Whips to Walls

Naval Discipline from Flogging to Progressive Era Reform at Portsmouth Prison

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The abolishment of flogging in 1850 started the U.S. Navy on a quest for a prison system that culminated with the opening of Portsmouth Naval Prison in 1908. During World War I, that prison became the center of the Navy’s attempt to reform what many considered outdated means of punishment. Driven by Progressive Era ideals and led by Thomas Mott Osborne, cell doors remained opened, inmates governed themselves, and thousands of rehabilitated prisoners were returned to the fleet. Championed by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt, Osborne’s reforms proceeded positively until Vice Adm. William. Sims and others became convinced that too many troublemakers were being returned to the fleet. In response, FDR led an on-site investigation of conditions at Portsmouth prison, which included charges of gross mismanagement and rampant homosexual activity. Although exonerated, Osborne resigned and initiatives were quickly reversed as the Navy returned to a harsher system.

About the Author

Editorial Reviews

"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." International Journal of Naval History
"Rod 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
"Portsmouth 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. 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
"The brooding hulk of the abandoned naval prison still dominates the harbor in Portsmouth, NH, a monument to nearly a century of military discipline. Now through meticulous research in little-used sources, Rod Watterson has reconstructed the evolution of the U.S. Navy's experiment with progressive prison reform, much of which occurred in that castle-like prison. This is military cultural history at its finestùdetailed, lively, and surprising." W. Jeffrey Bolster, author of The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail