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Naval Discipline from Flogging to Progressive Era Reform at Portsmouth Prison
  • ISBN/SKU: 9781612514451
  • Binding: Paperback & eBook
  • Era:
  • Number of Pages: 272
  • Subject: Naval History
  • Date Available: March 2014
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Praise for Whips to Walls

"Captain Rodney Watterson has written an engaging scholarly study concerning an important but neglected part of American naval history. The book examines the men who were early naval recruits as well as what measures were used to establish and maintain shipboard discipline and its evolution in the face of moral and political pressures."

—Int'l. Journal of Naval History

"This is military cultural history at its finest—detailed, lively, and surprising.”

—W. Jeffrey Bolster, author of The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail

“Portsmouth Naval Prison remains as dark and cold now as it has been for half a century.  The story behind the Castle is as silent and unknown today as the story of naval discipline since the abandonment of the lash.  Watterson changes all that.  He takes you from the navy’s shipboard discipline of 1800 to the 20th century when the cells of Portsmouth prison, commanded by a turnkey hand-picked by FDR, miraculously returned 1563 rehabilitated sailor prisoners to the fleet in a single year, just in time to fill the crews of a burgeoning fleet as America entered WWI.  Who was this magician?  How did he do it?  How did the fleet receive his reformed seamen?  The answers are all here, and in the answering is a tale you’ll not soon forget.”

—Vice Adm. George W. Emery, USN (Ret.), author of In their Own Words: The Navy Fights the War of 1812

“Watterson’s Whips to Walls gives fresh insight into an under-appreciated period of naval history—the transition of naval discipline from mid-nineteenth century flogging to a much-needed naval prison system, including the ambitious experiment in Progressive reform at Portsmouth prison.  The author has thoroughly researched and clearly documented the Navy’s journey between these two extremes in naval discipline.  Making excellent use of charts to illustrate historical trends and personal testimonies and anecdotes to round out the narrative, Watterson has written a compelling account of a most curious era of naval history.”

—Rear Adm. Hugh Don Campbell, USN (Ret.), Judge Advocate General (Navy), 1986-88

“As a local historian I wince like a flogged sailor every time a tour guide tells visitors that the white cement prison on the hill was the inspiration for Walt Disney's fantasy castle.  It wasn't, but a good myth dies hard. Thankfully, Rod Watterson's new book not only kills old rumors about the mysterious naval prison, but also adds a critical new chapter to the 400-year maritime history of Portsmouth Harbor.”

—J. Dennis Robinson, Portsmouth historian

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

During World War I, the United States Navy conducted at the Portsmouth, NH Naval Prison what many penal scholars consider the most ambitious experiment in the history of progressive prison reform. Cell doors remained opened, prisoners governed themselves and thousands of rehabilitated prisoners were returned to the fleet. This humanitarian experiment at Portsmouth prison stood in stark contrast to the inhumane flogging of prisoners that had dominated naval discipline until 1850. The Navy’s journey between these two extremes in naval discipline included the development of a much needed naval prison system.

When Congress abolished flogging in 1850, the Navy was left with few punishment options. Flogging had been a harsh, but very effective and efficient discipline tool. Various conditions of confinement appeared to be the most logical substitute for flogging, but the Navy had few cells ashore and confinement onboard a nineteenth century man-of-war sailing vessel was impractical. Onboard space was limited and all hands were needed to sail and fight the ship. Subsequent naval directives that merely suggested punishments for various offenses led to inconsistent interpretation and application of punishments throughout the fleet.  At the same time, courts-martial prisoners were sporadically confined in various marine barracks, navy yard jails, naval station guard houses, prison ships and state prisons. The Navy’s discipline system was in disarray. A naval prison system was needed to consolidate and provide for consistent treatment of prisoners. 

The Navy’s efforts to gain congressional approval for a prison in the 1870s were unsuccessful. In the late 1880s, the Navy took matters into its own hands and established a prison system centered on makeshift prisons at the Boston and Mare Island Navy Yards. An ever-increasing need for cells, primarily driven by high desertion rates, eventually resulted in the construction of the Navy’s first real prison at Portsmouth, which opened in 1908.  A consolidation of naval prisons in 1914 left Portsmouth as the dominant centerpiece of the naval prison system.

At this point Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose the most celebrated prison reformer of his era, Thomas Mott Osborne, to assume command of the Portsmouth prison. His reforms at Portsmouth went well until Vice Adm. William S. Sims and others became convinced that too many trouble makers were being returned to the fleet. Under mounting pressure from senior naval officers, FDR personally led an on-site investigation of conditions at Portsmouth prison, which included charges of gross mismanagement and rampant homosexual activity. Although exonerated by FDR’s team, Osborne resigned from the Navy shortly after the investigation. Osborne’s reform initiatives were quickly reversed as the Navy returned to a harsher punishment system more inclined toward deterrence than humanitarian considerations and prisoner comforts.          

Captain Rodney K. Watterson, USN (Ret.) was involved with the design, construction, and maintenance of submarines during his thirty-year naval career. After retiring from the Navy, he served as a plant manager and director for Textron Automotive Industries and went back to school to pursue a life-long love of history.  He is the author of 32 in '44:  Building the Portsmouth Submarine Fleet in World War II.  He lives in Hampton, New Hampshire.      

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