Crime and Punishment

The January 2012 “Maine at War” column introduced John S. French, a Lewiston soldier who joined the 5th Maine Infantry Regiment. Interwoven with French’s story was a section about “Crime and Punishment.” One paragraph touched upon “bucking and gagging,” a punishment for which I provided no details. The BDN’s Rick Levasseur asked me about this after the column ran.

Here are the relevant paragraphs, with the omitted details about “bucking and gagging” highlighted in bold:

Writing from Camp Franklin to his brother on Jan. 28, 1862, French discussed punishments that he had witnessed. “If a private is caught one mile from camp without a proper pass … signed by his Colonel, he is arrested and put in the guard house,” he wrote. A first offender who “is a good fellow … won’t get punished much,” but woe betide a repeat offender.
“Rogues are punished pretty severely here I tell you,” French wrote. “Sometimes they will stand him on a barrel with a 32 pound [cannon] ball suspended to his neck by a chain. One of our boys stole some money & the Colonel made him walk [all] over the encampment under a guard three or four days” while wearing “a big card on his back … & an other one on his breast,” with each card identifying the soldier by name and as a thief.
Sometimes an offender paraded inside a wooden barrel about the size found in an Aroostook County potato field at harvest time. Officers could confine a recalcitrant soldier to the guardhouse, assign him additional guard duty, have him carry a large log for several hours or sit on a long sawhorse (called a “mule”) without his feet touching the ground, or administer “bucking and gagging,” a particularly noxious punishment.

According to “Tenting Tonight: The Soldier’s Life,” a soldier would be “gagged with a stick tied in his mouth.” Then “the offender was seated on the ground, his hands tied together in front of him. Then his knees were thrust up between his elbows, and another stick or pole was forced between [his] arms and legs, pinning him in a dreadfully uncomfortable position.”

His head shaved, a coward, deserter, or thief could be dismissed from the Army.

For committing an infraction, a Union soldier must sit on a log without his feet touching the ground.

Brian Swartz

About Brian Swartz

Welcome to "Maine at War," the blog about the roles played by Maine and her sons and daughters in the Civil War. I am a Civil War buff and a newspaper editor recently retired from the Bangor Daily News. Maine sent hero upon hero — soldiers, nurses, sailors, chaplains, physicians — south to preserve their country in the 1860s. “Maine at War” introduces these heroes and heroines, who, for the most part, upheld the state's honor during that terrible conflict. We tour the battlefields where they fought, and we learn about the Civil War by focusing on Maine’s involvement with it. Be prepared: As I discover to this very day, the facts taught in American classrooms don’t always jibe with Civil War reality. I can be reached at