Naval Discipline

"Rocks & Shoals: Discipline in the Age of Fighting Sail" by James E. Valle
Reprinted with permission from the U.S. Naval Institute Press

The general subject of early American naval history is one that has long been popular with maritime historians. The battles, leaders, voyages of exploration, and diplomatic activities which the small but potent U.S. Navy engaged in from 1800 to 1865 have been discussed and studied in tremendous detail both for the instruction of the student of military science and for the pleasure and edification of a large following of interested laymen.

Much less well known and understood are the studies and research done in the area of the routine operation of the Navy Department and of the individual ships, squadrons, and shore stations that made up the navy during the early years of the Republic. Only recently have there appeared a few monographs and books that probe personnel practices, the management of the Navy Department, and the general character of the Old Navy.*

This lack led to a marked distortion of the actual significance of much of our naval history, a history that forms the core of the traditions of our sea service. A survey of naval historical and inspirational lore contained in The Book of the Navy, a compilation edited by W. Adolphe Roberts and Lowell Brentano for the midshipmen of the Naval Academy, contains accounts of forty-three combats taking place between 1776 and 1944, nine scientific or exploratory expeditions, and one notable feat of small-boat navigation. These selections give the future officers of the navy an excellent orientation as to what is expected of them in battle and in other circumstances of extraordinary peril. Little or nothing in this body of lore prepares the prospective naval officer for long periods of routine peacetime service. The virtues of teamwork, judicious treatment of subordinates, graceful subordination to higher authority, patience, and selflessness are neglected.

This is something of a tragedy, because an officer can normally expect to spend most of his service life in routine peacetime activities. The navy was on a peacetime footing for fifty-two of the years between 1800 and 1865, yet the vast bulk of naval history deals with the events of the thirteen years of warfare rather than the peaceful interludes that lasted for decades at a stretch.

We need to know much more about these periods of peaceful routine activity. Much of what occurred then is relevant to the affairs of the Modern Navy, which is also a service that spends long periods of time on a peacetime footing. One area that is of great import, although it has been largely neglected, is that of discipline.

Naval disciplinary problems, policies, and crises are more than just "dirty linen" to be aired for the satisfaction of morbid curiosity. The state of discipline within a service is the key to much more. The morale of naval personnel, both officers and enlisted men, the levels of stress within the organization, the equity and effectiveness of personnel practices, the degree of professionalism exhibited by naval officers, and their willingness and ability to reform their procedures and purge their ranks of undesirables are all intimately bound up in the workings of the naval system of discipline. For these reasons it should prove as useful to study the disciplinary methods and traditions of the Old Navy as it is to study its battles, leaders, and scientific activities. Indeed, the more one probes the disciplinary problems and policies in the Old Navy, the more one is struck by their similarity to problems within the modern service.

Today's drug addiction among young seamen and officers might well have had its counterpart in the widespread alcoholism of the officers and men of yesteryear. The abolition of flogging in 1850 touched off a crisis much more severe than that created by the introduction of the Uniform Code of Military justice in 1950. Problems of uncooperativeness and insubordination among the high-ranking officers of today's navy, as evidenced by those Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt faced in overcoming the opposition of other flag officers (notably Hyman G. Rickover and George W. Anderson)2 while he was chief of naval operations, also had their counterparts in the defiant behavior and disregard of regulations of Commodores Isaac Hull, Stephen Decatur, and Thomas ap Catesby Jones.

In dealing with the subject of discipline in the Old Navy, one can tap a rich body of manuscript material. Evidence concerning the routine chastisement of enlisted men is to be found in old logbooks and accounts of voyages and expeditions. For serious offenders who were investigated or tried formally, the verbatim transcripts of general courts-martial and courts of inquiry from 1800 to the mid-1820s have survived and are available on microfilm. The general state of discipline in the nineteenth-century navy was discussed in letters, diaries, books, pamphlets, and even novels. Congressional committees made inquiries and conducted investigations; and various secretaries of the navy wrote reports and made recommendations, as each one in his turn wrestled with the tightly ingrained naval establishment of the early Republic.

The picture that emerges from these sources is engrossing and highly instructive. The Old Navy was, like most military organizations of that day, an authoritarian system based on the principle of dominance and domination. It was characterized by organizational rigidity and sought solutions for disciplinary problems through the mechanical application of traditional practices and routine policies. As were many other institutions of the time, it was noteworthy for its strong reliance on ceremonialism, conventional gestures, and formal observances that were built into its structure out of veneration for tradition and nostalgia. Its officers were, in conformity with the conventional culture from which they sprang, susceptible to an exaggerated sense of professionalism where concern with the forms and symbols of status outweighed regard for practical results and functional performances.

