What Flogging Was Like In 1854

From a 1854 entry in the previously unpublished journal of soldier James Stevenson, 1st Dragoons:

That winter a court martial was convened at the barracks to try a number of deserters, who were under guard, with ball and chains attached to their ankles.  They are found guilty and sentenced to receive fifty lashes each upon the bare back, to have the letter “D” branded upon the hip, and to be drummed out of the service.

When the day for the execution of the sentences arrived, the troops were drawn up in lines forming three sides of a square, to witness the punishment that might deter them from deserting.  It was the duty of the officer of the day to superintend the execution of the sentences.  A gun carriage was placed on the fourth or vacant side of the square so that all the troops could see, and each prisoner in his turn was lashed firmly to the wheel, having been previously stripped to the waist.  The drummer of the infantry and the buglers of the cavalry administered the stripes with a rawhide; and a more brutal exhibition I have never witnessed.  When a blow was struck which did not seem hard enough, the officer of the day would not count it, so some of the prisoners received sixty stripes instead of fifty.

When a man fainted under his punishment, restoratives were administered, and if the surgeon thought he could still stand it, he received his full allowance.  In one case, the surgeon pronounced a man physically unable to stand the punishment after being restored from a fainting fit, and he was led off with about thirty stripes.  When cut down from the wheel, their backs were rubbed with brine which, although said to be for their good, caused them dreadful suffering, if we could judge by their groans and cries.  After a few days’ medical treatment, the letter “D” was pricked into their skin with India ink, and, with shaven heads, they were marched around the parade ground, the soldiers standing in line to witness the performance.  The drums and fifes played the “Rogues’ March,” and a file of infantry, with bayonets at a charge, marched behind the culprits, and conducted them some distance beyond the limits of the barracks.  Thus ended the inhumane and humiliating spectacle; I can truly say that, instead of filling the hearts of the soldiers with fear and exercising a restraining influence over them, it only filled them with hatred for a service in which such brutal punishment was practiced, and produced a strong desire to get out of it in any way possible.  I do not blame the officers, for they were, as a rule, humane and gentlemanly in their treatment of the soldiers.  It was the fault of the system, and I am happy to say that it has since been done away with.

After the exhibition of cruelty, I was very anxious to get away from “garrison duty” and to enter upon the more dangerous, but vastly pleasanter duty, of “life upon the plains.”’

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