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.

t 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.