Out of this atmosphere there developed a curious quality of inconsistency characterized by a code of iron discipline which imposed the strictest possible control over the enlisted men. Because they were seen as the lowest class of humanity, reliance was placed mainly on flogging, confinement in irons, and the threat of capital punishment, on the grounds that that was all they could be expected to comprehend. junior officers were under somewhat looser control. They could usually evade being punished for offenses that would send an enlisted man to the gratings; but let them incur the wrath of a senior officer, and they might find themselves summarily dismissed from the service or living under a regimen of petty harassment designed to elicit a resignation. Senior officers were somehow immune to most disciplinary restraints. They could feud, split the service with their factionalism, bend or break regulations, and indulge in highly autocratic behavior with little threat of serious reprisal. There was a great deal of favoritism about the way the navy administered justice, and the general public occasionally detected this and criticized the service for these habits.

Public concern about disciplinary methods in the federal navy first manifested itself in 1799 when Seaman Neal Harvey was executed for cowardice on board the frigate Constellation under Captain Thomas Truxtun. Harvey had deserted his post, apparently in panic, during the engagement with the French frigate L'Insurgente and was killed by his division officer, Lieutenant Andrew Sterett. The incident became known after the arrival of Truxtun with his prize in Philadelphia, and a certain amount of indignation arose in the anti-federalist press, which was hostile to the navy generally and opposed to the Quasi-War policy of John Adams's administration. Seizing on Sterett's boast, "We put men to death for even looking pale on this ship," the Aurora editorialized that such remarks were perfect illustrations of "the arrogance that always accompanies military command." Sterett's actions were not condemned by naval authorities, however; and the summary execution of men who fled their posts in action became one of the traditions of the sailing navy.

From time to time, other naval disciplinary cases came to the attention of the public. Two courts-martial, that of Commodore James Barron and his officers for the surrender of the Chesapeake to the British in 1807 and that of Alexander Slidell Mackenzie for the hanging of three members of his crew for attempted mutiny on board the brig Somers in 1842, became so controversial that the proceedings of the tribunals were published by the government. Other officers who underwent courts-martial or courts of inquiry received permission to publish privately the records of their trials.

Naval courts had a significance in the sailing navy that went beyond mere matters of discipline. There was considerable internal friction in the service based on grudges and factionalism. Dueling among the officers, especially the junior officers, was fairly common. After 1840, efforts to suppress it began to make headway, and officers sometimes resorted to bringing charges and countercharges against one another as a substitute for a passage at arms. Many of these proceedings were rooted in personal enmity, and dragged on out of all proportion to the offense being tried.

Morale in the Old Navy was often poor, but the most pervasive crisis in leadership and discipline occurred during the 1850s, which began with the abolition of flogging, continued with a clumsy attempt to purge the officer corps, and ended with the entire nation drifting towards disunion and civil war. This last event split the naval establishment badly, engendering a period of great suspicion and distrust between brother officers that lasted from i859 to i86i. These traumas and crises were far more severe than anything experienced by the Modern Navy. It is interesting to note that during this crisis-ridden decade the number of courts-martial and courts of inquiry increased to triple and quadruple the normal average. This was because of the great number of serious offenses committed by enlisted men, the introduction of the summary court-martial as a disciplinary tribunal for moderate]), serious cases, and the necessity of hearing the appeals of officers retired by the Naval Efficiency Board of 1855.

In addition to being indicators of stress within the naval officer corps, courts-martial and courts of inquiry have another use. In an article written for the journal Armed Forces and Society, Paul L. Savage and Richard A. Gabriel, two former career army officers now employed as college professors, identified an unusual level of certain crimes-mutiny, desertion, assaults upon superior officers, attempted assassination of leaders, and large-scale drug addiction-as indicators of disintegration within a military organizations Although Savage and Gabriel were mainly concerned with the experience of the French and American armies in Vietnam, some of what they said is relevant to the problems of the Old Navy. Mutiny, mutinous conduct, and mutinous language represented about 8 percent of all charges brought in naval tribunals between 1800 and 1861. Offenses related to drunkenness and illicit trading in liquor represented a similar percentage of judicial charges and constituted the largest single cause for the awarding of nonjudicial punishments. Desertion was rife in the navy throughout the nineteenth century. It was the most common court-martial offense, accounting for 18 percent of all charges. Assault on a superior officer and related charges were also prominent and accounted for 4 percent of all charges lodged.

