In the early days of the U.S. Navy, flogging was the most common means of enforcing discipline. A cat-o-nine-tails – a whip composed of nine knotted ropes – was applied to the bare back. Most naval officers believed that flogging was the only practical means of enforcing discipline aboard ship.
Although there had been a number of campaigns to get flogging outlawed over the years, two significant publications exposing the cruelties of flogging had a galvanizing effect on public opinion: Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. (1840), and White-Jacket, by Herman Melville (1850). Between December 1849 and June 1850 the Senate received 271 petitions from the citizens of various states urging the end of flogging. Democratic Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire had previously tried to get flogging in the Navy abolished, but now the moment was at hand.
On this day in history, Congress abolished flogging in the Navy but did not suggest alternative means of discipline. According to the U.S. Naval Institute:
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.”
Officers sought guidance from the Department of the Navy to devise better punishments. In 1853 President Millard Fillmore issued a “System of Orders and Instructions” but the attorney general determined it was an unconstitutional infringement on the power of Congress to make rules for the Navy. Finally in 1855 Congress provided a new system of discipline based on rewards and punishments. But branding with a hot iron or tattooing was still permitted until Congress forbade the practice in 1872.