment of the seventeenth century.

It was most interesting to me to find, under the firm signature of our
familiar Revolutionary hero, Paul Revere, as "Preseding Officer," the
report of a Court-martial upon two Continental soldiers for playing
cards on the Sabbath day in September, 1776; and to know that, as
expressed by Paul Revere, "the Court are of the Oppinion that Thomas
Cleverly ride the Wooden Horse for a Quarter of an hower with a muskett
on each foot, and that Caleb Southward Cleans the Streets of the Camp,"
which shows that the patriot, could temper justice with both tender
mercy and tidy prudence.

The wooden horse was employed some times as a civil punishment. Horse
thieves were thus fitly punished. In New Haven, in January, 1787, a case

"Last Tuesday one James Brown, a transient person, was brought to the
bar of the County Court on a complaint for horse-stealing--being put to
plead--plead guilty, and on Thursday received the sentence of the Court,
that he shall be confined to the Goal in this County 8 weeks, to be
whipped the first Day 15 stripes on the naked Body, and set an hour on
the wooden horse, and on the first Monday each following Month be
whipped ten stripes and set one hour each time on the wooden horse."

The cruel punishment of "picketing," which was ever the close companion
of "riding the wooden horse" in the English army is recorded by Dr. Rea
as constantly employed in the colonial forces. In "picketing" the
culprit was strung up to a hook by one wrist while the opposite bare
heel rested upon a stake or picket, rounded at the point just enough not
to pierce the skin. The agony caused by this punishment was great. It
could seldom be endured longer than a quarter of an hour at a time. It
so frequently disabled soldiers for marching that it was finally
abandoned as "inexpedient."

The high honor of inventing and employing the whirlgig as a means of
punishment in the army has often been assigned to our Revolutionary
hero, General Henry Dearborn, but the fame or infamy is not his. For
years it was used in the English army for the petty offenses of
soldiers, and especially of camp-followers. It was a cage which was made
to revolve at great speed, and the nausea and agony it caused to its
unhappy occupant were unspeakable. In the American army it is said
lunacy and imbecility often followed excessive punishment in the

Various tiresome or grotesque punishments were employed. Delinquent
soldiers in Winthrop's day were sentenced to carry a large number of
turfs to the Fort; others were chained to a wheelbarrow. In 1778 among
the Continental soldiers as in our Civil War, culprits were chained to a
log or clog of wood; this weight often was worn four days. One soldier
for stealing cordage was sentenced to "wear a clogg for four days and
wear his coat rong side turn'd out." A deserter from the battle of
Bunker Hill was tied to a horse's tail, lead around the camp and
whipped. Other deserters were set on a horse with face to the horse's
tail, and thus led around the camp in derision.

There was one curious punishment in use in the army during our Civil War
which, though not, of course, of colonial times, may well be mentioned
since it was a revival of a very ancient punishment. It is thus
described by the author of a paper written in 1862 and called A Look at
the Federal Army:

"I was extremely amused to see a rare specimen of Yankee invention in
the shape of an original method of punishment drill. One wretched
delinquent was gratuitously framed in oak, his head being thrust through
a hole cut in one end of a barrel, the other end of which had been
removed, and the poor fellow loafed about in the most disconsolate
manner, looking for all the world like a half-hatched chicken."

I have made careful inquiry among officers and soldiers who served in
the late war, and I find this instance, which occurred in Virginia, was
not exceptional. A lieutenant in the Maine infantry volunteers wrote on
July 13, 1863, from Cape Parapet, about two miles above New Orleans:

"We have had some drunkenness but not so much as when we were in other
places; two of my company were drunk, and the next day I had a hole cut
in the head of a barrel, and put a placard on each side to tell the
bearer that 'I am wearing this for getting drunk,' and with this they
marched through the streets of the regiment four hours each. I don't
believe they will get drunk again very soon."

The officer who wrote the above adds to-day:

"This punishment was not original with me, as I had read of its being
done in the Army of the Potomac, and I asked permission of the colonel
to try it, the taking away of a soldier's pay by court-martial having
little permanent effect. In those cases one of the men quit drinking,
and years afterward thanked me for having cured him of the habit, saying
he had never drank a drop of liquor since he wore the barrel-shirt."

Another Union soldier, a member of Company B, Thirteenth Massachusetts
Volunteers, writes that while with General Banks at Darnstown, Virginia,
he saw a man thus punished who had been found guilty of stealing: With
his head in one hole, and his arms in smaller holes on either side of
the barrel, placarded "I am a thief," he was under a corporal's guard
marched with a drum beating the rogue's march through all the streets of
the brigade to which his regiment was attached. Another officer tells me
of thus punishing a man who stole liquor. His barrel was ornamented with
bottles on either side simulating epaulets, and was labelled "I stole
whiskey." Many other instances might be given. There was usually no
military authority for these punishments, but they were simply ordered
in cases which seemed too petty for the formality of a court-martial.

This "barrel-shirt," which was evidently so frequently used in our Civil
War, was known as the Drunkard's Cloak, and it was largely employed in
past centuries on the Continent. Sir William Brereton, in his Travels
in Holland, 1634, notes its use in Delft; so does Pepys in the year
1660. Evelyn writes in 1641 that in the Senate House in Delft he saw "a
weighty vessel of wood not unlike a butter churn," which was used to
punish women, who were led about the town in it. Howard notes its
presence in Danish prisons in 1784 under the name of the "Spanish

The only contemporary account I know of its being worn in England is in
a book written by Ralph Gardner, printed in 1655, and entitled
England's Grievance Discovered, etc. The author says:

"He affirms he hath seen men drove up and down the streets, with a
great tub or barrel open in the sides, with a hole in one end to put
through their heads, and so cover their shoulders and bodies, down to
the small of their legs, and then close the same; called the new-fashion
cloak, and so make them march to the view of all beholders, and this is
their punishment for drunkards and the like."

It is also interesting and suggestive to note that by tradition the
Drunkard's Cloak was in use in Cromwell's army; but the steps that led
from its use among the Roundheads to its use in the Army of the Potomac
are, I fear, forever lost.

Next: Branding And Maiming

Previous: Public Penance

Add to Informational Site Network

Viewed 4876