The burden of Savage's and Gabriel's article is that a high incidence of these particular offenses is a result of poor personnel practices, low officer quality, and bad relationships between officers and enlisted men which breed contempt on the part of the men for their officers. That such conditions were present in the Old Navy can be deduced from many sources but perhaps nowhere so clearly and graphically as in White jacket, Hcrman Melville's fictionalized account of a cruise in the USS United States on the Pacific Station in 1843. The Old Navy never did disintegrate, of course, and came close to it only during the years immediately after the abolition of flogging, when the crews of a few ships apparently became uncontrollable for short periods of time. Since the end of the Civil War, the general trend within the navy has been one of slow but steady improvement in virtually every phase of personnel administration and living conditions. The status of enlisted men has steadily grown, and a new awareness of the importance of good leadership and high morale has emerged to replace the old iron-discipline methods imposed on polyglot crews. The officer corps has also become more settled and orderly. The last really rancorous public fetid occurred in the wake of the Spanish-American War, when Admiral William T. Sampson and Commodore Winfield Scott Schley engaged in lengthy and acrimonious debate over command responsibility, insubordination, and disregard of orders that had its roots in the latter's conduct during the Battle of Santiago. Charges and countercharges proliferated, and a court of inquiry collected enough testimony and documents to fill two thick volumes, which were subsequently published at public expense. No conclusion was ever reached in this affair, and no court-martial resulted from the inquiry. As was the case in so many naval controversies where the real issue was a personality clash, neither party was able to gain much satisfaction from the naval justice system.

In the Modern Navy, the officer corps, strongly influenced by the ethos of the Naval Academy, has different methods of handling internal disputes. It implants within its midshipmen a sense of separateness, a loyalty to naval traditions and codes, and a spirit of brotherhood. Modern naval officers rarely seek publicity for themselves. Instead, they seek it for their service. In internal matters, they function like a men's club, keeping those members who prove unfit or incompetent out of sight until they can be quietly retired. Courts-martial and courts of inquiry are a last resort, rarely publicized, and care is taken to see that they do not become a platform for the airing of personal grudges.

Occasionally, however, this veneer of silence cracks and a case does come before the public. The capture of the electronic-surveillance ship Pueblo in 1968 under circumstances somewhat analogous to those of the Chesapeake affair created a controversy that split the service and resulted in the publication of more books on naval justice than has any other case in history. As with the Barron trial, the court of inquiry that investigated the actions of Lieutenant Commander Lloyd M. Bucher's crew produced 3,392 typed, single-spaced pages of testimony and a verdict that left all sides dissatisfied.15 Only the Somers affair can be said to have generated a similar quantity of written commentary and polemics.

Another controversy in the sixties surrounded the relief of Lieutenant Commander Marcus A. Arnheiter from the command of the destroyer escort Vance. Arnheiter was a highly individualistic skipper who apparently engaged in certain irregular and illegal practices while serving in the Vance. His real crime was that he completely destroyed the morale and effectiveness of his officers and men through excessive zeal and extremely poor leadership. The Arnheiter affair also split the service emotionally. Arnfieiter tried the tactic, well known to the officers of the Old Navy, of bringing his case before Congress in an effort to have the disposition the navy had made of the affair set aside. A friend of Arnheiter, Captain Richard G. Alexander, published an open letter in an attempt to go public with the controversy and rally a faction in support of Arnheiter. In the Old Navy, such flamboyant tactics would not have been unusual and could well have resulted in Arnheiter's reinstatement. The Modern Navy defused the issue by refusing to convene a court-martial or court of inquiry, and both Arnheiter and Alexander faded from the navy, their careers ruined.

These and other examples of contemporary naval justice reveal an interesting anomaly. In the slow evolution of naval law since 1800, the relatively privileged officer corps of the Old Navy has seen its options and advantages decline significantly to the point where few officers today can successfully challenge the navy in legal controversy. Conversely, the position of the enlisted men has greatly improved, at least theoretically, since the Uniform Code of Military justice gives them more and more of the constitutional rights and safeguards enjoyed by civilians.

That naval law has undergone profound changes is regretted in some quarters, but it was inevitable given the rudimentary nature of the original ordinances and structures provided. As conceived in i8oo, under the Articles of War approved by Congress in April of that year, the navy's legal system was extremely sketchy. Moreover, it was a system that would be operated almost entirely by laymen untrained in the philosophy or technicalities of the law. The duties of judges, prosecutors, defense counselors, recorders, and bailiffs would be discharged by regular officers whose only preparation was repeated reading of the Articles of War and their own study of privately published manuals of court-martial procedure. No official reference work analogous to Naval Courts and Boards existed in those days and the Naval Regulations of 1802 confined itself to five brief sentences for the guidance of the perplexed.

