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Discipline in the Civil War Armies

        The Articles of War and civil laws covering military discipline were written and enacted before the Civil War to govern a small, self-contained professional military service. The military maintained order with a caste system and disciplined with shame and pain. With the mustering of great armies and navies, this way of life was revealed to vast numbers of civilian volunteers for the first time. Trouble resulted.
        The Union and Confederate armies were led by small cadres of professionals who found that the war they were to fight required the coordinated movement of enormous bodies of men. The drill discipline this required was to be supplied by manuals such as Hardee' Tactics and the vigorous efforts of noncommissioned and junior officers. But many of these were friends or relatives of the men in the hometown companies in which they served. The local origin and makeup of most volunteer units had a poor effect on discipline; the men had elected their leaders, so volunteer officers were often wary of being strict with their troops. Early in the war this necessitated the removal or transfer of many volunteer officers, and in a few cases, the punishment of entire regiments.
        Nor was the independent nature of volunteers and old loyalties easily overcome by discipline from Regular officers. Confederate Brig. Gen. Charles S. Winder had been an officer in the antebellum U.S. Army and was an officer in the Confederate army, leading 5 volunteer regiments. During the Second Bull Run Campaign he had 30 men from his brigade bucked and gagged at one time for straggling on the march. They took the corporal punishment badly: half of them deserted that night, the rest "swore Winder's next battle would be his last.,, They never had a chance to carry out their threat: Federals killed Winder during the next battle.
        Mutiny and threats of murder were not usual discipline problems. Straggling, drunkenness, fighting, dereliction of duty, theft, desertion, malingering, cowardice, bounty jumping, and insubordination were the common fare at courts-martial. Both Union and Confederate services made provisions for military courts and prescribed specific punishments for some offenses. But often, because of pressures of time, courts were not called in noncapital cases and commanding officers dispensed justice on the spot with some form of minor or corporal punishment. These included the Buck and Gag, walking guard duty carrying a heavy log instead of a rifle, being tied up by the thumbs, riding the "wooden mule" (a soldier was forced to sit for hours atop a narrow rail set high enough so his feet did not touch the ground), extra duty, fines, time in the guardhouse, and reduction in rank.
        Cowardice, desertion, theft, sleeping on guard duty, treating with the enemy, spying, murder, and bounty jumping brought the hardest punishments. Execution by firing squad or hanging could be applied to all of these, but frequently cowards, thieves, and some deserters were branded (either on the face or the hip) and drummed out of camp in disgrace. In the artillery or cavalry, being tied for hours spread-eagled on a gun carriage wheel was common, and sometimes, when the culprit was hung horizontally, crippling. In both the army and navy, flogging had been outlawed several years before the war.
        The hardest punishments could only be ordered by a court martial (a select board of 3 or more officers), and in the case of a decision for execution, its vote had to show a 2-to-I majority in agreement. Only the commanding general ordering the court or the U.S. or C.S. president could award a pardon.
        At sea, limits of space and personnel prohibited some of the more curious corporal punishments and full court-martial boards. the ship's captain dispensed justice in the forms Of fines, extra duty, time in the brig, confinement in single or double irons, confinement on bread and water, solitary confinement, or reduction in rank.
        Officers could be, and frequently were, arrested and tried for any number of offenses, but most often their punishments amounted to fines, confinement to quarters, or assignment to an undesirable command. In those instances where a field officer was convicted of cowardice, his fate was nearly as ugly as an enlisted man's: he was publicly "read out of the army, his sword broken, his buttons stripped from his uniform; then, he was drummed out of camp, often with a sign around his neck that read "Coward."  Usually, in cases involving high disgrace, officers were expected to resign.
        Combat discipline was imposed with force, in land assaults "file closers" with bayoneted rifles kept men in line and moving forward. Officers of the provost marshal waited in the rear to seize unwounded men leaving the field. At sea, marines kept shipboard peace and, if ordered to, kept men at their battle stations.
        In the postwar years, amendments to service and enlistment regulations and revisions in the code of military justice were prompted by the disciplinary difficulties during the Civil War, and the bulk of the code was rewritten.
Source:  "Historical Times Encyclopedia of the Civil War" Edited by Patricia L. Faust

This Page last updated 02/28/04

Images of Civil War Punishment Some images of the punishments described in the article above


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