On January 29, 2003, World War II veteran and cartoonist Bill Mauldin was buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Mauldin’s cartoons championed the men with eyes that were “just too old for those young bodies” who were called upon to fight a savage war amid appalling squalor and (too often) neglect.
Those cartoons were a comfort for those who had to endure a laundry list of miseries. They also annoyed high-ranking officers, most famously, General George S. Patton who sputtered: “If that little son of a bitch sets foot in Third Army, I’ll throw his ass in jail.”
At the conclusion of Mauldin’s funeral, the US flag from the coffin was presented to one of his sons by the Sergeant Major of the Army, Jack L. Tilley, the senior enlisted man in the United States Army. Tilley’s presence was certainly appropriate as Bill Mauldin, through his cartoons, had been an unofficial spokesperson for the infantrymen, but the US Army had realized that someone needed to speak officially for enlisted troops. The rank of Sergeant Major of the Army was created during the Vietnam War as a spokesperson for enlisted troops’ concerns.
For most of its existence the United States Army didn’t feel that the opinions of enlisted men were worth consideration. Many officers figured that griping and grousing by the ranks was expected, but not something to which they should cater. The creation of the rank of Sergeant Major of the Army showed an important change in the philosophy of army leadership from Bill Mauldin’s day and a bigger change from that of the Revolutionary War.
American mythology holds that throughout the Revolutionary War our troops were motivated solely by altruistic ideals of liberty. They were superior, therefore, to their British and German foes, who were only in it for the money. Henry Dearborn, commanding the Light Infantry Battalion for the Army of the United States famously drew a comparison between American “virtue” and British “veniality” after the battle of Freeman’s Farm:
“But we who had Something more at Stake than fighting for six Pence Pr Day kept our ground til Night”
To keep those “hirelings” in line, the British and their allies had to resort to incredibly brutal punishments. British civilians sometimes referred to their troops as “bloody backs” a jeering referral to the colour of their red coats and what was perceived to be the only viable motivation to good conduct: the lash. Americans, of course did no such thing.
As an old song goes “It ain’t necessarily so”.
From the start of the war, the American Army looked to traditional military discipline to maintain order. For various offenses soldiers could receive the biblically-ordained “nine and thirty lashes”. The new General and Commander In Chief felt that insufficient and upped the ante to 100 lashes with a cat of nine tails whip.
The “cat” was a nasty device and according to Samuel Deweese, a fifer with the 11th Pennsylvania Regiment, who had to wield it as part of his work. Deweese noted that after 50 lashes “the back of the sufferer would be all cut and like a jelly”. Not nice.
Deweese participated in a flogging where the prisoner was to receive “seven hundred lashes or death”. (Crime and identity unknown: but he really got someone mad at him.) The musicians who inflicted the punishment had the Drum Major standing next to them ready to whack them with a stick should they not strike the prisoner hard enough.
Unofficial punishments were also inflicted, without benefit of courts martial. Joseph Plumb Martin of the 8th Connecticut Regiment noted in his memoir the treatment of a soldier who’d taken an empty flour barrel and left camp without leave:
“The captain ordered the sergeant major to send the delinquent to him as soon as he returned, which he accordingly did. The captain used but little reasoning with him, before he began to use harder arguments than words could convey, urged on by the weight of his rattan [stick]. After he had satiated his vengeance upon the poor culprit for playing the truant, he told him that the flour barrel was still to settle for, and then paid him for that, principle and interest….”
These were by no means isolated or unique incidents, and when brought up, they are sometimes dismissed as nothing compared to what the British did to their troops. That may be, but there were times where British soldiers who felt mistreated had recourse through civilian courts of law, no less.
For example the Annual Register in July 1763 noted:
“15th Came on at the assizes of Winchester, before a special jury, a cause, wherein George Dawson, late a soldier in the 85th regiment of foot, was plaintiff, and Robert Wylde, Richard Lucas, Charles Williams, Richard Gough, Robert Temple, James Johns and Collin Mackenzie, Esqrs. Lieutenants, and Thomas Prowse, Thomas Frazeer, and John Higgins, drummers, defendants. The action was brought for trespass, assault, and false imprisonment of the soldier. In the course of the evidence it appeared, that the defendant, Wylde had caned and imprisoned the plaintiff without just cause, and that the plaintiff received 300 lashes with a cat o’nine tails at the halberts, under colour of the sentence of a court martial, of the proceedings of which no evidence was given by the defendants, and, after a long hearing, the jury found a verdict for the plaintiff with 300 l. damages, viz. against Mr. Wylde 200 l. and against Mr. Mackenzie and Mr. Gough 50 l. each.”
(These were hefty fines: Lieutenants Mackenzie and Gough’s were almost a year’s pay; Lieutenant Wylde’s was nearly four years’ pay. George Dawson was compensated quite a bit for his lambasting. The £300 awarded to him was almost 50 years’ pay for a common British soldier.)