    1. All courts-martial are to be held, offences tried, sentences pronounced, and execution of such sentences done, agreeably to the articles and orders contained in an act of Congress made on the 23d of April, in the year i8oo, entitled "an act for the better government of the navy of the United States."
    2. Courts-martial may be convened as often as the President of the United States, the secretary of the navy, or commander in chief of a fleet, or commander of a squadron, while acting out of the United States shall deem it necessary.
    3. All complaints are to be made in writing, in which are to be set forth the facts, time, place, and the manner how they were committed.
    4. The judge advocate is to examine witnesses upon oath, and by order of the commander in chief, or in his absence, of the president of the court, to send an attested copy of the charge to the party accused, in time to admit his preparing his defense.
    5. In all cases, the youngest member must vote first, and so proceed up to the presidents

The justice dispensed by this system was often irregular and clearly incompatible with the system of civilian law in force throughout the United States. Coupled with this problem were other difficulties which arose out of the smallness and ingrained nature of the Old Navy. Modern commentators who deplore the vast, impersonal, and highly bureaucratic nature of the Modern Navy often lose sight of the fact that a small and familiar service can have just as many disadvantages as a large one. The naval justice system shows this clearly. It had to deal with problems arising from cronyism, factionalism, grudges, and feuds that festered deeply because the participants could not escape one another in the enforced intimacy imposed by a small fleet with a limited number of berths. It was also hard to organize impartial courts and render disinterested justice in an environment where everyone was well known to everyone else.

In spite of these problems, the evolution of naval law took place slowly. This was primarily because, until the twentieth century, the navy grew slowly. Awareness and understanding of the need for revising naval law had been even more retarded. The navy is a service bound by tradition, and its legal system is intimately bound up with certain of its most cherished articles of faith. Its officers and administrators are usually compelled to make changes against their will. This is, to some extent, because the navy has never developed a really deep factual understanding of its past methods and procedures.

Indeed, the Navy has been remiss in undertaking -any significant studies of its disciplinary codes and system. There have been no significant reformers or writers in the field of naval justice to compare with such army scholars as William Winthrop and Samuel T. Ansell. both of whom served as army judge advocates general during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The only institutional inquiry into the quality and competence of naval justice ever undertaken was a study of courts-martial and nonjudicial punishments awarded during World War II, and its results indicated that there were then serious deficiencies in the administration of naval law under the Articles of War.

So little is known about naval jurisprudence that there is not even an accurate count of the number of men who have been sentenced to death by naval courts and subsequently executed. Even such authorities on military law as William T. Generous, author of a pioneer study of the origins of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, erroneously states that the navy has executed only three men, the famed Somers mutineers, in its entire history. Robert E. Johnson, a highly qualified naval historian, adds the names of two men who were hanged in San Francisco in 1849 as a result of the Ewing mutiny. In the course of compiling his biography of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Samuel Eliot Morison turned up one more, a young seaman named Samuel Jackson, who was hanged after being convicted of mutiny during the war with Mexico. These six men are the only ones known by contemporary naval historians to have been executed at the hands of the navy. A careful examination of the judge advocate general's index of naval courts-martial for the years 1800 to 1861 actually indicates that naval courts sentenced twenty-six men to death, of whom seventeen were either certainly or probably executed, and that forty-nine more were given punishments of more than one hundred lashes, which was considered tantamount to a death sentence.

Considerable lack of accurate information was also displayed during the trial of Lieutenant Commander Bucher when many naval officers and newspaper men asserted that no American ship of war had surrendered without resistance to enemy forces since the Chesapeake did so in 1807. The judge advocate general's records actually show that, between 1798 and 1823, no less than eight naval vessels, not counting the Chesapeake, surrendered to enemy forces under circumstances similar to those attending the capture of the Pueblo. Few of the commanding officers involved were found guilty of any wrongdoing by the naval courts that heard their cases.

To uncover new knowledge and provide a better perspective on early American naval history, and the naval justice system in particular, a close and systematic study of the file of court-martial and court of inquiry transcripts compiled by the judge advocate general's office is vitally important. It is hoped that this study, based on hitherto neglected material, will alert naval historians to the wealth of information that can be mined from the thousands of pages of testimony and scores of reels of microfilm that make up the collection.

*In general, the navy of 1800-1861 will be referred to as the "Old Navy," that of 1862-1865 as the "Civil War Navy," and the twentieth-century fleet as the "Modern Navy."

Return to table of contents