In 1653, the Lord High Commissioners of the Royal Navy realized it needed to codify the rules governing its officers and men. They were amended by an Act of Parliament in in 1749 and then again in 1747.
When the American Revolution broke out, there were 36 Articles of War. Captains were required to read all them to their crews once a month or when punishment was meted out.
The articles are clear and succinct. In 16 of the, the maximum punishment allowed is death. One would expect that for the crimes of desertion, mutiny or cowardice, a death sentence could be awarded. According to the articles, the death penalty could be awarded for a host of other crimes such as “sodomy or buggery.”
What is also unusual is that there is no appeal process. The individual (ship captain or squadron or fleet commander) who convenes the trial is determines the sentence and when it is carried out. Once convicted, the punishment carried out within days. In the 18th Century, ships were days at best days or weeks or even months from a home port. Ships didn’t have places where an individual could be confined for long periods and transporting them long distances wasn’t practical.
Discipline for minor offenses could be harsh. Caning, flogging and confinement and given bread and water was allowed. Those awaiting punishment or already convicted could be shackled to a gun barrel or held in a dark, dank hold amongst the bilge water and vermin who lived there.
Another custom was that everyone on the ship witnessed punishment. For example, if the sailor was to be flogged, the crew watch a bo’ sun mate turn a man’s back into a bloody mess. Seawater was then splashed on his back.
The broad powers given to the captain were, unfortunately often abused. While mutinies were rare, the last thing a captain needed was a sullen and uncooperative crew because he too was subject to the Articles of War. There are instances of senior officers being recalled, tried, convicted and executed because he failed to accomplish his mission.
When the American Revolution began, the Continental Congress established the Articles of War on June 30th, 1775 based on what was used by the Royal Army. It had 69 articles and was quickly adopted by the Continental Navy.
The articles adopted in June 1775 were modified in 1806. The new set had 101 Articles of War and remained in effect until 1921 when they were again undated. Twenty new articles were added bringing the total to 121. The Articles of War were replaced in 1951 with the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
When Commodore Uriah P. Levy proposed abolishing flogging as a punishment in the U.S. Navy, it was considered a controversial position. However, at Levy’s urging, in 1850 Congress passed legislation that abolished flogging. Proudly, the United States Navy was the first major seafaring nation to do so.