In flogging, the most common means of enforcing discipline in the early U.S. Navy, a cat-o-nine-tails, a whip composed of nine knotted ropes, was applied to the bare back. Its defenders considered flogging swift and effective, while, in contrast to confinement, it quickly returned a sailor to duty. The majority of naval officers, and probably most enlisted as well, believed that flogging was the only practical means of enforcing discipline on board ship.
Reformers, on the contrary, maintained that seamen were rational beings capable of being persuaded to obedience by appeals to patriotism and pride. Punishments that degraded men, reformers contended, were undemocratic and encouraged sullen compliance rather than ready obedience.
On September 28, 1850 Congress abolished flogging in the Navy but failed to substitute another system of discipline. The 1850 legislation outlawed flogging specifically, but did not outlaw all forms of corporal punishment. Immediately after the disuse of the cat numerous complaints reached the Navy Department of insubordination and serious irregularities among the seamen. Desertions increased, and many good seamen, concerned about the lack of discipline, refused to enlist. Naval officers searched for alternative forms of punishment for malefactors, including tattooing, branding, wearing signs of disgrace, confinement in sweatboxes, lashing with thumbs behind the back, tricing up by the wrists, continuous dousing with sea water, straight jackets, and confinement in irons on bread and water. Officers objected to long confinement as a punishment because it removed the sailor from the work force and increased the workload of the innocent.
Naval officers sought guidance from the Department of the Navy on the punishments they were to substitute for flogging, and early in 1853 President Millard Fillmore responded by issuing a “System of Orders and Instructions.” The executive system did not last long, for the attorney general determined that it was an unconstitutional infringement on Congress’s authority to make rules and regulations for the Navy.
When Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed on his famous mission to Japan to open that nation to contact with the west (1852—54), he did so without benefit of a new set of disciplinary regulations. Naval personnel on the mission numbered approximately 2,000, about twenty percent of the Navy’s manpower. Despite the absence of the cat-o-nine-tails and the lack of a substitute system of discipline, as well as few opportunities for shore leave, discipline was not a significant problem. Knowing that a high order of discipline was essential to the success of his delicate diplomatic negotiations Perry worked to maintain high morale. He encouraged theatrical productions, issued extra rations of spirits, allowed visits between ships, and insured uniformity and regularity of courts-martial.
In 1855 Congress provided a new system of discipline based on rewards and punishments. Congress established the summary court-martial for minor offences and prescribed a set of punishments, including bad-conduct discharge, solitary confinement in irons for up to thirty days, confinement for up to two months, reduction in rating, deprivation of liberty, extra police duties and loss of pay. For well-behaved sailors, Congress established honorable discharges, reenlistment bounties, and leaves of absences.
The new system of rewards, by encouraging well-behaved sailors to stay in the Navy, or to reenlist, were the foundations of a career enlisted service.