5. Punishments in the Continental Army were often severe
George Washington, with the approval of the Continental Congress, installed the use of corporal punishment in the army, up to and including execution for some offenses. Striking an officer, inciting a mutiny, desertion, and cowardice in the face of the enemy could all be punished by either hanging or firing squad, most frequently hanging. For lesser offenses, such as sleeping on duty, theft, disobedience, fighting, gambling, drunkenness, or failing to use the latrines (called vaults in Washington’s parlance)soldiers could be and often were punished by whipping, delivered publicly as an example to the rest of the troops. As many as five hundred lashes could be administered for some offenses, given over a period of several weeks, or even months.
The list of offenses which were punished with public lashing was long. Often, to avoid a soldier being severely flogged for what was a relatively minor offense, the non-commissioned officers – the sergeants and corporals – failed to report the crime to their officers and took it upon themselves to administer punishments, usually extra guard duty or the hated duty of filling in latrines and digging new vaults to replace them. In that manner, as in the manner of all armies throughout history, the non-commissioned officers were the lynchpin which held the army together. Officers were not subject to flogging regardless of the offense, though they could be made to suffer capital punishment. Officers were usually cashiered and drummed out of the camps in disgrace, the loss of honor then considered a greater punishment than death.