January 28, 1862
The accompanying letter is from the collection of the 5th Maine Regiment Museum.
After the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas Junction) on July 21, 1861, John French and the rest of the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment took part in the Union Army’s effort to regroup. The army encamped and resumed training and drilling, month after month.
As winter arrived, and with the Army’s Peninsular Campaign in only the early planning stages, French shared with his family the monotony of camp life.
"…About all we have to do is to eat, smoke, sleep, read the papers, tell stories, sing songs," French writes.
With thousands of men fighting boredom more than they were fighting battles, officers devised a system of punishments to maintain camp order.
To keep soldiers from straying, the response was simple. "If a private is caught one mile from his camp without a proper pass, that is one signed by his Colonel, he is arrested and put in the guard house," French reports.
That punishment would often be enough, "but if he keeps at it they punish him according to his offense. Sometimes they will stand him on a barrel with a 32 pound ball suspended to his neck by a chain."
In addition to the punishments French describes, soldiers could be punished by being "bucked and gagged" (trussed up, muzzled, and left to sit for hours), be forced to "ride the wooden mule" (a tall sawhorse-like contraption that forced the men atop it to balance precariously, as their feet could not reach the ground.) And, in extreme cases, soldiers could be branded with hot iron and forced to leave the army.
Most soldiers’ misbehavior was minor – brawling, laziness, insubordination, drunkenness, or petty theft.
"One of our boys stole some money & the Colonel made him walk over the encampment under a guard three or four days with a big card on his back which covered it all over & an other one on his breast with the following inscription on them "Jim Malony, Thief," French writes.
For soldiers, the serious charges were accusations of desertion or cowardice. Punishments varied, but often involved public humiliation. Many punishments were administered outdoors where the culprit's fellow soldiers could see him.
"As for my self I have never yet ben punished or even as much as reprimanded or rebuked, nor do I intend to be for disobedience or bad conduct," French discloses.
- Do you think these punishments would be allowed in the military today?
- Why or why not?
- How are soldiers punished today?