While George Dawson’s mistreatment was anything but pleasant, he did better than one Adam Cluff as shown in a trial at the Old Bailey in London in September 1737. The trial occurred when poor Cluff died, reportedly from some rough treatment during drill. The indictment read:
“Francis Fuller , of St. Margaret’s Westminster , Esq ; was indicted, for that he not having God before his Eyes, but being moved and seduced by the Instigation of the Devil, the 15th, of April , on Adam Cluff , Feloniously, Willfully, and of his Malice aforethought, did make an Assault, and with the But-end of a certain Musquet, val. 5s. which he held in both his Hands, in and upon the left Part of the Breast of the said Cluff, near the left Pap, did strike; giving him then and there, with the But-end of the said Musquet, on the left part of the Breast near the left Pap, a mortal Bruise; of which mortal Bruise, he languished, &c. from the said 15th, Day of April, to the 23d, of the same Month, and then Dy’d .”
Sounds like a bit of a squabble among the (ugh) lower ranks, right? Nope. The accused, Francis Fuller, was the Colonel of the regiment.
According to testimony given at the trial by one Edwards Richards:
“…On Friday Morning the 15th of April, I happen’d to be in St. James’s Park, and there I saw Colonel Fuller Exercising the Serjeants and Corporals. I stood by to see them Exercise ’till they had done. The Colonel sent all the awkward ones, – those that Exercised awkwardly, to the Hole, to the Drill Serjeants. There was the Deceased and one Inon, and Elisha Turner , and Corporal Maxfield, and Corporal Turner sent down. The Moment they don’t Exercise right, they are sent down to the Drill-Serjeant. After the Exercise was over, and the Men were dismiss’d, the Colonel went down to the Drill-Serjeant’s, and struck Cluff under the right and left side of his Jaws, and his Throat, with his Fist.”
Cluff may have been the Company Screw Up and Fuller was apparently frustrated by Cluff and several other soldiers who were not quick to learn the drill. The frustration escalated quickly from verbal and physical abuse:
“Richards. If they don’t Exercise well, they are sent there, to the Drill Serjeant, for farther Exercise, – to learn farther, and the Colonel follow’d them thither to see them Exercise himself. He found Fault with many of them, before he came to Cluff, but when he came to him, he call’d him Chuckle-headed Dog, and struck him with his fist under the right and left side of his Jaws. I saw him strike the Deceased three Blows, on the sides of his Neck, and upon his Throat.
…[Then] the Colonel catch’d the Firelock with his Hands, and jobb’d it against his left Breast, because it did not lye right upon his Shoulder. He took it out of his Hands and jobb’d the Guard of the Firelock against his Breast…He made him rest his Firelock according to this new Method of theirs, – with the left Hand across the Breast. The Colonel did it to make him hold it lower; he did not rest his Piece as he should have done, so the Colonel took it out of his Hands, shewed him how to rest it with a proper Motion, then he went at him, and jobb’d this sharp part against his Breast, and threw the Stock across his Shoulder, telling him, if he did not do better in the Afternoon, than he had done in the Morning, he would send him to the Savoy…”
Richards mentioned meeting Cluff during the week following the incident:
“…while I was in the Shop, Adam Cluff (the Deceased) came by the Door, stooping, bending, and coughing; so I said, Adam, – I heard you were bad and kept your Bed…Oh! says he, (with his Hand across his Breast ) I am a dead Man; for the Blows that Colonel Fuller gave me, has occasioned my Death. I am a dead Man, and shall not recover.
Cluff expired and several days after a letter was sent to the coroner (and read into the testimony at court):
“May 3d, 1737,
Sir. I am a Friend of your’s, and a Lover of Justice, which is the Occasion of this. Adam Cluff, a Soldier in Holbert’s Company was buried last Night; he was Murder’d by Colonel Fuller, by a Punch in the Side; by which Method several of his Soldiers have Died. He languished 6 Days and then Died; he always declared this was the Occasion of his Death, and the Searchers know it, as well as the whole Regiment; ’tis known in Town and Country, as well as at Court, and if you’ll get the Body Examin’d, it will appear to your Reputation.
Your Friend, Will. Thompson.
P.S. I would have you acquaint some Justice of the Peace, and Officers of the Army, and then proceed your self.”
All told it was rather damning, and autopsy was performed on Cluff’s body. Disinterred after 12 days of burial, it must have been a rather unpleasant spectacle as the coroner noted “Some of my Brethren turn’d their Heads away on Account of the Stench”.
To spare those of weak constitution, we shall forego the particular details of the autopsy. Suffice to say that the coroner claimed that no signs of fractures were found in the ribs or “extravasated Blood” in the chest cavity both indicating that Cluff suffered no mortal trauma. The coroner ruled that Cluff had “died of a Paralytic Fever: the Symptoms of which I have mention’d before, viz the Cough, and the Stitches in his Side. We could discover no Marks of Violence”.
Several other witnesses were called, the “Drill Serjeant” and others who contradicted or lessened the violence that Richards claimed he saw. Then the big guns (two generals and a Lord) were brought in to testify to Colonel Fuller’s character. They portrayed him as a Nice Guy (good to his mother &c. &c.).
Fuller was acquitted, Cluff’s death ruled to be from natural causes.
That Fuller got off the hook should not diminish that fact that British soldiers like George Dawson could seek damages for mistreatment, or that others felt the death of Adam Cluff deserved examination. Unlike their Rebel opponents, they had British Law on their side.
The Gentle Reader is invited to read the entire transcript of the trial at oldbaileyonline.org, reference number t17370907-39.